What’s it like to be a cinema geek when the world expects you to be just an arm candy to Bollywood’s most bankable star? Nisha Susan finds out
Kiran Rao, 36, is a week away from the release of her first film Dhobi Ghat. The Mumbai office she shares with husband Aamir Khan is in a state of silent, controlled mania building towards the promotion of the film. Rao enters the room, a slight, composed person and almost immediately leaps upon a side-table to adjust the blinds of the window. Having fixed the light to her satisfaction, she descends on the sofa. She speaks and listens with poise and fierce concentration. Edited excerpts:
What was the first film you watched that made you think that you’d want to make one yourself?
My parents in Calcutta were not big cinegoers. There was a club we used to go to that showed films, very doodhbhaat films. So I was pretty film illiterate when I applied to Sophia’s in Mumbai and Jamia. I didn’t know what exactly in the arts I wanted to do. I used to write. I was very excited about fine arts but I realised that it wasn’t my forte, working with my hands I mean. I played an instrument and drew. But when things happened I’d reach to write. I didn’t reach to write. I wasn’t sure whether it was film or photography or writing. I was at Sophia’s for two months before I moved to Jamia. In those two months, I saw very good films, and they were pretty basic like Battleship Potemkin; that was the first film that I watched. I felt like, oh, now we are talking. And because it was a silent film, it was much more powerful. It’s known for the montage. But I liked the music and infrequent titling. I liked the use of image, music and words in that old way. I thought that this was something I can do.
Every artist has a sense of her lineage in the art. Who is your imagined ancestor in cinema?
I’d love to say Sergei Paradjanov because I love his films. And Ghatak. I don’t imagine that what I’ve made is anything like them but that’s the lineage I’d love to imagine is mine. I’ve seen my bit of film in the past 10 years. However I’m still much more influenced by music than films actually. I played the piano for 20 years and stopped. Now we’ve got a piano but I don’t play anymore.
You said somewhere that your social life is about finding the next concert to go to. What is it that music does for you that the visual stuff and even the writing doesn’t do for you?
There is something about music that puts me on an island of myself. It sort of encloses me. Music is a very emotional experience, and you get very involved with what I’m listening to. For me, the perfect moment was the one moment accompanied by the perfect song or the perfect track.
You have a private soundtrack in your head?
Well yeah but not that much any more. I feel kind of sad but I’ve lost touch with music a little bit in the past five years or so of hectic work in Bombay. Music was a constant companion. I’ve lived on my own since I was 18 and I also lived in a girls’ hostel for a very long time. The first year I lived in a room with five other girls. Your bed and your headphones gave your independence from life, from the bustle of the hostel. I used to take my little Walkman to bed and constantly listen to music. But I also reached a stage when I wasn’t finding anything new or path-breaking. I went through pop, classical music, jazz, punk, then the big door opened into EBM. I found electronic music and explored it to death. But after that there has been no new frontier at some levels I feel slightly disconnected to music. I have somehow not found something that excites me in the past two years. I have gone back to classical music.
‘I was marginally snobbish about Bollywood. It didn’t interest me till I had to do a paper on Rangeela at film school’
Your idiom is not Bollywood but here you are making your first film in the heart of Bollywood. What constraints do you feel Bollywood faces?
I’ve had a non-relationship with Bollywood. I was marginally snobbish about it. I watched all kinds of other cinema but didn’t think to watch Bollywood. Whatever I saw didn’t really interest me. Until I had to do a paper on Rangeela in Jamia; Looking at Rangeela through an academic lens was an important thing for me to do in film school. I grew a little respect.
‘Life just gallops. You get greedy. Work comes along. I was living the good life. Slowly, writing just took a backseat’
It was funny and engaging and in a strange way naive. I had to come down a level to appreciate very simple things about it. Little funny things that someone said, or a moment… not overthought. It felt much more simplistic, elementary. Then I wrote papers on Govinda’s Gambler. I began to see the differences between different kinds of films in Bollywood. I think that is one of the difficulties that Bollywood faces. Not just about being taken seriously but also in being seen as creating something fresh. My attitude towards Hindi cinema was oh it is going to be the same old thing. I think that’s the cross Bollywood carries. Though I haven’t watched enough films in the past few years to know whether that has changed significantly. I only watch movies that pop out at me and say, “Come watch me.”
So the viewer expectation is one of no change rather than innovation.
Exactly. That’s the constraint that Bollywood faces. It’s something I think about a lot. It’s not that people in the film industry are all the same so why do they make the same kind of film? I think it’s a sort of responsibility that Bollywood carries to entertain such a large mass of people.
If you look at Tamil cinema, there are new things happening every year: new actors, new directors, new producers. There’s a lot of energy. Stories are very good. Even if it is about the same old thing, someone angry about the system or whatever the hell it is. I’ve not particularly seen anything quiet and moody – everything has a violent edge to it and there are some strange tropes about women.
But it just feels like something happening there that is not happening in Hindi cinema. I’ve tried to understand it. Asked people about it. There are lots of factors. Tamil cinema entertains one or two states but it is reliant on people who speak that language. People don’t watch it subtitled. You don’t rent Tamil DVDs.
Also there is a strong cinema going culture and films have a chance to run and recover in the long run so Subramaniapuram, which has new actors, nobody knows who the actor is, but it still runs. They have more single screens than multiplexes, which is a big factor in the kind of films we. Because exhibition is the final frontier. So if my film is running in a multiplex where it costs them Rs 10,000 per show. To make Rs 10,000 per show you need to have at least half-full house.
My kind of film might only get a 100 people, not 300 or 400 people. When it’s a single screen, it doesn’t lie on the same line, because you rent the cinema. I can take the risk of renting a cinema for four or eight weeks. Knowing that through word of mouth, even in the third or fourth week people might come to see my film. After a wave of a Kamal Hassan film is gone, my film would be still around for people to watch. So there’s a chance for different stories, new actors. It’s something about the whole system, not just the filmmakers and the kind of films they make. When I look around at colleagues in the film industry, they’re very individualistic and very intelligent people. But it has not translated into the idea that Bollywood is fresh. Maybe the past year or so we keep seeing these blips in the graph and we say, oh it’s a good year for independent films. It’s also about how much time, money and importance we give to writers.
I think you have something there when you talk about understanding the audiences. With Tamil cinema, the audiences stretch to Singapore or Kerala but you know who your audience is.
In Bollywood it becomes very generic. The curve becomes flattened. The culture and the language becomes flattened… That is what’s has given rise to so many different kinds of films in the country. It is really exciting. Apparently there are people making films in Mythili, films made in Rs 50,000 and DVDs goes to video parlours and recovers the money spent. That is how it has to be. We are too diverse a people to expect one size fits all. Hollywood has done it but the culture of the West is fairly flattened out. But here each language has its culture. I am excited not about independent cinema but about individual cultures coming out in film. We have so much going on but the fact that Bollywood has had to make films for everyone has made it even out large swathes of experience. Content becomes about broad strokes, not the particular.
You were saying about writing.
I feel we should have more… perhaps writers’ labs. It’s very difficult for filmmakers, for production houses to accept the work. We get tonnes of stuff we have to wade through. And there’s no constant. This is the other thing about Tamil films. There is the whole culture of doing your time as an assistant. In the Hindi films it’s too easy. You became an assistant in no time. I became a first AD after one film. During my first film they were making me do first AD work. If you are smart and you can pick up filmmaking techniques you can go straight away and make a film.
In the Tamil film industry the director has 10 assistants, the assistant who is the junior most is just doing things like transcribing, writing ideas, editing drafts, he doesn’t leave the office. When you’ve done your time working on the whole film as a third or fourth AD do you get to come to the sets! By the time you are on the sets with the director, you know not just film techniques, it’s about knowing the language, writing which scripts work, which ideas work.
Did you miss that sort of grounding?
Everyone at that age is too impatient. You think you know everything. When I came out of Jamia I was like, “I am making a film by 2000.” I came to Bombay thinking I’ll do a little bit work then I’ll go make my own films. I didn’t want to make a Hindi film. I knew that the only way to get experience on a film set is to work on a Hindi film. It wasn’t that I should go apprentice. I didn’t know any director, the only director I knew in Bombay was Subhash Ghai. I’d never seen a film of his. So I wrote to Subhash Ghai. He might have a letter from 15 years ago. Dear Mr Ghai, My name is Kiran Rao and I would love to work for you. I faxed it to him! I didn’t even go to his office. I of course never heard from him.
I became super confident, and within two weeks I got a job because I had to pay my rent. I was too impatient. When I finally started working on a film, I was like hold on, you’ve to learn all this stuff.
And living in Bombay is also very hard. In the first seven years of living here, I dabbled and wrote but the pressure is far more than realise. I was doing advertising so I thought I will have time to do this. It doesn’t happen. Life just gallops along. And you get more greedy. I was a pretty good AD. Work comes along. I was living the good life. I had all the amenities. Was living alone, car, amenities. I had what I wanted to be happy. Slowly writing just took a backseat.
Very scary. Also I didn’t think I had a good idea. What I was writing wasn’t good enough. Finally when I started working on this film I started feeling there is something here that is engaging me. I had an idea that was worth it. It took me a while.
‘At gatherings, it’s natural that everyone is only interested in what Aamir has to say. I’m only expected to look pretty’
Many of your cast members are not actors. Monica Dogra is new. Pratiek is new. How did you work with all these young people?
I realised I needed a lot of rehearsal time. I didn’t know what would finally happen on set. That’s when the meter is ticking and you can’t really arrive at the right moment. You do to some extent but rehearsals really help the tone of performance. All of them were new. I was new. Barring Aamir, all of us were doing our favourite film. I knew what I wanted because I had written the script. But to get it out of someone who’s not skilled is difficult. That was also fun, because I had to learn how to catch, learn to field some really odd moments I wouldn’t have written in. The great thing about working with newcomers is that they cannot do the same thing twice, which is actually great. Lots of people in this film were totally unknown actors or non-actors – my maid was in the film. Which is what I had set out to when I had planned to make it on video. We had a good time.
There must have been many expectations and stereotypes about your current position as Aamir’s Wife. Capital A, Capital W. What helped you make that transition from being a private person with so much confidence?
When I first started seeing Aamir I was thoroughly amused. I thought “I’m seeing a film star. Me. It’s hilarious.” My friends laughed. I never felt woah, so cool. When I used to read about myself I used to laugh. Such a bad picture. Or they would ask me, “Why do you wear glasses all the time?” There was a story quoting a bystander at the Goa film festival saying, “Oh look that’s Kiran Rao, she wears glasses so she must be intelligent”. It’s fodder for great fun.
How did you deal with the expectations of people in the film industry?
I’ve never given a hang about what everybody wants me to do. I refuse to wear a gown or carry a designer bag. I think I was really fortunate to have had a really great childhood, to have parents who weren’t over marriage or forcing us to do anything, and they had a lot of influence on us in a good way. So I think when I finally decided for establishing as Aamir’s wife, I was still quite confident that I would retain my own personality. It has always been more of a challenge for me to prove things to myself. Even this process of making a film, scores of people over the ten or twelve years, where is your film? For me, the comments have always annoyed me but I knew that I couldn’t do something unless I knew that it would work for me. To find my voice. That is what’s driven me. Through this whole film-mad culture.
When you entered Bollywood, was there something that caught your eye, amused you, surprised you?
I had worked with film people so it wasn’t that new. But I’d grown up in an English-speaking world so I think the particular language and culture of Hindi-speaking people, the “ji-ji” of the film world. Very formal. I have always used first names, even for directors. So I had to get used to it. I told myself if I was part of a particular culture, if I laughed at it I was being a snob. Aamir’s family is like that, very polite. It is actually quite endearing but when you’re outside it, when it’s alien you’re just laughing about it. It used to seem like lip service but I see it more objectively.
Has there been any moment when you did feel eclipsed?
I am fairly opinionated and I find that when we go to gatherings of high-level people or even general gathering. It’s fairly natural that everyone is only interested in what Aamir has to say, which is something that I guess in the beginning used to annoy me. Because a lot of things lots of people were saying I did not agree with. But no one was interested in my point of view (laughs). So I had to clench my teeth and make notes.
Actually you are expected to look pretty. That is all you are expected to. You are expected to go to social functions looking decent so that on his arm he has someone who is well put together. Not a role I am excited to play. First, they were not interested in talking to me. Second, they want me to be one nice set-piece. That eclipsing bothered me. It took me a while before I realised, “Listen, I’m not sure if I want to share my opinions with these people in any case.” I wasn’t sure whether they were worth my time. So I used to go along and be ha-ha. Usually I’d find other people who are also left out who are much more interesting than the famous people.
And in the beginning I was just a girlfriend. Girlfriend, the status is pretty grey. They are not sure whether they are supposed to respect you. Because you might be dumped. In a short while. That little grey area was also a little tough for me to navigate. You don’t feel like you’re actually running the house though you are. It is something women who are not married must go through everywhere. Men never feel it. If you are a man with a girlfriend, automatically you are entitled. But if you are a woman unless you are married there is a certain lack of legal status. It’s bizarre.
We didn’t want to get married until we wanted to. I didn’t want to do it for the status, for the tag. I didn’t want the respect that status would confer on me. That was not what I was here for. Aamir is completely respectful. He treated me like his partner.
Where did he learn his attitudes to women?
I don’t know! He didn’t even finish college and he was not like highly educated. I think it’s entirely self-taught. His parents are polite, elegant, lovely people. He didn’t come from a super-liberal family but they were liberal enough. He has close cousins. But I think much of it came from reading. From when he was little. Even now you can’t get his head out of a book. It’s also growing among a lot of women. Two sisters and his cousin Nuzhat. He is very close to her. Nuzhat and Mansoor (Khan) are very strong personalities; both his sisters are very lovely. The family is lovely. His mother he completely adores. There is a genuine love for women. There is no special treatment. No doors will be opened. If you are not handicapped you can open your own door.
In 2009, you went through a miscarriage. How did it change you?
It was very hard. And I don’t know, I still feel like I haven’t fully come to understand the loss. It was a long-drawn out process. It didn’t come on suddenly. Physically it was hard. Sometimes I’m almost surprised that I could get over it. I’m really grateful we have the bounce back quality, that we can get over it. Grow new memories, heal. If one couldn’t get past it, it would be like death. Living death. The fact that I could within a day or two be comfortable and talk about it to people, being relaxed about it. Grief would always be there obviously, but you can also put it in a context of life, you feel like there is more.