Sixteen years ago National Award-winning filmmaker Nagesh Kukunoor wove a delightful story of adolescence inside an all-boys boarding school. That film, Rockford (1999), was Kukunoor’s second and till now, the only production he’s helmed with children in the lead.
He swore at the time, he says, that he would never work with children again. But now, as his film Dhanak (2015) makes the right noises at festivals across the world (it will have a UK premiere on July 17 at the London Indian Film Festival), he has again shifted his gaze to the world of children.
It helps of course, when your film, no matter how niche, is being produced by Manish Mundra, widely seen as a leading angel investor for off-beat cinema in the country.
Mundra produced Ankhon Dekhi (2014) and recent films like Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan and Prashant Nair’s Umrika, which is also the opening film at the London film fest.
Dhanak, which premiered at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year, received a special mention from the Children’s Jury, and is set to open at theatres in India in September.
“Look, I’m a single guy with no kids, so I don’t have a point of reference!” admits Kukunoor candidly: “After Rockford, it took me 12 years to gather courage to revisit the genre.”
Dhanak (rainbow), traces the journey of an eight-year-old visually impaired boy, Chhotu, and his elder sister Pari, across Rajasthan. Pari is a Shah Rukh Khan fan (Chhotu prefers Salman Khan) and thinks the world of the star.
She promises Chhotu that his eyesight will be restored by the time he turns nine, and writes a letter every day to SRK beseeching him for help. It so happens that they hear Shah Rukh is shooting at a village in Rajasthan. Pari sets off, Chhotu in tow, across the desert state, to meet the superstar, and get his help to restore her brother’s eyesight.
Too good to be true? Do Shah Rukh/Salman actually make appearances? “No. I wanted to write a fable that speaks of an India I have in my head – a sweet, trustworthy place,” says Kukunoor.
The story came from one of Kukunoor’s friends, as they were working on scripts for an advertisement. The ad never happened but the idea stayed: “Later I coincidentally came across this image of a girl and boy walking across a desert landscape... that set the film in motion in my head.”
A unique dilemma, says the director, is the choice a filmmaker has these days when selecting child actors. For Rockford, remembers Kukunoor, assistant directors had to be sent to various schools to put kids on tape and see who works or doesn’t. "For Dhanak about one hundred child actors showed up on the first day itself!"
The number of child actors has increased, but has spontaneity and innocence of childhood dimmed given the proliferation of acting schools and overexposure to television? Kukunoor explains: “Today most kids face some sort of camera early in their lives. To get someone ‘raw’ in that sense is tough.” What’s worse though is the effect of TV: “They’ve seen so much crappy TV that they ape mannerisms. I had to really un-TV and un-film them... make them speak as they naturally would.”
His own childhood, says Kukunoor, was “as normal as could be.” Kukunoor went to Montfort School in Yercaud, Tamil Nadu, and attended Osmania University in Hyderabad for a degree in engineering. He
went on to do his Masters at the Georgia Institute of Technology in America.
Kukunoor remembers watching lots of Telugu mythological movies, which were popular those days. But it was when he saw Raiders of the Lost Ark (in ’84) that he decided cinema was his true calling.
However, as with most middle class homes, making a living got priority over making films. In 1996, he returned from the US to Mumbai to try his luck in the Hindi film industry.
“I realised that with the kind of atrocious work that was going on, I wouldn’t make it” says Kukunoor. He did a recce of sorts with a story before returning to the US.
There, he developed the story, worked for a year and saved up money before returning to India to make his actor-director debut with Hyderabad Blues (1998) – a cult film around the cultural disconnect an NRI feels after coming home.
Kukunoor followed it up with Rockford in 1999, and says that the material for the film came from the personal diaries he maintained during his boarding school days, which his mother had preserved. In 2005, he directed Naseeruddin Shah and Shreyas Talpade in Iqbal, which won the National Film Award for Best Film on Other Social Issues.
Kukunoor has dabbled with an array of genres. “If I make something I’m truly passionate about, chances are the audience will like the product,” he says.
From HT Brunch, July 12
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