'I rejected Aamir Khan for a role in Laapataa Ladies': Kiran Rao

'Laapataa Ladies' is Rao's second film as director

67-Kiran-Rao Kiran Rao | Amey Mansabdar

It has been 13 years since her last film release, but Kiran Rao has proved to be worth the wait. Her second film as director, Laapataa Ladies, releases on March 1, and has already won a standing ovation at September’s Toronto International Film Festival.

Aamir actually did a look test for the part of the slimy cop... [but] we thought ravi kishan was apt for the role. ―Kiran Rao

Rao, 50, says it’s just the kind of response she needed after not showing a film to an audience for over 10 years. “I was nervous,” she says of the Toronto screenings. “A lot of the film’s humour is in its dialect, in its cadence of writing. Plus Bhojpuri is such a sweet language, I wasn’t sure how all of this would translate via subtitles and we would lose the rural flavour. This was a paying audience, so I felt very validated.”

We are sitting at an office of Aamir Khan Productions in Mumbai’s Bandra. The same building houses Khan and his extended family. The film has just been privately screened for THE WEEK and we are probably the first people outside the office to have watched it. It’s an endearing tale of two brides getting swapped on a train in rural India, only to discover themselves and their personal goals, all along questioning their misleading veils, patriarchy, and dropping empowerment quips and tips. It stars newbies Pratibha Ranta, Nitanshi Goel and Sparsh Srivastav in lead roles, along with Ravi Kishan.

“When Aamir first told me about the story, I thought the hook was delicious,” Rao lets in. The film is based on a screenplay writer Biplab Goswami had submitted in a competition where Khan was a judge. “In a sense it is a coming-of-age film, with a little mystery about how things would unfold. I read the story and I thought the women characters could be developed a little more. It could have been a dark film, but we wanted it to be more of a fun comedy,” she says.

Rao’s favourite scene is one where the women of a family are sitting together and having a giggle as friends. “Let’s not be relatives,” one of them says, “Let’s be friends”. Another favourite is a song by the river that has been edited out of the film. “I hope I can turn it into a music video and release it. It’s shot on a river with drones, and shows a newly-wed couple with the river as a metaphor for life,” she says.

68-Rao-Aamirs-first-wife-Reena-children-Ira-and-Azad-and-Aamir-Khan Modern family: (From left) Rao, Aamir’s first wife Reena, children Ira and Azad, and Aamir Khan | Instagram@khan.ira

Was the decision not to have any established actors deliberate? “Yes, and Aamir was very supportive. The story needed to be rooted and authentic, and the faces needed to be believable,” Rao explains.

Aamir is not playing a cameo either. “Aamir actually did a look test with hair and makeup for the part of the slimy cop. He actually auditioned for the role, and Aamir being Aamir was really good at it. We even had a long discussion on how much he wanted to play this character. But when we saw Ravi Kishan’s audition, I thought he was apt for the role. He brought a certain juiciness to the part. Aamir sort of sets up expectations for the character. So yeah, I rejected Aamir Khan,” she laughs. “But by the end of it Aamir agreed with me.”

Most of the film is filled with actors from theatre groups across Indore, Jabalpur and Bhopal. “I wanted everyone to feel that a place called Nirmal Pradesh (the fictional state where the film is set) really exists. We wanted people to be comfortable with the dialect and the families to look like families.”

69-Laapataa-Ladies Still from Laapataa Ladies

Kiran’s first film, Dhobi Ghat, was set in Mumbai. It was a big-city film, with snatches of class interdependence and creative professionals dealing with urban existence. Laapataa Ladies is as rural as it can get. “I wanted to speak to a broader audience, and still keep my aesthetic,” she says. “I felt like someone had tossed me a challenge. The hard part was actually making a comedy, because I thought I was good at drama. So editing the film and hitting the right notes of a situational comedy was not easy.” Rao says a lot of things can happen to women who end up in places they don’t expect to be, but she wanted the story to be one of hope and optimism.

Why has it taken her so long to release her second film? “I was writing and producing, I was quite involved with Dangal and Secret Superstar. I also gave a lot of time to my family and enjoyed raising Azad (her son with Aamir, now 12). I had a child at a stage when I knew I wanted one. He’s a great kid and a companion for life. The writing was slow and subconsciously I wasn’t ready. That said, I started writing Laapataa in 2020.”

Rao has also launched her own production company Kindling Productions. “I am still an adviser in Aamir Khan Productions and I will always have strong ties with it,” she says. “But Kindling is my own imprint. It has all the projects I’ve been developing for the last decade. We are working on two series. One is a contemporary comedy about two women. The other is a historical, set in Kolkata and Darjeeling, involving three generations of women with the whole geopolitical backdrop of the Anglo-Burmese and Bengalis.”

Rao is also a founder at Paani Foundation, along with Khan, his first wife Reena Dutta and Satyajit Bhatkal. It offers solutions to Maharashtra’s drought crisis. “We are at an exciting juncture where 75 talukas have just competed for a water management prize called the Water Cup,” she says. “We find that as soon as villages have sufficient water, they start growing commercial but water-intensive crops like sugarcane again, and the cycle continues. We’ve realised that farmers need to work collectively with the best practices to be ecologically and economically sustainable. We hope to close the loop between producers and sellers and turn farmers into entrepreneurs. Our pilot Farmer Cup is between farmer collectives, and many all-women collectives are being formed, too.”

Rao says she is still “hung over” from Aamir’s daughter Ira’s wedding, which concluded just two weeks back. “The wedding was so beautifully curated by Ira and Popeye (her fiance Nupur Shikare), keeping each of us in mind,” she says. “We are a large family with varied interests, like music and sports. So we had an obstacle course, and a sangeet where we teased each other.”

Ira also had personalised gifts for her family. “She gave me a little oil painting of me on a street in Berlin,” she says. “I thought that was so special to make, in the middle of planning her wedding.”

Visuals of Aamir Khan, with his two former wives, make a modern, happy divorce a very practical, respectful idea. “We are all naturally inclusive. We all get together for dinners on Monday nights. We live in a community and our homes are all in the same housing society. I hang out with Reena (Aamir’s ex wife) and Nuzhat (Aamir’s cousin) independently of Aamir, too. These are relationships you shouldn’t lose if you get divorced. Aamir and I didn’t have an acrimonious divorce; we may have parted as a couple but we are very much a family,” she smiles. “Even at the end of a marriage, you’ve put so many years in a relationship and that should count for something.”