Life Is Beautiful
After creating ripples at the most prestigious film festivals across the globe, Dhanak 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, 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.
BOI: Since this was your first film, can both of you share your experiences while shooting?
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 Blues and 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: 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: 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: 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.
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. 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.