In trailers for writer-director Kiran Rao’s debut film Dhobi Ghat, the camera follows four characters in worlds of their own, each silent and separate from the other, anchored only by a hypnotic background score. Around them, like a picture dictionary, Mumbai’s different landscapes form clues to their identities, and the borders that Munna the dhobi, Shai the banker, Arun the painter, and Yasmin the housewife cross as their lives collide.

“I feel like being an island, Mumbai has a certain otherness, a sense that has developed outside the mainland," Rao muses. “All the characters in my film are in some way islands as well, all of them outsiders. That excites me. I’ve been a floater myself."

Viewfinder: (left) Singer Monica Dogra as the banker-photographer Shai; and Rao.

For someone so busy that her day is divided into 15-minute meetings, “floater" is no longer an accurate term. But Rao, now recollecting the genesis of her film with practised ease, is not the same person as the maker of the intensely personal, slice-of-life experiment Dhobi Ghat. That, she says, is the girl who stepped off the train from Kolkata years ago to come to college in a city of “an electric energy, a feeling that included me."

That train journey and the years to follow have gone into the more autobiographical elements of her first feature. Rao remembers being a white-collar itinerant, moving from house to house around the city in her early years. “It became such a personal story, sticking closely to these four people, trying to build a multiplicity of perception," she says.

The Mumbai film industry eventually became home base, bringing both professional success and major personal change (she first met future husband Aamir Khan on the sets of 2001’s historic hit Lagaan, where she was assistant director). But Dhobi Ghat is not a film in the great Hindi tradition of Bombay-meri-jaan movies. Its antecedents are better located in the slice-of-life, criss-crossing narratives that have formed a bedrock of independent cinema in several world languages over the last couple of decades. “I’ve never really connected with the mainstream commercial narrative style, which is true of Hollywood as well as Bollywood." She stops. “Not ‘not connected’," she corrects herself. “‘Bombay’ films have always interested me, particularly the ones with street characters—Rangeela, Ghulam" (both are Khan hits from the 1990s). “But I’ve never been really strongly influenced by the structure of that kind of storytelling. I’ve personally been influenced by experimental and avant-garde cinema; even animation. I didn’t set out to write something that drew on a genre I haven’t watched enough of, to be honest."

Rao and the producers are overtly keen to dissociate their film from mainstream Bollywood. There is no soundtrack release, no brand tie-ups, no charm offensive from the actors. They shot their film guerilla-style over the last couple of years, struggling with on-location shoots in parts of Mumbai where everyday life can overwhelm the demands of a young film crew, even—or especially—one that includes Khan. In a press conference, Rao described shooting on Mohammed Ali Road akin to “a military operation".

But sets simply wouldn’t do; nothing could recreate the character of the neighbourhoods now submerged beneath the JJ flyover, ignored, Rao says, in public perception. “These old parts of South Mumbai are not conventionally pretty locations. For example, we went to this fish market called Lokmanya Tilak fish market off Lamington Road. It’s one of the most spectacular places: the light in these old high-ceilinged, tiled-roof markets!"

It’s the sort of thing Mani Ratnam might exclaim over, but he doesn’t come up in the conversation. Wong Kar-wai, whose Hong Kong films have been more successful than almost any others in defining the new century’s globalized cities, does. Dhobi Ghat’s reflective, moody sensibility is closer in energy to contemporary East Asian cinema than Rao’s old European favourites, Andrei Tarkovsky and Michelangelo Antonioni.

“Tsai Ming-liang’s Vive L’Amour (Taiwan, 1994) is one of my favourite city films," she says. “It beautifully captures alienation in this quickly developed nation and the results of that. And Kar-wai gets under the layers of a city so beautifully."

Unusually for urban Hindi cinema, Rao enthusiastically takes on class boundaries in her own attempt to unpack urban layers. So the figure of the washerman (Munna, played by Prateik Babbar) becomes key, as does the young housewife played by debutante actor Kriti Malhotra. Like Kar-wai’s Hong Kong, Rao’s Mumbai is only as real as the people who make it. “Kriti is my great find," Rao says. “She’s actually a costume assistant, who I found when I was looking through my assistant director’s Facebook pictures, as creepy as it sounds." She laughs. “Her character needed an untarnished quality, someone who didn’t look cynical or worldly wise at all. She was completely incredulous when we asked her, of course, but she said she’d try because she wanted to know what a screen test was like. And we didn’t even need a call-back, because she was amazing." The film’s other female character, played by singer-songwriter Monica Dogra—Shaa’ir of popular funk duo Shaa’ir + Func—was a similar miracle find.

Rao was keen on casting non-actors in her film, because “I was hoping to find people who could be the character, somewhat organically. They would either come from the same class of people, or have a real connection with their characters." She pauses, and then continues, deadpan. “It didn’t quite work out as planned."

In press notes about the film, Khan writes, “I recognize superior talent when I see it," which is not an idle boast from one of India’s most successful producers. “When I see that talent in my life partner, it makes me feel very proud and secure." Khan offered not only to produce the film when he heard Rao’s narration, but also to act in it. It may have skewed Dhobi Ghat’s proportions, but Rao insists that she turned out to have the best of both worlds. When you have the sort of producer who can ask you, “Who do you want to compose your film’s music? Name anyone in the world," and then proceeds to find you the legendary Gustavo Santaolalla, it can be difficult to complain. “My partner is backing me because he thinks my film is worth it. And I’m able to be led without compromise by my creative instincts," she says. “I guess I lucked out."

Dhobi Ghat releases in theatres on 21 January.