Director Kiran Rao talks about her cinematic influences, marriage as partnership and why she gave her son Azad Rao Khan a double-barrelled surname
Kiran Rao, who became a darling of the geek circuit after her very first film Dhobi Ghat, defies the ‘star wife’ stereotype. She may be married to Aamir Khan, but has her own personality and voice separate from her superstar husband’s. It’s not difficult to infer from this conversation—which took place under a large Manjit Bawa sketch at her Bandra apartment—that she and Aamir are a modern-day compatible couple who see each other as equals, intellectually and otherwise. An artist in her own right, she is currently promoting the indie film Ship of Theseus. Excerpts:
QWhat was it about Ship of Theseus that made you come aboard as a presenter?
A For one, it had come so highly recommended. I had heard about it well in advance. I had seen its trailer. There was a certain image in my mind about what the film could be like. But when I saw it, it far exceeded those expectations. The film is a fulfilling watch, visually beautiful and very well written. There is enough story and drama in it to interest you. There are great performances.
Actually, the scale of the film and the way it looks is very deceptive. I was quite impressed that they pulled it off on such a tight budget.
QWere you expecting Dhobi Ghat to receive the kind of acclaim it did?
A No, I wasn’t. Genuinely, I didn’t know what to expect. Dhobi Ghat was made at a time when not very many films were being made of that sort. It was just… before the film festival boom. We have always heard of films going to festivals but they rarely entered the mainstream consciousness… and only cinephiles who travelled and actively sought out that kind of cinema would find it. Dhobi Ghat was something we were worried about because on the one hand it had Aamir, and on the other, it was a very art-house film by Indian standards. I didn’t know whether people would actually like it at all. We also pushed the envelope in terms of the size of distribution. When the praise did come and there was some acknowledgment of success, it was gratifying. When I had written it, I wasn’t very sure whether I would be able to get this film into theatres at all, and the fact that it did get into theatres was more satisfying than its success.
QWhat are your filmmaking influences, if any?
A To be honest, I don’t watch as much cinema as I should, but I think my influences are similar to that of most film school students. A lot of the French New Wave. [Jean-Luc] Godard had an impact on me. Robert Bresson, I liked very much when I was studying. His ‘model versus actor’ method deeply interested me and so did his book, Notes on Cinematography. [Andrei] Tarkovsky and his approach to cinema really influenced me. And of course, the Japanese directors [Yasujir] Ozu and [Akira] Kurosawa. I absolutely love Ozu. Of late… the people I admire are more like the Dardenne brothers. I also like watching all kinds of independent cinema—Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola and Michael Haneke and films that are unexpectedly brilliant like District 9 and Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Today, there is a lot more contemporary cinema to be influenced by and draw from.
QWhat are your earliest memories of cinema?
A There used to be Friday film nights at Saturday Club in Calcutta. It had a very community atmosphere… For us, it was… just about playing in the background while people were having interactions over beer and at the same time, a film was playing, so there were enough seats for people who wanted to watch it uninterruptedly. That was my first experience. Cinema wasn’t about [an] ‘attaching oneself into the image’ sort of experience, but a more holistic experience of watching it with people, friends, eating and drinking. The experience was shared. It wasn’t so much about an individual in a dark room where nothing happens except what’s happening on screen. I didn’t watch it so actively for actors or plots or anything. It became more a consumption of images, sound and music and also conversation around it and the laughter. Doordarshan came quite a bit later into our lives, stuff like Chitrahaar. We weren’t taken to the cinema very much… Before I was 18, I must have gone to the cinema only a handful of times, maybe to watch The Sound of Music or some other classic. For some reason, my parents didn’t think the kind of cinema that was playing in theatres at that time was a good influence on us, even though my father was a film buff. In fact, I have a collection of all [the] studio bills, leaflets, pamphlets and little posters that he had collected of films, starting from [the] 1940s. In college, I was much more interested in plays. I would sneak into the Sophia-Bhabha auditorium. (Laughs) We knew the wardens and watchmen and they would let us stand in the back for free.
QWhich Hindi films made an impact on you?
A The usual ones did. I remember watching Sholay, Anand and Bawarchi. But the films that really stuck in my mind as a teenager were Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and Maine Pyar Kiya. From [QSQT], I remember Juhi [Chawla] the most. Hers was such a well-written character. Those days, we had a video cassette player. I must have watched these films at least ten times. I wasn’t into the stars so much. But both these films were love stories, so there was a certain influence of the whole romance of it. But I didn’t like Aamir and Salman so much that they became posters in my room…
[My] posters were still Dire Straits and Boris Becker. (Laughs) I had a massive crush on Boris Becker. He was my idol.
QIn 2011, you became a mother. How has that changed you as a person and an artist?
A Well, motherhood has an influence that extends into your entire life. What ends up happening is that, with the introduction of this new life into your world, you stop being the centre of that world. That’s quite a strange but also freeing experience. Initially, it’s just that whole physical experience of having to completely devote yourself to something so helpless. You do [it] without even thinking about it. It’s more like a natural, organic reaction. As an individual and a creative person, there is some sort of anxiety that you let go of. Suddenly, nothing is that earth-shattering anymore. Azad brought such an infusion of joy into my life that it has washed away a lot of things that would otherwise have bothered me, washed away some of the anger I carried. It has mellowed me in a way that I am sure will influence my work as well.
QYou have named your baby Azad Rao Khan. What made you give him your surname?
A It’s strange that we should draw our lineage and our family line only from our fathers. It has never made sense to me. In essence, you are a combination of both your parents. There should be more acknowledgement of the fact that mostly it is mothers who raise their children. They are much more the nurturers than fathers are, and children pretty much owe their upbringing and their environment to mothers… What’s a surname? It only helps situate you in a social and legal sense… If anything, it has been a deterrent for many people—what your surname is, which is indicative of what your caste is, which is indicative of a hundred other things that you carry, whether you like it or not. There are people who choose to entirely leave out a surname, which again, I think, is not a bad idea at all. (Laughs) If it weren’t for legal considerations, possibly, and the way the law works in terms of inheritance and other things, I would say… that we should have completely non-denominational names. Just a beautiful name. It doesn’t matter what your surname is, really. We know that it’s not that the name will change everything. It’s just the idea that Azad will take some part of me with him ahead in his life. (Laughs) Let’s say, I felt he should have a little bit of Rao in him.
QWhat makes a marriage tick?
A What helps two people stay in a relationship or partnership is some sort of common ideology, a belief system or ethical framework. Ethically, Aamir and I agree on the same things. It’s not at all religion but more like, what do I consider important in my life? How would I like to live my life? At the end of the day, marriage is all about sharing. It needs redefinition over time and as you stay married you keep redefining that relationship. So with Aamir and me, certainly that basis is there. As personalities go… of course, we are different. But we have similar interests…Our work binds us in a big way—the fact that we are in the world of films. We like to discuss aesthetics, art, cinema and books. Hobby-wise, I am an outdoorsy person. I like travelling, seeing new places and looking at art. I love music and dancing. Aamir has his own set of interests. He likes to read. He likes to spend time with friends in a more intimate setting. He has lived a much harder life than me. So his hobbies tend to be slightly more sedentary, though he loves sports.
QHow do you deal with this whole celebrity culture in which you now find yourself?
A It’s a culture that, in the beginning, bothered me no end… The fact that I would open the newspaper and see faces of all these people… would bother me. I am not interested in that. Give me news. It’s actually indicative of how trivial and superficial our interests have become. But on another level, it’s sort of pathetic how, in general, the whole world of serious reportage has taken a beating in the process. A film that [shows this] is Peepli [Live], where you see such a desperate situation becoming this farcical circus. I have to say we as celebrities have got the better bargain. For us it’s not such a big deal if someone writes rubbish about us in the newspaper. If someone says we are moving to Lower Parel or that I wasn’t looking good last night, it doesn’t change my life because entertainment was not my whole world and it still isn’t. I am just as interested in politics, economics and what’s going on in India.
So when it first started, it threw me off completely. I was shocked [that] people were rather happily consuming what I call ‘yellow journalism’. I suppose, over time, I have learnt to deal [with] it with grace. It’s not that it is… wonderful now. But then, it serves a certain purpose and certainly, as people working in the film industry, we ourselves have made full use of it. And since there is demand, there is endless supply. But when it’s good, it can inform. Like in the case of Ship of Theseus, it can tell people that there is this film coming up and you can go watch it.
QHow do you keep private in the media glare?
A I pretty much live my life the way I did when I wasn’t married. (Laughs) The only thing that has changed is that I have got a bigger and better car, a bodyguard [who] travels with me and I wear slightly better clothes than I did ten years ago. Other than that, nothing has changed. I eat wherever I want to on the street. I go to the same cafes that every second person in Bandra or Bombay goes to. It also helps that, in general, Aamir and I are not the celebrity types. People don’t expect us to behave in a certain way. If I walk into a store, I don’t expect special attention. At airports, I stand in line and go the way everybody goes. So people treat me normally. (Laughs) Also, people have got used to…the way I dress and the way I talk, so there is nothing to show or hide.