Kiran Rao is on top, at 50

Kiran commands the respect of the film industry for being herself

Come to think of it, producer, director, screenwriter Kiran Rao has occupied the director’s chair since birth! At 50, she is where she wants to be—calling the shots, professionally and personally. Her latest film, Laapataa Ladies [missing ladies], received a standing ovation at the Toronto Film Festival, where her earlier film Dhobi Ghat had been equally feted. Interestingly, superstar Aamir Khan, her ex-husband (and co-producer of Laapataa Ladies) had auditioned for the role played supremely well by popular Bhojpuri actor Ravi Kishan… and was rejected by Kiran. That’s the level of confidence and respect the two share.

A couple of years ago, we were invited to dinner by Aamir and were delighted when Kiran joined us to cut a birthday cake with Azad, their young son. Kiran’s team was waiting impatiently for Aamir to watch a rough cut of Laapataa Ladies at his studio on the ground floor. There was zero awkwardness in any of this. Equally, there was none when Kiran enthusiastically participated in the extended wedding celebrations of his daughter Ira, through Aamir’s first marriage to Reena Dutta. Both ex-wives share a strong Bengali connection. Reena is born a Bengali. Kiran lived and studied in Kolkata and is a proud Loreto girl who speaks excellent Bengali. With her royal lineage (grand-daughter of the titular Raja of Wanaparthy state, J. Rameshwar Rao, founder of Orient Longman), Kiran’s upbringing in a progressive, highly educated family is richly reflected in her professional and personal choices. Influenced by the movies of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, Kiran has opted for an off-beat, cerebral route when it comes to helming film projects.

Kiran Rao | Amey Mansabdar Kiran Rao | Amey Mansabdar

Her social concerns are evident in Laapataa Ladies, which ostensibly revolves around the tragi-comedy of two young brides in rural India, getting accidentally swapped on a train. Behind the laughs and broad humour, several strands of feminism and gender justice are expertly woven in, via dialogues that highlight the deep-rooted prejudices ingrained in our complex society, which looks the other way when a woman is ill-treated and abused in multiple ways. Kiran expertly uses the metaphor of the traditional ghungat (veil), that covers more than just a women’s face—it effectively negates her individuality and hides acts of blatant discrimination within her own family. There are telling scenes highlighting domestic interactions that underline how hard it is for a new bride to survive, forget thrive, in her brand new environment, amidst strangers who fail to acknowledge her as an individual with a mind of her own. Like when the bride is tutored to keep her eyes downcast permanently, now that she is married and sporting a ghungat.

Kiran’s quiet assertiveness is a class act, which is obvious when one meets her socially. As an acknowledged fashionista with a specific design aesthetic, Kiran is confident enough to favour organic fabrics over sequined designer wear, and stick to minimal jewellery, the kind favoured by successful Bollywood personalities. Stripped of artifice and by shunning glitz, Kiran stands out in an ocean of OTT couture.

Kiran and Aamir, who have faced flak in the past, for speaking up on matters that are considered sensitive, and been labelled as anti-nationals for doing so, have the courage of their convictions to stick to their strong belief systems. This attitude in an era of compromised political principles, is inspiring and courageous. They have paid a big price for that….

But, today, Kiran commands the respect of the film industry for being herself! Not Aamir’s ex-wife. Hard-earned, yes. But oh so well deserved. Let’s hope there will be fewer laapataa ladies in India henceforth.