Pandolin on Nagesh Kukunoor and his peculiarities

Nagesh Kukunoor

Nagesh Kukunoor

What aspect of love stories urged you to make this movie?

I swore never to make a love story and the sole reason behind not making one was my belief that like love songs, the movies have been completely abused. There is nothing interesting left to tell and I have avoided it as long as I could; but in this business you never say never. Writers and directors go through these phases in life when as we start to write a story, we get this sense that someone somewhere has already done this before. It’s a very detrimental process as it is self-defeating from the get go. But it wasn’t until I saw this Taiwanese film, Keeping Watch at a film festival in Singapore where I sat on the jury and somehow the soul of the story got to me.

When I take a step back, I think that all really good love stories are of mismatched people because you keep wondering how things are going to play out.  The love stories that we witness in our industry are all the same; the hero walks up and there is a 40 frame shot of the heroine and they fall in love. The process is never really explored. In the Indian film context, characters are already in love and then the story is tackled but getting to the part where they are falling in love and then continuing with the story, which Hollywood does a lot, is what I find more appealing. I took the quirky characters and added the Indian element to them so that the audience could relate to it. The story is about this woman who runs a clock store and takes care of her dad and when you least expect it, a stranger walks into her life and the story unfolds.  In essence, I have made a quirky yet old-fashioned movie.

 On what level do you think that audiences have connected with Mod?

You never really know what connects with the audience. As filmmakers we have a knack of always saying that the audience will associate with our movies. Or at least we have to put some sense of false bravado before we launch a film to show our faith in it but honestly speaking we never know. The best thing is to have faith in your version of things because that is the only thing that is under your control. The good part is that I have had a fair amount of success in what I believe explicitly when I was told that it wouldn’t work. Things have also misfired but the success that I have achieved gives me faith. So do what you truly believe in.

Your past movies have received mixed reviews. What lessons do you learn?

I will repeat myself a million times; there are no lessons to be learnt. For example Bombay to Bangkok didn’t work. What is the lesson? That I shouldn’t make wacky rom-com about an Indian boy and a Thai girl set in Bangkok?

Filmmaking is such an oddball art that the first part is all one can control, that is the making then the perception is anybody’s guess. If you look at all the people who dropped Iqbal because there was a deaf mute as the main character; on every front they said that cricket movies don’t work, sports movies rarely find success in India. So there is nothing to be learnt. What is critical is that you sell your product correctly. Marketing is important.

How was your experience working on this film?

I shoot very aggressively. Most of the movies that I have made have been shot in 40 days and you get the sense of the degree of difficulty. And I hate shooting in the cold. Ideally I would love to shoot all my films in Rajasthan. I can take the heat even at a ridiculously high temperature but at the same time you have to bypass things like that. You can never let the physical discomfort interfere with the creative process because that discomfort should never be depicted in the movie.

 Having said that, in terms of directing actors this was the best film that I ever directed. I have never had so much fun directing so many actors who take instructions so well. Usually in a movie there are one or two main characters; for instance in Dor we had Aayesha as our main character and there were peripheral actors. Shooting then becomes a chore but not this one. In Mod there were so many actors that were cast and I got many great first and second takes which is unheard of. I didn’t have to go back and reshoot and this was strange because this was a movie where we burned only 150 cans and that is when you truly enjoy filmmaking. My cinematographer Chiru (Chirantan Das) has done outstanding work. I made a very distinct choice from Iqbal where I would create this little utopian world in India. It seems very simple in the way it is laid out but I shoot in about 35 to 40 different locations to conceive a small town. I don’t use sets for the movie and therefore it becomes more challenging to shoot within 40 days.

The urban India is positively ugly as there is virtually nothing redeeming that would contribute to the story unless it is a gangster’s tale. But if you are trying to narrate something that is very soothing to the eye which lets you settle down and enjoy the place, you have to go to rural towns and villages and create these worlds because that is what retains the magic of India to a certain extent. So there has been a very conscious effort from Iqbal to start doing this. I have a phenomenal Production Designer who has been with me for the past 12 years. Devika is a magic woman who would find these spectacular locations.

While shooting in a place like Ooty for Mod, where everything has been shot to death, I defy you to watch the movie and tell me that it is Ooty. If you want to create these beautiful little worlds then you need two great people – the Production Designer and the Cinematographer.

How would you describe your approach as a Director?

There is nothing spontaneous with me when it comes to filmmaking. Everything is planned again and again. However when you bring the only unknown element into the film, which is the actors, magic can happen. No matter how well you have structured it in your head, when you bring two human beings or more in a frame, things are bound to go the other way. Apart from that, the framing and the reframing is talked about endlessly. I don’t go to the set and start to frame. In my case it’s real locations and so I visit it a number of times and typically take the actors and assistant directors and I will shoot the entire breakdown on a digital camera so that there is no confusion and when they do the walk through they know exactly what they have to do. That is why I shoot fast as it is only execution because all the thinking is taken out of the equation. But with actors, I will give them a framework and then a first or a second rehearsal will be run and then we have a go at it and if they want to bring something new in terms of interpretation of the scene or their characters, I am okay with it. However, I am not okay with having long discussions on set. All those discussions can happen off set when the meter is not running. Many times I have been wrong about the framework of a scene and the actors have bought a new dimension to it.

What is your thought process when you start a film?

I will resort to a cliché here; I concentrate only on the story that I have to tell. 99 per cent of the times I never go back and watch a movie. I saw Bollywood Calling after 10 years and I actually enjoyed it because the mistakes were forgotten. You have analyzed every frame so many times that it takes away the joy of truly interpreting how the movie is doing on a whole. So to answer your question it is not a film that I want to watch but it is a story that I want to tell. Ever since I can remember I loved telling stories but now it has translated somewhere else and I immensely enjoy the process.

How would you rate story, technique and performance?

Story would be one and from a practical standpoint I will have to pick performance over technique because even if the technique is terrible, a great performance will still be a winner with the audience.

I love the technical aspect of film making and we have always joked about how I could shoot the entire film without actors because they are the ones who really mess up the equation for the shortest period of time and grab the glory at the end but that is what the audience comes to watch.

One of my favorite all time film makers is Hrishikesh Mukherjee and he always had the most amazing performances, very good story telling skills but not technically sound. In essence the framing was okay, lighting not that extra ordinary but he didn’t worry about that. I still watch his films and they are fabulous. Therefore I will have to give performance an edge over technique.

How did you get inspired?

Ninety percent of my sensibilities are western which is kind of nice because at the core I am an Indian and I have taken those other sensibilities, married the two and managed to do something on my own.

How did I get inspired? The first memory that I have where I wanted to become a film director was when I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1985 and I think the definitive movie that propelled me into saying that I want to become a director was after watching Terminator 2 in 1991 and it is still on my top 5 films of all time.

Is a big budget essential to make a good Science Fiction film?

Science fiction is difficult to sell in India because eventually when the numbers play out you have to cater to a large audience but maybe 5 to 10 years from now because Hollywood movies are being dubbed into Indian languages and they are reaching the villages. If they start to absorb it they might be able to buy into it.

Which film makers inspire you?

The Coen brothers, Steven Soderbergh and when it comes to big budget movies, there is no substitute for James Cameron. Micheal Bay does come out but one can get close to James Cameron. Although Avatar is the most clichéd movie, it doesn’t make a difference. These directors have constantly done what they want to and their movies are still captivating. I still admire Sydney Lumet because at 83 he came back and made an Oscar nominated movie.

My recent favorite Hindi film would be Udaan because there is something that sort of stands out in that movie.

What is your vision for the future of Indian cinema?

2007 was a stellar year for this industry because some 73 new directors were launched. I think there is a lot of hope. My problem is that all the directors are coming from the same background; all are from urban India and so naturally all have similar influences. The beauty of India lies in the disparity between the Indian literates and illiterates. The gap is so wide that there is another world out there that is being overlooked in terms of great stories. I wish more tales were told and in order to tell those tales either one has to be inspired by stuff like that or have people from that background. What I am saying is that we should bring the experience to the people and not that if a film is set in a village will only appeal to people of the village. Rural aspects need to be explored and when you have all young people, the genres may vary, but the story telling is the same.

While working with actors for MOD were there any differences?

All the actors that I have worked with except for the veterans who actually know the craft listen to my point of view and there is no different interpretation of the scene and if there is a difference I like that to be played out if it makes sense in the overall context.

I never had any actor disagree because of the way I operate. The script is with the actors for a long time before we start the actual process of shooting. Therefore a million conversations take place to sort out our differences before we actually head out to the location and start shooting the movie.

How important is it for a director to have acting experience/ background?

The beauty about this field is that nothing is fixed, nothing is right, nothing is wrong. People go to film school and become terrible directors and so there are no rules. I think it is a tremendous asset. I trained as an actor for 3 years but have a week’s workshop to my credit as a director.

There are directors who have no experience in acting but they make brilliant films. They just throw people into the scene and they can sort of figure out if that works.

How would you define a good director and a fantastic one?

A fantastic director is the one who gets those moments out where thrills runs through your body. There are lots of great directors but the ones who can really nail a moment; those are the ones who are just positively brilliant. There are directors who make great films and you walk out with a nice wonderful sense but a moment that makes you weak in the knees, that is just truly fantastic.

What references did you use for Mod?

For Mod, the most important place was the clock store. We looked at the movie, My Blueberry Nights which was a starting point for us. We used that to set the tone, a lot of color, which dictated the art design. At the same time, the Lebanese movie, Caramel was also a reference. We didn’t want the tones to go below that.

Your view on the remake trend?

I was the first one to make a remake with Hyderabad Blues in 2003 long before sequels were in vogue. I think in any kind of popular space you will get a lot of people who will jump on the bandwagon when something works. Right now sequels are working so we will keep making sequels but having said that every 5 -7 years Hollywood comes up and makes a bunch of sequels and then again they back off so we might have started something here.

I made a sequel in 2003 because I thought 7 years later there was something else to tell in the protagonist’s life but even then I believed that I would never make sequels.

Do you prefer shooting with HD cameras?

Absolutely. I almost shot a movie later this year with an HD camera but I think I am going to keep it on the table for next year. My cinematographers are still scared about the process after shooting to get really good quality on screen.  That is what they are terrified about because they say that the postproduction is still not good enough and once you take it to Singapore you end up spending a lot, which nullifies the advantage of shooting in HD.

What is your next project?

I am not yet ready to talk about it but there are a couple of things in the pipeline. I am already working on them.