Nagesh Kukunoor

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From Film Desk:
Nagesh Kukunoor in conversation with SWA
-Let the drumrolls sound

Let the drumrolls sound 

Nagesh Kukunoor in conversation with Punam Mohandas


Who would have thought that an unheard-of chemical engineer would come so far in Bollywood as to accumulate a string of international accolades and awards under his belt?! NAGESH KUKUNOOR has always marched to the beat of a different drummer. While his earlier films may have lacked the technical brilliance, they made up for it with the fresh treatment meted to the subjects. He makes films that touch him to the core. More, he writes stories that excite him.

Strangely enough, he does not evoke as much attention from Bollywood or the Indian audience, the way he manages to garner abroad. He has been known to laugh it off by stating that winning awards at a film fest is like a validation for others to take him seriously. Nonetheless, the man can now revel in the sweet sound of drumrolls for his passion and sincerity towards film making. 


Your films have such varied topics; what inspires you?

When I make films, I first make them for myself. I have to be really excited about the topics I deal with, I have to constantly be challenged. There’s so much from Life to borrow from. I’ve constantly said I want to dabble in every single genre; I constantly keep pushing myself.


While your films usually achieve critical acclaim, they are not always a commercial success. Does this bother you?

Absolutely! Because films are made for as large an audience as possible. Based on the sensibilities, each film talks to a section of the audience. When the large audiences don’t turn out, it bothers me like it does any film maker. I understand very well that my films cater to a certain segment; if my films don’t do well at the box office, I don’t suffer but it’s like…let’s move on.


 Do you write for yourself, or with an eye on international awards?

You can’t write for awards. If anyone knew what the magic thing was, everybody would write on it! You write on what’s correct for the story. I can say with absolute certainty that I’ve never compromised on the story. There are people who set the stories in India but everybody speaks in English - I have always been honest to the background of the film or story. If it works out on the international level, great, but I can’t always predict that!


 Unlike most other writers/directors, your films have off-beat themes and seem to be made mainly because you believe in them. What gives you this courage of convictions?

Well, I don’t know what you mean by “offbeat” unless you mean something that doesn’t fall in the frame of Hindi commercial cinema. I’ve dabbled I all kinds of films. When you write and direct, you need to be absolutely convinced; it’s a long process. Writing is a lonely process. First you have to be convinced, then you have to convince people to invest. I stand by every single story! Nobody forced me. The beauty about Art is that it constantly evolves. All I need at that moment is to truly believe – and then my journey begins.


Does any international writer/director inspire/influence you?

A lot of them! The Coen brothers, Alan Sorkin, are some of the writers I truly look up to. On the director front too… the Coen brothers again, Steven Soderbergh, Spielberg,…a lot of extraordinary directors…Damien Chazelle who just did La La Land…a lot of great work being done that’s entirely, entirely inspiring.


Whom do you consider as the best Indian screenplay writer today? Why?

Oh boy! I’d have to go back to the age of Salim-Javed. For the reason that there is no right or wrong in cinema. I write my own stuff with certain sensibilities and a philosophy of what I want to say, which sometimes does or does not appeal. My flavour is like a lot of Hrishida’s stuff (Hrishikesh Mukherjee) but I’m very inspired by Salim-Javed. When Salim-Javed wrote, it followed a dramatic path in cinema. They had an amazing sense of drama. My favourite is ‘Deewar.’ When you look at the way the scenes are structured…the dramatic flourish….I wish at some point that I could make that kind of film. I might!!


You seem to prefer working with new faces rather than established names. What is the reason for this?

See, a lot of the time film making is both an art and a business. Films need a certain budget to make sense and because of the budget, the casting is affected. A bigger budget needs an actor to justify it. But when a big budget actor enters the fray, he goes above the script. Newer actors don’t bring baggage into the equation, so I’m free to mould them as I want.


In your entire film making career, there appear to be only two movies – ‘Iqbal’and ‘Dor’ – where the scripts were penned by others. What is the criteria that makes you selective in choosing another writer’s story idea?

Even those scripts were penned by me! Wikipedia is a scourge on mankind; it puts out information that’s not correct! Actually, ‘Iqbal’ comes from a short story I wrote; twenty of us were asked to write stories to commemorate President Abdul Kalam’s second year in office and I chose that theme because he liked children a lot. ‘Dor’ had a different trajectory. It’s based on a true incident, but there is a Malayalam film that was made first; I purchased the rights to it and re-wrote the entire film. So far, I’d never reached out to another writer, but now, for the first time, Rohit Banawlikar is working with me on my latest film, ‘Maya.’


How comfortable are you with dialogue writing? Is Hindi still a barrier?

I write all my lines in English. I have a very close friend who’s an Urdu poet who translated my first 4-5 scripts. I am comfortable in Hindi, but I don’t think in Hindi. My command of the language is nowhere as good as over English, for sure. I have different dialogue writers and I literally go over every line with them to fine tune it.


What is the next project to be?

I’m not ready to talk about it yet as I’m still finalising the writing, but it will be called ‘Maya.’ There will be all newcomers in it again and it will be shot in India.



Has there been any script that’s led you to think – darn, I wish I’d thought of that idea?

That happens on a daily basis! I’m constantly amazed by other people’s work and I keep thinking I need to up my game! It’s constant – honest to God. I think – that’s such a great piece of writing, I wish I’d thought of it first. If you stop being inspired by people around you, you stop growing.



How do you deal with criticism, especially as a writer?

The writer is almost non-existent when it comes to the journalists as well as the audience! So I have never received criticism as a writer, I’ve only encountered criticism as a director (laughs.) There is no right or wrong – I’m sorry you didn’t like what I did! (sarcastically.) People feel entitled to freely voice their opinion even about things they don’t know much about. It’s their prerogative to say, ‘I like it,’ or, ‘I don’t like it.’ But when you randomly criticise…there’s a lot of stuff you need to understand before that!

There is no right or wrong. Writing, more so than film making, is a very personal process. A writer literally sits in a room and builds up the script. You ask a 100 people and you’ll get a 100 viewpoints. The only viewpoint I take is of Elahe, who is my partner; she is not a writer, but she has an extremely visceral reaction to the script. There are two aspects to a script – the technical and the visceral and we sometimes forget that the average audience does the latter.

I’ve always believed strongly in writing original material and that’s what I’ve done my entire life. Writing is a profession that is ignored so much in India; Hollywood realised it about 15-years ago and it’s time India did that. Scriptwriters are an essential part of the script – THE most essential part!


- Punam Mohandas


(Punam Mohandas is a film buff, a journalist, an author, an accomplished travel writer and an expert on South Asia. She also writes columns on film personalities. She has lived and worked in India, Dubai and Bangkok.)



-Punam Mohandas

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