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'I haven't lost the madness for telling a story'

By Aseem Chhabra, for
February 20, 2015 18:10 IST
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A scene from Dhanak'I still shoot films at a maniacal, crazy pace.'

'I don't come to the film with an agenda. I come to a film with a story. When the story excites me, I go bonkers.'

Nagesh Kukunoor chats with Aseem Chhabra/ in Berlin.

Nagesh Kukunoor burst onto the Indian film scene with Hyderabad Blues, a sweet romantic film that set off a movement for small independent films.

Since then he has made a range of films, some like Iqbal, 3 Deewarein and Dor have done well at the box office and also with critics.

His new film Dhanak is the story of a brother and sister walking across the desert in Rajasthan in search of Shah Rukh Khan.

The young boy is blind and his sister is convinced that the actor will help her brother gain his eyesight.

Dhanak recently had its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival where it had three very successful screenings, attended mostly by children.

Image: A scene from Dhanak.

The film won two awards at the festival -- Grand Prize for the Best Feature, presented by an international jury in the Generation KPlus section for children, and a Special Mention by a children's jury.

Aseem Chhabra/ spoke to Kukunoor in Berlin after one of the Berlinale screenings.

Had you planned to show Shah Rukh Khan in the film?

This was the international cut. Otherwise, we will see if that happens.

For me, the myth of him is more important. People keep hoping for the payoff!

Have you worked with children apart from Iqbal?

Yes, in Rockford.

Image: Special Mention for the Best Feature Film and Grand Prix for the Best Feature Film awards for Dhanak at Berlinale. Photograph: Facebook

Here you work closely with two kids and one of them is blind in the film. What did it take to cast and then direct a child to act blind?

I had studied blind kids.

I was very clear that the actor auditioning for the part had to convince me because in these times, the number of kids who are competent to speak dialogues is amazing.

For any role, I have at least 20 kids who are good. There was a time when if I could zero in on one kid that was good enough.

Are they doing less of the Bollywood kind of acting?

They may do Bollywood kind of acting, but they are competent in front of the camera.

That is a huge thing. You can always make a kid unlearn his or her mannerisms.

I would direct the kids in the audition process. But I was very clear that if a kid could sell himself to me and match the kids I was seeing in real life, I would have the confidence to cast them.

Where did you find these two children?

They are Bombay kids. We were on set and an actor who appears in the end asked the kids where were they from in Rajasthan.

They both responded 'Lokhandwala' (a suburb in north-west Mumbai). They hadn't done films.

Hetal, who plays the sister, has done some TV work and the boy, Krish, has done a commercial, and a bit part in a film that hasn't released yet.

Where did the idea of the children lost in the desert come from?

From an image I saw of these two kids walking in the desert. The film wrote itself.

I wasn't trying to put cute words in the kids' mouths. But I was working with the thought that the world is really not such a bad place.

I wanted to work with the India that was in my head, the India of 30, 40 years ago where fellow travellers would help you on your journey.

Did the children enjoy the process? Did they prefer Shah Rukh or Salman Khan?

This guy Chottu (the younger brother) loves Salman. He likes Shah Rukh also, but he's a bigger Salman fan.

Hetal's loyalty is towards Shah Rukh. What you saw on the screen was literally what was going on off screen.

It's actually shocking how much they become brother and sister. And he constantly bugged her through the shoot. He would go on 'Pari, Pari.'

How old is Krish?

He's eight and she is 12.

Image: Hetal and Krish in Dhanak.

How much did you make them walk in Rajasthan? Was it hot?

Some days the temperature was 53C. We shot in July.

Why not shoot in December when it's cooler?

I can't wait. Once I decide I start my work.

So you got the money from Manish Mundra and...

I met Manish end of April 2014 and on July 1, we were shooting. I have never made a film faster.

I was introduced to Manish by a journalist friend Sudhish Kamath...

We met casually and I had another project in mind. Manish came into films looking for me. But when he couldn't find me, he funded Ankhon Dekhi.

We were having chai. He agreed to finance another of my projects. But on the way out, I asked him if he was from Rajasthan since his last name is Mundra.

I told him about my idea of a boy and girl walking across the desert. And he said, 'Yeh karte hai (Let's do this one).'

Manish is essentially a financier not a producer and it was you and Elahe Hiptoola who actual produced the film, right?

Yes, that's right. But the good part is Manish gives money with no strings attached.

And there is the passion to promote good cinema and not just to release it and recoup the investment.

Hyderabad Blues was released in 1997. How many films have you made?

This is my 14th film.

How have you evolved as a filmmaker? Your films have won awards and done good business at the box office.

Just the fact that I am alive is an achievement! So far we haven't found a way to reverse time.

You will stay alive because you launched the indie film movement with Hyderabad Blues.

I am happy that I haven't lost the madness for telling a story; it hasn't diluted one iota.

I still shoot films at a maniacal, crazy pace.

This film was shot in 33 days with 47 locations across Rajasthan. Lakshmi was shot in 22 days.

With films, like everything else in life, you never stop learning. So each film brings its own set of challenges.

I don't come to the film with an agenda. I come to a film with a story. When the story excites me, I go bonkers.

The film could turn out to be crap, but the joy of filmmaking is what drives me. And the day my film is done, when the first print is out, I am done.

Image: Nagesh Kukunoor interacts with kids after the Berlinale screening of Dhanak.

Is there something you could have done differently? Or is there a film you wish you had not made?

There is not a single film that I wish I had not made because every film was initiated by me. Even the ones that absolutely didn't work were initiated by me.

When filmmakers say differently, I want to smack them. No one puts a gun to your head.

It takes a year-and-a-half to make a film. Shekhar (Kapur) has walked out of half-a-dozen films because he knew he didn't want to make them.

What I am saying is there is nothing I want to change in any film because when I was doing it, I was positive I was doing it right.

Hindsight means nothing. I did everything myself. If the film didn't work, I can't blame anyone.

There is one film I could have shot better and that is Hyderabad Blues 2. Other than that, I have no regrets.

I can say I wish that person was a better actor, but when I was auditioning and casting I went with my gut instinct, which has served me well 80, 90 per cent of the time.

The Berlinale must be fun with children responding so positively to your film.

Oh, this is gorgeous.

Have you screened films for kids before at a festival?

I have never been to any festivals. I am an idiot. For me, all this is torturous.

It's only with Lakshmi that I made the concerted effort to start attending festivals and enjoying the moment.

This is a new feeling for me, standing in front of people after having made a film and they are clapping...

Image: Kids shoots questions at Nagesh Kukunoor after watching Dhanak at the Berlinale.

When the song started at the end, the kids were clapping.

The same thing happened yesterday. They clapped, then it stopped and then again picked up.

When we walked out, we felt like rock stars. It was beautiful.

My sound designer is here and he was overwhelmed, so he started crying. He couldn't believe it.

Are you planning to release Dhanak in India?

I am planning an Indian cut with three more songs. Not lip synch songs, but in the background.

You don't think those songs would have worked here?

They are fun, uplifting songs. When you subtitle a film, you have to also subtitle the songs, and it breaks the moment.

You can do the song for a short while, but a full song has to be subtitled. I have kept the music and that helps the emotions.

I have to do a completely different Indian music mix. It will be more in your face. I started doing that with Lakshmi.

When did you leave India?

In 1988.

How many years did you spend in the US?

At a stretch I spent nine years, before I came back to make Hyderabad Blues.

I keep going back. The last couple of years it has been four or five months there.

Do you have to maintain your Green Card?

No, I am a US citizen.

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Aseem Chhabra, for in Berlin