There are few Indian actors or producers who would be personally inclined to back a female writer/director wanting to make a movie about four disparate lives that collide in Mumbai city. But then Aamir Khan is no ordinary artiste or filmmaker. Having taken a chance on a British Raj cricket saga, a childhood dyslexia drama and acidic satire poking fun at Indian media and politics, Bollywood’s man with the Midas touch only had to look as far as his own home to find inspiration for his latest pet project. I got the chance to chat with Aamir about playing a tortured artist in Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries) and staking his name, money and reputation on his wife’s debut film.
In Dhobi Ghat you play Arun, an aloof, middle-class artist who is a man of few words. How did you get into the mindset of an artist and had you played one before?
In Taare Zameen Par I was an art teacher but I’m more of a painter in this one. But the painting is just Arun’s profession – it’s more about the personality he has that is the most complex thing about him. He’s a loner, reclusive, brash on outside but damaged on the inside and closed off. I’m quite the opposite of Arun. I’m very open towards meeting and engaging people and allow them into my life.
Sounds like quite a dark character. What drew you to him?
What I really loved about Arun is that he is scared to open up to people. So it’s interesting that the only person he allows into his own space is someone who he watches on a video tape. He starts a relationship in his head with a person he has never met.
In this film we see you act and even swear in English which is quite a revelation. Was that a challenge for you?
(laughs) Well my first language is English. I think, read write in English and so was most comfortable performing in English. It wasn’t a problem.
What was your initial reaction when your wife Kiran Rao approached you with the story idea for to Dhobi Ghat, a film that is essentially about four ordinary people living and working in Mumbai?
I was really moved when I read the script and again when I saw the film after completion. I believe it’s the best film to come out of my production house. I’m very proud of it and think Kiran did an amazing job. If you ask me if people will like it, I don’t know. I’ve always followed my heart and done films that I felt like doing.
Indians don’t tend to like it when their country and fellow countrymen are portrayed in what could be interpreted as a realistic, negative or unglamorous light, as happened with films like Slumdog Millionaire. What will Mumbaikers think of Kiran’s no-frills portrait of their home city?
I think Kiran has really managed to capture the city in all its complexities and the different kinds of people that live here. She paints a fantastic, fresh and real portrait of Mumbai and its inhabitants, levels of society and how their lives intersect but remains separate. Clearly the filmmaker is in love with the city and it’s a film all Mumbaikers will be proud of.
What part of Mumbai do you identify with?
I’ve always been a Bandraite and know that upper middle class kind of society that people like Arun belong to very well. But the fact is that in Mumbai we have people from lower, middle and upper classes all mixed together.
There’s been criticism that Indian filmmakers are only interested in making films that pander to NRI audiences and the escapist, melodrama that we are supposed to like. How do you think NRIs will react to a more gritty, indie film like Dhobi Ghat?
I don’t know. I have to be honest with you Dhobi Ghat is such an unusual film and not the kind of films Indian directors make. It’s not a film for audiences who like fast paced action, highly entertaining, comedy films like a Dabangg or 3 Idiots. It’s a very delicate, layered film about how we touch each other lives and affect each other. It’s about living, longing and loss – about the unspoken word and little things you realise after the moment or people have passed.
Many NRIs feel that the Hindi film industry has a very narrow view of their tastes, conveniently bracketed us all in one group who only enjoy masala entertainers. Do you acknowledge there are different types of NRI audiences who want to see different films?
Absolutely. I think audiences all across, not just inside of India but also outside have different tastes. I am well aware of that. That’s why Kiran and I made this film. There is an audience that has the desire to see something different, more serious or you could say made with a finer brush.
Many would see Dhobi Ghat as a risky project on many levels – the fact it’s by a debutante female filmmaker, focuses on unglamorous subjects and characters and doesn’t have the regular song and dance format. Does that attitude worry you?
I don’t really get worried by risks. If I like the script I want to do it. That’s how I felt when I did Lagaan, Taare Zameen Par and Peepli Live.
How did you handle being directed by someone who also happens to be your wife?
It was a great experience because both of us really enjoy cinema. I have a really high regards for Kiran creatively. I’ve worked with her as producer on Taare and Peepli but this was first time as a director and she did a great job. Her influences as a student of cinema were filmmakers from around the world. In all honestly she has more knowledge and experience of a wider range of cinema than I have. I read more than her but she watches more films. She has opened my eyes to a new world cinema, arts and literature.
Would a film like Dhobi Ghat get made without your backing?
It’s difficult to make a film like this without someone like me getting attached. But it’s not that it can’t be done. I’m happy to support young and new talent.
Talking of talent, you seem to be a champion of young female writer/directors. First Anusha Rizvi (Peepli Live) and now Kiran. What do these young women bring to the film industry?
It’s high time we saw life and film stories through the female perspective and from their point of view. I’m not saying its good or bad, I’m just saying that it’s always been a male take on things. It’s these women’s own voices and objectives that’s makes it fresh.
So any more plans to work with female filmmakers?
Yes. In fact the next film I’m doing is also with another woman director - Reema Kagti (Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd.). It’s untitled as yet but is a suspense thriller with Rani (Mukerjee) and Kareena (Kapoor). It’s a very exciting script written by Reema and Zoya Akhtar (Luck By Chance) so I’ll be surrounded by women again! (laughs)
Dhobi Ghat boasts compelling performances by newcomers Prateik Babbar, Monica Dogra and Kriti Malhotra. What did you make of this new generation of Indian actors?
They’ve done amazing work. I think Prateik is rather outstanding, he’s so handsome and the camera loves him. He’s very sensitive and has such expressive eyes. When Kiran found him and showed me his screen test I really liked him myself and backed him. Monica and Kriti were also very good. When I watched the film I really liked the three of them far ahead of me. There was such a natural, raw and real quality to their performances.
Were they ever intimidated working with an actor or your stature?
Not at all, in fact it was the other way around. I was intimidated by them (laughs). Most people on set were worried about me (laughs again). They were very talented. One lesson that I learned from them was that every time I approach a character or role or film I need to strip down to the raw basics.
You’re the king of marketing movies when it comes to Bollywood. How are you marketing Dhobi Ghat, which veers more towards the world cinema genre?
I think this picture can speak for itself and that every film needs to be marketed in an individual way. You have to be honest with the audience and let them know what to expect so that when they come to the cinema they aren’t shocked. Audiences can decide for themselves whether they like it or not. Dhobi Ghat releases across the UK from 21st January 2011.