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Indian director Kiran Rao, who returns with a Hindi-language comic fable, 'Laapataa Ladies', after 13 years, throws the spotlight unwaveringly on women’s lives, their struggles, and shared sisterhood in her latest film.

But she’s equally keen to ensure that the men in her charming satire are well-represented.

Rao, the former wife of actor-producer-director Aamir Khan, wants to “break those stereotypes” where men are shown as protectors, providers, or warriors in films. She also didn’t want it to be a feminist fable that’s on the nose.

“When we are discussing films that talk about women’s lives or struggles, we tend to forget that we don’t have enough representation of the wide variety of men we all have possibly encountered in our lives. Just like we have an idealised sexualised woman, there’s an idealised man. We have these clichéd men that keep appearing in all our films — heroes are always meant to protect or be this best warrior,” said Rao in an interview with Gulf News, ahead of her movie’s release in UAE cinemas on March 1.

Kiran Rao
Kiran Rao Image Credit: Supplied

Rao’s almost-whimsical directorial, culled from a story by Biplab Goswami and screenplay/dialogue by Sneha Desai, unfolds against the rustic backdrop of rural India circa 2001.

The story revolves around two young brides who unwittingly find themselves swapped due to their matching red wedding ensembles and veils. The two brides in identical clothes are on a train, and when the station arrives, one of the husbands grabs the wrong bride to his village.

This accidental switch sparks an adventure for both women, leading them on a voyage of self-discovery and the bonds of sisterhood. But it’s not just about these two young women finding themselves, but also about the motley of men — such as the crafty police officer (Ravi Kishen) who is keen to solve the case of the missing bride — whom they encounter.

Themes of feminism, self-discovery, agency among women, and identity are complex, but Rao has dealt with them like a treacle of a cinematic concoction.

“In films, you often see clichéd characters played, but this film gave us the space to create a much richer embodiment of both men and women … Here, we don’t have very macho men either. So, how do you make the soft man a hero? In this film, he’s heroic while he’s also exceedingly emotional,” said Rao.

Charming comedy:

The life-affirming and charming comedy, co-produced by her former husband and top talent, Aamir Khan, is led by a clutch of talented but relatively unknown actors like top influencer Nitanshi Goel (10 million Instagram followers), Pratibha Ranta, Sparsh Shrivastava, Chhaya Kadam, and Geeta Aggarwal in crucial roles.

It’s an interesting move, considering that they have the collective clout to hire bankable Bollywood stars with instant box-office draw. But they chose to march to a different beat, and Rao unequivocally credits Khan for his support. Interestingly, Rao didn’t know that Nitanshi was an influencer.

“But I could not have done it if Aamir had not supported me. As a producer, it’s his call because he’s putting in the money. He’s supporting this movie with his name. But he was completely on board when I said I wanted to go with fresh faces … Most producers would not give a director that choice. They would go: ‘A-lister chahiya’ [wanted] or at least ‘A-minus lister chayiya’ [wanted] because they calculate everything based on star power. But Aamir calculates based on the story alone,” said Rao.

She describes her former spouse as one of the most discerning editors and collaborative voices to work with. He was also willing to take a few risks along the way with 'Laapataa Ladies'. The two announced their divorce in 2022, but have continued to have a fruitful working relationship. 

Bollywood actor Aamir Khan with filmmaker and ex-wife Kiran Rao in Mumbai. Khan is the co-producer of Rao's new directorial 'Laapataa Ladies'.

“I couldn’t have done this if he had said: please go with Alia [Bhatt] or Deepika [Padukone],” she added.

Hiring fresh faces wasn’t the only gamble. The movie deals with complex issues like smashing patriarchy and the importance of financial independence with a deft hand. But the amiable feel-good film never lets these themes bog the narrative down.

Laapata Ladies
A still from 'Laapataa Ladies', out in UAE cinemas on March 1

“There are a lot of things woven into the story quite seamlessly because at the end of the day, it wasn’t really about tick-marking. This was not like 'Satyamev Jayate' [Aamir Khan’s issue-based chat show] where we had to tick-mark issues like dowry or domestic violence. But this movie offered us the opportunity to speak about so many things and open up these conversations about issues that plague young and older women, and not-so-macho men,” said Rao.

A standing ovation

She succeeded to a large extent, going by the standing ovation received when the movie was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Rao tells us that she was careful not to go down the pontificating and posturing route of storytelling. While the movie focuses on the highly emotional groom, Deepu (Shrivastava), who’s heartbroken about getting home the wrong bride instead of his adorable and cherubic wife (Goel), the film also offers a slew of interesting characters. For instance, Manju, played to perfection by Chhaya Kadam, is the quintessential boss-lady who takes Deepu’s lost bride reluctantly into her fold and gives her a crash course on feminism and the importance of financial independence by breaking it down into digestible nuggets. Incidentally, Goswami’s original story did not have Manju’s character, but Rao was responsible for adding her into the well-intentioned satire.

“For me, I felt it was important to create a woman character who did things on her own terms and yet be accepted within her society. She is this symbol or mascot of a woman who can be happy and independent at the same time. She wasn’t there in the original script, but I was very keen to create such a character. And, Sneha [Desai] did a wonderful job of bringing her to life.”

More than a decade wait:

Rao, who impressed the critics and cinema lovers with her 2011 debut feature, 'Dhobi Ghat', about four characters from different worlds and classes living in Mumbai, took her own time to come up with her second film. While Bollywood is notorious for churning out films at a rapid pace, Rao took more than a decade to helm another film. But the wait wasn’t all glossy.

“I have had my share of insecurities while I was waiting. I have done a lot of writing in the interim, but I hope I become this sort of a symbol for late bloomers who do things later in life,” said Rao with a laugh.

While Rao — with her curls and nerdy spectacles — may come across as a cerebral director who is the natural choice to become a toast at film festivals, she says that she wasn’t always exuding this serious auteur.

“When I was in school, I used to be called a clown and I used to love playing the fool and keep people entertained with jokes. But over time, I thought I was being silly and became this serious artist. While my first film [Dhobi Ghat] was very personal and a big reflection of who I was, I have done quite a bit of growing up … The script of Laapataa Ladies wasn’t a comedy initially, it was more serious and realistic, but somehow I felt I wanted to make this film in a funny and emotional way.”

About women's voices:

She didn’t fail. The well-acted 'Laapataa Ladies' is an example of a fine film bolstered by superb acting. It’s one of those delightful satires that makes you believe that good things happen to good people. It deals with heavy-hitting subjects like feminism in an almost ephemeral way.

“This film isn’t about women in ghungats [veils] or about women getting swapped. It’s about women finding their space, in whatever circumstances they are in, finding their voice and having their voices heard.”

We hear her.

Don’t Miss It!

‘Laapataa Ladies’ is out in UAE cinemas on March 1.