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December 14, 2000


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Kanchana Suggu

There is no sign of Nagesh Kukunoor.

I'm at the Tea Centre, Bombay, having intimately checked out the minutest details of the cutlery. I have committed the menu to heart. I have identified characteristics to each waiter.

No sign of Kukunoor. The man is 30 minutes late.

Nagesh Kukunoor When I am just about to hang it all, he arrives amidst a flood of apologies.

"You know, yesterday I had about three interviews. All of them turned up so late. One person didn't even bother to show up! I felt like an idiot waiting at the reception of Sony Music.

"And then they give the most inane excuses like I was caught in traffic or something like that.

"For god sake, I haven't flown here. So today, I decided to come in late!" he exclaims. Excuses, excuses...

That's the man. Charming. Pretty unassuming. In fact, dressed in a navy blue T-shirt and jeans, Kukunoor looks just like any other Charlie. No one seems to have recognised him.

And that's just as well.

He really couldn't care less. All he has on his mind, these days, is Bollywood Calling -- his third film, which will be released soon.

Over to Kukunoor:

Just before the release of Rockford, I remember you saying you had butterflies in your stomach. Now that Bollywood Calling is ready for release, do you feel the same?

Nagesh Kukunoor *smiles* Well, that usually happens two or three days prior to the release.

I'm talking about the last few days. That's when it kicks in big time.

All the butterflies I think are still in their larval stage right now. Pretty soon, they will be full-grown adults and ready. So, at this stage, I'm pretty calm.

Do you agree that expectations from you were higher post Hyderabad Blues than post Rockford?

*laughs* The stress of a follow-up film, when your first is very very successful is always high. Post-Rockford, one way or the other, the pressure is off.

You have to remember that you're only as good as your last film.

Whether people liked it or not, Rockford was made on my own terms. And those who did like it knew that they would get a lighthearted film. But you can't get a Hyderabad Blues every time.

Like I said, it's just before the release that I get the butterflies, not while I'm making it. I think if you worry every second as to how each bit will be perceived, you are not going to make the right film.

Were you upset by the moderate success of Rockford?

No, absolutely not. I can't expect every film to work like Hyderabad Blues.

It's great that I started with such a high. But that is not going to be the way it will happen. I always want my films to do well. But I have to be practical about the success.

When you play 31 to 33 weeks with your first film in Bombay, where do you go from there?

Honestly, how much does the commercial success of your films matter to you?

Even when I made Hyderabad Blues, I was hoping it would be commercially successful only because it ensures your longevity as a filmmaker.

A film is not made for five people, it is made for five million people. So the more the people watch it, the more it is a measure of how well you are doing.

Now, there is a fine line. At some point, if you start pandering to the audience, trying to figure out what they might like and make films that way, you're really going to mess it up.

To answer your question, yes, commercial success is important. But I'm not going to worry about how my film will be perceived. Because the thing that made it work the first time was that I didn't give a damn.

I made a film in three languages, shot it at home with amateurs. And it worked.

So I'm sticking to the same philosophy of doing what instinctively I feel is right and putting it out there.

Both the films you have made are very close to your real life. Is it the same with Bollywood Calling too?

Om Puri and Nagesh Kukunoor Bollywood Calling has me in terms of my experiences loosely put in the Indian film industry.

Even though I never did tap into mainstream Bollywood or the Telugu film industry, I spent a reasonable amount of time observing both.

Being in the filmi circle, one way or the other, you get to interact with a lot of people who have just the most amazing stories to tell. So Bollywood Calling still has a fair percentage of my experiences in the industry. But as a director, not as an actor.

It has real-life anecdotes I have heard from other people. So it is a combination of both. But it has less of me than my other films did.

Why is it being touted as the most ambitious project of your life? Is it, really?

Without a doubt. Because one, I have Om Puri and Navin Nischol. Just in terms of working with those actors, it's a big deal.

Om has been an idol forever. To direct him was a huge deal.

I don't know if I will be successful or not, but at least as a screenwriter, I try and put my own spin to it. If you look closely, all my stories are the same.

But I try and give each a bit of a different edge. Since you haven't seen Bollywood Calling, I won't delve into the specifics and ruin it for you.

It is very lighthearted film, but with an undercurrent of some seriousness in it.

Yes, it is ambitious because it would have been so very easy for me to throw caution to the winds and make it slightly unreal.

But I wanted to make a comedy that is different. I hate the word 'different' because everyone uses it, but...

For the first time, you were directing senior actors like Om Puri and Navin Nischol. What was your interaction with them like?

Bollywood Calling I was nervous. I'm not confused about what I want from the actors or the scene.

The question is how do you get it across? Now throw in senior actors like Om and Navin and, all of a sudden, you're not just focusing on how to get it across, but all the other things like, will he think I'm too aggressive? Will he think it's a small kid telling a senior actor?

Then again, Om is a director's dream. He has no ego hassles. On the first day itself, in front of an all-American crew, he said, "Nagesh, what do you want me to do?"

By the time Navin came on the set, we had already started working.

He knew exactly what he was getting into. He came with the right attitude.

If everyone is there for a common cause and if there is the same level of commitment, to use a cliché, We were one happy family.

Navin and Om would be on the sets all day even if they were not shooting. They would just hang out at the back, chat and have fun. It was incredible.

What made you decide on them in the first place?

I have known Navin's brother Pravin for a while. One night, I was having dinner at their place, and I saw Navin and thought to myself, "Oh, my God, this is Manu Kapoor!' (Navin's character in the film).

He just fit the role like a glove. I wrote the remaining 25 per cent of the script keeping Navin in mind.

With Om, it was different. When I saw Chachi 420, I thought Om was the reason why the film was so funny. I thought he was the right person to play Subra in Bollywood Calling.

So I wrote the entire script keeping him in mind. But I had no idea how to approach him.

As luck would have it, I was at the airport. And guess who was behind me!

I introduced myself to him. I think he had just read about me in Stardust. He looked at me and said, "Oh, Hyderabad Blues!" I was thrilled.

I told him I had written a script for him. I'm sure many people have told him that. I sent him the script and he liked it. Though he did not commit himself.

Meanwhile, I had just completed Rockford, and we invited him for a test screening. He saw it and literally the next day he said yes -- he liked Rockford.

I've seen East Is East Om was just magnificent in it.

Om Puri has said that he has seen traces of Shekhar Kapur in you...

Really? I hope that is a compliment. I truly love Shekhar's films.

Yeah, I definitely take that as a compliment!

Did Pat Cusick, who plays the central character in your film, have any idea about the ways of Bollywood?

Bollywood Calling Actually, Pat Cusick and I had taken acting classes together at the Wharehouse Actor's Theatre.

Once, we had listed the shooting of our film in New York/ New Jersey area. We received about 2,000 photographs with resumes.

At the audition process, I was shocked at how underprepared the actors were.

After that, I went to Pat.

As a matter of fact, he knows nothing about the Hindi film industry. And I chose to keep it that way. Even when he came down to India, we just kept him in a five-star hotel and showed him nothing of India.

Because Pat Stormere (in the film) comes to Bollywood without having any idea.

With Bollywood Calling, we shot the film almost entirely sequentially. So while Pat Cusick was absorbing the sights and smells and sounds of India, Pat Stormere in the film was also experiencing the same.

You play a negative role in the film?

I play a cheap, sidey villain, which I have really been wanting to do.

Elahe, my producing partner, kept saying that it was a very stupid role to play. But very rarely you get a chance to overact and say bad lines.

It's a very small role -- maybe a total screen time of three minutes.

How long did it take you to film Bollywood Calling?

One more day than I took for Rockford.

Thirty-three days?

*smiles* Yeah. Right.

Will Bollywood Calling have an international release ?

What we're trying to do is that we're trying to get an international release, but through international companies that will give it an English release, not through Indian companies that would give it an Indian release.

That is why we chose to push back the release till we tie up with the distributor.

I believe a deal is being finalised in the UK because we were there for the London film festival. I just got back from there, as a matter of fact.

Based on the response we got there, I think we are almost close to nailing a distributor.

On paper, Bollywood Calling seems to have all the right things for an international release: It is in English, has a white man in the lead/co-lead and it's got Om Puri who now has a name in the art house circuit.

So far, the buzz based on all the screenings we've had have been very strong.

There are no guarantees in this business, but it seems right for the international market.

But don't you have your own distribution company called Nue Cinema Inc?

Nagesh Kukunoor Elahe, myself and another friend of mine got together to form this company. What we do is that we distribute Hyderabad Blues and Rockford on a very, very small scale.

Even now, we do small weekend theatres.

You are always ready with a script for your next film before one is released. How do you come up with your subjects?

Yes, I'm ready with two more actually: Turn, which is a dark thriller, and A Touch Of Logic, which is about a second generation Indian falling in love with a white American trash girl.

I think there are stories I want to tell. It's only now that I finally had the common sense to put down the stories I want to tell. It's on a big white acrylic board in the office.

When I get these horrid urges to tell stories, I immediately lock myself and write like a maniac. I take maximum one month to write a script.

I remember I wrote Hyderabad Blues in seven days.

I know that the financiers would be more interested in the second one, but if you ask me, I'd like to do Turn.

Finally, what would you say the industry has taught you?

As much as I had great success in India and loved it, behind-the-scenes work has not been very easy in terms of getting films made.

I'm not sure what else has to be done in order for me to get a project going smoothly.

I plan it in such detail, I bring it under budget, I bring it ahead of schedule, I show up to places on time... All these virtues are not respected.

Good guys always finish last. I never believed that till after my third film.

But good guys do finish last.

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