Kiran Rao: I don’t even watch mainstream Hollywood stuff!

The Dhobi Ghat director and first time mum talks about indie cinema, starting her own movie theatre and mainstream films

A filmmaker, a mother, wife to India’s biggest superstar and now a producer – these are a few of the many roles that Kiran Rao plays, and the many lives she lives through them. The pint sized woman buzzes with a kind of quiet energy against the bleak rainy backdrop of her office as she single-handedly promotes a film she didn’t make and has virtually no stake in! In an exclusive interview with BollywoodLife, Kiran gets talking about just why is she going ahead and releasing debutant filmmaker Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus in India, the kind of cinema she watches, her plans to make that cinema accessible to people and finally just when will she announce her eagerly awaited next film!

What’s your stake in Ship of Theseus?

I saw the film as an audience. I had heard a lot about it. Read great reviews. Then I saw it, and I was still bowled over. It exceeded my expectations and Anand and I went on to become pretty good friends. I met him first to congratulate him and after that we met again and hung out. And at that point I asked him, in the course of the conversation, if there was any help that he needed and he suggested that I help him get distribution, basically a theatrical release of the film. That was the challenge that he was facing. That was how I got involved with it. I didn’t acquire the film, I don’t own it. I have not produced it. I have only given the film my name and I’m only working on the marketing and distribution because I love the film. I have no financial stake in it.

There are many such movies that do well in festivals but fail to find a release in India. Are you trying to help such movies secure a release?

Absolutely. Internationally, anywhere in the world, small films face this challenge. And the good thing about developed countries is that they have alternate venues for art house films. So that makes sure that you are not competing with some big Hollywood film like a Star Wars or a Star Trek or something. Audience also knows that when I’m going to an IFC or an Angelica or Landmark, I’m watching a certain kind of cinema. These cinemas attract their own audience. Here unfortunately we don’t have that sort of a distribution option. So it is going to be difficult and in some ways we will have to create some space for films like these to exist at the box office alongside big films.

So is this testing your marketing skills? Aamir is known to be a marketing whiz!

It is. It’s certainly extracting every bit of energy and enterprise out of me because I have had a lot of experience with Aamir releasing films that we’ve produced. And I’ve certainly experienced marketing my own films and figuring how to market something that was so niche to a more mainstream or a bigger audience. So I’m trying to use all those lessons to benefit Ship of Theseus. It’s a tricky one because each film has its own merits and journey and challenges. You have to think differently for every film. No film can be marketed the same way as the next.

We heard you’re majorly relying on online promotions.

The film is a small one, so we certainly didn’t want to load it with marketing costs. And one of the drawbacks of having big marketing costs are that you’re still not guaranteed that you will get the right kind of audience for your film. So one of the way was to market it to the kind of audience who would like the film. And all of us discussed it. We also had Aamir in on the discussions, and what we decided was that we would keep it really low cost. Second, we would use other platforms than the traditional ones because it is a non-traditional film in the first place. So the digital platforms are what we decided would be the most exciting way to market these films. That’s how most people today are connected. The kind of audience who goes to film festivals and watches these movies are online users, they are abreast of stuff through internet. So we thought this would be one way to target the right audience and keep costs low. It’s actually going very well. If we had even tried to spend money and tried to put the trailer on television, we would have been firing at people who aren’t our audience. And we have got 2.5 lakh views for our trailer which is very unusual with no song and dance. So it’s a trailer that gives you a very good idea of what the film is, and it is working!

You had also spoken about establishing venues for alternate cinema. Are you thinking of opening a movie theatre?

This is my long term dream. I have been trying to do this for 10 or 15 years now. Ever since I came to Mumbai, I was thinking that my kind of films have to release somewhere. And they don’t have to be big places because art house cinemas are notoriously small. I remember watching a great film in a theatre that had 50 seats which we call a preview theatre. But to get 30 or 40 people together to watch your small art house film is a great thing. That’s 30 or 40 more than what you didn’t have. My dream is to create an alternative venue like this. I have been working towards it a little bit. I can’t say anything yet but I’m hoping to create a place where people could go and watch films which they wouldn’t get to see at their local cinemas. There could be other languages films from our own country that could get released. Also films that could be shorts, or documentaries which are hard to release anywhere. So you should be able to go there and watch any film and not wait for marketing or all that stuff. Just turn up and you will find something good playing there.

It has been some time since you had a release. Is being a mother coming in the way of being a filmmaker?

No, it’s not. Being a mother in some ways definitely takes you away from work. Nothing has given me more pleasure than having Azad. But nothing gave me as much pleasure before that also while making my own film. Certainly my journey continues. I’ve been relaxing, I’ve been taking personal time, I’ve been growing a lot thanks to my son, I’ve been watching a lot of cinema. So, yes, I have used this time also to assess my skills and to see what interests me, and I think I’m ready to get back to making my film. It’s been two and half years since my film released and I think I’m ready to make another movie. I wish I could put a time or some limit on it, but I have no idea. I’m hoping after July 19 when Theseus releases, I’m hoping to at least have the time to write, and then let’s see. I think by the end of the year, next year I should be ready.

Other films you connected with just as much as Ship of Theseus?

I saw Beasts of the Southern Wild, and I think it’s a spectacular debut film. District 9 too – what an idea and how amazingly done! Also, Searching for Sugarman which is just a brilliant film. These have blown me away and shown me what cinema can do. What you see affects you. When I see such films, I really wish these would play in the local cinema. Why should we only watch the kind of stuff that we keep putting out week after week? So when an opportunity like Ship of Theseus comes along, I feel we must push it out there. Because when I travel, I see what is possible in theatres. And when we are making quality cinema, I feel it’s our duty that it gets out there in the multiplexes.

Do you watch mainstream Bollywood cinema?

You know, I don’t watch a lot of mainstream Bollywood stuff. I certainly watch it more than I used to. It’s just because I don’t even watch mainstream Hollywood stuff! In fact I don’t watch a lot of films. It’s not a great thing to say, but I have these filters. So when something good reaches my ears, I will find a way to watch it. Of course, when I’m abroad, I know there are theatres which play this kind of film, so that’s a good thing. But I really enjoyed Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani. I had fun. I loved Ranbir and Deepika’s performances. So that’s among one my most recent Hindi film outings!