Since charming audiences over a decade ago with his indie rom-com Hyderabad Blues and his National Award winner Iqbal, Nagesh Kukunoor returns to form with the gritty film, Lakshmi, which he calls the “most important film of my career.”
Nagesh Kukunoor’s film Lakshmi reflects on the forgotten outsiders of society who overcome the odds. The film’s central character, Lakshmi, is forced into prostitution but vows to get justice for her mistreatment. In an interesting move, Kukunoor cast himself as the horrid Chinna, pimp and terrorizer of the brothel. It’s a chilling performance that marks his return as a lead actor after a gap of 14 years.
Lakshmi is a prescient film that comes at a pivotal moment when the abductions by Boko Haram and the Delhi rape case have sparked dialogue around child trafficking and safety for young girls, which the film adeptly tackles in its final act. Kukunoor chose an interesting route for his film, beginning with a limited March release in India, followed by screenings on the festival circuit around the world.
We caught up with Nagesh Kukunoor in advance of his visit to the Vancouver International Film Festival to chat about screening Lakshmi for sex workers in India, authenticity in storytelling, and juggling acting and directing.
Why was it important to tell Lakshmi’s story?
I was working with the Prerana Anti-Human Trafficking Foundation and they rescue these children in police sting operations. They try and find them homes and try very hard to reintegrate them into society after a certain period of healing, both physical, mental, and emotional. I leapt at the experience because when I started interacting with these women the stories began to emerge. Honestly I only had covered the tip of the iceberg, because the kind of inhumanity that these women are subject to is unbelievable.
We let the smallest thing go wrong in a day and we’re on a psychiatrist’s couch, but these women experienced something way out of the realm of humanity and they were standing there. So I felt strongly enough to say there’s something I want to do about it, but it wasn’t until I encountered this amazing heroic girl that I said, “Okay, now I have the story that I need to actually to further the cause.” See what happens as a filmmaker or storyteller is you get moved by the cause but you don’t find the ultimate story, so then the whole film becomes a kind of preaching, standing-on-your-soapbox. I just wanted a really powerful story to be able to push the cause forward and I found it in Lakshmi.
Initially, you cast a 14-year-old for the part, but what made you choose Monali Thakur in the final product?
When I started the process of actually interacting with the 14-year-old I had originally cast, and interacting with her parents, I became really uncomfortable. At some level I was thinking, “On the one hand I wanted to tell the story and further the cause but on the other the modus operandi was wrong. I’m exposing a child to an ugly world.” Granted it’s a film set and it’s all make-believe, but now that you’ve seen the film there are very many difficult scenes that an actress has to perform and to tell a child what that entails, I just wasn’t comfortable. So I abandoned the whole idea of working with a child actor, and I had actually shelved the project telling myself that until I found someone who was old enough I wouldn’t do it. As fate would have it, I saw Monali at a party and said, “Ohh man, with the right clothes and hairstyle I could convince the audience that she is a 14-year-old.
You’ve also said that you couldn’t see any other actor doing the role of Chinna, who does some pretty awful things. Were you feeling protective of your script or did you feel that you would do better justice to the role having lived with it?
I did think about it briefly, but in my scripts I mostly write characters who are gray. I don’t do black and white characters and Chinna was as black as they get. See he’s already written as an extremely vile character, I didn’t want another character to play it and take it over-the-top. I felt at some level I knew how to play Chinna, and not let performance overtake the film. Right or wrong I made a call that I’d play him myself.
Was it challenging to return to acting in such a heavy role?
It was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. There was this constant fear of, “Ohh I’m going to screw it up and I’m going to screw my own film! What have I done? I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.” I think if I was working regularly as an actor, but I was completely rusty. The bigger problem was that I had scenes with three terrific actors like Shefali, who was just brilliant. Monali – for someone who hasn’t really acted before – was terrific, and a very accomplished actress. Then Satish Kaushik is so good. By the time day two or three happened, I found the right space for Chinna and then I think I managed to pull it off.
You’ve been showing the movie abroad, but how do you feel the film fits within a global sense after the abductions in Nigeria and the attention towards rape in India? It definitely touches on some very present issues that have been in the news recently.
Absolutely, it was funny, once I finished the film people kept going, “It’s so topical,” especially after the horrific rapes in Delhi. But not once in the entire publicity and the push to release the film did we ever bring that to forefront. Having said that, the topical nature of it is so universal with every country having that problem but not just third world countries. We’ve been playing at so many festivals all over the world, and everyone says “Oh, we have the same situation here,” and that in a sense makes the film very relatable across cultures and across boundaries. So every time there’s a screening with a Q&A I’ve had so many of these social workers come and speak to me and ask how they can help, which is tremendous. We’re actually in the process of setting up a small foundation where people can donate money and we will work through one of the more established NGO’s in India.
You also screened the film for sex workers, how did they react to the film?
That was the true acid test, and it was borderline scary and that was my test of authenticity. We had done it with Prerana Foundation, which is wonderful foundation out of Mumbai. After the screening, we went to the front of the theater and they said, “Thank you for telling our story.” By this time my hair was much shorter, I’d shaved my beard, and they didn’t make the connection and then Elahe, who’s my co-producer said, “And you do know that he played the role of Chinna?” There was a collective gasp, and some of them said, “You did a good job, you told our story, but right now we want to kill you!”
Since this screening, you’ve done more test screenings at campuses and other NGOs across the country. Has this been a useful method for a film like this?
Yeah, this is something I’ve not done since Hyderabad Blues, and with Hyderabad Blues I was just trying to get anyone to watch the film basically. Truly the youth are the last front, before people become jaded and cynical about society and the government. We might not have their immediate translation into movement, but definitely those seeds are planted there and if someday these kids end up in positions of power or have the ability to change something, then I’m sure they will.
You went for a limited release in India. Did you really want it to live on in the festival scene and maybe in film courses down the line?
We did a limited release in India for a number of reasons. For the film to qualify for so many of the different awards and submissions we did need a release. The global release of the film, even in North America and that always takes longer even if the film breaks out at a large festival. That’s a process that’s going to take some time, and we’re still at it so I’m hopeful that even if it’s at little markets here and there that we will manage to do small little releases. We’re still working on it.
It’s quite a gritty and brutal film, did you face any troubles with censors to ensure that it was as valid and authentic as you wanted it to be?
Well I really feared the worst, but the person who was sat on the Reviewing Committee was this lady who actually works with these sex workers and these kids. So it couldn’t have been more fortuitous to have her on the committee, because there were members of committee who started raising objections and she said, “No, this is exactly the way it is; I’ve been in this area for last 15-20 years, this is what happens.”
Are you working on anything else? Or are you taking a bit of a breather after taking this film around everywhere?
But let me tell you, really exhausting huh! We’ve been close to a year with these film festivals and screenings, and I keep saying, “I’m a storyteller, I want to tell more stories” (laughs). So I slipped away for two months and just shot another film in July. Now I’m here trying to take a break and recuperate.”