Fourteen years after her feature debut Dhobi Ghat, Kiran Rao is back with Laapataa Ladies. The delightful satire about the coming of age of two young brides who accidentally get swapped on an Indian train is based on a story by Biplab Goswami.
Laapataa Ladies touches on themes of female empowerment, education, sisterhood and patriarchy, but with a light touch. Pratibha Ranta, Nitanshi Goel, Sparsh Shrivastava, Ravi Kishan and Chhaya Kadam star in the March 1 release.
Rao started her career as an assistant director on films such as Lagaan and Swades. She has since produced a number of titles under her former husband’s company Aamir Khan Productions. Laapataa Ladies is the first film to be presented under her own production banner Kindling Pictures, with Khan as co-producer.
In an interview with Scroll, Rao speaks of the long gap between her films, her plans, and the dynamic with Aamir Khan’s family.
After a first film, especially one that is acclaimed, filmmakers are usually greedy to make a second movie. What took you so long?
I was greedy, but the year that Dhobi Ghat released, I was working on a story on the life of Gauhar Jaan. I still love that story and would love to make a film on her life.
That was also the same year I was actively trying to have a child. Azad was born at the end of the same year, in 2011. For the next couple of years at least, my writing took a bit of a backseat. I had worked at having a child for a while and it was quite difficult and challenging to have Azad. Then, when I did have him, I was consumed by the whole experience and it took a large part of my creative brain.
I still worked though. I was at AKP almost every single day because we were making so many interesting things at that time, including Dangal and Secret Superstar. In retrospect, it could be timing and headspace. Perhaps I just didn’t have the creative bandwidth. Lots of women juggle things and manage to do what they do, but not everyone can.
I found writing quite lonely and difficult. I was doing it every day but not very happy with the results. I didn’t have a script I was completely happy with. But now I’m so ready to make lots of things. I’m genre-agnostic and want to try everything. I really enjoy comedy, but I would love to try suspense and action. I feel like doing everything, plus OTT [streaming]. Bring it on, I say.
What about Laapataa Ladies got you back in the director’s seat?
The story was ripe with potential. There was so much I could do with it. I could bring a tonality, a pitch to the acting that could be fun for people to see and still leave the viewer with something to think about. It could be a broad and popular film, which still has my imprint. I was lucky that the script came to Aamir and he shared it with me.
In what way have you put your stamp on Biplab Goswami’s story?
The material lent itself to exploring so many conversations. Biplab’s story had a lot of these issues or concerns at its heart, but the genre was very different. It was drama, realism, which was nice, but a lot of things that we want to say are much easier done through comedy.
I wanted to change the genre completely. We asked Biplab if we could acquire the script to rewrite it. We got the rights in 2020. Then we brought on Sneha Desai. She has a really wonderful sense of dialogue and a great sense of building character through dialogue. We were able to get all these very different women in the film but also bring to it a lightness in those conversations; a kind of everyday mundanity, but done in a way that feels fresh.
The premise itself is quite satirical and crazy – two girls getting swapped on a train. But satire is somewhat familiar to us, as Indians. To use that genre and still make it very moving and emotional, open up new ideas, bring in my own perspective was actually the challenge, and Sneha really helped me do that.
Did a satire make the film’s message more palatable?
Yes, because comedy disarms and charms you, as opposed to talking down to you. Comedy lets you have these conversations in the guise of amusing you. The best way to have a conversation is with empathy and humour. Lots of these issues that we touch upon in the film have been tackled before. We shouldn’t need to have many of these conversations today, but life is like that.
Biplab’s script was ripe with potential to explore all these different ideas and to build characters that were grey and fun and familiar in one way, but also surprising. This situation – of two very young girls who haven’t had much exposure to life suddenly getting lost – would worry you ordinarily. You worry that it could get very dark.
But I feel we really need more stories of goodness, of everyday heroes, taking centre-stage. There’s more optimism when you look around in your own personal universe, at those you admire. This story gave us the chance to do that.
How would you describe yourself professionally – director, producer, or writer?
The director’s role is to imagine a story to life. You may have a story written by someone else and it’s somebody else’s idea, but to imagine it into a visual form is a director’s role.
Directing is my first love. Producing came fairly naturally to me only because I started out as an assistant director. Being a first AD, you learn production in the most difficult scenario and then you can take it to another level. But aspects like finance and distribution were handled by Aamir and others who know how to do it. I focussed on the creative process, which is what I enjoy as a producer.
Will Kindling Pictures have a different mandate from AKP, and how will you balance both?
I felt the need to start a small production house only because I had been developing so much work in the last 10-12 years that I wanted to take it to a conclusion.
AKP is mine, in many ways. I am always available as an advisor or support whenever needed, but I will not have an active part in the projects Aamir is now rolling out. I want to devote my energy to Kindling.
Has it been hard to assert your identity, given your association with AKP?
Yes and no. Obviously Aamir being the beating heart of AKP, the stories we make are generally the stories he loves. He relies on people like me for feedback, but it always starts with Aamir wanting to make it, which is the only way he will put his name to something.
I have brought in projects that he has liked, and there is always space for me to do that. On the other hand, there are projects that I am interested in making which he might not be as interested in. Kindling gives me the space to pursue those. I am hoping that my identity and my stamp will be more on Kindling films.
Your blended family came together for Ira Khan’s wedding. When you are intrinsically a part of something so big, how easy is it to assert yourself?
Aamir is very supportive of my growth. In fact, he brought Laapataa Ladies to me. He has been very supportive as a producer and partner, so I have always been able to assert myself creatively. But it takes the right moment, and perhaps luck and destiny, to get the right project.
I hope audiences take away many things from both my personal life and the film, principally the kindness of people and being good to one another. I hope the film shows that people are grey, even our lead characters. Everybody has their challenges, so let’s just be kind to one another. That is something our family reflects – we give each other a lot of space and still look to each other for what we really enjoy about each other.
There is space to be friends. Perhaps I am lucky that I married into a family that I am extremely fond of and have different degrees of closeness with. It would be a shame to lose out on all of that because of a divorce. And often there is something good that you would also like to salvage.
Also, we are co-parenting and have worked together for 15 years, so it was quite natural for us to remain friends and family. A marriage tag and divorce may be considered a failure in some conventional sense, but the relationship is certainly not. The relationship endures.