Acclaimed filmmaker Nagesh Kukunoor talks about his latest film, Dhanak, that revolves around the beautiful relationship between a visually impaired boy and his sister who embark on a journey to get the kid’s eyesight back.

Dhanak is all set to have its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival 2015. It is the only Indian feature selected in the festival and will compete in the Generation Kplus category.

Sumit Deshpande Photography

Nagesh Kukunoor

Your films are very rooted to reality and explore human relationships closely. What draws you towards such subjects?

It honestly depends on my frame of mind, what excites me and what I want to write about. It’s not a conscious choice. There are several things and ideas that interest me. I jot them down but not all of them get turned into a script. I write stories in many genres and have action scripts, even horror scripts, but it’s ironic that a lot of the human interest ones get made.

Is it true that Dhanak draws inspiration from the Iranian film Besak?

There is a lot of incorrect information on the Internet about Dhanak. The same happened with 3 Deewarein; people would ask me what the film was about and I would say it is a Shawshank Redemption kind of film as it was also set in a prison and Shawshank Redemption is one of my favorite films. And the news that came out was that 3 Deewarein is inspired by Shawshank Redemption. It’s possible that during my conversations about Dhanak I mentioned Iranian cinema and the kind of stories they deal with, like Children of Heaven. Or people just looked at the poster of Dhanak and assumed it’s derived from Iranian cinema. But no, it’s not.

You are making a film with kids after a long time. How was the experience?

After Rockford I said I would never work with kids. But in this business, never say never. Working with children brings with it a different set of challenges, I wouldn’t say better or worse. But not having any kids of my own and not having a point of reference, I’ve always chosen to deal with kids like I would deal with adults. I never baby them. I tell them this is the schedule and that it’s not going to be easy. That’s what I did with the kids in Dhanak as well. I told Hetal and Krish that it’s going to be a brutal shoot in the heat of Rajasthan and that they should go ahead only if they are absolutely sure about it. And I couldn’t have lucked out any more than I did with the two of them. They are two of the sweetest human beings I’ve interacted with and have such a positive attitude. We were shooting in the scorching heat of Rajasthan and never once did they complain. This is something I wish the adults would learn. It was a phenomenal experience working with them.

What was the process and criteria for choosing the kids for the film?

When I’m casting for a film and not casting a known actor, I extensively audition. It’s a long process. I made every kid that showed up to audition scenes from the film itself. I go through various stages to choose them and keep whittling the list stage by stage. We saw over 100 boys and 100 girls before finalising the two of them.

How did you zero in on Rajasthan to base your story? What visual treatment have you and cinematographer Chirantan Das adopted?

I’m in love with Rajasthan because of its landscape and the strong vibrant flavour. It’s one of the few places in India where you can shoot large swards of land without bad human interference. The landscapes are so dramatic that they play an inherent part in your storytelling. This is my third film in Rajasthan and if a story can lend itself to that environment, then yes, I’ll keep going back.

One of the amazing things about Rajasthan is that because of the landscape, the person becomes insignificant. When you set an actor against a city backdrop, you have lots of buildings breaking the clutter behind him. But in Rajasthan, there’s an endless stretch of vast deserted lands, which adds a tremendous amount of drama. My whole approach with Chiru (Chirantan Das) was that the film needs to have a very strong fable like element. We need to bring out the beauty and magic of life being a fable but at the same time give that sense of isolation. Two kids on the road in the middle of nowhere is hundred times more dramatic than two kids walking a city street. So that is what I was trying to create. This is my fourth film with Chiru and he is fantastic.

Dhanak Poster

Is funding a challenge for films like yours that deal with such unconventional subjects?

Raising money for stuff that is unconventional has always been challenging. There are no stars or no easily identifiable stories that one is used to. If I were making similar kinds of films, like comedies for instance, it becomes easier for an investor. But the problem with me is I never make movies in one genre. You never even know what I’m going to do with the next film and that becomes very tricky for an investor. Even though I thankfully have a loyal audience, they got a shock of their lives when they saw Lakshmi as it is so hard-hitting. But that is what I strive for; I want to constantly challenge myself as a filmmaker, never play safe and am constantly excited by different genres. That unconventionality in itself is an issue to raise money.

But the business is such that if you want it bad enough you will find some person to invest. Like Dhanak’s journey was really strange. I met Manish (Mundra) for another film; we hit it off and decided that we could definitely work together. Then he asked me what other stories I have and I told him that there is a sweet story about two little kids that take a journey across Rajasthan. And Manish is from Rajasthan and was very excited to hear the story. Finally he said that this is the film that we should make. I had committed Dhanak to someone else but Manish was so keen that things just worked out. You find money in the strangest places when you least expect it.

The music of your films always carves a niche for itself. What would you say about the music of Dhanak?

Dhanak has really good music and I’m so happy with what Tapas (Relia) has done. He composed the music for Lakshmi as well and I loved the songs. But he has genuinely outdone himself with Dhanak. It’s such a strong group of songs using local sounds and local flavour and has come out really well.

Was the selection at Berlinale anticipated? What are your expectations from the festival? What lies ahead for Dhanak post Berlinale?

Just getting that call in December saying that your film is in was reason enough to jump up and shout. After that reality set in, I had to condense three months of post-production into five weeks, which we did and finally sent the print last week. Once in Berlin, I’m just going to soak it all up at the festival and enjoy it. All this was my part of the journey, something that I could control. Everything on from this point is something I can’t control. So I’m going to try my best to not agonize about it. Just attend the screenings, enjoy the Q & A’s and see where this road leads. But yes, fingers crossed, hopefully we can nail it and take Dhanak into the world.

We have planned the way ahead but cannot say much till the official word is out.

How would you define your style of filmmaking? How do you prepare your cast for a film?

So many filmmakers are so keen about establishing a style, leaving a legacy, and marketing themselves, but it’s the least of my concerns. If you watch my films, you cannot pick a particular style. As I deal with a genre, I try and adapt to it, learn something in the process and challenge myself. For me being true to the genre is the most important thing. Way back when I started filmmaking, I used to describe my style as real fiction – I get my actors to create a space that is totally real but at the same time tell a fictional story. But eventually I just let my films do the talking.

I always have readings with the cast to try and eliminate questions that could be asked on the set. Like for Dhanak, questions related to the body language, mannerisms of playing a blind kid and so on. The doors are open to ask any number of questions any number of times. But the most important part during the readings is to hear the actor correctly mouth his lines because that is when he moves into the character. If I can hear the voice correctly in my head, I stop the rehearsal process and go to the set. A lot of times I end up rehearsing a lot more than is necessary because the actor is still not getting the character’s voice.

You’ve written all of your films. Would you be open to directing someone else’s story? Writing or Direction, which is more challenging of the two?

Directing is undoubtedly more enjoyable; it’s dynamic, energetic, something that I live for, and the most beautiful part of the filmmaking process. Writing is by far the scariest. Because you’re starting with a blank page and there are a hundred different ways you can go. Writing is an extremely painful, love-hate process. I keep hating the process yet am drawn to it. Obviously that’s the starting point for anything. Once I get that part sorted then I know that the director can handle it.

I am open to directing other scripts but I’m yet to come across a script that I’m truly happy with. A lot of the stuff that people give me is half-baked material that they haven’t worked through. And I’d rather write my own material than fix theirs. So if a script blows me away, I will surely work on it.