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Life Is Beautiful

After creating ripples at the most prestigious film festivals across the globe, Dhanak is will finally release in India on June 17. Director Nagesh Kukunoor, producer Elahe Hiptoola, and child artistes Hetal Gadda andKrrish Chhabria tell us about their incredible journey while making the film

Box Office India (BOI): You guys already know that your film is fabulous.

Nagesh Kukunoor (NK): Whenever I hear that, I only say ‘thank you’. This is not coming with any arrogance because film ka kuch guarantee toh hai hi nahin. Every filmmaker thinks they have made a good film.

BOI: Rockford dealt with teenagers. What made you write a story about two young kids this time?

NK: Well, it took me 15 years after Rockford to finally pick up the courage to do a movie with kids and I couldn’t have had better luck. I got two great kids for the shoot and, trust me, this is not pre-release publicity garbage, ki humko bohot maza aaya and all that kind of nonsense. I am genuinely fond of these kids. I truly think they are wonderful actors. The question of why this story… stories come to you from many angles and there is suddenly a moment when you feel a particular story is right. It wasn’t till someone in the audience at a film festival pointed and said this is like some sort of balm for Lakshmi because it was so hard-hitting and gut-wrenching that it disturbed people.

Coming to why I decided to write Dhanak… I set myself one ground rule, that I wanted to remind myself that the world is really not such a bad place and that there is some goodness left and some good people left in it. Personally, it was a reminder of the India I grew up in and it was a sort of mini trip down memory lane. I have an older sister and there is the whole sibling rivalry thing but, more importantly, it’s about kids trusting people.

BOI: Was Dhanak inspired by a real story?

NK: No, this story has a crazy journey. A friend of mine pitched a couple of options for an ad and one of them, for a courier company, was about this blind boy and his sister living in Rajasthan. One courier company comes in and jo bhi hai uske saath but the ad never happened. A couple of years later, I woke up with this random image in my mind, the one that became the poster. So I woke up with that image, wondering what had happened to that ad.

I called up my friend Yusuf, who I credit for the basic story premise, and asked if anything had happened with it. He said it was just lying there, so I asked him if I could develop it into a screenplay and he said ‘by all means’. As I said, I wanted to write a happy film and I just started writing and everything flowed organically. The sibling rivalry created the Shah Rukh-Salman angle and it was all extremely organic but it wasn’t based on a true incident. It simply took on this very weird journey.

BOI: So you know what made you play on the Shah Rukh-Salman Khan rivalry?

NK: Unlike the cheesiness shown in films, no brother and sister actually wake up in the morning and say ‘I love you bhaiya’ and all that. The strongest bonds between siblings are forged out of serious fights. That’s what kids do, they fight all the way till they are adults and then they realise, ‘You know what, I still love my sister’ or ‘I love my brother’. This was something I had experienced and bought into the movie.

So these kids in the film fight all the time and I needed to give them reasons to fight and one of the reasons was the whole Shah Rukh-Salman rivalry. Every morning, when these kids go to school, they tell each other a story, where one begins a sentence and the other completes it. They toss a coin and the winner of the toss would get a chance to tell their stories. Pari wins the toss and she gets to tell her Shah Rukh story… and you know this guy has a bhai story. It was a purely a reason for the kids to fight and it seemed as good a reason as any.

BOI: Elahe, as a producer, was it difficult to manage the kids on the sets and still complete the shoot on time?

Eahe Hiptoola (EH): Look, she (Hetal Gadda) is kicking me under the table! (Laughs)

NK: (Laughs)

EH: I will tell you the truth. No, it wasn’t difficult at all. As Nagesh just said, and I completely agree, they are the most professional actors I have worked with. They never threw any tantrums. Since they were kids, we had to figure out how to deal with them, like when setting out a schedule… like you can’t shoot three nights in a row…

NK: But we did!

EH: Yes, now that’s purely the director’s madness. But the point is, when we had to start shooting at 5 pm, we though the kids could sleep all day and start shooting in the evening. But that doesn’t work. They don’t sleep all day and at midnight, they check out, it’s over, you know, they have left the building.

Having said that, they were extremely good-natured. They were never upset. They are very genial, very sensible and you could talk to them. Not once did they behave stubborn or refuse to do what was required of them. Apart from all that, they learnt all their lines and they would come to the sets fully prepared. Of course, as the director of the film, Nagesh was working with them and both of us were very particular about one thing – that they don’t compromise on their studies.

They also did their homework at the end of the day. So once they completed their shoot, they would sit down with their worksheets and help each other. It was like a regular day for them, except that they were in Rajasthan, under the sun in those dunes. It was like taking outdoor classes.

BOI: Since this was your first film, can both of you share your experiences while shooting?

Elahe: Hetal, first film as a…?

Hetal Gadda (HG): First film as a lead! (Laughs)

EH: Say anything.

Krrish Chhabria (KC): What?

EH: Aap ka kuch experience jo shooting pe tha…aapko maza aaya…kya hua shooting pe?

KC: Running in the dunes!

EH: Bolo, story bolo.

KC: Ek baar kya hua tha ki pack up hua tha toh matlab maine sir se bola tha ke jab pack up hoga tab hum dunes me race karengay. Toh hum race kar rahe thhe aur hum dono full speed me chale gaye maine gulati maari aur aakhon me sand chala gaya wahaan par sab log tension mein, papa wahaan se bhaag kar aa rahe hai, sab log shaant ho gaye, aur main aise hi upar utha aur apne hands raise karne laga (in a victory sign)…toh sabka thoda tension chale gaya.

NK: The adult version is that I was stupid enough to race down the dune with him and the dune was at a 45-degree angle. At some point, I realised I had no control over how fast I was going, so I started putting on the brakes or I would have done the same thing that he did. There was a collective gasp from the entire unit, who was filming this and having fun.

He started flipping and it was not just one flip, he kept flipping! The problem is there was rock solid ground at the base of this dune. I was watching and I was wondering what I had done. The best part was that he landed smack on his feet. He was caught off-guard and was disoriented. I went running to him, I was a couple of feet away from him…At first, he freaked out and then he went, ‘Yay!’ with sand in his mouth and eyes. And then everyone relaxed. I got lucky but was my own stupidity.

EH: It’s okay, but Krrish came first…

NK: Yeah, he came down faster than I did, of course, not on his feet but yeah!

BOI: What about you, Hetal?

HG: Mera experience bohot jyada acha tha…yeh meri first film hai as a lead. (Laughs) So mujhe bohot jyada maza aaya sir ke sath kaam karne mein aur Elahe ma’am ke saath, Krrish ke saath bhi. Krrish bohot masti karta hai pura din bak bak karta hai. Toh mujhe sabse jyada Krrish ke sath maza aaya.

BOI: Krrish plays a blind boy in the film. Was it difficult to train him because he had to behave in a certain way?

NK: There was a little training as I was trying to decide what the best posture was to convey it to the audience. The most critical thing for him to understand happened only when we sent him to the school for the blind. He watched the kids there. One of the biggest things to keep in mind is that blind people don’t do the filmy thing of sticking out their hands in front of them while walking. They are very much in control of the space they are in. They only do that when they are in a completely unfamiliar space, when they don’t have a shoulder or the hand of someone they trust.

KC: We went to a blind school and I observed how they were talking and playing. I even played with them.

BOI: How did you find these little gems?

NK: Whenever I cast, I usually subject myself to an extremely lengthy audition process. So we had looked at around 500 kids and had endless auditions. Why did we arrive at these two kids? That was pure instinct, so I can’t explain why them. There is an image you have when you are writing. Sure, another director might read that material and take a completely different call.

I had actually settled on two sets of kids…Hetal-Krrish and another pair, who were slightly older. Somehow, the lines didn’t make sense with the other kids. Hetal’s case was very interesting. I had already settled on the lead girl and was watching the audition. There was just one random audition and I looked at it, and she said her lines. She is extremely honest in front of the camera. She said something and when she smiled, she lit up the screen… it was such a fantastic smile! That’s how we found them.

BOI: Coming to the relationship between them as siblings… like Iqbal too portrayed the brother-sister relationship… is Dhanak an extension of that? Are sibling relationships particularly close to your heart?

NK: This sibling set-up is much close to my heart, more than Iqbal was. I have an older sister but in Iqbal, it was the reverse, the sister was younger. I am sure at some level, Iqbal and Dhanak have something to do with my own relationships with my brother and sister. The only thing I remember about growing up was that I fought continuously. I fought with my older sister less but my brother and I fought every day, all the time, and we fought about everything. I think it finally stopped when we started going to college. After that, the fights were marginally more dignified. I genuinely love my brother and sister and relationships like that are forged from fights. They are the bedrock of a great relationship, so I had to put that on film.

EH: Nagesh has been writing his own material since Hyderabad Bluesand I have worked with him since. His women characters are very strong, so the sister could easily have been blind. Of course, in Iqbal, it wouldn’t have made sense if she was playing cricket but there too she was supporting the older brother. She was the caretaker. Even in this film, Pari (Hetal) could have been blind and Chhotu (Krrish) could have been the older one, so there could have been an easy switch. It’s about a brother and a sister and it doesn’t necessarily have to be the older person looking after the younger one. The women characters are always strong. Even Rockford

BOI: Or Dor.

EH: Dor toh… I think I should write a thesis on Dor. Even Teen Deewarein… In every one of them, the woman stands for something. It’s the same for Hyderabad Blues to Bombay to Bangkok, the women characters are much stronger in his films. In fact, when we were doingDhanak, I suggested that we switch because it was like an extension ofIqbal. But he was, like, you know what, this is Pari and this is Chhotu.

BOI: You usually write your own stories. Is it important for a director to write their own story or there is an advantage when there is another writer on board?

NK: There is no right or wrong. There are great, phenomenal directors who haven’t written a word and there are directors who write all their material and who are equally brilliant. I started writing out of necessity as I wanted to make my own films and when I started writing, people reacted positively to that. I actually came to India to assist someone and then start directing by taking the standard route everyone takes. After I saw what was happening in Indian cinema till the mid-90s, I knew I wouldn’t fit in and so I started writing. The thing with writing is I know everyone so intimately that I never have to step back and take an objective look at my characters.

EH: But sometimes the grass is greener on the other side. There was this time I heard Nagesh saying, ‘If I could just find a writer and concentrate on directing.’ Then there are director friends who are not writers and they say, ‘Dude, I wish I could just write, the process would be so much faster.’

BOI: Coming back to the movie, were there any difficult scenes? Since these are kids, did they undergo any trauma or did they get emotional while shooting?

NK: Like I said, the mandate I set for myself was that it was going to be a happy film but it would be a very thin line. How do I make it believable where the audience would not roll their eyes and say, ‘Aare yaar, yeh saccharine sweet and annoying hai because everyone in the world is good and everyone is nice.’ So I had to keep the audience on edge.

We have done 43 film festivals, worldwide, and it’s still going strong, which clearly shows that the universal connect is believable. But because they are kids, even the truck driver looks lethal but he actually turns out to be a nice guy. The hippy you would think is doing the kidnapping is actually not, he too is a sweet guy. There is something I push you to believe, that manipulates you, but at the same time, I bring you back and you think, ‘Yeah, he is actually a nice guy.’

Obviously, this is my own philosophy but the bad person in the film is actually the religious guy, not even the guy that ends up in the van or the mata; she is an actor like these people anyway are. As I always say, beware of the religious person. Every other human being is believable but when someone uses an entity that doesn’t exist, just for their existence, then beware! I had to bring in that element of risk.

You asked me a valid question… kids don’t know trauma till trauma is spelt out to them. Here, they got kidnapped but within the framework of what happens in the film. There were, like, ‘Woh bura aadmi tha woh bolte hain na pehele bhi woh nashe ka dawaa dete hain.’ So you don’t know the impact of what nashe ka dawaa is till something horrible happens. They had nashe ka dawaa, they conked out, and they woke up in a gypsy camp. So as far their lives were concerned, there was no active trauma done to them.

BOI: Tell us about the guy who takes money from the villagers. Was that inspired by a real-life character?

NK: (Laughs) You know, especially with Dhanak, I am glad you asked this. When I was writing it, at some point, I had to stop myself. I could have written 10 more characters. When I was writing Atmaram Khandelwal’s character, the funny thing is, I didn’t write it for Ninad (Kamat). There is a guy called Howard Rosemeyer who used to mimic Aamir Khan on a comedy show. Rosemeyer had directed one number in Modat the beginning of the film, Aaj mein ho gayi jawan…so we got carried away.

When I was writing it, I was thinking of Howard, because he does a lot of different characters and the evolution of the conman to the villagers was in sync with the mythology that people will go to any lengths. If I give a villager a picture of a mata or a bhagwan, would you not hold it and take a picture? You would, right? Actors are just that (like gods) and I was playing on that also.

BOI: Hetal has a Rajasthani accent in Dhanak. How did that happen?

NK: Obviously, they speak proper Hindi with a liberal sprinkling of Urdu, not to mention that the title is Urdu. So you take those liberties with materials, simply to make it accessible. I could have made her practice the true Rajasthani dialect for a month but we used it only in parts. In most parts, she speaks Hindi but periodically you just give those little touches… So it was ‘Saaarukh’ Khan instead of ‘Shah Rukh Khan’. It was done to bring in a touch of authenticity.

BOI: Both of you have been working together since Hyderabad Blues. Do you have any creative differences while scripting, when you are on the sets, or when a film is about to release?

EH: I trust him implicitly. There are two roles two different people play, two different people trust their own expertise and bring that to the table, right? There are many times Nagesh doesn’t question what I say. Even for Rockford and for Dhanak too, we auditioned hundreds of kids.

NK: More kids for Rockford…way more!

EH: I can’t even tell you the number of kids who auditioned. I was sitting in on most of the auditions and I couldn’t find one person who we could cast forRockford. Then, suddenly, he says, ‘We’ve found our lead guy.’ I was, like, from that lot that we just saw? So, yes, there are fights. For Lakshmi, we had differences up to the trailer. He wanted everything bad in the trailer and I kept saying that nobody would watch the movie. Actually, everybody got so scared that nobody came to watch the movie, and I was, like, ‘No! It’s not so bad!’

NK: Actually, it scared away 90 per cent of the men…never mind women!

EH: They were flinching at the trailer and I was, like, ‘Nagesh, nako,’ bulana hai inko andar then let them deal with whatever they watch on the screen. So, we’ve had differences of this kind. Nagesh is a maniac when it comes to shooting. He says, ‘Yeh bhi kar lenge…yeh bhi…yeh bhi…’ and I was, like, dude, there are 150 men who have to go together here. But creatively…genuinely he has the last word on the script and direction, as it should be, and I have the last word in terms of how to market, when we should be doing it, when we should release the film. So it’s a very happy working relationship.

NK: My version is not very different from hers. When I finish a script or am midway through the script, I have only one person reading it and that’s Elahe because filmmaking is an extremely selfish and personal point of view. It’s not a group vote and I cannot stand filmmakers who take everyone’s inputs. In art, there is no right or wrong; there is only a point of view. So I am wary of showing my film to anyone or even my scripts as I don’t want anyone’s inputs. That’s not arrogance; it’s simply my vision and I want to stick with it.

So, only she reads everything I write and she has a visceral reaction. We can talk about the characters and analyse it at a later stage. I sometimes make changes based on her reaction. When everything to do with making the film is done, it’s her turn… from marketing, to publicity to what the right approach is. I offer my two cents on creative… With the Dhanak trailer, there were two or three things that I wanted deleted but she thought we should leave them in, and we got a huge response to it. I suck at these other things. That’s how this relationship functions.

BOI: From your first film to now, cinema has changed, filmmakers have changed…

NK: And the audience, don’t ever forget them!

BOI: Yes, and the audience… Do you still struggle to get your films released?

NK: Hell yeah…absolutely, unequivocally, yes!

EH: It’s not just the release…it’s from getting it made to getting it released, it’s the same song-and-dance routine.

NK: Every time we have trouble raising money, we have trouble releasing the film appropriately. Every film gets a release eventually but getting it to release correctly is the question. Lakshmi ended up with only 80 screens, with all morning shows. So these awful things will continue; that won’t change.

EH: He is the person who started the indie movie trend in India, people say ki ‘Aare Nagesh Sir, he is only the star-proof director we have,’ par yeh sab bolne ki baat hai. It’s lovely to be labelled as such but every time he sets out to make a movie, regardless of how his last film fared…  Luckily, for me, that’s not true with Nagesh. The last four films have not been something that will open out (??) but, still, he will manage to get his next film made. His bandwidth is so broad, touch wood!

NK: Mein bhi kar leta hoon, touch wood. (Laughs)

EH: Haan aap bhi kar lo…Hyderabad Blues was a game-changing film and Rockford was not easy to make.Bollywood Calling was not easy to make, Iqbal and Dor were not easy to make. Picture release huyi ab chalo begging bowl ke saath to another person if they say no toh dusre ke pass jao. The routine hasn’t changed in 20 years. Now I use Nagesh’s name and say, ‘It’s Nagesh Kuknoor’s film, please give us money.’

BOI: Last week, you crossed the 43 film festival count, a huge number for a film. Tell us about the highlights and reactions.

NK: Gladly. The strangest and loveliest highlight happened just two days ago, when we got an email from the Tel Aviv Film Festival, saying they wanted to re-screen Dhanak this year even though we had already premiered there last year. Le jao (laughs). Without a doubt, the best moment in my film career – and I get goose bumps when I say this – was sitting in the audience when they announced The Grand Prix award at the Berlinale. It’s an award that means something. This is Berlin, this is the stuff you dream of, and you are sitting among the audience and you get the award. A filmmaker couldn’t ask for a better highlight. I know which awards are genuine and not tainted, so if I receive one of those awards, I am overwhelmed and say a big ‘thank you’. That’s what happened in Berlin.

EH: He was so cool!

NK: It’s okay, I don’t like melodrama. We were sitting among the audience in Berlin, and the way Berlin does it is that before handing out the award, they talk about the film but in a very generic sort of way. So they started describing a film – and then it hit me. They were talking about Dhanak! My brain short-circuited, and all I could think was, ‘’No way, we freakin’ won… we freakin’ won!’

Elahe, Tapas, the music director, and I were there and I just stared at them. Elahe was just looking straight ahead, and I looked at Tapas, a very close friend of mine. And they were saying, ‘As we watch these kids take their journey across their country…’ Tapas was saying, ‘This is not our film because the kids don’t go across the country, they just go across Rajasthan.’ I kept staring at him but he didn’t understand. When they finally announced our film, he went crazy, saying, ‘It’s our film!’ That was my short-circuit moment.

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