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'Mumbai Diaries' pairs director and husband

Actor Aamir Khan had to work hard to persuade his wife, director Kiran Rao, to cast him as the lead in her new movie. She finally relented after a screen test.

January 21, 2011|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times
  • Aamir Khan, top, and Kiran Rao on the set of their movie "Mumbai Diaries" (Dhobi Ghat).
Aamir Khan, top, and Kiran Rao on the set of their movie "Mumbai Diaries"… (Aamir Khan Productions )

Most Indian directors would consider it a major coup to cast Aamir Khan in one of their films. After all, he's one of India's biggest stars ("Lagaan," "Taare Zameen Par"), not to mention a noted director and savvy producer ("Peepli Live"). But his wife, Kiran Rao, didn't want her husband to play a character in her feature film directorial and writing debut, "Dhobi Ghat," known in English as "Mumbai Diaries" and opening Friday in the U.S. and in India.

Instead, she wanted to cast unknowns in the drama, which centers on an introverted painter who is stinging from his recent divorce and separation from his son. His life ends up being intertwined with three vastly different people. (Dhobi Ghat, a popular tourist attraction in Mumbai, is considered the world's largest outdoor laundry.)

"She didn't want me," Khan said by phone from the city, once known as Bombay. "That was very disappointing for me. I loved the script and I was really moved by it and impressed by her writing. When I started speaking about casting and with myself in mind, she said, 'I don't want any of the four actors to be cast with known actors because I don't want the actors to have any baggage at all when they walk into the film."

Rao also wanted to shoot the film on location in Mumbai and she feared she couldn't do that because residents would recognize Khan and gather around, causing disruptions.

"I wanted the film to be honest," she said. "We were shooting in the streets of Bombay. I wanted to show the city the way it really is."

Khan is producing the movie, in a bit of a role reversal for the couple: Rao was an assistant director on "Lagaan" and "Monsoon Wedding" and produced "Taare Zameen Par" and "Peepli Live." But Khan was unhappy that he wouldn't be in his wife's first film. "I was hoping she would change her mind," he recalled. "As the casting went along, she couldn't find the actor she had in mind."

So he even did a test. "Perhaps it would give you an idea when you work with me as to what you can do with the character," he recalled telling his wife. "That was my oblique way of trying to get my foot in the door."

And eventually, the door opened and he was cast.

Khan plays the role of the painter, Arun, who encounters Shai (Monica Dogra), a wealthy U.S. investment banker of Indian heritage on sabbatical in the metropolis. They meet at the opening of his new show and she spends the night with him.

Shai has decided to photograph various aspects of Mumbai culture. She meets and befriends Munna (Prateik Babbar), a handsome washer man or dhobi who delivers laundry to Shai and Arun's homes and wants to become an actor. And there's Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra), the previous tenant of Arun's new apartment, who left behind videotapes of her life, which Arun soon becomes obsessed with watching.

Rao says the film began to percolate around 2005, the same year she married Khan.

"I started with a couple of small ideas trying to string them together," she said. "One of the ideas was a dhobi who wants to be an actor and who has this relationship with this girl from a completely other world and the other was a story of a man who in shifting houses comes across what the previous tenant left behind. I had the final script ready in 2008. I was lucky to have that much time for it to distill and grow."

Although English is Khan's first language, "Mumbai Diaries" marks the first time he's spoken it on the big screen. Previously, he's always spoken in Hindi.

"To be totally accurate to his character, he would never have spoken in Hindi," said Khan. "I speak English all the time. I only speak Hindi when I talk to someone who doesn't understand English."

Rao says it was a lot of fun directing her husband in the film, and he says he was equally satisfied.

"It was great working with Kiran," he said. "She is very honest. That is what's really her strength."

'Mumbai Diaries' (Dhobi Ghat)

No MPAA rating. In English and Hindi with English subtitles

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Playing: In selected theaters

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