Kiran Rao returns as director with Laapataa Ladies, opening up conversations around women, but with humour

A plot about brides getting switched — and lost — sounds like exactly the kind of entertaining popcorn kitsch people know and love about Bollywood. In the hands of Kiran Rao, it becomes something more, though still retaining its mass appeal.

Director and co-producer Kiran Rao and creative producer Tanaji Dasgupta at the Toronto International Film Festival, where their film Laapataa Ladies (Lost Ladies) had its premiere recently. Photo courtesy: Suman Das

Laapataa Ladies (Lost Ladies), releasing in January 2024 and recently premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), is Rao’s second directorial venture, after Dhobi Ghat in 2010. Quite interestingly, she goes back in time with this new film, which is a satire set in rural India in 2001. Her former husband, Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan, has co-produced this film, as he did the first one.

Into this comedy of mistaken identities, Rao has infused quite a few ideas that viewers associate with cerebral cinema. In an earlier interview about Laapataa Ladies, she had said, “We’re taking apart patriarchy without a war.” Elaborating on that, she said on the sidelines of the TIFF that the idea was to “open up conversations around education, women’s rights, marriage, self-worth and all kinds of things that we feel are important for us to engage with; ideas that we feel we want to open up”.

Conversations cannot become a monologue, so the filmmaker has focused on saying what she wants to say with a light touch, inviting the audience to join in.

Rao said at TIFF, “We wanted to do it with a story that was engaging, funny, and had a sort of mass appeal at the same time, so that it’s not necessarily a ‘message’ film. It’s really all the issues that we touch upon. I explored the characters through plot, you know, through characters’ journeys and personal discoveries and observations. So, yes, it was very intentional to address all these issues.”

The 13-year gap between Dhobi Ghat and Laapataa Ladies can be attributed to the fact that Rao herself was “sort of a little lost”. That is not to say she had no idea what to do with her life, but that she was waiting for the right story to go behind the camera on a film set again — and, of course, bringing up her son, Azad Rao Khan.

“The break wasn’t intentional; I didn’t take a break,” she said. “I was sort of a little lost, let’s say, looking for the right script. I’ve been working on my own stories, building some series, and feature scripts, but none of them seemed quite right to make into a film. At the same time, I was doing my producing work. I’ve been working on Paani Foundation and raising my kid, so my life was very full.”

Then, she heard about this story about two brides getting switched and lost. “When I heard that, I knew I had finally found my next film. It took some time to get us to acquire the script. Then Sneha [Desai, screenplay writer] worked with me on the screenplay, and then it went into shooting last year. So it took its time. I didn’t intend to vanish for 13 years.”

Talking about Desai, the filmmaker heaped praise on her: “She is one of the most talented writers I’ve ever met and had the pleasure of working with. She comes from a background of Gujarati theatre, and has also worked a lot as an actor, and so she understands character from a very innate sort of point of view. Her dialogue, writing skills, thanks to theatre, are very sharp. Each scene is crafted very perfectly, you know.”

Writer Biplab Goswami’s story was brought to life by the script, “with all the genuine, funny, eccentric, believable characters and a plot that keeps twisting and turning and taking you to unexpected destinations”, said Rao.

Creative producer Tanaji Dasgupta, who joined Rao for the interview at TIFF, described how he came to be associated with Laapataa Ladies. “I had known Kiran socially, as we had a few common friends. So it’s always a case of ‘the right phone call at the right time,’” he said, adding that it was the story that was the deal-maker.

“I was a fan of her first film and in the first meeting itself, she told me about this story. On hearing [about it], my eyes lit up, because I had actually seen Biplab pitch the story at a screenplay competition where Aamir [Khan] was the judge and he won the runner-up prize,” recalled Dasgupta. “Out of all those pitches, I only remembered this one because it was just such a cool, interesting premise. I come from quite an independent, mostly arthouse kind of background, so I was extremely excited to do comedy and a feel-good film.”

—This article represents modified content, derived from the original interview published by IBNS-TWF and shared with Connected to India