The National Award winning filmmaker Nagesh Kukunoor talks to Pandolin about his recently released film Lakshmi.


What  inspired you to make a film on human trafficking and child prostitution?

There’s an NGO that I work with and roughly around 4 years ago, I actually had an opportunity to visit one of their rescue shelter homes. I met these women and the more I interacted with them, the more I heard about their stories of heroism. Then I met this amazing young girl who became the central character of my film. As a human being one feels strongly about lots of things happening in the world. It’s not always that I find a hook or a story to actually be able to do something. I have always felt that the greater service I can do is by making a movie because that’s the only thing I know relatively well. But a film is all about the story, so you can’t just start it with a message because then the story gets lost along the way.

What sort of research went into the writing of this film? Did you face any difficulties getting resources to write it?

My research for this film entirely stemmed from talking to these women and the social workers. It was all first hand. Of course, we went to the locations too but that’s not very helpful in terms of resources. So until you actually start talking to people, you don’t get enough information.

I made a 14-minute short film on them, which I gave to Plan India. At the time, the feature film was not even on the radar. I approached these women and told them I wanted to tell the world what they have endured and that can actually have a positive impact on the other girls so that they can come out stronger. However, when I was talking to these women, a part of me wanted to know what exactly happened but at the same time I knew that by having the woman relive this tale, I was making her go through that trauma again. So there was this constant battle within me. So I told them to share their stories with me to the point that they were comfortable with.

The raw camera footage captured long pauses, them thinking about what they want to say and what they don’t. It was a difficult process because I can only be sensitive, the way a man can be. I can never connect with them the way a woman can. I had many women on my team including my producing partner Elahe who was always there. The environment was comfortable but it really didn’t matter because there was camera and they were talking about something that was deeply linked to shame and even though none of it was their fault,there’s a stigma attached to it.


I spoke to the social workers, who filled in the gaps. There was no way I could get every single detail required to make a feature film. Hence the film opens with it claiming to be a work of fiction even though many of the stories are true.

Was the process of making this film emotionally draining for you?

For me, the only emotional part of the process is the writing stage, when the whole story comes together. That’s when I react at a very human level; whereas direction is a very matter of fact process. Also, I always say, it’s difficult for us men to understand what a woman actually goes through when she is subjected to rape or sexual torture. So, we try and sympathize as much as we can but we are never going to feel what they do.

I faced some difficulties when very sensitive material was being shot but otherwise filmmaking is all about breaking it up into small bits. There were some challenging days on the set but for the most part, I tried to not get emotionally involved with my material. In order to direct, one needs to be detached from such sentiments.

What were some of the major challenges you faced during the shooting of Lakshmi?

The biggest one was of course the fact that we shot the film in 22 days. I have not done a film that fast since Hyderabad Blues, which was shot in 17 days; the difference between Hyderabad Blues and Lakshmi being the 15 year gap. Also, in Hyderabad Blues, I was playing myself but in Lakshmi, I play a totally evil character. So it was physically and mentally challenging for me. Undoubtedly it was one of the most exhausting films I have made but at the same time, one of the most satisfying too. When you shoot a film in 22 days, it means that everything is going right on the sets. Besides, I had an amazing set of actors who gave me perfect first and second takes.


What were the locations like?

The film was shot in Hyderabad and like any other film; we build its own little universe. There was actually one section of an old abandoned house, which we converted into the whole brothel. Haris Umar Khan was the art director and he worked with me on my last film as well. I always shoot on real locations so he slightly modifies them to suit our purpose.

Please tell us about the cinematography, lighting and the look of the film?

We used RED MX and it’s the first time I shot on digital. My DOP was Chirantan Das and he shot my last two films as well. He is terrific; he shot this entire film without professional lighting using just bulbs. Monali (who plays the central character in the film) and I did a trial run in one of the slums in Hyderabad. We found a space which I thought sort of looked perfect and we lit it both for day and night. I felt very strongly about not using lights because the moment a DOP uses light, he or she approaches it in a slightly different way. Not that they can’t get real with lights but I felt that in a film like Lakshmi, the truth could be told a lot better with ambient lighting. This is very challenging for a cinematographer.

When I looked at the footage of the trail run, I was fully convinced that we were going in the right direction. In some of the scenes we used Chinese lanterns which added  a nice diffused effect but in scenes that required elements of grittiness or harshness, naked bulbs were used. The genius of any cinematographer is to understand the context of a scene and push the audience’s mind into the same emotional space with lighting. Sometimes, I also like to go completely out of the box and light a difficult scene prettily. Chiru and I were in sync because it’s our third film together. We do our homework well and on the set we breeze through stuff. He is one of the fastest cinematographers I have worked with.


How did you go about the sound design and music for Lakshmi?

I like to collaborate with people I have worked with before and I have a fairly loyal team. My sound designer, Vipin Bhati has been with me since Dor and he is absolutely amazing. He used live sound in a noisy city without hampering the pace of the work, which is just incredible. The music is by Tapas Relia and I am glad that he is finally getting recognition for his work. There’s an amazing, uplifting song sung by Papon, which sounds almost like a lullaby. It talks about courage, strength and moving forward. When I heard it, I found the tune very soothing but wanted the lyrics to be the exact opposite of that feeling. It’s the first time I have worked with this talented lyricist called Manoj Yadav.

How did you go about the casting of this film?

For Lakshmi’s role I had to find someone who fit the role really well and could act. I don’t think there’s an actress other than Monali Thakur who is over 21 but looks 14. Normally, I even forsake the looks because if a person can act, then that’s what I really care about. But in this case, looks played a very important role. Shefali Shetty is someone I have wanted to work with for a while but didn’t have a role with enough meat for her to accept. She is amazing as the madam of the brothel. There are so many shades of grey in her character, which only a really good actress like her could perform. Satish Kaushik was great fun to work with because I cast him against his usual style. We all know him as a jolly comedian while he plays a pretty bad character in this film. It took a little convincing to get him to do this role. But once he did, he was fearless and brilliant.


I decided to work with Ram Kapoor after watching Udaan and he is one actor you are going to see a lot in my films. He and Shefali are such competent actors, who give you no stress and are so brilliant.

Could you tell a little bit about your own character in the film?

My character name is Chinna and I realized that I wanted to play the role while writing the script. He is such a despicable character, that I felt another actor won’t be able do justice to it. He is an idiot but a very strong character and I thought that I understood that duality very well. Normally, actors try to find some commonality in their characters but I hope I have nothing in common with a pimp. However, I feel that I understood, how to play Chinna correctly. Also, most actors cannot do a Hyderabadi accent well and I did not want someone to destroy it.

What was your rehearsal process like?

My rehearsal process for this film was no different from what I do with all my films; which is I do script readings with my actors. The essential part of reading for me involves hearing the character and not seeing it because there are dress rehearsals for that. Once I am done with the reading session and I really hear the character, I don’t rehearse any more and take it to set. If I don’t hear the character, I hold multiple readings and sometimes it take a little while. For Lakshmi, I asked Monali to not try to play a 14 year old and just be herself. In the past when I directed kids, I told them the same thing because as you get older, you become extremely conscious of your body and automatically your walking style and body language change. So, that was something, I worked on. Everything else was done on the sets. Monali is very good with taking directions and she has great instincts.


How would you describe your creative partnership with Sanjib Dutta, the editor of Lakshmi?

I have been working with the same editor for the last ten films and in my opinion Sanjib Dutta is one of India’s best editors. He trained under Renu Saluja who edited my film Bollywood Calling. She passed away while she was still working on the project and  Sanjib took over.

No one can edit a dramatic scene better than Sanjib. I let him run with the film for two months and  after he finishes his cut, I take over.

What do you want your audience to take away from Lakshmi?

There are parts of Lakshmi that are difficult to watch but I want the audience to take two hours of their time and see it. It’s a very heroic story and not just another film on trafficking.

When we had the first few screenings, a lot of women said that they had difficulty watching it. But the truth is that, this happens in our backyard and we have to deal with it. The subject will become more sensitive when more people watch it and that’s the only way to bring some kind of change.