By Aditya Savnal. Posted on June 06, 2016
Much before the word Indie became the buzzword in the Indian film industry, there was one filmmaker who had inadvertently kickstarted this revolution. Devoid of any industry bearings and armed with just the conviction to tell his story the way he wanted to, he embarked on this journey with his debut film which slowly rewrote the rules of the game and whose success surprised and caught the attention of everyone.
The man in question is Nagesh Kukunoor whose debut film Hyderabad Blues was released in a single show in Mumbai with select shows in a few other cities. Slowly the positive word of mouth started attracting audiences and the film expanded to several other theatres and then to other cities with the film ultimately completing a long run at the cinemas.
Hyderabad Blues came with zilch buzz and at a time when social media was still an unknown concept and Indian audiences weren’t much exposed to multiplexes. Given these conditions, the success of the film was remarkable.
The film dealt with an NRI dealing with the culture shock he faces after returning to India post a decade long hiatus. It struck a chord with Indian audiences since it dealt with a new subject and came as a breath of fresh air to them, who were till then fed on a staple diet of mainstream films that rarely deviated from their templates of candyfloss romances, standard action films, comedies and family dramas etc.
The determination to tell his story the way he wanted to also made Kukunoor ditch his career as a chemical engineer and pursue filmmaking.
A still from Hyderabad Blues
When asked about it, the filmmaker says "It was purely the love of cinema that prompted me to foray into filmmaking. I believe each of us is wired to do some specific things. And I was one of the lucky guys to have discovered what it was, which eventually gave me the courage to move away from what I was doing."
When asked about how tough this transition was, Kukunoor laughs it off by just saying it was very tough. He is not keen to divulge further into it saying that the story is best reserved for another day since it’s quite a lengthy one and will gobble up a major chunk of this feature.
Prod him about how his film fueled the Indian indie cinema movement and the filmmaker says it was something he never had thought of.
"I was heavily influenced by the American Independent cinema and that’s what I had brought in my work. When the film worked with audiences I was shocked and it made me aware that Indian audiences do appreciate independent cinema. Hyderabad Blues inadvertently gave rise to the Indian indie cinema movement though it wasn’t a conscious effort to do so." remarks the filmmaker.
The discussion then veers towards his next film Dhanak that releases on the 10th of June across cinemas in India. The film tells the story of a pair of siblings Pari (Hetal Gada) and Chhotu (Krrish Chhabria) who embark on a journey to restore the latter’s eyesight.
Talking about the film, Kukunoor says "An ad was pitched to me years ago for a courier company which revolved around two siblings with the brother being blind and the sister wishing for his eyesight to be restored. The ad never happened but I found this idea very cute. I also came across an image of a girl and a boy walking across a desert landscape, which triggered the idea for it."
Kukunoor further added that the person who had approached him said there was not much development that had happened with that idea and had no qualms about the filmmaker working on it. This prompted Kukunoor to write the script and led to him making the film.
"The only rule I set while writing the script was to remind myself that the world is not that bad a place after all. And there are still some good people who inhabit it and I wanted to remind myself of the India I grew up in." he further adds.
The elements of kindness, aspirations, triumph of the human spirit are tropes that have drove most of the filmmaker’s works with Iqbal, Teen Deewaarein and Dor being prominent examples of the same. And it is not surprising that these elements have found their way into Dhanak as well.
Talking about what prompts him to base his stories around the triumph of the human spirit; Kukunoor says he is drawn to stories of heroism in everyday life.
The film features Gada and Chhabria in the lead roles. Before zeroing in on them, the filmmaker auditioned as many as 500 actors for these roles. The real challenge for him began after casting Gada and Chhabria and getting them to perform convincingly and be their true self in front of the camera.
Elaborating on the same, the filmmaker says "Most child actors today are conditioned by the bad television content and ads around them and they (Hetal Gada and Krish Chhabria) were no different. So to decondition and get them to act the way I wanted, was a challenge. Once that was done and they became their natural selves in front of the camera and we were ready to go."
Chhabria had a bigger challenge at hand, since he had to play the role of a blind person. A visit to a school for the blind and interacting with such students helped the actor to give a convincing performance. “When I work with children I treat them as adults, since if you treat them as equals it brings out the best in them. “ says Kukunoor when asked how he successfully extracted convincing performances from Chhabria and Gada which won them a Special Mention at last year’s Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival.
Dhanak also won the Crystal Bear Grand Prix for Best Children's Film and Special Mention for the Best Feature Film by The Children's Jury for Generation Kplus at Berlinale 2015. It also won the Best Film Award at the Montreal International Children's Film Festival and Cinema in Sneakers festival Children's Feature Film Competition besides being an official selection for several festival including IFFLA and TIFF Kids.
In Kukunoor’s opinion, the awards and acclaim bestowed upon a film at international festivals surely helps to create a buzz in the domestic markets, since audiences today are well informed about the films that are acclaimed in the festival circuit. The filmmaker is hoping this awareness will help Dhanak to strike gold at the box office.
Dhanak is yet another film by Kukunoor after Dor that is set in Rajasthan. He also pointed out that his yet unreleased film Yeh Honsla was also set in Rajasthan. When asked about his fascination with the deserts of Rajasthan, the filmmaker says "I am constantly drawn to the grandeur of that place. There is an enormous sense of drama in its landscape and plays an important character in the film. Since it’s a road movie, I wanted that sense of drama."
It’s been almost two decades since the filmmaker embarked on his filmmaking journey. Since then the evolution of social media, crowdfunding and the emergence of players like Drishyam Films, Sikhya Entertainment has made it much easier for a greater number of independent and unconventional films to be made and find a theatrical release. While the filmmaker is of the opinion that these things have given a much needed fillip to the Indian indie cinema movement, but the biggest game changer in his opinion has been the digital revolution which has made filmmaking easier and accessible to everyone. He feels that one can take greater risks and tell stories that were not possible to be narrated in a traditionally expensive environment. Yet despite this, the fundamentals of filmmaking remain the same and great content will always be the USP of a film.
"One needs to always be aware that nothing can substitute for a good story. You still have to be innovative, creative and ensure that you catch hold of the audience’s attention." exclaims Kukunoor.
He further adds that despite these changes, the release, distribution and other challenges faced by a filmmaker remain unfazed.
"When the multiplexes first came up, I thought it was great as it will give me an opportunity to showcase my films in smaller screens and do not have to worry about fighting it out with single screens and bigger films. But I soon found out that the mainstream cinema had attacked that space as well and I was fighting for the same space as I was earlier. I also realised that this is a battle that will go on forever especially if you are making truly independent cinema without stars. Distribution is a bottle neck that we will always have to fight out.” says the filmmaker, further adding that once a film is ready for release, the journey the film embarks upon thereafter is something no filmmaker can account for.
In Kukunoor’s opinion, the biggest challenge for a filmmaker is to stick to his guns while making a film and getting it made, come what may. This conviction also means that one should also be ready to accept responsibility for the failure and brickbats received by their films. It also was something which the filmmaker did when his films like 8x10 Tasveer or Bombay To Bangkok didn’t find favour with audiences.
Talking about his future plans, the filmmaker says all his energies are currently focused on the release of Dhanak. Though he admits that he has already shot another film, the filmmaker is in no mood to reveal more about the film and says he will talk about it when the opportunity is right.
Lastly Kukunoor says that filmmakers can develop their unique style of filmmaking despite being influenced by several other directors. In his opinion it is this unique style of filmmaking that will help them carve a niche and find recognition from the audiences.
"I have been a huge fan of Spielberg and the Coen Brothers. I have also been inspired by James Cameron’s inventiveness, the quirkiness of Steven Soderbergh, Clint Eastwood’s static way of shooting scenes. Closer home Hrishikesh Mukherjee and K Vishwanath are two of my biggest influences. And despite having admired these filmmakers, I have found my own way of telling stories. It would be tough to find an influence of these filmmakers in my work. You can love and be inspired by a lot of filmmakers but it is necessary for you to develop your own style." concludes the filmmaker.