THE LATEST film of Nagesh Kukunoor, Dhanak, leaves you with a smile on your face and hope in your heart—both underrated elements in movie-making these days. While most plots stem from lies, deceit and killings, here’s one that comes with a silver lining. Which is why you don’t mind a far-fetched tale about a brother and a sister who go in search of Shah Rukh Khan to find a cure for the brother’s blindness. “I wanted to convince myself more than anyone else that the world is actually not such a bad place. I also wanted to go back to the India in my head where people trusted each other,” says Kukunoor, sitting at his Andheri office, facing a wall covered with life-size posters of his previous work. His plain loose t-shirt, messy hair and laidback body language remind you of the boy who started out 18 years and a dozen films ago.
His impulse remains the same, he asserts, though his perspective may have changed. “If it was 15 years back, I may have never made Dhanak with kids. I swore not to work with children after Rockford. It’s just a very different set of challenges that come with them. But the story of Dhanak couldn’t be told any other way. Our daily lives here in India are built on huge amounts of mistrust, as opposed to many other countries that I have visited and lived in. We don’t realise it because we have become so used to living in doubt. Children though are the only ones who trust easily,” he says. Dhanak works because it is a slice-of-life drama, which reminds us of Iranian cinema where the lasting image is that of two children with smiling faces crossing a desert.
Dhanak—which has travelled to 43 film festivals—is like a homecoming for those who have missed Kukunoor’s brand of cinema. He is one of the few Indian directors whose films have always had a loyal following. The film itself mattered less than who was telling it. He kept his stories real, simple and personal, which resonated with his audience at an individual level. After all, he was the one who began a new wave of independent filmmaking with his rebellious, out-of-the-box style of storytelling in the English-Telugu film Hyderabad Blues (1998). It was also the year of Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya, a path-breaker for different reasons. But Hyderabad Blues had the Kukunoor signature through and through. “Most of the time I am credited with starting the indie movement here... The success of Hyderabad Blues did that. It made all the difference. I never thought the film would work in India,” he says.
Kukunoor wrote, produced, directed, and acted in the film, which was actually made for a Western audience. “It is almost like how they talk about why Aradhana (1969) and subsequently Kishore Kumar set Indian cinema on fire. People realised that there was a whole generation that they weren’t talking to and movies are a great way for that generation to emerge. Of course, the impact [of Hyderabad Blues] may have been one-tenth of that, but it still made an impact,” he adds. Hyderabad Blues, he confesses, was badly shot and the acting was poor. But the film, about an NRI boy lost in his own motherland, was the ideal middle-class dream told from the perspective of the youth who were the future of that middle-class. It was the first film which featured filter coffee with pornography. It became a mouthpiece for anyone who grew up in the 90s and did not want to tread the beaten path. Both, the life of Varun Naidu in the film and Nagesh Kukunoor in real life, became a beacon for youngsters who hadn’t found the courage to rebel against their families and tradition.
I am credited with starting the Indie movement. The success of Hyderabad Blues did that
Kukunoor tore himself away from his life as an engineer in the US to make movies, which was considered a major feat then. “I remember how Indian parents were worried because their kids suddenly started speaking openly about sex. The kids said, ‘Woh engineering chhod saktaa hai, toh hum kyun nahin.’”
The 90s has the dubious distinction of being perhaps the worst decade in the history of Indian cinema, with garish films that lacked voice and style. Kukunoor’s film helped restore faith in the audience. “It was one of those rare examples where the educated middle- class flexed its box-office muscle. Thousand-seater auditoriums were housefull for an 82-minute film, which ran for over 33 weeks in major metros. I mean, who makes an 82-minute film?” he now wonders.
Here was a filmmaker who told his story his way, without worrying about the consequences, and Kukunoor credits his childhood for it. His filming sensibilities were shaped by watching mythological movies and Indiana Jones while growing up in Hyderabad. He hails from a traditional Telugu family where he was the first engineer among 20-odd cousins and his brother was the first doctor. He was the class topper everyone looked up to, but he was never going to find his voice in books. “I was a movie geek just like my father. My aunt used to make us watch these amazing Telugu mythological films. The special effects of this film Maya Bazaar (1957) could put today’s movies to shame. For Ganesh Chaturthi, the whole locality would be cordoned off and they’d screen these films. It was phenomenal. Someday, I want to treat mythological movies with my sensibilities which will probably get banned here because it would be all about sex and violence,” he says.
HIS DEFINITIVE MOMENT though was when he was 15-years- old and watched Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). He calls it an epiphany. “It was the first time I consciously said, ‘I want to make films’. It crossed my mind that I could do this for a living.” It took him a good 13 years after that to actually make his first movie. After six years of being in a well-paid job and living the good American life, Kukunoor decided it was time to head home. “Not knowing if I had a filmmaker in me was far scarier than actually making a film and failing. I came to India with a little money and one simple idea, and that’s all it took.”
Our daily lives are built on huge amounts of mistrust. Children trust easily
His films ever since have had a language of their own. From Rockford (1999) about teenage angst, to 3 Deewarein (2003) about the psychology of three criminals, to Iqbal (2005) about triumph and victory on the cricket pitch, to Dor (2006) about friendship and faith, to Lakshmi (2014) about human trafficking, Kukunoor has dabbled in a spectrum of stories, though his motivation has remained the same. “If one person from the audience feels like this is his world, I feel my job is well done. Relationships can be simple, and we often make them very complex. It’s been my biggest fascination,” he adds.
However, not all of his films have worked. His most personal journey Aashayein (2010) found very few takers, as did others like Bombay to Bangkok (2008) and Mod (2011). It seemed like he had lost his way, but he insists he had not. “Mostly I have made films exactly the way I intended to make them. It does take a long time to forget your mistakes. I watched Bollywood Calling (2001) ten years later and I was able to forgive myself and enjoy parts of it. It’s a slippery slope. Your sensibilities change all the time, when the core remains the same. I don’t waste my time thinking if this is correct or not, because no one really knows why a film works,” he adds.
Today he walks alongside experimental directors and writers, whose ideas are being funded by big studios. He’s probably one of the few filmmakers who have been part of this shift and have seen both sides of the spectrum from the 90s to now. “I feel studios are detrimental to independent cinema. Even today the right way to make indie films is through private investors, but then you hit a wall when it comes to distribution. Studios are manned by not very qualified people who sit in meetings and give you opinions. Filmmaking is not about opinions, it’s about one or two strong voices,” he adds.
Despite failures, he says that he’s never going to make movies according to what ‘works’. “I can’t come at a story saying, ‘These days edgy fare is working’. It has to be a natural process. I watched a film called Sulemani Keeda (2013) and it reminded me of Hyderabad Blues. It was so honest to its story and sentiment. The moment 35 mm film disappeared, it democratised the process. Everyone with a mobile phone is a filmmaker these days. Earlier, it was an extremely elitist process to make a film. Even today, the upper circle doesn’t allow newcomers in easily. It’s about breaking that closed door,” he adds.
His biggest weapon is still his independent process. And that is something he cannot part with. “Drishyam Films [a production company] came on board way after I started making Dhanak. It’s how I want it to be. Of course, a little extra money doesn’t hurt, but it can’t come with compromises,” he insists.
The Kukunoor School of movie- making, he believes, will thrive as long as he has a story that stems from him organically. Before the dust settles on his career, he wants to make a film in every genre. “Youth—18-30-year- olds— control the box office. That’s a worldwide statistic. They are the ones who don’t want to be home. If you are a dinosaur, they will throw you out,” he says. “Till then, I will continue telling stories.”