In the spotlight with Aamir Khan

Aamir Khan talks about his latest movie, Dhobi Ghat, and why his wife, the film's director, was reluctant to cast him.

The world premiere of Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries) was a lot like the premiere of any Aamir Khan movie. The huge theatre was sold out to a loud, mostly Indian crowd. As usual, India's biggest star was flanked by bodyguards as he flashed his heart-throb smile for the audience. When the credits ended and the lights went up, cameras and mobile phones held by hundreds of fans who swarmed toward the stage sparkled like the Milky Way. Women standing alongside their husbands shouted that they'd been in love with Khan for 20 years.

But this wasn't your typical Aamir Khan movie. In the drama, written and directed by Khan's wife, Kiran Rao, there's no singing or dancing. Although India's leading man has a major role, he plays against type as a moody painter whose treatment of others makes him hard to like. An unlikeable, mostly silent Khan was nothing if not a new concept. And it was at the Elgin Theatre, a movie palace serving the Toronto International Film Festival (Tiff), halfway around the world from India.

Khan was taking his show on the road. The Tiff gala was the launch of his latest project, a drama about the intersecting relationships of four young people in Mumbai, with a cast that includes the young star Prateik Babbar as a dhobi (laundry man) who becomes involved with a beautiful client just returned from the US (Monica Dogatra). After the premiere, while cast and friends celebrated over Indian food at the Four Seasons Hotel, Khan told me that Toronto was a relief from Mumbai. It was a delight, he said, to be in a city where he could walk down the street without being mobbed. That said, he wasn't about to try it. Security men stood in corners of the large room and at the door. Each time Khan and I walked to the deserted swimming pool terrace outside for a cigarette break, a pleasant but large Indian man accompanied us.

Dhobi Ghat isn't Slumdog Millionaire, and it's certainly not a commercial spectacle. Premiering in Toronto was part of a strategy to bring a new public to Khan, who produced the film with his wife. The project began with a problem, Khan noted. Rao originally didn't want to cast him in the film. "I read the script and I really liked it," he said. "She didn't want me in it because she felt that I would disturb the film, and she also wanted all-new faces. She had in mind for Arun to be a new face as well."

"But this was her first film as a director," he added, "and there was no way that I was not going to be in it. So I kind of wangled my way in." After all, he was producing it with $1 million of his money. "She was testing for all the parts," Khan explained, "and she had found all the parts except Arun. She was having difficulty finding the right Arun. So I said to her: 'Why don't you test me; test me, not cast me? And you can see what possibilities an actor might bring to Arun.' So she said OK."

"I was shooting Ghajini at that time in Hyderabad. So she came to Hyderabad, where I auditioned for her," he recalled, pausing for a moment. "And after that she couldn't find anyone who was as good," he laughed. Rao clarified: "For me it was not so much that he couldn't do the part well, but the fact that I'd have to shoot with a huge staff in the middle of the city, and deal with the logistical nightmare of him - as well as the fact that everyone else in the movie is fresh and believable."

Khan acknowledged that to make the painter Arun believable, he needed to make him unlikeable. "He's got a coarse exterior. He's someone who's very hard on the outside. He's not comfortable opening himself up to anyone, or investing even a little bit in anyone, so he pulls away each time." "All along in my career, I've done stuff that is unexpected for my audiences. But this is the kind of a part that is not only difficult for me to perform, but for my audiences to see me in. I'll let them decide," he said.

Being directed by his wife turned out to be a positive experience, Khan said. "Kiran is a director who's very clear about what she wants. She's very calm on the set. She's a great leader and people love her. I was happy to follow her." Rao explained that she tried to follow the contours of an American independent film. "The idea was, what would it be if we took two months from the lives of real people," said Rao, who stressed that she wanted to observe the city and not simply choreograph scenes in it. "I wanted to capture the city, rather than create a new Mumbai just for the film."

Calling a film made by Khan's wife "independent" means using a relative term. The project shot for 70 days, about three times the shooting length for an American independent. "The only luxury I gave myself was the luxury of time," Rao admitted. "We wanted to be very mobile, with short set-up time, so we shot on Super 16 [millimetre film]. With our actors, we just put them in a situation, rather than block off the street," she added.

That approach was tested when Rao shot with Khan in the middle of Mumbai, a gamble that higher-budget films would tend to reject for reasons of logistics and cost. "I can't walk on the street in Mumbai. There's always a stampede of fans," said Khan. "It's the same in the Gulf," he said. "We shot on Mohammad Ali Road in Mumbai," Rao said, "which we thought was pretty much impossible to shoot. But we did it with a few cameras, a lot of rehearsal - without him - and then we got him in on a bike with a helmet into the crowd, with a whole ring of stunt men around him. If you see the out-takes, and you see the wider picture, you can see the whole street empty out. We got what we needed, but shooting in the street with him was a bit tough."

Difficult shooting conditions produced a film with a soft European graininess. No surprise, said Rao, who lists the Belgian realist documentary-style Dardennes brothers among her favourite directors. She denies that the look of the film was a deliberate pitch to western audiences. "I didn't think of any of these things when I made it," she explained, "but I knew that it was definitely more of an art-house movie than the regular Indian film. It's got a world-cinema aesthetic to it, and it's one way to reach out and cross over to an audience that we don't traditionally have."

"It has a big star, but it isn't your usual song and dance thing," she said. "It's not a mainstream film, and in most of the subcontinent we don't have distribution and exhibition of this sort of thing." Yet, on the North American circuit serving Indian expatriate audiences, the last Khan-produced film, Peepli Live (a dark comedy about farmers committing suicide in southern India), was a modest success in the US earlier this year, earning $700,000. (Khan's 2009 Bollywood comedy, 3 Idiots, made $7 million in the US.) The North American distributor of, Dhobi Ghat, Lokesh Dhar of the Disney-owned firm UTV Communications, said: "We're doing better than most foreign films and independents in the difficult US market."

Khan said he didn't expect his wife's first film to break any records in the US, and even if it did, that prospect might be a mixed blessing. North America is one of the few places where he can walk the streets undisturbed, he said. Khan smiled: "I guess everything's a trade-off."