Kiran Rao: Laapataa Ladies is the kind of story that doesn't necessarily need stars

Kiran's sophomore film, Laapataa Ladies recently had its world premiere at TIFF, and the filmmaker talks about the the project, the delay between her directorials, and her train nostalgia
Kiran Rao: Laapataa Ladies is the kind of story that doesn't necessarily need stars

Writer, director, and producer Kiran Rao’s debut directorial, Dhobi Ghat had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2010 and was released in cinemas in January 2011. Her second film Laapataa Ladies aka Lost Ladies comes after 13 long years and is set to follow the same course. It recently had its world premiere in the Centrepiece segment of TIFF and will be releasing worldwide on January 5, 2024.

Laapataa Ladies is set in the year 2001 in a fictional Nirmal Pradesh but was shot in Madhya Pradesh. It is about two new brides—Phool and Jaya—who get swapped on the train in their very first, post-wedding journey from their ‘maika’ to the ‘sasural’. A film about serious issues that are talked about with lightheartedness, Laapataa Ladies is a positive, hopeful, intelligent and entertaining story about two young women being able to find themselves after getting lost.

Cinema Express spoke to Kiran Rao after the film's successful world premiere at TIFF. Edited excerpts from the conversation:

Why did it take so long for you to direct the second film?

It wasn't intentional. I've been working through these last 10-12 years on many things. My life has been very full and satisfying. I'd produced Secret Superstar, and Laal Singh Chadha. Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival happened [she was the chairperson]. I've been, of course, a mom and have consistently been working on my own stories, and building scripts. I've got a couple of series that I'm developing.

The second film is always a little bit of a struggle because you want to push yourself out there a little more. You want to take a few more risks. And honestly, when this [script] came along, I just knew instinctively that this was what I wanted to do as my second film. Of course, COVID played spoilsport and things got more delayed than we would have liked. Time passes but good things come to those who wait.

Your two films belong to very different realities.

In Dhobi Ghat, I drew from personal experience, I drew from things that I knew, and stories that were close to my heart. The second film demands diving a little deeper and flexing your directorial muscle and a little bit more understanding in terms of craft and storytelling. How much more can you do instead of staying in your own safe storytelling world? I really felt like this was a great opportunity to do that because it's something that I personally could not have written. It's an incredible script starting with Biplab’s [Goswami] story and then Sneha's [Desai] screenplay. Of course, the film draws again from personal experience, as you know, I have worked through [nonprofit organisation] Paani Foundation in the villages of Maharashtra. I've travelled extensively in the country. But it's a comedy. It's much more broad-based and has mass appeal and so many more characters and so much more happening in it, that it was a big challenge for me.

Did the solid writing make direction somewhat easier for you?

When we got Biplab’s script, the story itself was solid, a wonderful blueprint to start from, and then when we brought Sneha on board, we knew that we were going to change the tone of the film a little bit towards comedy, satire, kind of more entertaining than the original story was. Sneha was absolutely the perfect writer for it because she has theatre training and can craft this lyrical dialogue which has a wonderful sawaal-jawaab (question-answer) kind of quality to it. We worked on what we wanted for each of these characters, what each of them stood for, creating these little microworlds within the film, of the stations, the villages, the cop stations, and you know all the characters in it, and she was able to imbue it all with this wonderful flavour, this genuinely rooted characterisation. The script then became a launch pad for me, a springboard because it was already so solid on paper. It was my job then to make it cinematic and cast it well, and all the rest of it.

You shot it post COVID?

We started shooting at the height of the third wave early last year. Two days before we started shooting, my DOP got Covid, and successively several actors got it too. I got Covid by the end of the first schedule. We shot through January to March last year and had many brushes with the virus but survived it. We managed to finish the film on time.

How did you go about casting the wonderful ensemble?

When you know the story is so genuine and so honest, you really want a cast that would bring that tone of authenticity to the film. It’s the kind of story that doesn't necessarily need stars. In fact, fresh actors, we felt, would bring believability, and be able to take you on this journey without the expectations that a star cast would have brought. We wanted new faces, but also actors who had the skill set to do this tone of satire, drama, and comedy. We had a wonderful casting director called Romil. We were looking for people who also spoke the right dialect, and felt like they belonged to this world. We were lucky to be able to cast genuinely wonderful actors, a lot of them from theatre, a lot of them local to Madhya Pradesh. Lots of them have done television and web series before and there are many non-actors as well. There are only 2-3 veterans, like Ravi Kishan and Chhaya Kadam.

You are looking at so many social issues but are not shrill about them.

That was intentional because we wanted it to be a fun and exciting journey where we take you on these twists and turns and unexpected encounters. You don't know what to expect around the corner. But, at the same time, we wanted to use humour as a vehicle to touch upon issues. Humour is so disarming. You can approach the darkest of subjects and the most serious of issues in a softer, lighter way, and open them up for conversations, which I feel has a far more profound impact. We didn’t want monologues telling you what is right and what is wrong.

How crucial is music to you as a filmmaker and Ram Sampath’s songs in this film?

Sound and music are half the film for me. It's obviously a visual medium but without the right music and sound design, this film would just not be as effective. Ram has such a deep understanding of storytelling through music, the diverse world of sounds and how to bring things to life through music. He also had the difficult job of working with somebody who'd never done songs in films before. The 4 songs were, for me, a completely new exercise.

Why locate it in 2001 specifically? And why shoot it in MP?

We did a little bit of research to check when the penetration of mobiles would have just about started in Tier 2 cities and villages, and 2001 seemed the right time when a mobile would be given in dowry. MP is truly one of the most spectacular states, geographically, and architecturally. Their infrastructure for shooting is also incredibly well set up now and they were very supportive, and we had a very good team there.

Lastly, the film takes us back to the romance of the train journeys. How much of an Indian Railways person are you?

All my first 20 years I didn't do anything but train journeys, especially going from Calcutta to Bangalore, where my grandmother was. The sights and sounds, the landscape that you pass, getting to know the people in your compartment, sharing food, sharing conversations. I have the fondest memories of travelling by the Indian Railways. There's a lot of nostalgia associated with trains.

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