Mumbai: In the year of Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya and Kaizad Gustad’s Bombay Boys, a landmark indie hit paved the way for many independent film-makers (this writer included) to do it for themselves. Nagesh Kukunoor’s Hyderabad Blues, shot with a production budget of ₹ 12 lakh, opened on 17 July 1998 and changed modern independent Indian cinema forever. But 51-year-old Kukunoor today believes it all came down to random acts of good fortune. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Many people claim they had seen Hyderabad Blues on television even before it released. Is that an urban legend?
When I completed it, in June 1997, I left India— broke, obviously. As far as I was concerned, I had made the film purely for the American market. I never thought a film like that would work in India.
I go back to the States. I don’t have an apartment. I stay with a friend in Atlanta and then eventually get thrown out. I write Rockford there in 20 days. Another friend said he had a large house and he offered me to come stay with him. From his place, I was mailing applications to film festivals, and this is when (producer) Elahe Hiptoola suggested we rent Eros Mini and organize a screening in Mumbai.
I said, okay. Shyam Benegal, Dolly Thakore—whoever Elahe knew from her days in Bombay, she invited. Some 20-25 people came. Benegal said it’s a delightful film. After that, I left for the States. I got into Denver Film Festival. I got into the Peachtree Festival in Atlanta and won the audience award.
Now, when I was away in the States, Elahe was hanging around here to see if we can sell the film. She got a contact in Doordarshan and went and met these people in New Delhi. They paid us a lakh-and-a-half or two lakh rupees. They split Hyderabad Blues into three parts and played it on three Sundays on the newly launched Doordarshan 3. Without censorship. Even before it released a year later.
How much money did you make from it?
In the US, films get sold through middlemen called movie reps. The late Krishna Shah twisted Shyam Shroff to give an advance of just ₹ 2 lakh and said we’ll split 50:50 with you on theatricals and TV. Long story short, while there were rumours of the film making anywhere between ₹ 1.5 and ₹ 2 crore, Shyam gave me accounts with spreadsheets of the film making ₹ 40 lakh. After everything, I got ₹ 6 lakh from the theatrical run.
What was the catalyst for a chemical engineer to make films?
I never ask existential questions. I am much more of a doer.
In 1993 I was a manager managing million-dollar projects, as an engineer-lawyer. I was a high-flying guy, I had a swanky sports car, cash in the bank, a proper Reagan-era yuppie living the life… and I realized: I was unhappy.
For the first time, I said, what is it you want to do? And then, the floodgates opened and all the time, whenever I hung out with friends or had any conversations, I wanted to do something with movies.
I enrolled in a modelling class and worked there for chhota jobs which pay $50. I went to the Warehouse Actors Theatre. I loved it. I realized that’s it, I want to be a director.
So if we divide your life into two halves, in the first 25 years, films had nothing to do with it?
Other than watching. When I was in college here, it was the advent of VCR (videocassette recorder). In 1985, my dad actually got a Panasonic VCR from Dubai…we were one of those rare families with a VCR. Over next three years, I would watch one movie a night. There would be nights I would do four. Some nights I would do six.
I’d start off at 10pm and finish off at 6am. So that movie madness was there, but actively, I did something about it only in 1993 after that epiphanic moment.
How did you then bridge the gap between what you wanted to do and getting there?
I came to India in December of 1995 without a plan. I gave up my job…and actually, on the last day of my job, I crashed my car in a massive accident. In a show of bravado, I walked home. There were workers on the road—I asked them if anyone wants my furniture. So they just came into my apartment, took the furniture and utensils, and everything. I did it to make sure that I won’t go back.
I come to India. I am on the sets of Veer Hanuman and I realize I made the biggest mistake of my life. In that depressive state I sat and wrote Hyderabad Blues with pencil. Long hand. The camera guy I befriended on Veer Hanuman is the guy I finally shot Hyderabad Blues with. I drew up a budget of ₹ 12 lakh, which meant I had to save if I wanted to raise money.
In February 1996, I am still sitting in Hyderabad, jobless. One of my clients had said: “If you ever decide to come back to the States, we have an office with your name on it." So I called him and asked if that office is still open and he was like, hell yeah. So I went back in April of 1996 and worked with this Fortune 500 company, the job of my dreams.
One night, I tell my boss that I want to go back. The president comes over and says he will pay me $35,000 in stock options, put me in corporate marketing in Boston in a couple of years… I mean, these are all the things that I once wanted. We are drinking $20 glasses of Cognac and I was thinking: f**k, I am giving all this up. The next morning, I told him that my decision still stands. That is my proudest moment.
Was there a precedent you were inspired by?
I saw The Brothers McMullen and, bam, that was it. I was like, I can do this. The sound quality was terrible, (Ed Burns) made it with leftovers, he maxed out his credit card…it’s not a great film but it’s a witty, sweet little film. Nineteen-ninety-four is when Pulp Fiction exploded. Everyone set up their companies and were all looking for the next indie film.
I did a reading of Hyderabad Blues in my acting class and people were laughing. I was like, shaayad isme kuch hai (maybe there’s something here).
You owe it to American cinema then?
Absolutely. Miramax had come up. I thought I’ll make pictures here, I’ll send it to them. That was the Holy Grail.
You lost your indie cred with 8x10 Tasveer.
8x10 is where people thought, yeh commercial ban gaya (he’s turned commercial). If I make a movie with Akshay (Kumar), I don’t understand how that affects the indie spirit. The script is mine, the sensibility is mine. In the same breath, I made an Aashayein. Independent doesn’t mean ek type ka film (one type of film).
Still, there are recurring themes and ideas in a Nagesh Kukunoor film. What do you think you go back to?
The idea of the underdog. Every human being is good, you’ll never find a pure bad guy. The closest pure bad guy was myself in Lakshmi. Most importantly, I think the most marginalized segment is who I intend to stand up for—women.
As a film-maker, how young do you feel today? Is 50 just a number?
Yes, it is a number and the number becomes apparent only in one place, the gym. The only thing you can’t stop is decay, right?
You don’t want to put your own money in your films any more?
I did that as recently as Lakshmi.
Would you advice young film-makers to not spend their money making movies?
What will you do with money? You should have the balls to take the consequences. You could lose all your money. I am never going to be one of the guys who is never going to tell people to not put their own money. I tell producers that you could lose your money. I am not going to lie and sugarcoat. When movies lose money, I have no guilt. The producer is not an idiot. He or she knew exactly what was happening when they got into it. I don’t lose any sleep over it.
What are you currently working on?
I just finished shooting a 10-part Web series called City of Dreams for Applause Entertainment. It’s a political drama set in Mumbai. I directed all 10 episodes of 45 minutes each. It was like shooting five features. You blink and a year goes by.