This appeared in Asian Age \ Deccan Chronicle today....
When the Spouse is not a Mouse…but Superman!
I watched this season’s most publicized movie, ‘Dhobi Ghat’ with enormous interest. Of course, when Aamir Khan is backing a film project, it goes without saying every conceivable media platform is thoroughly, systematically and totally carpet bombed. With his wife’s virgin effort as director-writer, Aamir spared not a single effort, stopping short of climbing up the Qutub Mahal and declaring his undying love for second wife, Kiran. Aamir could successfully teach courses at Harvard on how to market a product – he is that brilliant! But the more interesting aspect of this particular promotion was the cleverly calibrated positioning of Kiran Rao. This is where Aamir’s genius lies. As a debut movie, ‘Dhobi Ghat’ is respectable enough. But it certainly does not generate shock and awe , nor can it be considered a major breakthrough film that is a game changer ( ‘Dil Chhata Hai’ falls into that category). It is delicate and subtle in the familiar art house tradition, but not powerful enough to be touted as a cinematic coup for the first time director. The question to ask in all fairness is : Would ‘Dhobi Ghat’ have received as much attention had Kiran Rao not been Aamir Khan’s wife? The answer is a flat ‘no’. But, what the hell.What’s the point of being married to the most powerful man in Bollywood and not leverage the relationship? I hugely enjoyed the spin! All those cutsie stories about how she insisted on Aamir auditioning for the film…. I mean… we are talking AAMIR! Or, what a hard time she gave him on the sets by subjecting him to reverse discrimination. All these nuggets of modern day equations in a very contemporary marriage really tickled our imagination enough to go watch the film. And that, my dears, was the intention all along! I took in a few of their television interviews and read the print versions, just like thousands of others ( there was no escape from these two last fortnight) . The entire strategy was faultless – they held hands, referred to one another as ‘my love’, and trotted out the same spiel interview after interview, without once looking bored or jaded. Now that’s a feat! Finally, after watching the 95th interview ( same coy, adoring glances from Kiran, same self-deprecatory anecdotes from Aamir), I felt exhausted. But hey – let’s hand it to them – this is what is known as true professionalism. Each oft-repeated quote and recycled cliché sounded fresh, spontaneous and new! Hats off to the two of them for their dedication to the product. For, without that, ‘Dhobi Ghat’ would have been dismissed as yet another slightly confused, well intentioned movie. Aamir, perhaps anticipating just such a response, preempted criticism by informing those who weren’t going to ‘get it’, that the movie was not for everybody! It was a delicate and refined cinematic experience meant for those evolved, educated cineastes capable of appreciating his wife’s genius. If such condescension annoyed a few critics, Aamir was instantly condoned – he is Aamir, after all.
When I walked out of the multiplex after catching a late evening show, my daughters were sniffling away – they had fallen deeply in love with Prateik.Their emotions are entirely understandable. Prateik is adorable as Munna, the dhobi who dreams of becoming a Bollywood star someday. Casting Prateik was an inspired choice, and one must congratulate Kiran for not succumbing to spouse pressure and casting Aamir for this pivotal role ( according to the lovey dovey couple, Aamir was lusting after it). It is the characters of Munna and Shai( played with admirable finesse by Monica Dogra) that linger after the viewing, and leaves the audience somewhat relieved that Aamir’s Arun does not hijack the story, nor does Aamir the superstar hog the script. In fact, most viewers agreed that just about any unknown could have played Aamir’s part and there isn’t a single memorable scene that stays from his segment of the inter-linked narrative. One actually waits hungrily for Prateik to appear on the screen…and break our hearts. For me, it is pure sentimentality and nostalgia ( I knew and loved Prateik’s mother, the late Smita Patil). But beyond mush, it is evident to anybody how instinctive and inspiring Prateik is as an actor. There is nothing studied or ‘filmi’ about the boy. He is an absolute natural who projects an almost heart breaking level of innocence and vulnerability. Kiran has written Prateik’s role exceedingly well , devoid of even a single false note. Can’t say the same about Aamir’s Arun, who mouths the most ridiculous lines about Mumbai (“ My muse, my beloved, my whore…”). It is also pretty apparent that Aamir is not entirely comfortable speaking English and is far more himself when the dialogues are Hindi.
But beyond the movie and how it fares commercially lies a deeper message for women in cinema. There have been other successful directors like Aparna Sen and Kalpana Lajmi here, Mira Nair and Gurinder Chhadha overseas. The one thing that separates them from Kiran Rao is the Aamir Factor. These ladies did not have the backing and clout of a superstar-spouse…and that is the biggest difference. Today, Kiran is fully sorted as a film maker, regardless of how her first film performs at the box office. She can write her own ticket, name her price and effortlessly get the next project… and the next… off the ground. She may or may not sign her superstar husband next time ( she should go solo after the heavy duty togetherness of this project), but with or without Aamir Khan, Kiran Rao is officially on a roll. Good for Kiran. An intelligent spouse should never underestimate the power of two. Look at Hillary and Bill Clinton! In the movie business, it works in exactly the same way. If Angelina Jolie decides to turn director someday, she’d be seriously dumb not to get Brad Pitt involved…..and they are not even officially a couple. Frankly, Kiran Rao and Aamir occupy a pretty unique slot – I can’t think of another power couple in the movie world , who enjoy the same profile. Tom Cruise comes to mind, but Katie Holmes, his better half, is a glamourous actress, not a determined director . It would be interesting to monitor Kiran’s next move , rather, movie! This one had her cutie –husband declaring publicly that he had fallen in love with his wife one more time after reading her script. How will Aamir top that? Who knows? As they say in Bollywood, ‘Dil To Pagal Hai.’ Kiran sounds smart enough to check-mate her mate many times over. Perhaps that is the asli secret of their successful partnership?