Mumbai-based filmmaker Kiran Rao talks about her directorial debut, Dhobi Ghat, which is receiving its world premiere inToronto.

After working for several years as a producer and assistant director, Rao has made her directorial debut with Dhobi Ghat, a film about the intersecting lives of four characters from different social backgrounds in Mumbai.

Rao describes the film as her homage to the city and cites Wong Kar-wai and Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang’s Vive L’Amour as influences. The four characters are played by Rao’s husband, Bollywood star Aamir Khan, Prateik Babbar and newcomers Monica Dogra and Kriti Malhotra. The film’s music was composed by Argentinean musician Gustavo Santaolalla who won Oscars for Babel and Brokeback Mountain.

Rao grew up in Calcutta, studied film in Delhi and worked as an assistant director on films such as Lagaan and Monsoon Wedding. With her husband she produced Taare Zameen Par,Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na and Peepli Live, which Artificial Eye will release in the UK on September 24.

UTV Motion Pictures is handling sales of Dhobi Ghat at Toronto and the producers are also in talks with further distribution partners.

Why did you choose Mumbai as the setting for this film?

In Bombay everyone is really interdependent and you can’t really separate yourself from people who are completely different to you. Everyone is forced to rub up against each other and that is what makes Bombay the city it is – there are no walled communities and you can’t disappear behind big gates. And that makes for a city that is really inclusive, throbbing and alive.

Why did you shoot on different formats? (ie 35mm, 16mm, MiniDV)

Visually I was trying to texture the city, because everyone’s experience of Bombay is so different. It was my way of putting the vibrancy of the city into a film. But also because it’s just easier to use 16mm and MiniDV in Bombay. You don’t have much space – some of the locations were slums and Dhobi Ghat itself is a difficult location to set up – so the idea was to move in and capture rather than create.

Was it difficult to do the casting?

It was – I wasn’t intending to cast any known faces and the two girls are not actors. I was quite keen on a theatre actor, but it wasn’t quite working out, so Aamir suggested he screen test for the role and was exactly where I wanted to go. Prateik was in Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na. I tested him on a hunch and he was perfect.

Do you think it’s difficult for female directors to break through in India?

No, I think there’s been a resurgence of women in film in the last 10-15 years. Directors like Farah Khan [Om Shanti Om] and Zoya Akhtar [Luck By Chance] have had quite a bit of success so I do think it’s changing.

In some ways it’s as hard for young men to break into the industry as it is for young women. We haven’t had a studio system and it takes a while before people are let in. But as it’s becoming more structured and the corporates are moving in, the attention paid to better writing and better ideas is growing. I think that will bring more women and more talent into the industry.

Peepli Live was well received overseas, but in general very few Indian films are crossing over to non-diaspora audiences. Why do you think that is?

It’s always a combination of things that help a film to break out. We have the baggage that comes with Bollywood – or rather the impression that India is always Bollywood – so it’s difficult to convince people that this is a film that could cross over.

But I think our content is changing because our audiences are also becoming more fractured and you can possibly address your film to a much smaller audience where in the past that wasn’t economical. We’re hoping the films that [Aamir Khan Productions] are making will also attract the people who would not necessarily go to see a mainstream Hindi film. So we’re not just focusing on crossover to non-Hindi audiences abroad, but also crossover in India. A lot of people don’t go to the cinema, they’d rather rent a DVD, so we’re hoping to attract the niche audience for whom these films are made.

Do you and Aamir influence each other when you work together or keep the lines very separate?

No I think we do influence each other – especially when it’s a director-actor relationship, you feed off each other all the time. Being a first-time director, I was extremely protective initially of how I wanted to do things. But I also learned as I went along. As actors interpret a character, they take it to another level, so we learnt and responded to each other in that process a lot. It was a good experience working with him.

Do you think we’ll see more filmmakers like yourself with an international sensibility emerging in India?

I think so – in fact these days young people are probably more influenced by what’s happening around the world than by things here. And in some ways that’s scary but I’m sure ultimately it will result in something that is indigenous and not just following. In the past we weren’t sure of the audience, so that is why people didn’t venture out of safe waters, but now there are lots of people who are thinking like me.