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Four-mula One

Director Nagesh Kukunoor, Shefali Shah, Monali Thakur and Elahe Hiptoola in conversation with team Box Office India

Box Office India (BOI): Nagesh, you’re releasing a film after quite a few years. What can the audience expect from your upcoming film, Lakshmi?

Shefali Shah (SS): Expect the unexpected!

Nagesh Kukunoor (NK): (Laughs) Yes, I try and do that with every film. I am always very wary when people say things like ‘Oh! This is that director’s film.’ Which means that he makes an action film or a song-and-dance musical. I have worked very hard not to make a specific kind of film. This film will also shock a lot of people because even though it’s a tale of heroism, it is a walk down the dark side.

It will take the audience to places where they usually wouldn’t venture or wouldn’t want to venture. Lakshmi clearly shines the spotlight on a problem I am very passionate about. So, in sum, this film will catch the audience off-guard. It’s a hard-hitting, gritty film, and it’s not what you expect. I hate referring to myself in the third person but it’s not your ideal Nagesh Kukunoor type of film.

BOI: Why make a dark film?

NK: Oh, just because there are so many wonderful subjects to pick from. I usually latch on to adroit stories. That’s usually the starting point for me. Lakshmi is a story about someone who is pushed into a very bad, dark place but triumphed over it. Sometimes, the timing of a film is very critical as all the elements need to fall into place. This film was triggered by the casting of Monali (Thakur). It’s not like I say, ‘Chalo ab ek dark film banayein.’

BOI: You said Monali triggered the film. How and why did you zero in on her?

NK: I was determined not to have a 14-year-old play the role of Lakshmi. Two years ago, I had cast a child actress from Hyderabad. She was 14 and it became apparent that I was getting more and more uncomfortable with the film. It didn’t seem right to expose a child to that material. So I halted the film and we decided not to make it. The idea was to get someone who was at least 18 to do the film or over 21. We weren’t even planning to make the film when I went to this party where I saw Monali.

Elahe Hiptoola (EH): I was in Hyderabad and I got this message that Lakshmi would be made. At the time, we had started pre-production on another film.

NK: I was very uncomfortable about casting a child because there is so much a 14-year-old doesn’t know. Moreover, the material we were dealing with for Lakshmi was stuff an adult needs to deal with. When I saw Monali, I had no idea who she was and how old she was, but I was hoping…

BOI: …That she was over 14?

NK: (Laughs) Exactly! So I approached her and asked her if she would audition. Of course, she was interested. So we went back to the drawing board to see if she suited the role. And she did.

EH: I have to say that, at that party, Nagesh was wearing a cap and was looking at her.

Monali Thakur (MT): …and hoping I wouldn’t see but I did. And that was so…

BOI: Freaky?

MT: Yes, kind of! (Laughs)

NK: Like an older guy checking out a younger girl?

EH: And a director, no less!

MT: When I saw him at the party, I wanted to walk up to him and tell him I was a fan of his. But then I saw him staring at me and I got really worried!

NK: She thought she had done something wrong and that’s why I was staring.

MT: I thought there was something wrong with my clothes because I was wearing shorts.

NK: I remember that. But I was looking at her intently and thinking, ‘She is a very young girl.’ I was wondering how old she was. That’s why I was staring at her. Like she said, I had my cap pulled down really low and was hoping she wouldn’t notice me looking at her. (Laughs)

MT: I was really wondering what was wrong! (Laughs)

NK: All my life, I have never cast anyone with just a visual glimpse that haan, you are the right person, chalo I will cast you. I don’t have that kind of arrogance. I usually go through a pool of actors and let the audition process dictate who gets cast unless, of course, you have an established actress like Shefali (Shah).

BOI: Monali, most female newcomers making their Bollywood debut want glamorous roles. Were you comfortable essaying such a role in your debut film?

MT: I was very happy that I didn’t have to wear make-up. How can you say one wouldn’t want to do such a role in their debut film? I was extremely lucky to get a character like this to play in my first film, regardless of whether it was the lead or not. It was great to play such a strong character and, of course, to work with Nagesh sir. I cannot express in words, what it was like to work with all of them and how much I learnt.

BOI: You have learnt the ropes of being an actress and to say the right things...

MT: (Laughs) No, when you watch the film, you will know what I mean. It’s been a dream-like experience. I am not kidding.

NK: The performances will tell you how hard one had to work. I am assuming that if you work hard, you want it very badly.

BOI: Monali, how did you prepare for your role?

MT: Workshops, workshops and more workshops!

BOI: Shefali, this is your first film with Nagesh. What’s he like as a director?

SS: He was great fun to work with but you felt the urge to stab him or something, just to get some kind of reaction from him after a shot. He would always wear a straight face and I kept wondering whether the shot was good or not. But he was extremely liberal and knows exactly what he wants. He had all the right answers. When we were on the sets, he knew what he wanted and somehow I was able to deliver exactly that. There were shots where he did not react at all. I was clueless, theek kiya, achcha kiya, achcha nahi laga? Kuch toh batao. It sounds easy but it’s not exactly one of the easiest roles to play.

Before we started the film, the first thing I told Nagesh was that I didn’t have an image of the character. He didn’t want a regular madam because when you talk about a regular madam, Bazaar or Mandi or Umrao Jaan comes to mind. I remember, he once told me I couldn’t be so ‘proper’. Besides, one should be close to the character and, in this case, I couldn’t be. He told me, ‘When you look at her at first, she shouldn’t come across as a madam.’ So coming back to the question, we were in sync and we also did a lot of scenes together.

EH: Nagesh has also acted in the film. Adding to what Shefali said, I have done 13 films in 15 years with Nagesh. It’s not that he is not approachable but there is so much happening on the sets and the director is in charge of everything. So the next best person to approach is me. So they ask me, ‘Sir has not said anything.’ And I ask them, ‘Is there anything you want me to convey?’ Nagesh would say, ‘Don’t worry when I don’t say anything.’ This means if he is not reacting, he is happy with your work. But as an actor, you do need feedback.

SS: (Cuts in) Yes, because after working for two to three days, I got the hang of it because by then then you understand how the film is moving but in the first couple of days, you’re always searching for a reaction.

BOI: Shefali and Nagesh, you have quite a few scenes together in the film. Did that bonding help when you were acting together?

NK: When we were acting together, I was more worried. When you face-off against a good actor, you have to be on top of your game. Chinna, the character I played, is flamboyant and loud but one of the reasons I chose to play the character was I wanted him to be real. I wore loud shirts and jewellery but I didn’t want the filmy element. When I acted with Monali, I knew in my head that she was starting out so I could do all kinds of dadagiri with her. But when you’re against an actor who has been there, done that, you need to be on top of your game. I am acting, I look at her as a director and go, ‘Oh my God, she is bloody spot-on! What the hell am I doing?’ This happened to me with Naseer (Naseeruddin Shah) as well.

BOI: Nagesh, you also write most of your films. Is it important for a director to write his own films?

NK: No, it’s not. The reason I have written all my films is I have certain sensibilities and I have a certain sense of screenplay. I haven’t found a writer to match that. From time to time, we have tried other writers but I don’t like their sense of cinema because their conditioning is very Hindi cinema. I like my characters to speak in a certain way and I have never found that connect.

BOI: But all that is changing with the kind of movies that are being written now.

NK: The quality and calibre of writers has gone through the roof. There is good stuff being written out there. It still needs to get to the length of a screenplay. My biggest fear always is, a good idea always doesn’t make a good movie. There is so much that goes into making a movie. And screenplay writers can come up with two great pages and make a film. I have a couple of writers now on my radar.

BOI: Would you be open to working with new writers?

NK: Yes, and I think pretty soon I will be directing a film which has been written by someone else.

BOI: Will we see you producing movies for others as well? Or launching new directors?

NK: I don’t want to lend my name to just about any film. Producing means taking an active part in designing the film, not just saying ‘Nagesh Kukunoor Presents’ that’s irrelevant to me.

BOI: Also, Nagesh, the kind of movies you make are not commercial, masala movies. Would you be open to doing something in that space?

NK: I could never ever transition to that completely. What I could do is try and find a balance, a subject that has a wider range. We always go back to Iqbal and Dor. These are films very much in my space. The difference was the topics had a larger effect. Sometimes, when I make films, I make films the material itself. Like Aashayein, the guy who died of cancer. Not many people want to go and watch a guy dying of cancer.

EH: (Cuts in) Even if it’s John Abraham.

NK: Exactly! Especially if it’s John Abraham. You want John to take off his shirt and kick someone and walk in slow motion and mouth smart lines. Often, it’s the topic that makes a film larger or smaller.

BOI: So casting a big actor brings a certain burden to the project for it to recover the money invested?

NK: Bigger actors bring their own sense of economics and baggage. I have dealt with that in a couple of my films. There are pluses and minuses of having a big actor. The advantage is, you are usually guaranteed a release. The disadvantage is that there is a certain amount of pressure and an element of packaging. But there are so many directors now who are finding that balance so well, so it’s not that it cannot be done. I just have to get there.

BOI: Nagesh, today, when audiences are open to good content, where do you think Lakshmi stands?

NK: I have often been asked this question over the years. There will always be the mainstream, and there will be always be a bunch of us who don’t play by the rules of mainstream. This bunch will have their work cut out for them. Just because two or three smaller films work doesn’t mean all of them will. With larger films, you have the pre-sale interest but you have the interest locked in. What is Salman Khan’s next film? The whole country will know. I am not saying they will all buy tickets but they will know. But filmmakers like us have to fight for attention, and for me, the best thing is so many people, ‘Itna lamba gap le liya… Dor ke baad kuch banaya nahi’. I mean, four films I have release post Dor. And I have seen it hundreds of times. They are aware of Dor and Iqbal.

BOI: How important is a film’s stake at the box office?

NK: Very, because every time you’re struggling to raise money in the market, they refer to your past work. As they say, you are only as good as your last film. It is always a challenge and at least the people I approach know what kind of films I make. But, earlier, it was another battle to fight. Now they know I am not coming from a commercial perspective but are they still interested? It’s always a challenge.

BOI: Are producers still apprehensive about backing your work?

NK: There is always interest but they want to find out what the other elements are, and this is always going to be the case. But if I start the conversation by saying, ‘I have Emraan Hashmi in this,’ then there are no questions. No one is going to ask what you’re going to make. But if I say I am going to make this kind of a film, the next question is, ‘Who are the stars?’ Then if I say there are no stars, they ask me about the budget. Let’s be very clear that ours is a very hero-oriented industry. That’s where everything begins. But the conversations have become a lot easier.

BOI: Yet you make films that are more female-oriented. Why swim against the tide?

NK: I do not deliberately take the road less travelled. It is about my belief in the material. If Lakshmi was not a story of heroism, I would not have nurtured it at all. Yes, I believe very passionately in women’s equality but that is not enough reason to make a film. It is that cinematic element. I just need to latch on to that story.

Often, when we finish a script and they love it, they say why don’t we cast so and so. That is always the next question. But that takes away the soul of the film.

BOI: Elahe, you have had a very long association with Nagesh. Have you guys always been on the same page or are there any differences of opinion?

EH: A lot of differences of opinion and it is just not me; there are a lot of other people who have been working with him for that long. We voice our opinions but the thing is that we all believe in his vision completely and we also raise doubts. I’m like, you can’t kill her in the film or this is not going to work. These things happen and that carries on till the films’ release. I don’t let go easily. But we firmly believe this man is the captain of the ship and we will bring his vision to life and that’s the beauty about a film.

NK: I am a person who doesn’t trust easily. I need someone to earn that trust. Only then can I listen to that person’s opinion. In this industry, everyone has an opinion, especially in corporate offices. Barely six months into the job and they are voicing opinions on films and scripts. Earlier, I used to be told that a ‘script committee’ had read my script. So, I would ask, ‘Who is in your script committee? ‘They would name a whole list of people. But has any of them written a script? Nine out of ten times, the answer is no. I don’t mind listening to people talk to me about my script. But talk to me only if you have read a thousand scripts or written a script.

EH: At a corporate studio, we are told, ‘We are thinking about the script.’ They have duffer movies in their library of films. Maybe they got a star or maybe they got a great writer or great songs. Each one has to be valued for what they bring to the project.

BOI: You are not very comfortable working with a corporate house?

NK: No, it is not that but, as I said, if you name a star for your film, there are no further discussions and if you don’t, there are 50,000 discussions on things like the script and this and that.

BOI: But there are other aspects like marketing and distribution that a corporate house takes care of in a project.

EH: Not necessarily, how long did the makers of Paan Singh Tomar sit with UTV? But it released after all that time only because Tigmanshu’s other film was a hit. No film waits in the cans for three years in a corporate office with a name like Tigmanshu Dhulia. It is not like he is a new filmmaker. I am okay with them saying that no matter what happens, we will invest the same muscle in a film because it is from our stable. But they are also biased. They didn’t sit on Paan Singh Tomar for any other reason but they didn’t see value in that film. They saw the value in the film only after the director’s other film did well.

NK: When you have a script, people will produce it and people will finance it. They have been in the business for a long time. You might disagree with their opinion but they come from a knowledge point of view. The problem is that in the corporate environment, if there are people with scripting knowledge, directing knowledge, it is okay to have a conversation, it is their prerogative.

EH: Like a Ronnie Screwvala… he knows what movie-making is all about.

NK: Absolutely. Usually, everything is taken care of till the movie hits cinemas. The pressure is taken off you. But when things come together like they did for Lakshmi, it is important to get the right people and for everyone to share the same vision.

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