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Scaling the Walls in Bollywood

January 2004
Scaling the Walls in Bollywood

With his latest film 3 Deewarein getting rave reviews,

Atlantan Nagesh Kukunoor has firmly established himself

as a filmmaker to reckon with.



"Not long ago there was a chemical engineer in Atlanta who was well established in a lucrative career as an Environmental Consultant. This young Hyderabadi had all the material trappings, comfort and security of a professional job?and a sports car to boot. But what he also had was a Dilbertain disdain for this very job that kept him away from his true calling ? films. Where most would satisfy themselves by fantasizing about what they really want, this man set out to pursue his dreams. He began by first quitting his life-sustaining, bill-paying job. And so began a journey that has enriched Indian cinema, while delivering the man as an accomplished storyteller and filmmaker."

- From Khabar, July 2000

While the preceding may read like a filmy script, it is the real life story of Nagesh Kukunoor. If his story was awe inspiring in the year 2000, it is even more so now. Back then he was bold, ambitious and a rising star ? albeit of low budget films such as Hyderabad Blues and Rockford. The critic still could have cried, "beginner's luck", or worse: "He will soon come to his senses when he realizes that Bollywood is a place of connections and megabucks."

Fast-forward a couple years and the proverbial critic has been silenced. Kukunoor is laughing all the way to the bank and what's more, he is living his dreams. Within just a few short years, he has gone from being a prisoner of the cubicle in corporate America to fulfilling his dreams, and directing Bollywood veterans such as Naseeruddin Shah, Jackie Shroff, and Juhi Chawla in his latest critically acclaimed film, 3 Deewarein(Three Walls).

With only four features under his belt, Nagesh Kukunoor has managed to grab the attention of lovers of good cinema all over the world. His success is credited to his uncompromising and unique cinematic vision, and to his attention to the minutest detail. He has produced literate, quirky and unexpectedly moving films. While his first film, Hyderabad Blues tells the story of a young Indian American who has a bad case of reverse culture shock when he visits his home country after 12 years abroad, Rockford charts a schoolboy's journey from naivet� and innocence to maturity and confidence. In Bollywood Calling, a brilliant farce on the workings of Bollywood, Kukunoor affords the viewer a delightfully candid glimpse into the business of film and filmmaking, Bollywood style.

Then came 3 Deewarein , an ambitious project with acclaimed actors. The prison drama had the inimitable Naseeruddin Shah and Jackie Shroff playing prisoners on death row, with Nagesh himself completing the trio headed to the gallows. Juhi Chawla plays a documentary filmmaker who has a very personal stake in seeing that justice is done.

The film premiered at the Commonwealth Film Festival in Manchester and at Canada's Toronto Film Festival among others, gathering favorable reviews all along.

Going into the exclusive interview with Kukunoor for Khabar, I had expected this writer, director and actor to be articulate. He nevertheless, manages to surprise me with his maturity and intelligence. Here is a director who has made the leap from independent, no-budgets to slick productions with major stars, revealing a keen understanding of both worlds. His newfound stardom seems not to have affected him one bit ? he is as easy to talk to as the guy next door.���Sure there is the brashness ? but that, according to old timers, is vintage Kukunoor.

We caught up with Kukunoor just as he was preparing to leave for India to start marketing his latest film, Hyderabad Blues 2.

Do you make films with an audience in mind or are the films more an exercise in self-indulgence? Are the films you end up making, the kind you enjoy watching?

I make films purely with intent to entertain. If you, or anyone else, see a parallel between that and something in your life, it is purely coincidental. As a writer I try not to be didactic - my films may not have a universal message or anything. I want the widest range of audience possible to watch my work.

What genre are you most comfortable with? You seem to have quite a way with humor. Both Hyderabad Blues and Bollywood Calling were hailed as comedies. Then you make 3 Deewarein, which has a heavy theme.

Whatever genre it is, horror or humor, my intent is to attract and engage the viewer. I think labeling is something the media and the industry do to simplify things. Art-house, Indie, it doesn't really matter. What matters to me is how many people I can get into the theater to watch my work. I want the widest range of audience possible, reaching out to them in any genre that I choose to work in.

Art-house films in India remain restricted to urban areas and a certain cultural elite. How can Art-house filmmakers in India survive, considering that they have yet to convince all but the urban elite to support such films?

Art-house has a bad rep in India. It is labeled as an intellectual pursuit and I certainly do not want my films labeled Art-house. I feel offended when my film is termed parallel cinema in India. The whole movement of art films has taken a real beating in India. Art films do not even get a theatrical release these days! At the end of the day the movie has to make money.

A noted film director once told me that commercial success was mostly a bonus for her, that artistic and critical appreciation was more important. Would you agree?

I absolutely don't. I try hard to make simple films that the audience can empathize with. Not by virtue of the language, but by the content. I am not catering to the lowest common denominator or the cultural elite; I am making my film for the average viewer. For me, critical acclaim, artistic satisfaction and whatever else are the bonus.

No medium has been as effective at communicating the range and diversity of the world's cultures as cinema. Do you feel burdened by the responsibility to portray India to the world?

I never add this to my plate. The heart of the film is a good story. I have been in the business only for a few years. I have one or two film ideas, which are tailor-made for the global or international market, but I never want to make a film compromising Indian audiences. If I am telling a story about India, about Indians, it will appeal to everyone. But I am not going to pander to a global audience.

Now that you have had critical acclaim, do producers line up outside your door?

The answer is a guarded yes. With four released films they do come up to me, but they still try to steer me in the direction of a commercial style of filmmaking. I am not averse to the idea of making a commercial film, only that I just am not ready for it yet. So for me it is always a struggle to find the right producer who I can work with! Finding a producer with the money has become relatively easy, finding the right one is difficult.

What is it like being an actor and director at the same time? Which position do you enjoy more?

I enjoy being a director first, then a writer and after that an actor.

Would you be open to the idea of being directed by someone else?

Oh, absolutely. I have been approached by directors all along, but I have yet to see a script that tempts me!

You make films in two weeks; write scripts in one. How do you maintain that discipline? You have yourself portrayed the chaos that is Bollywood in Bollywood Calling.

Filmmaking is very much about organization. The director is the organizer and planner. Unfortunately, directors are romanticized as the ones who sit in the corner and smoke cigars, but for the most part filmmaking is a laborious painstaking process of planning each and every detail and each and every shot. Having said that, my engineering background really comes in handy as also my stint as a project manager. I think I am fairly competent at managing people, I lay out extensive schedules and my planning is pretty decent. Besides that, its just plain hard work! People just aren't willing to put in that kind of work. My pre-production takes a lot of time. I spend much time planning my schedules. I shot HB2 in 30 days. It was grueling, but it had to be done. 3 Deewarein took a little longer because we shot it in the heart of Hyderabad, with Bollywood actors. Yet, we pulled it off in 36 days!

Do you agree with the school of thought that watching films should be as critical a process as reading a book or analyzing any other text?

See, I do not agree. When you look at filmmaking from that point of view you are plucking it out of the common man's reach. Films, like any artistic product, should be instinctive. There is no right or wrong point of view. If I can get you in there and get you to enjoy my film, take the journey and enjoy it - whatever my intent may be. If, as an intelligent filmmaker, I inject some nuances, jokes, references, which if you get, you will enjoy my movie more, I still will make sure that even that is accessible to every one. The extras are just that, extras.

Were you exposed to Hindi, regional and world cinema when you were growing up? What kind of films did you enjoy and who were your favorite directors?

I was very influenced by my Dad who, even in the 40s and 50s, watched Hollywood films. I grew up on a diet of Hollywood and Hindi films. Though being from a very Telugu background, I watched more Hindi and Hollywood films than Telugu films. Actually my Telugu sucks!

Favorite Director?

It's interesting that the films that propelled me into filmmaking are not the kind of films I make. My whole world took a dramatic turn when I first watched Raiders of the Lost Ark. I am a huge, huge fan of Steven Spielberg. One other name comes to mind ? Hrishikesh Mukherji for Hindi films. I hold Hrishikesh in high esteem. My dream came true when Juhi (knowing that I was his fan) mentioned that Hrishida had asked her how it was to work with me. I wanted to meet him, even though he does not meet anyone these days, being ill and all. He agreed to meet me and it was amazing. We somehow connected and bonded and I cannot believe that this great director, who I have idolized, is a friend and mentor now. He was familiar with my work and liked my films, so I presented him all my DVDs. Now I call him often and we chat regularly.

He is a genius. When you meet him you'll know why he is so great. It is his simplicity, his modesty that makes him so exceptional. I wish I could learn something from him. You see, I am proud of my work. When I have busted my ass and worked so hard I am proud. But this man is humble, not the typical Indian humility. But humble in the true sense of the word. I am making a blanket statement here - he is the only filmmaker who has balanced art cinema and commercial films and boy, what a great balancing act. He is a brilliant person. The harsh reality in this business is that if you make comedies you never get respect. If I make a ?toiling peasant' kind of film, people will call me a serious filmmaker. But many do not know that it is hardest to make people laugh! Hrishida once said to me, "Beta, what if you can't make people laugh at least once in 3 hours?"

3 Deewarein has gone to panoramas and festivals but my earlier comedies were box office successes.

How was it working with the two most talented actors in the film industry, Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah? Was directing them easier than directing Juhi and Jackie or was it harder?

Directing Om and Naseer was a dream. I went from this kid who saw these great actors, to one who got to direct them. Naseer and Om come with so much more knowledge and experience, than say Juhi and Jackie, who come totally conditioned by an industry that pays absolutely no attention to characterization. Their work begins only after they come on the sets. Juhi, I'll agree, is phenomenal when I watch her on stage. I understand where they come from, they were so conditioned as to how they say their lines, act, etc. that they had to unlearn a lot. To untrain them was a challenge. But now when I see the film, I am so impressed! Look at Juhi and Jackie, they are just so effective in 3 Deewarein.

Do they adhere to the script? Do you allow improvisation?

No. I don't allow that. Once you develop a rapport with the actors, especially experienced and talented actors like Naseer and Om, they sometimes ask you, "Can't we do this this way?" I do relent. I'm not a tyrant when it comes to that. I don't allow the actors to do what they like or say what they like, because then they are insulting the work done by the writer. Putting the right words in the character's mouth is the writer's work.

Coming back to Om and Naseer?

They have totally different approaches. Om is instinctive, enthusiastic, wants to do stuff again and again. He'll say "Chalo yeh aisa karenge?" Naseer just listens to you virtually without an expression at all. And I sometimes thought, "Is he even listening?" But once the camera is on, it's nothing short of magic. Naseer is perfect. Naseer is phenomenal, so perfect, with so many nuances. Going from point A to point B he conveys so much!

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