Kiran Rao Talks Toronto Feminist Romp ‘Lost Ladies’: ‘We’re Taking Apart Patriarchy Without a War’

Indian filmmaker Kiran Rao’s sophomore effort, “Laapataa Ladies” (“Lost Ladies”), bows as a Centrepiece selection at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Set in 2001 in rural India, the film follows two young brides wearing identical crimson veils who get swapped during a train ride to their husbands’ villages after their weddings. It is based on “Two Brides” by Biplab Goswami, one of the winning scripts at the Cinestaan India Storytellers Contest, where Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan, one of the producers of “Lost Ladies,” was on the jury. The script was subsequently worked on by Sneha Desai and Divyanidhi Sharma, keeping Goswami’s vision intact.

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“The script talks about women and opportunities and ideas that I’m very attracted to, especially freedoms for women,” Rao tells Variety. “The idea of these two girls on an adventure, trying to find their way, trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives, how they can make the best of what’s been given to them, jumping off that train — it was very exciting to see what we could do with two young girls who come from very different head spaces, but ended up being changed by this swap.”

While the tone of the film is light-hearted, the issues tackled are deadly serious. “We have, obviously, violence against women and quite horrible things that happen to women in India and the story could have gone in any direction, really. The idea was to allow that space for women to hope, for women to reach optimistically for something. And to do it without violence,” Rao says.

“Patriarchy, taking it apart without a war, taking it apart still on your own terms, was the idea. And really, trying very much to bring people into the fold to show how, within very conventional family setups, we could still find spaces that women can occupy and break out of and make their way without necessarily tearing the fabric of society apart,” Rao adds.

“The idea of keeping it light, of trying very hard not to villainize anyone, but expose things for the way they are. I find much of society, not just Indian society, quite like living satire in so many ways. Then you don’t really need to do very much other than show it for what it is, and keep it in that tone, in some way hopeful and optimistic in what otherwise can be quite despairing times, was very much the goal,” Rao says.

After assistant director credits on “Lagaan” and “Monsoon Wedding,” Rao made her debut as a feature director with “Dhobi Ghat” (aka “Mumbai Diaries”), which premiered in 2010. Since then, she has amassed producing credits on films including “Delhi Belly” (2011), “Dangal” (2016) and “Secret Superstar” (2017), brought up her child, overseen the running of the Mumbai Film Festival and has been writing. Her plan is to direct a feature and series sooner rather than later.

“Lost Ladies” is produced by Aamir Khan Prods., Rao’s Kindling Pictures and Jio Studios, with Khan, Rao and Jyoti Deshpande serving as producers. The cast includes Pratibha Ranta, Nitanshi Goel, Sparsh Shrivastava, Ravi Kishan and Chhaya Kadam. After Toronto, the focus will shift to the film’s 2024 theatrical release.

India can be a tough market for independent films, but Rao draws encouragement from the fact that “Peepli Live” (2010), produced by her and Khan, was a hit, reaping four times its budget. That film’s marketing campaign benefited from the star presence of Khan who will be similarly involved with “Lost Ladies” as well.

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