Director Nagesh Kukunoor talks about his low-budget projects, going for new faces, and where he finds himself now…
In the 1990s, a complete outsider to the film business — a chemical engineer who had an epiphany when a truck almost crashed into his car — gave hope to an entire generation of young filmmakers, that anyone can make a film. After a brief stint working as an assistant director on the sets of “Veer Hanuman”, Nagesh Kukunoor realised he was never going to fit in. So, he wrote out a film in seven days flat, worked out the costs, went back to the U.S., saved up $ 40,000 in 10 months, and came back to make “Hyderabad Blues”, which Star Movies refused to buy even for Rs. 50,000 initially — but bought for Rs. 50 lakh, four months later, after the film became an overnight hit.
After he's done telling students at IIT-Madras the unbelievable story of his transition from a chemical engineer to a filmmaker, at Saarang 2011, we sit down for an interview with the maverick filmmaker behind “Bollywood Calling”, “Iqbal”, “Dor” and “Aashayein”, sits down for an interview. Excerpts.
What stage of your filmmaking career do you find yourself in?
I think I'm at the stage where I truly want to start balancing stuff. I want to be able to do one film that serves as my bread and butter, and do one for the world market, some really low-budget, heart-striking, off-the-grid stuff that might not be entirely palatable for the Indian market.
There's no English in your films anymore
A lot of the stories that I'm telling have veered from urban backgrounds. I've ceased to use English since it's not an accurate representation of small town or rural India. Also, English has a very restrictive audience.
How comfortable did you feel making a commercial Bollywood film?
‘Tasveer 8x10' was very much my script I had written six to seven years ago. But here, the references are so defined by the actor. So, when you bring an Akshay Kumar, it becomes a commercial film, even if it's not. Let's say I had taken a no-name actor, and shot it the same way it would've got a different tag. But ‘Tasveer…' still had my format of storytelling, in terms of the way the actors spoke and the way the screenplay was constructed.
Every commercial Akshay Kumar film ends with a rap in the end-credits. ‘Tasveer…' was no different.
A song is required in India for promotions. And, Akshay Kumar was going through that phase. These are marketing tools. So, if the producer wants that, and that's worth, you know, Rs. 2 crore of free publicity, by all means!
What about the comfort level working with an A-lister and the baggage that comes with it?
For the first five days, he didn't understand what it was that I wanted when I said: ‘No, this is over the top, bring it down'. But, when he did...! You should look at his performance in the film… I don't care, I'll take anyone up on this argument — I think it's one of his best performances. He was very subdued, he underplayed, straight-up with no nonsense.
So, given a chance, you would still work with an A-list star?
Absolutely. Because, you really have to understand what space they pitch their film at. If I know I have a couple of action scripts, and if I'm getting Hrithik or Akshay, I would ramp up the action sequences since I know the guy is capable of doing it. I would never cast an Akshay for a ‘Dor'.
How easy is it for someone with an urban upbringing to tell stories set in rural India?
I'm on a selfish trip. I'm going where there's a story. I find nothing exciting in stories very similar to my background. The urban tales are not exciting. Even visually. Rural India is untapped. Once you get into the story — ‘Dor' or ‘Iqbal', then you do your research. I spend time to understand the physical space. If I'm making a film about drugs, hell, yeah, I'm going to be spending time with inspectors, drug addicts… That's the joyous part of this job. Just to tell a story, you can go anywhere, and live multiple lives.
You said you write your scripts keeping the Censors in mind, so you don't need to fight over it later.
It is who I am. I'm very clear about what fights I want to pick. When you are making a film, the number of fights you pick is on a daily basis — for budgets, for locations, with actors… I don't have anything left in me once the film is made, to start a fight with the Censors. I would rather have my core story be untampered and in tact, and make these mini compromises. People who say they don't make compromises are liars. You need to understand how much you can live with.
Is it true that you take budget cuts to make the film you want?
All the time! A lot of times I take budget cuts so I can get no-name small actors because it gives me freedom. Any producer, across the board, the big five, 10, 15 or even 20, the thinking is just the same. So I say: ‘Hey listen, I don't want to make a Rs. 10-crore film. Give me a Rs. 4-crore or a Rs. 5-crore budget, but allow me to cast whoever I want. I don't want your A-lister to force me to fit the character to the actor.'
Very few people know that your production banner SIC stands for Stability is a Curse. Wouldn't you consider yourself stable now?
Every film, is a challenge to get money. I'd be happy to be making films in the realm of Rs. 5 crore all my life, if someone said: ‘Here's five crore, jaake khel (go play).' The challenge always is convincing people that even the newcomers are worth their time. When you go to watch ‘Tasveer…', you are going to watch an Akshay Kumar film. You need to tell his die-hard fan base that this is a Nagesh Kukunoor film, so he's going to override everything Akshay Kumar does. I want to also balance it with medium to small films because there, I'm free of any burden of expectations.