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How to quit a stable corporate career and become a successful filmmaker!

February 2007
How to quit a stable corporate career and become a successful filmmaker!

In an exclusive interview with Khabar, NAGESH KUKUNOOR of Iqbal and Dor fame talks about his art and craft, and how he ended up in Bollywood after having lived and worked in Atlanta for 6 years.

You will be hard pressed to find a better example than Nagesh Kukunoor to demonstrate that one can indeed, proverbially speaking, pick one's self up by one's bootstraps. It is this acrobatic move of the will that transported Kukunoor from a corporate cubicle in Atlanta to decent heights of filmdom in India—in just a few short years.

With acclaimed films like Iqbal and Dor under his belt, Kukunoor is a pioneer who effectively straddles the Bollywood fence. He is at once an insider as well as an outsider. A symbolic face of contemporary India, and more specifically of Indian filmdom, Kukunoor has managed to combine his tech and corporate background from the U.S. with his innate passion for films as well as his native familiarity of language, terrain, and the culture of his craft as practiced in India. He is one filmmaker who uses Bollywood formulae to his advantage, and yet is far from formulistic. He knows how to package the familiar while treating audiences of Bollywood with fresh vistas and faces.

Take Dor, for instance. The song, dance, and melodrama remain intact to the formula, yet one doesn't get the stale feeling of "been there, seen that" that is so common with the bulk of films from this industry. Add to that the intelligent direction and modest but very competitive production values, and one is in for a quality movie experience under Kukunoor's (now) seasoned hands.

Recently while in town for the Atlanta Indian Film Festival, Kukunoor met with Khabar for the following interview.

How has it been living your dream? Can you contrast your recent years as filmmaker with your days in Atlanta as an engineer?

It's been so long now: in January it's going to be 10 years since I left to make Hyderabad Blues. The whole past of being a corporate guy and making the switch was initially drastic, especially working in India and getting to know the systems and everything. But film after film, it is now a reflex that I consider myself as a filmmaker as opposed to someone who became one. Having said that, there are times when I miss the normalcy—but those are few and far between, because there is no greater joy than doing what you love and being really well paid for it.

You certainly made a bold and determined leap into filmmaking. But do you feel fate had anything to do with your success? In other words, how duplicable is your track record?

I am a huge believer in fate. Having said that, I also believe that we have to work and place ourselves in the path of fate. I don't think that it will come and pluck you out of obscurity. I am also a firm believer in giving two hundred percent to everything that I can control. In that sense I think that it is very duplicable, but someone has to go through everything that I did and get to the point and then wait for fate to sweep you along.

How did fate sweep you along? What was your lucky break?

There were two such incidents. When I finished Hyderabad Blues in 1997 and was going to bring it to the U.S., by complete chance, I met Elahe Hiptoola who is now my producing partner. In 1996 I had tried to partner with her, but she wasn't free at that time. She owns a designer store and is very well connected in Hyderabad. She makes things happen; so when I was back in Hyderabad in 1997 to make Hyderabad Blues she was free and she jumped and helped me to make the movie, and in the process we hit it off well and found that there is a common thing we like—films. Before I left India, she wanted me to hold one screening, just one screening, for a few of the film fraternity she knew. This screening was attended by Shyam Benegal whom Elahe knew personally—and he happened to be on the board of a Bombay based film festival. He liked the film and asked that we bring it to the festival. That's fateful.

Then it screens at the Bombay festival, and a reporter, Samar Khan, sees it and loves it, and says that in India no one will touch it because there are no songs, it's [only] 82 minutes long, and is trilingual. But, he adds, one distributor will perhaps attempt it, and that distributor is Shringar Films. Samar happened to know that they were looking to do "something different." The distributor saw it and liked it and so boom, boom, boom?, and imagine it starts out in Atlanta with only a dream.

How can one transform one's passion and dedication to films into a viable career, if not a runaway success such as yours?

The one rule in this business is that there are no rules. You can do a statistical study of filmmakers and you will find that there is nothing in common, except—and it sounds corny—resolve! Never give up. Even after Hyderabad Blues—those were some really tough five or six years. I kept making movie after movie but each one was a struggle and it wasn't until the success of Iqbal ? and now the doors have opened up and things seem much easier.

A movie about cricket in India seems like a no-brainer. Was Iqbal your cunning trick for an easy meal ticket?

The conventional wisdom is that, except Lagaan, every movie about cricket has flopped! Lagaan was about more than cricket, it was about getting back at the Britishers. And I, for one, have never believed in patterns, trends. How does a trend start? Someone started it! So why can't it be me? Okay, all cricket films have flopped but why can't mine be the first one to succeed?

After Iqbal I was told by everyone in the film industry of Bombay that it was absolute [stupidity] to make a film about two women in lead roles, after a huge hit like Iqbal. But now the same people are full of praise for Dor. It is still screening [in India] and is going full. I get good sustained release in metros. I am okay with the space that my films occupy.

Filmmaking used to be a cliquish, elitist and big-money endeavor. It is no longer so. The benefits of this democratization are certainly evident. But do you also feel there are drawbacks to this shift?

That's the only way art can be encouraged. There are drawbacks, but I think that there are far more pluses because when you have all these indie filmmakers who have nothing to lose? that's when you will have great filmmaking. Because everyone who gets established starts playing it safe at some point. Yes, this also allows a lot of crap to see the light of day. I have always believed that for virtually anything, everyone must be given a fair chance. If you have the guts to do it, you should be allowed. Because even if you get a hundred bad films, there might be that one gem that pops out because of this. I was asked to judge short films for a TV show, and a lot of them were terrible—I mean they were terrible—but then every once in a while you go, ‘That was very creative.'

Coming to Dor, how and why does a story of two rural female protagonists become the most satisfying film of an urban, single, and male filmmaker such as you?

First of all, I like movies in every genre. I like movies when someone does something heroic. I love that. These acts don't always have to come up from Arnold [Schwarzenegger] leaping off a building. It could come in small little things. The one line of the story that really attracted me? what a phenomenal premise that one woman undertakes this journey to find the other woman to save her husband!

For someone who has touted originality in a big way, how do you defend against the accusation that you copied a South Indian film?

This is the danger of media (he smiles). Tirumala Kaalam was a Malayalam film that was made on the exact same premise before I did. So I bought the rights from Tirumala Kaalam because they got the rights to the story first. But when you see the two films, you will see that they have absolutely nothing in common.

Other than main story of the two women?

Yes, other than the main premise. When I launched the film, I had mentioned Tirumala Kaalam, because I had already bought the rights—I had bought them way before I even began this process. I was careful not to push this issue because what happens is that the movie gets called a remake—and it's not a remake. The premise that both movies are based on the same true incident is the same, but nothing else is. I want to tell all these bloggers [who started the criticism regarding originality], ‘Just get your facts straight,' because if you actually bother looking at the credits of the film, T. A. Razaak, who wrote the story to Tirumala, is credited. What happens in a remake is that the public assumes that the story has already been done so there is a certain element of discounting. And one thing that I have been screaming on roof tops, including the comment I made in IIFA awards in Dubai, is that we are a nation of one billion people strong, so I can't believe we can't write original stories. So for someone like me to say that and come back and say, ‘By the way, I made a remake'?! So I was very careful in not picking the word remake. And the funny part is that most of the people who have jumped to conclusions haven't seen both films. It's just that I wanted to do everything absolutely legally, so I brought the rights for Tirumala, I gave T. A. Razaak the credit, and then I ripped the story apart and did my own stuff with it.

Do you see a difference between audiences in India and their Indian American counterparts?

Yes! A huge difference, because you are constantly influenced by your surroundings. Take Dor for instance. The empathy that Indian audiences find will be far greater, the nuances of Shreyas Talpade's character will be far more understood by those guys in India and Indians here who have been in touch with India on a regular basis. Because, for the most part—and I was one of them, so this is not an accusation—the moment I came here, other than my buying the once-every-two-year visits to India, I took India out of my psyche. So it is harder to relate because you are going by the memory from many years back as opposed to being fresh and current.

As to Indian American audiences, they are far more open than say the Indian British audience, who still want only the big names, big stars, masala Bollywood. They don't want the indie stuff. I think the Indian American audiences, if it is marketed well, will look out for films like this.

It's a season of remakes: Umrao Jaan, Don, Sholay? . If you were to pick up a film you had to remake which one would it be?

Honestly I don't think that I would ever do that.

Hypothetically speaking?if you were forced to?

The very reason that a film is even considered for remake is that it has achieved some kind of classic status. My definition of a classic is something that withstands the test of time. So if it is withstanding the test of time, why then would you, twenty-five years later, want to remake it? But, as you put it, hypothetically speaking, if I had to do it, it would be Bhagwan's Albela. It is one of my top five films of all time. It is just phenomenal. To me that is the height of a musical, what a musical should be. I have seen it many times and each time it only gets better.

Bollywood is increasingly moving towards technical wizardry and powerful production values. But for you it seems filmmaking is more about storytelling than its technical aspects?

Absolutely! Because at the heart of every film is only the story. The audience doesn't care if you have 330 cameras shooting a cool shot, because a cool shot will last about as long as a cool shot will last!

Couldn't a good story be botched up by poor production values?

Never. Because the audience will forgive a bad song, bad lighting, bad this or bad that, as long as the story is good. Of course, you can't have shoddy acting or shoddy direction. If these elements are in place, the audience will not give a damn [about production values]. Hrishikesh Mukherjee, in my opinion, is the greatest Hindi filmmaker of all time. His technical stuff was bad. But Rishida is a God to me, and at the heart of his movies there is phenomenal direction and superb acting.

Seems like I am bent on getting you in trouble! If, hypothetically speaking, if you were forced to choose between only Hollywood films or only Bollywood films which one would you choose?

Hollywood. Because my sensibility is shifted to these kinds of films. When I say Hollywood, it encompasses a whole bunch of films. There is so much indie material that I consider a part of it. Of course I love the big budget action films, but I also love [the variety]


The Nagesh Kukunoor File


Teen Deewarein: Filmfare Award for Best story.

Iqbal: Screen, Zee, Apsara, & IIFA (Dubai) Awards for Best Story/Screenplay

Audience Award for best film at the Peachtree International Film Festival in Atlanta for the film Hyderabad Blues.

Audience Award for best film at the Rhode Island Film Festival for the film Hyderabad Blues.


Dor (2006)

Iqbal (2005)

Hyderabad Blues 2 (2004)

3 Deewarein (3 Walls) (2003)

Bollywood Calling (2001)

Rockford (1999)

Hyderabad Blues (1998)


Percept Picture Company and Kukunoor have announced their next film together after Dor titled Aashayein. John Abraham is in the running for the lead role.


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