MW Exclusive: In 23 years, I haven’t sold myself out, says film-maker Nagesh Kukunoor
In 1998, an America-returned engineer blew up the independent cinema scene in India with his first film Hyderabad Blues. He went on to direct films like Rockford, 3 Deewarein, Iqbal, Dor, and many others. He created a genre for himself with each film, and gave independent film-makers a beacon of hope that they could also make a mark. In 2019, he turned over a new leaf, and he was among the first names to join the streaming services bandwagon. Yes, we’re talking about Nagesh Kukunoo. He directed a 10-episode series titled Mayanagari-City of Dreams. The show was very well received, but the pandemic delayed its Season 2 release by over a year. As we can now watch Season 2 on Disney+Hotstar, we sit down to chat about the new season, Kukunoor’s journey, and more.
How do you look back at the journey that began 23 years ago?
A lot of grey hair. The industry gave me the grey (laughs). If anything, I can say about these 23 years, and I use the term very carefully, is that I haven’t sold out. I have played true to what I believed in. When people say in the middle you made commercial films, it is completely wrong. When you take John Abraham, you make him punch 20 bad people, throw motorcycles, and not a cancer patient in Aashayein. Those scripts were written by me. No one told me, do you have anything for Akshay Kumar? I can get him for your film. I constantly like to challenge myself. I have several action scripts with me, and a couple of horror films. I keep writing different kinds of things depending on my mood. Sometimes, I find the right budget and actors, and it takes off, while some don’t. So, I can look back and say by fate or by my own drive, I stood true to what I believed in.
You are known to make films that are thoughtful, and tug at the audience’s heartstrings. Mayanagari-City of Dreams appears very ‘Not Nagesh like’. It is gory, manipulative, and filled with deceit. How did you zero down on this subject?
One thing that I’ve tried very, very hard right from my second film, was to not repeat myself. Yes, there are some recurring themes in my films. I don’t deny it. From what you said, I’ve tried very hard to go into spaces that are “not Nagesh like”. I like to challenge myself. I like to write stuff that’s different. The results can sometimes be good, and sometimes not. But that is my game. After Dhanak, it was a very clear choice. I wanted to enter the web series space. I was always a massive fan of the HBO shows. For years, I’ve wanted to explore the long format. I’ve known Sameer Nair for a while, and when he said he was restarting Applause, I told myself I was getting into this space big time. So when Rohit Banawlikar (co-creator of the show ) and I embarked on Mayanagari-City of Dreams, I was clearly exploring different aspects of myself. I wanted to write gritty dramas that wouldn’t come easy to me.
A hallmark of your career is how you have always got a limited budget. How did you survive this long?
The only way you survive in the industry is persistence. There is no other deeper, hidden secret. If you want it badly enough, you’ll find the money. Before I got into films, I read this interview by Sam Rami, who used to make horror films. He said, ‘When I ask people for money, I would either leave with a cheque, or leave with the name of another person who could cut me a cheque.’
You are in the US, while your show has just been released. Why are you not around for the promotions?
(laughs) I have never consciously worried about promotions. It is not something that terribly excites me. It’s something I know I have to do, unfortunately. When I made Rockford, my second film, I was a brand-new director, and there was so much excitement. My producer Tu Tu Sharma was really upset because I was in the US. I had begun working on my next project. Given the pandemic and so many delays, I couldn’t put my life on hold. I did all that had to be done creatively for Mayanagari-City of Dreams, and after that, I headed off to the US.
While directing the first season, you commented about how torturous it was to have all 10 episodes in your head. So how did directing all episodes in the second season feel?
When a single director does 10 episodes in Hollywood, typically, they do one episode after the other. So, even the director can keep it clear in their head. They are very, very specific. As a matter of fact, Netflix and Amazon won’t let you shoot stuff that’s parallel. You have to complete an episode to move to the next one. That’s usually how they work. They don’t mind paying double for the same location. In our setup, usually, we don’t work that way, as locations are expensive. We work location wise. So, one day, you are shooting a scene from the first episode, and the next scene is from the seventh episode.
Had the pandemic not hit, we would have dropped our second season by May-June 2020. When the lockdown was announced last year, our shoot was shut down. We were only 18 days away from completing it. These 18 days were completed in eight months. First, the pandemic derailed it, then the actors went off on different projects. Bringing them for the scheduled shoot days was very torturous.
I knew that it would be challenging with the second season because I had already been traumatised by the first (smiles). So, each time it happened, I didn’t freak out. It was more of what I had dealt with before. This time, I also had two of my assistant directors directing some of my scenes. So, both of them came on board as co-directors. Although I directed 80-90 per cent of the show, it was nice to know someone had my back.
Can you detach from your work as a director?
I’m done when I deliver my first copy , because my enjoyment literally stops with the finished product. All the other stuff that happens with the film, these are all necessary evils to get it across to the public. Yes, during the release of the film, one has to promote the film.
You have mostly worked with lesser-known actors. What is the reason behind that?
It is not that I didn’t work with bigger actors like Akshay Kumar and John Abraham. I enjoyed both the films. But the difference is, I have never been driven by this need to make stuff with stars. If it happens, that’s good. Do a small film in five crores, and the budget becomes 50 crores if a big star joins the cast because, especially in films, stars justify the budgets.
I have been honest toward the material I bring. I just don’t have the patience to wait for stars. A whole game has to be played like; first, you reach them, then there are discussions, and then availability. The moment the writing is done, I want to go on set within a month. I don’t have that much patience. When the show was written, the whole discussion was about casting Maharashtrians for the pivotal roles. Total credit to Applause and Disney Hotstar for agreeing to cast Priya Bapat, Siddharth Chandekar, and Atul Kulkarni. I’m not familiar with the language, the pronunciation, the nuances. I knew these actors will bring that to the table. For most of my career, I’ve been smart about casting actors who fit the role correctly. After that, more than half of my job is done.
What is your take on the indie film space in India right now?
It has become a big kachumber. The difference will come when we go to the festivals. That is where you will see if the indie spirit is alive or not. But if you were to click on any OTT platform, they might decide to say ‘Yeh to bahut hatke hai’, or ‘I don’t like it.’
They’re all in the same space. There’s not enough information about the quality of all movies/series on the streaming services. Given how much content is being dumped on the streaming services, it is impossible to keep abreast of everything as an audience member. So, a lot of time, you just click on the video and see how it goes. I have no complaints because the pressure of performances has been taken off. You don’t have to meet 100 distributors and theatre owners as an independent film-maker.
Will you be coming back to features anytime soon?
I’m coming back to features again. I did Good Luck Sakhi in Telugu with Keerti Suresh. I’m also actively working on another one, and for different reasons, I had to push it back, which I think will happen next year.
Will you remake any of your own films?
I have always said to leave the past alone. Don’t mess with it. But I also said that I wouldn’t make a sequel, but I made one with no significant results. I even did a remake, I rewrote a lot of it, but Mod was based on a Taiwanese film. So, I think I should stop making blanket statements. As a matter of fact, I can’t watch my own films. I keep on finding flaws in everything. This is not just unique to me. There are a lot of film-makers who find it unbearable to watch their own films. Rockford is based on my boarding school Montford. At one of the reunions, they played Rockford. In five minutes, I left the room, as I felt I would throw up, and came back five minutes before the film ended. One of the few films that I watched for a reasonable duration of almost 15 years was Bollywood Calling. I was actually able to sort of forgive myself for the mistakes I made in the film.
Coming back to your show, do we have season 3 coming up?
That will depend on the numbers. If good, then I’m sure we will come back. But as a writer, I definitely feel there is something good brewing up.