June 10 2014
Director talks about his ‘womencentric’ productions and managing Bollywood star egos…
By Chitra Mogul
INDIE film director Nagesh Kukunoor revealed what motivated him to make “Lakshmi”, a hard-hitting film about child trafficking and prostitution in India – which opened this month’s London Asian Film Festival.
Speaking to actor and TV presenter Omar Khan in a masterclass at Waterman’s Brentford Theatre last Wednesday (June 4), he spoke in depth and elaborated on themes he first talked about at the gala opening at the Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn on Sunday (June 1). Report here.
It was the first time audiences anywhere in Europe had seen the film.
In addition, the LAFF showcased a variety of short films submitted by new talent in competition, announcing the winner and Kukunoor participating in the presentation at the close.
“Lakshmi” won Best Film, Mercedes Benz Audience Award for Best Narrative at the Palm Springs International Film Festival on January 13 this year.
His film is based on a true story about a 14-year-old girl from a village in Andhra Pradesh who is kidnapped and sold into prostitution.
Kukunoor said the inspiration for the film came about quite by accident, after a visit to a rescue shelter for women.
The women had gone through unimaginable mental, physical and emotional anguish, but their courage and manner of dealing with it had a profound impact on him.
“Their stories just kind of moved me,” he confessed. This was the impetus to embark on “Lakshmi”, which he also wrote, directed and starred in.
He said he struggled with the script as there were many gaps in the story.
“As a filmmaker, you want more details, but you don’t want the person to relive the trauma,” he said.
He got around the problem by talking to policemen, social workers and others who were involved in Lakshmi’s rescue from a brothel.
“The story itself is true but I had to fill in the details,” he explained.
The next problem was casting. On the set he encountered the difficulty of coaching a young girl through painful and awkward scenes.
He felt it would be irresponsible for him to do this no matter how keen he was to tell her story, and so shelved the film.
“At that point I decided that only if I found someone who is over 21, but looks 14, would I attempt to do the film again.”
As luck would have it, six months later at a party, he saw the person who would play Lakshmi. It was Bollywood playback singer Monali Thakur.
“I opened with the classic line that every sleaze bag director does: ‘Do you want to be in my film?’,” he said with a laugh.
Kukunoor, who plays the role of the pimp in the film, was probably just getting into character.
When Khan queried him about the balancing act involved in being writer, director and actor, Kukunoor said that while he had trained as an actor, he hadn’t trained as a director.
“The irony is, I have absolutely no formal training as a director, but I trained as an actor for two years. So you wear different hats at different points,” he observed.
Khan noted that Kukunoor has a propensity to make films in very different genres and has dabbled in everything over the years, “from romance to a psychological thriller to prostitution”.
He wondered whether Kukunoor had any favourites.
“As an audience member I enjoy different genres, and as a filmmaker I try not to repeat myself.
“The reason is simple: if I get excited about something chances are I will do a good job. To get excited about something, I have to feel it is something different. Two consecutive films will have nothing in common. For example, the visual style of Lakshmi is something I’ve never done before.”
There is no professional lighting in the film, only handheld lights.
This was a creative decision, Kukunoor explained, and the aim was to accurately portray the ghastly, depressing reality of the brothel interiors.
“People have no idea how horrible these places are. The brothels are so filthy that the idea that people go to there to derive pleasure is scary.”
Khan wondered if making a film was more difficult with famous Bollywood stars.
Kukunoor said he has shot two films with well-known Bollywood names and the rest of his films have starred good character actors.
“Stars, by virtue of their success, think their opinions are valid. They forget that on set, during a take, you are an actor, and you need to hand over control to the director, ” he said bluntly.
If a star takes a stand on something, he might go along in order to avoid hostility and let them do more takes, knowing that “the edit is mine” he added with a grin.
Kukunoor’s films have been called ‘womencentric’ as they have strong female characters.
Kukunoor agreed with Khan saying that in his first film “Hyderabad Blues” (1998) all the female characters were strong and the male character was the one who was floundering.
“Especially in India, women are stereotyped as subservient or not. Even when they break away, the women are shrill and strong and shouting from the rooftops, or go shooting people down. It’s one extreme or the other,” he said wryly.
Strong female characters recur in his films be it “Hyderabad Blues”, “3 Deewarein” (2003), “Dor” (2006) or “Lakshmi”.
In the audience Q&A that followed he was asked if he thinks in terms of the audience when making a film. He said that when he made his first film he had lived in the US for about 10 years and was influenced by the films he saw there. As a result, he never considered “Hyderabad Blues” would get a release, but he put the six reels of film in his suitcase and went to India.
“I never thought they would want the film – but it was picked up at the Mumbai Film Festival,” he said.
“Stories are universal. That’s how I wrote them and that’s how I made all my films. For the most part I let my instinct guide me,” he elaborated. “For Lakshmi I wrote it no holds barred, as I wanted the film to travel.”
He said that he anticipated Lakshmi would be a hard-hitting film which few people in India would pay to see, though it might get a theatrical release.
So he visited about 20 universities with the film and had Q&As with the audience. They also showed it to charitable organisations for free.
“Social media was buzzing with the film, but still we did badly at the box office,” he lamented.
He said that films can’t bring about sweeping social change, but that they can start a dialogue.
He pointed out that his award-winning film, Iqbal (2005), about a deaf-mute boy, is now a chapter in Hindi text books for Grade 8 students, after the Board of Education in India saw it.
His latest film will reach its final shooting in July. It is about a little blind boy and his sister who live in a small village in Rajasthan, revealed Kukunoor.
The boy’s sister promises him that by the age of nine he will get his eyesight back.
At around that time she hears that Shah Rukh Khan is visiting a nearby village and believes he can help to accomplish this in some way.
- LAFF announced that the winner of the short film competition is “Feather” (IKA) by Raam Reddy, and the runner-up is “Mount Song” by Shambhavi Kaul.