Nagesh Kukunoor, the maverick director of acclaimed films such as Hyderabad Blues, Dor and Iqbal, has just finished his latest movie, Dhanak, which premiered as the opening act of the Mumbai International Film Festival recently. Also a screenwriter and producer, Kukunoor is now well-known for his “budget films” that are backed by their powerful storylines and their unconventional though meticulous casting.

Dhanak is produced by Manish Mundra’s Drishyam Pictures, and it is a story of a journey that two siblings — brother and sister — undertake on foot from Churu to Jaisalmer in Rajasthan, hoping to meet Shah Rukh Khan. They plan to ask the superstar for some money with which to get the younger sibling’s eyes operated, so that he may see again — a promise the sister had made to her brother for his
eighth birthday.

The film at times is reminiscent of Iqbal in its portrayal of the struggles of the underdog. In Kukunoor’s own words, Dhanak is a positive tale about hope, and about the kindness of strangers when you least expect it. It opened to a warm response at the Mumbai International Film Festival. Recently, as he braced for the film’s commercial release — scheduled for sometime towards the end of this year — the filmmaker spoke to Guardian 20 about how it helps to be a tough taskmaster as a director.


Q. Dhanak completes your “Rajasthan trilogy” after Yeh Honsla and Dor. Do you agree with the phrase, to describe your three films? And what attracts you to Rajasthan?

A. Funny story: it was me who first used the words “Rajasthan trilogy” to describe the three films. The term was in fact coined by me. There is something about the desert that attracts me to it time and again. There is a sense of absolute isolation that you feel in the desert; where for miles you do not see signs of any establishment. This is where I like to put my characters; this is where they come into life in the absence of any distraction. I keep going back to the desert for this very sense of being alone within the seeming vastness of the desert. Now three films of mine, Yeh Honsla, Dor and Dhanak have been set in the desert of Rajasthan, and I will probably go back for more.

The idea of an English movie made outside of Hollywood doing well with Indian audiences was unheard of before Hyderabad Blues. The film went beyond the boundaries of what was considered regular fare in Bollywood back then.

Q. None of your films is bound by any particular themes. Do you look at genres before finalising a film?

A. Films get compromised if you think of what categories to put them in before even making them, just to chase success. You aren’t being honest about your film then, and you start to make it according to what your audience might prefer, instead of how one would like to. I don’t think my films fit into any particular theme. I try and tell a story with each of my films, and at the onset, or even later, I am not bothered about what theme they might fall into. Having said that, placing a film into a particular category is probably better for box-office success. But I feel bad for directors who compromise in the beginning itself before making a film, by thinking about what genre to fit their film into.


Q. As a director, whom would you like to work with in the industry right now?

A. I think this is a good time for directors, and I feel like I should write a lot of films fast since we have so many actors around us who are doing great work. I would definitely like to work with Nawaz [Nawazuddin Siddiqui] and Irffan Khan. Among the more mainstream actors, I feel like Ranbir Kapoor has tremendous acting potential, and I would like to cast him in one of my films. I have always worked with unconventional actors.


Q. It is rare to see a children’s film get a mainstream release. Do you have high hopes for Dhanak?

A. Children’s films are never seen as mainstream, but I hope to change that with Dhanak. I feel that not just children, but even adults can relate to Dhanak since it is such a positive film – drawn from my childhood experiences. I feel a larger audience than the age group bracketed as “children” might feel that the film is worth watching, since they’re likely to be thrown back to their own childhoods. Especially after Lakshmi, a film that dealt with darker topics, people who follow my work might find it refreshing to watch such a light-hearted and positive film about hope. 


Q. How easy or difficult are you as a director to work with?

A. Dhanak was shot within a gruelling schedule of 33 days. I wouldn’t deny the fact that there are moments during my schedules where we have 14-16 hour long shifts; I am not an easy taskmaster from that point of view. However, I have been lucky enough to work with people who share my vision, my passion for cinema. Over time, I have built this team from scratch, and they share my vision. They assist me in intensive shooting for over 12 hours in inhospitable surroundings.


Q. Would you agree that you introduced the idea of small budget indie films doing well in the mainstream?

A. The idea of an English movie made outside of Hollywood doing well with Indian audiences was unheard of before Hyderabad Blues. With Hyderabad Blues, at last, we had a movie that went beyond the boundaries of what was considered regular fare in Bollywood cinema back then. The film was made in three languages – English, Hindi and Tamil. I felt that the film’s audiences went past the fact that they were unfamiliar with such styles of filmmaking, and embraced it. We, as filmmakers, need to take these risks, and not make films only for the sake of earning something.


Q. Your films are known for their strong storylines. Where do you seek inspiration for your scripts?

A. I’m always looking out for good stories around me. They may come to me from newspapers and magazines, from what I read, or from memories drawn from childhood, or something people tell me. I’m always ready for a new idea or story.


Q. What projects do you have lined up for the future?

A. I have already finished shooting my next film.  I will be sending it to international film festivals before looking towards a release in India. I cannot speak about it right now, but it would eventually be released in India after I have shown it around in film festivals across the world.


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