Nagesh Kukunoor is back with a hard-hitting film Lakshmi, a gritty tale of a girl pushed into prostitution and how she fought the odds. Sudhish Kamath catches up with the filmmaker

The original independent filmmaker of this generation is back with a new, hard-hitting film, almost two years since his last release Mod. Nagesh Kukunoor’s Lakshmi, set to release in India on January 17, has officially been selected to Palm Springs Film Festival where it will have its world premiere.

Early buzz is positive. Suchitra Krishnamurthy tweeted that it was “India’s most important story, absolutely brilliantly told”. Divya Dutta tweeted that she was “shaken by its impact”.

Kukunoor, in a telephonic interview, tells us all about the making of Lakshmi.

You are back after almost two years since your last release.

Every release has a life of its own. In this case, there was a clear plan to try and do festivals first. I could have had the release earlier this year, but world premieres matter to festivals.

During my last three-four films, I could never convince producers for the festival circuit. Indian producers don't get why we must take our films outside India, but with Lakshmi I had decided I had to. I had never wanted to make films just for the Indian market. So I thought it was time to restart the international account.

What was the inspiration and starting point for Lakshmi?

I have been involved with Plan India, an NGO, for years. So during that process, I got to interact with other NGOs they support. Especially one in Andhra Pradesh... and I have avoided mentioning the NGO in interviews, as I don't want them to face a media storm. This small NGO runs a rescue shelter. What was amazing was these were not just stories of loss and devastation but also of heroism. They had suffered such physical, mental abuse, but when you meet them, it was like nothing had happened to them. They had come out stronger. Many had the simple desire that this shouldn't happen to other girls. So they help out at homes. I was casually interacting with this girl who was about 16-17... She said this happened and I was like, what? Rewind. She was forced into prostitution and when rescued had the guts to take the traffickers to court. That was my hook. That’s my story. The biggest problem was that I wanted information to tell the story, but I was walking a fine line between getting information as a filmmaker and making them relive that trauma. Which is why this is a fictional account of a true story. I had to keep filling in the blanks.

You do have this ability to take sad stories and put a positive spin on them. Perumazhakaalam and Dor were the same story. One was a tearjerker, but yours was feel good.

That's what I'm drawn towards. Sad stories truly outnumber the happy. So I would rather focus on the happy one that would inspire girls stuck to come out of it. Here, I do take the viewer down some unpleasant road but at the end, I show them that someone forced to do this, had the courage.

How did you go about casting given that it involved casting for a heroine who had to be a minor?

Very early, we met this child actress who was 14, but I felt it was so wrong when I met her parents. Putting this girl in character and exposing her to this world was something a filmmaker shouldn't do. I scrapped the idea...but as fate would have it, I met Monali (Thakur) at a party and asked her if she would be interested in acting. She auditioned and she was terrific. It was just fortuitous and it turned out to be a smart decision because she was 21 and I could talk to her like one adult to another, without sugarcoating about what was happening. I cannot even imagine how it would have been with a child actress.

And how long did it take to shoot?

Just 22 days, that’s the fastest I have shot. But after 15 years, I was acting in a big role, AND directing, was rusty... Once I found my rhythm, I had terrific takes. It was all shot in Hyderabad, all on location.

How have you changed as a filmmaker over the years? More serious as a senior filmmaker?

No, I just go where the story takes me. I have faced the “stigma” of a director who takes social issues and turns them into movies. So I made Bombay to Bangkok. Every director goes through this phase. Lakshmi has a very gritty tone and will catch the audience off guard. As a filmmaker, I have never wanted to have “this is his kind of” film tag. I want to make different kinds, genres...

How do you look back at the last few years? Mod, Aashayein and Tasveer... a slump after Dor and Iqbal?

Filmmaking is about perception management. That is the scariest thing. I am not one of those who promote through Twitter and Facebook, constantly, though I am trying that now. I like my films to speak for themselves. I don't have a PR person. With every film, you are going to get a mixed bag. Aashayein was very much in my space. But that did not work at the box office. Bombay to Bangkok and Tasveer 8 by 10 were departures, so they fired up people against the wall.

With Lakshmi, we have been very careful about marketing, we are doing all those things through social media. But as a filmmaker, this is what we wrestle with... How do you manage audience perception?