As Nagesh Kukunoor gets his act together with “Lakshmi”, the actor-director opens up on the moral dilemmas he battled before mounting this tale of heroism.

Hope is the running theme of his films but his core audience’s trust in him was shaken when after “Iqbal” and “Dor”, Nagesh Kukunoor took a different “Mod”: “Bombay To Bangkok”, “8X10 Tasveer” and “Aashayein”. It seemed that an independent voice had been muffled by the commercial interests of the filmmaker. Perhaps he is looking for mass appeal, was the common refrain. Now, Kukunoor has latched on to yet another tale of courage with “Lakshmi”. A 14-year-old girl sold into prostitution, she took on her traffickers. Starring Monali Thakur — the singer is making her acting debut with the film — together with Shefali Shah and Kukunoor himself, the film is scheduled to release later this month.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

What was the catalyst for “Lakshmi”?

There is an NGO that I work with. As I interacted with this NGO I kept meeting a lot of these girls, who were rescued from different brothels in Andhra Pradesh. While talking to them the stories that emerged were not just stories of suffering and loss, there were stories of heroism as well. I decided to make a small film on them. One of the girls said there were times when 15 men came to the room in one night. There was nothing one could do because if you protest you are beaten. I kept hearing these stories again and again and realised that the fact that they were standing in front of me as an emotionally stable person was in itself a huge step. In an urban situation if you suffer from any kind of physical abuse you run screaming to a psychiatrist and don’t leave his couch for a month.

How did you arrive at the story?

There was no central idea or hook to hang my story on. Just because you feel passionately about an issue it doesn’t warrant a feature film, and then I met this girl, who actually had the strength to take the traffickers to court. All this little girl with an innocent smile on her face did was time after time she turned up in the court and said the same story. That is the heroism I latched on to, and that’s how “Lakshmi” came about. It is a fictional account of many true stories.

Did you fear becoming a voyeur in the process of writing the screenplay?

The moment I say that there is a feature film here, then as a storyteller I need details but you have to constantly walk the fine line between being a decent responsible human being and trying to get the girls to relive their trauma so they can give you details for your story. It is a contradiction.

And it is a million time worse because this is the story of a child. I first cast a 14-year-old to play the girl but as I started talking about the broad outlines of the character I felt how irresponsible I am that in trying to tell a story I am going to introduce this girl to a side of life which she has no business knowing as a child. I halted the project and waited to find a girl who is at least 18, preferably 21, whom everybody including my own head deems as an adult. Obviously, she had to look like a 14-year-old. As luck would have it, I met Monali Thakur at a party and realised I have found a face which I can show as a 14-year-old with suitable make-up and grooming. I asked her to take an audition and she sailed through the most difficult of scenes.

The promos show some disturbing scenes….

When the casting issue was sorted out the question where one can go with this subject cropped up. I was clear in my mind that I will create a degree of discomfort, more so because she was a child. There is no justification. Also, people have become immune to statistics. Forget numbers, we have become desensitised to images. I wanted to put a face to this. I have created a horrific sense of discomfort and women have broken down during screening.

There are a lot of headline hunters around and there is an audience for them as well…

My own validation is that it has been seen by close to a thousand women, we have screened it across college campuses and the reaction has been superlative.

What is the point of showing it to women who have suffered?

Initially, I didn’t want to show it to women. Why show a mirror to their own lives? The idea is to change the mindset of men and the section which can effect the change. That’s why I am taking it to the campuses, because if the idea is planted strong enough in the students, five years down the road when they are in a position to influence change, they might do it. I need to show it to women because it is a story about heroism at the end of the day. Her decision to go to the court might actually tell them that there is an alternative. The law needs to get tougher but there are laws right now that can actually convict a trafficker.

It seems you haven’t questioned the role of NGOs…

I don’t question the NGOs because that was not the battle. It was more the source, the traffickers.

You are playing the pimp in the film.

I felt that I could justify it though I have nothing in common with the pimp. With Chinna I didn’t want an actor to overpower the role. Secondly, I wanted somebody who can speak Dakhani Hindi. Right from Mehmood sahib, who sold Bangalori Hindi as Hyderabadi Hindi, actors have butchered Dakhani in the past. Here actors usually say that what they lack in the diction they will cover in performance. The audience is not going to judge them by it. I don’t buy this. Nuances are as important for me as a writer-director. Then I have to shift the attention to Shefali Shah (she plays the brothel’s madam) in the film. Her character is written with so much material and still she has walked that fine line.

It has been 15 years since “Hyderabad Blues”, how is the scene for filmmakers who want to tell different stories through fresh faces?

Nothing much has changed on this. I still get to hear if you had come with that story now we would have backed it. Why will I make an “Iqbal” again? The problem is marketing. Earlier the math was: a four crore rupee film will require one crore rupees for marketing. Now it is: a four crore film and four crore marketing. And when it becomes an eight crore film, the producer asks why not cast an established actor. And by an established actor he means a known face. We will keep chugging!