Dhanak, a film directed by Nagesh Kukunoor, has just won the National Award for Best Children’s film. Here’s taking a look at an interview we did with him for our June 2016 issue. 

Nagesh Kukunoor was indie even before India knew what indie was. He made Hyderabad Blues in 1998, when Indian cinema was at a low in terms of quality film production. The great maestros of the Indian New Wave were also slowing down, there was a vacuum of new voices in the country and with the arrival of the millennium, there was a need to climb out of the creative stupour the film industries were in. Some strong, independent voices started finding recognition around this time, and Kukunoor was one of them. 3 Deewarein was a cracker of a film, and he followed it up with an even bigger commercial success, Iqbal, in 2005. For many, Iqbal was everything Lagaan (which had travelled to the Oscars in 2002) was not – a film with great performances, an engaging narrative and a strong emotional core, without having to be melodramatic or emotionally manipulative. Iqbal didn’t try hard to impress you — like its lead characters, the film was not self-conscious or contrived.

Even today, people pick it as one of India’s best modern works when they rattle off their film lists. When Kukunoor released Dor the next year, it seemed like there was no stopping this guy. A beautiful story, a strong feminist statement and a fascinating visual work, Dor remains a milestone in Kukunoor’s career. And then, suddenly, everything went downhill — it almost felt like the man had forgotten how to make films. The lacklustre line up (from Bombay to Bangkok to Mod) spanned four years and led to him being completely written off by almost everyone of note. He redeemed himself with the visceral Lakshmi, in 2014, and Dhanak was an absolute delight to watch. Nagesh Kukunoor is finally back in form, it appears.

What happened to you around 2008-2009? As a fan, I took personal offence to all the criticism your films got. Why did you make them?

(Laughs) See, when I made Hyderabad Blues, I had so many people telling me that it would not work, for obvious reasons. But when the film worked and found an audience, the one thing it taught me was to march to my own tune. This business or art form is so dicey and no one, in spite of what they might pretend, knows anything. I would rather take all the blame or all the credit. Right after Dor, I wanted to do something that was definitely not anything like it. I have been a major Scrubs fan, and I wanted Bombay to Bangkok to have the vibe of the show. People thought I wanted to make a “Bollywood” film, but that wasn’t even on my radar, because I know I would do it very poorly. It was coincidence that led to 8×10 Tasveer becoming a mainstream film with Akshay Kumar in it. I just knew that because of the special effects requirement, I will need a bigger canvas. As a film-maker I am constantly exploring new genres and avenues, and all that matters to me is that I don’t repeat myself. But yeah, it was a messy period, a bad couple of years. I was only able to extricate myself after Mod, I guess.

How does it feel to be back?

The defining moment for me was Lakshmi winning at the Palm Springs festival. Even though I was happy with Mod, it performed abysmally at the box office. So, I thought, was it time for me to go back to my roots? Why the hell not, I decided. When Lakshmi won the awards, it gave me the confidence boost I needed. Lakshmi was shot exactly like Hyderabad Blues — shoestring budgets, shot insanely aggressively on a very tight schedule — and it made me feel like I was back in the space that I truly enjoyed.

What is that space? With Dhanak, you are back in Rajasthan, a visual-cultural dynamic you have already dealt with quite well earlier, and you are working with children again. Is this a sort of trying to “find yourself” by going back to your roots? 

Not quite. I never subject myself to that level of introspection as a filmmaker. The only thing that is important in a film is just the belief in the story. Everything else is immaterial. After Lakshmi, I was making a different film on a boxer, but the original producer pulled out at the last minute. I met Manish Mundra for that film. He liked it, he wanted to do it, but on the way out, I just shared broad strokes of Dhanak with him. He immediately asked me to come back in and share some more details. He said “I promise you we will do the boxing film, but is there any way we can do this film now?” So, you see, it has nothing to do with me planning to do something specific. Like in my films, I am testimony to the randomness of life.

Dhanak
Dhanak
Dor
Dor

What do you think of the indie film scene in India?

Only two places have always had an indie film culture since the dawn of time — West Bengal and Kerala. Otherwise, the day we went digital, the process was democratised. Everyone would be telling different kinds of stories, even though they might not make their way to the screens. And that is very exciting. Unfortunately, indie films don’t find too many shared public spaces in the country. Making a film is very easy. It is the distribution that is difficult. So much of product is made, but the funnel allows only a few to pass through, so the distributors and exhibitors are the ones calling the shots. They will always determine the tide. While a lot of variety is made, what is let through is well within the realm of commercial cinema.

Is it easier working with children than “actors”?

My biggest problem working with children is that when I deal with an adult, I can say practically anything. Not so much with a child. Everything that you say or do is being noted. They will take something away from a relationship. With a kid, you have to walk on eggshells. But once you set that aside, you should always deal with kids as adults. I do that always. They sense it immediately, that you are respecting them. These two kids in Dhanak shot for a straight schedule in the blazing Rajasthan heat, without a single whimper.

Who are your favourite filmmakers?

I am heavily influenced by American film-makers. That is my bedrock. I am still a big fan of Steven Spielberg but also, if I ever had to ape someone, it would be the Coen brothers. Till Iqbal, I used to have a Coen brothers homage shot in all of my films. I also love Steven Soderbergh. I am a huge fan of the second coming of Clint Eastwood.

Whose work do you look forward to in India?

There was a time when I looked forward to Vishal’s [Bhardwaj] films, but they don’t have the same magic any more. I think his storytelling is lost along the way, there is a need for reinvention. Maqbool and Omkara were fantastic. One of the most spectacularly wonderful films I have seen is Gangs of Wasseypur Part 1, but part 2 didn’t work for me at all. Another film that really worked for me was Pan Singh Tomar — but then Bullett Raja happened. So, they are all doing what I did with Iqbal-Dor-Bombay To Bangkok. “Oh, you think you like my work? Wait, let me just pulverize you a little bit.” (Laughs). That joy of looking forward to another film-maker’s work is kind of not there.