Films: Why is filmmaker Nagesh Kukunoor a great gambler?

For 24 years now, Nagesh Kukunoor has risked experimenting and switching tracks with every new project... and lived to tell the tale
Kukunoor opted to produce, direct, write and act in Hyderabad Blues, an Indian film largely in English, in 1998
Kukunoor opted to produce, direct, write and act in Hyderabad Blues, an Indian film largely in English, in 1998
Published on Sep 18, 2021 11:36 PM IST
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ByDinesh Raheja

It has taken daredevil gumption and an appetite for risk for Nagesh Kukunoor to carve out his niche. It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, but two decades after Hyderabad Blues, the renegade filmmaker is still making waves with the second season of his web series City Of Dreams.

His experimental cinema has not been received with open arms each time. Yet Kukunoor has never sold out. He has always gambled.

This instinct for intrepidly following his convictions is what drove him, an Indian engineer living the NRI version of the American Dream in Atlanta, to throw up his cushy corporate job and make films in India.

“There were a number of people who tried to dissuade me from making Hyderabad Blues,” Nagesh recounts. “I had raced through the proverbial check list for success—gone abroad, done my masters’, found a job, worked my way up the corporate ladder, had a good apartment, a sports car, everything. But I was still miserable. Unhappiness is a great motivator. I decided to give my passion for films a shot.”

Eschewing playing it safe, Kukunoor opted to produce, direct, write and act in Hyderabad Blues, an Indian film largely in English! He laughs wryly. “If you look at it today, it’s all crappy sound, no-name actors, and the language is not what you expect. Yet it worked. That set me on the path of sticking to what I believe in.”

Taking the lead

Kukunoor didn’t pursue a lucrative acting career even after playing the lead in a successful film. “I enjoy direction 100 times more than acting,” he explains.

Direction was a smart choice because his films, such as Hyderabad Blues, Iqbal and Dor, positioned him in the vanguard of the cinematic movement that, in the new millennium, has seen Hindi films shift from formula fare towards a qualified realism.

Nagesh on the sets of City Of Dreams Season 2 during the pandemic; (middle) with actor Priya Bapat while shooting for the show
Nagesh on the sets of City Of Dreams Season 2 during the pandemic; (middle) with actor Priya Bapat while shooting for the show

I ask Nagesh if he recognised his consistent switching of genres as a risky career move, and he exhales, “Hell, yes! A director is not given an opportunity to try a different genre unless she or he fights. If Raju Hirani wanted to make a really dark, psycho thriller (and more so after Munnabhai), the whole industry would have been like, ‘What! This succeeded so don’t back off.’ However, I am determined not to repeat myself. After Iqbal and Dor, I started a wacky comedy, Bombay to Bangkok, and a hundred people told me ‘joote padenge’ but I didn’t listen.”

Next came Kukunoor’s first collaborations with A-list actors—Akshay Kumar in the thriller Tasveer 8X10 and John Abraham in the introspective Aashaein. But they failed to make an impact. So, is Kukunoor more comfortable with new actors? The director reflects, “I truly enjoyed working with both Akshay and John. But because those films didn’t do well, obviously I wasn’t invited back to do the bigger actor films. This suited me just fine because at the heart of what I do is to work with lesser-known actors. Fortunately, now a huge chunk of these films get made even in Bollywood.”

The no-theme theme

Considering he has no discernible preference in genre, I ask the director to identify the signature Kukunoor touch. “I truly work on directing a good performance. What I do relatively well is bring a touch of realism, even if it is in a thriller like 8X10. Akki plays a real person and that realism comes from being able to direct actors in the correct way. I’m not one of those directors who tells the actors, ‘Line aise bolo’. I get them into the right space and then I look to them to bring something different to the table,” he says.

He also spots some running themes. “I’ve undoubtedly identified with and rooted for the underdog—for example, in Iqbal and also in Dor, in which Ayesha Takia’s downtrodden character manages to rise up against the system.”

Another constant with Kukunoor is strong women characters. He says, “I always felt that women get the short end of the stick in our films. After Iqbal was a hit, people said: Why are you doing a woman-oriented film like Dor? Today, no one questions it anymore.”

Staying true

Kukunoor’s insistence on pivotal roles for women continues with his political web series City Of Dreams, which showcases the upheavals faced by an iron-willed woman (played by Priya Bapat) when she stakes a claim on the chief minister’s position. But he says, “I’m mostly not aware politically.” He elaborates, “After Iqbal, I was asked if I was an ardent cricket fan and I said I don’t watch cricket! I like to step out and be uncomfortable when creating.”

The proliferation of cuss words on streaming shows shocks me, but Kukunoor counters with a laugh: “I was one of the early grandfathers of cussing with Hyderabad Blues. That’s how I talk to my friends and I brought that reality to the screen. As for the explosion in sex and expletives on the web, filmmakers have been reined in for 70 years. Allow them to vent for a little while. They will get bored. Or not. I’ve gone to the Censor Board for each of my films and I’ve had to change words like ‘underwear’! Now, when the space is free of ridiculous restrictions, people are going nuts, and they should. A filmmaker should be true to the character.”

He has extended his outlier choices to his personal life too and remains stridently single at 54. “Nothing should have rules when it comes to matters of the heart. I’ve been singing the same tune for a very long time. But who knows, I might change my mind tomorrow,” he says.

His constant collaborating with producer Elahe Hiptoola, for two decades now, has piqued interest, but Nagesh squelches any romantic connotations. “It’s one of those lovely relationships where one can clearly prove that men and women can be great friends,” he says. “Creatively, I trust her opinion. When I finish writing my script, the only person who gets to read it is Elahe.”

Kukunoor’s next will be a feature film once again. Though he doesn’t reveal more, it’s a given that the film will thematically explore territory the filmmaker hasn’t mapped yet. He states decisively, “When the dust settles. I’d like people to just look at my filmography and say, we can’t find a pattern here. That would be the single greatest thing”.

From HT Brunch, September 19, 2021

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