The films are short, very short, but they represent a big step for their maker – a return to the creative side after years of backing other people’s dreams.
Kiran Rao has directed two 10-second public service advertisements for Facebook’s Thumbstoppers initiative. In one film, a pair of siblings is given a glass of milk each. The boy’s glass has more. In the other, a victim of domestic abuse is handed a cellphone by her domestic worker.
The dialogue-free films are in a vertical format. “The 10 seconds needed to show a certain amount of change with social relevance,” Rao told Scroll.in. “It’s a product for advertisers that is being marketed to advertisers and creative agencies.”
The 45-year-old filmmaker made her directorial debut in 2011 with Dhobi Ghat, a Mumbai-set ensemble of four interlinked stories. More films seemed to be on the way, including a rumoured biopic of the pioneering recording artist Gauhar Jaan, but Rao turned her energies towards other projects instead. These included, in no order of priority, overseeing the movies produced by her husband Aamir Khan’s banner, raising her son Azad, assuming the chairpersonship of the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image, and co-founding the non-profit Paani Foundation, which works to tackle drought in rural Maharashtra.
Rao’s involvement with Facebook was a result of a push by Shamath Mazumdar, the head of marketing and content development at Aamir Khan Productions. After Facebook approached Mazumdar, he saw it as an opportunity to bring Rao back into the game.
“Shamath’s pitch was, it’s up your alley in terms of the kind of things you are already interested in, I want to get you back on a set, why don’t you do this?” Rao recalled. The final videos were a “group effort” between Rao’s team and Facebook.
The extremely short duration of the videos did not make it any easier. “I had to get my head around the vertical format,” Rao recalled. “As filmmakers, our natural instinct is to see everything horizontally, things wrap around us. On a mobile phone, though, you need to go closer. The vertical format lends itself to portraiture.”
Rao drew out each of the frames. “I wanted to do the films in a single take each, but that would have been a challenge,” she said. “We were also working with non-actors. Whatever the length, the effort is still there.”
The Facebook video project is the first of several projects and collaborations planned by Aamir Khan Productions. “We’ve shortlisted a few ideas, and are in the process of registering them,” Rao said. “This will include something that I will direct. I will also be hoping to co-create and write other feature scripts. Earlier this year, I tried to put a lot of ideas that I had been incubating into a form that I could share with others. Some of these ideas might work better as series. I have a bunch of loaves in the oven.”
Some drafts go back to 2007. “I have gone down the road with some of these ideas,” Rao said. “Doing it alone has been hard. I am not in the headspace anymore of banging something out and working on it.”
Will the projects include the biopic on Gauhar Jaan, the first Indian artist to have recorded music on an 78 rpm record? “Gauhar Jaan is on ice,” Rao said. “It wasn’t intentioned as a biopic, but was looking at the larger culture of performing women. I have incorporated it into something else we are developing.” Already, one Gauhar Jaan biopic is in the works, to be made by Ashutosh Gowariker, and based on Vikram Sampath’s biography My Name is Gauhar Jaan.
Rao took the first steps towards her comeback in January, when she resigned as chair of the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image, which organises the annual Mumbai Film Festival. Rao was replaced by Bollywood actor Deepika Padukone.
“It was getting difficult to juggle, and by 2017, I found I had less and less time,” Rao said. “We had started looking for a new chair the previous year itself.”
Rao remains on the board of MAMI, alongside trustees who include festival director Anupama Chopra, Nita Ambani and her daughter, Isha Ambani, filmmakers Rohan Sippy and Zoya Akhtar and the actors Rana Daggubati and Riteish Deshmukh.
The festival’s 2018 edition was wracked by controversies arising from the participation of filmmakers accused of sexual assault and harassment. Rajat Kapur’s Kadakh and the All India Bakchod production Chintu Ka Birthday were dropped from the festival line-up following allegations against Kapoor and AIB member Gursimran Khamba and an associate writer, Utsav Chakraborty.
Also caught in the crossfire was Shazia Iqbal’s Bebaak, after media reports that the short film’s producer, Anurag Kashyap, had dragged his feet on a complaint of alleged sexual assault by his former producing partner, Vikas Bahl. Iqbal had said that she wasn’t given an official explanation, and that the festival had not acted in a similar fashion against another film supported by Kashyap.
“It is not right to be punished for a remote association,” Iqbal had told Scroll.in at the time. “People are telling me to take responsibility. But take responsibility for what? I would take responsibility if I assaulted someone or even if Anurag assaulted someone.”
It was a “very difficult time”, Rao recalled. “We had a lot of meetings, and we had to take a lot of decisions. MeToo was a movement that a lot of us supported. There were enough opinions on both sides. There was the feeling of, are you throwing the baby out with the bathwater? But it was also hard to turn a blind eye. We had to show solidarity with the broader issue.”
Alongside filmmaking, Rao is exploring farming. “It’s not been a hiatus that I have consciously taken, but a natural progression,” she said. “Building spaces is always intense.”