Looking back at Nagesh Kukunoor’s 5 unique projects – Times of India

As Nagesh Kukunoor turns 56 today we look at some of his less obvious stories, one’s that are an engaging watch, but don’t always get quoted when one speaks of Kukunoor’s oeuvre. The most obvious Iqbal and Hyderabad Blues have been omitted but the projects that make this list offer a compelling watch for sure.
City Of Dreams Part 1 and 2 (2019 and 2021)

Produced by Applause Entertainment, this is the best political drama yet on the Indian OTT platform. What starts off seeming to be a take-off on Mani Ratnam’s most recent political drama ‘Chekka Chivantha Vaanam’ turns into an engrossing crackling cat-and-mouse drama about a political empire in Maharashtra where siblings squabble for power after the patriarch (Atul Kulkarni) is gunned down.
Straightaway, ‘City Of Dreams’ encircles a cluster of power-hungry characters whose motives are never cogent, let alone comprehensible. There is always a sense of more going on here than meets the eye. Writers-directors Nagesh Kukunoor and Rohit C Banawlikar peel off layers after layers of subterfuge to reveal a system of governance that thrives on corruption and deception. Deftly inter-woven, the plot moves in mysterious ways embracing characters who are at once cunning and naive.

City Of Dreams focuses not so much on the city of Mumbai as its ambitious power-hungry characters whose yearnings spill into a bloodbath. This is a well written finely performed web series with significant recall value. The writing is bold and effective never afraid to call out its character’s flaws, no matter how embarrassing. At one point when the two siblings squabble over their father’s political throne, the brother tells his sister, “I am not willing to be Manmohan Singh to your Sonia Gandhi.” Politics never seemed more interesting. And farcical.

There are no Gandhian politicians in this intricately conceived game of power and deceit. Our heroine herself (Priya Bapat) is no saint. She has the blood of her own brother on her hands from Season 1. Now in Season 2 she pays the heaviest price possible for a woman and mother. One of this season’s great joys is to watch the amazing Priya play the estranged wife to a political activist Mahesh Aravale (Addinath M. Kothare, well played). And before we shout ‘Aandhi’, Kothare describes himself as Sanjeev Kumar in Gulzar’s film and even hums Tere bina zindagi se koi to his estranged wife.

Dor (2008)

How far would you go for love? That’s the question which the narrative softly raises. How far would YOU go to see this film? That’s the question every movie-enthusiast should ask loudly. Very frankly, Dor takes you by complete surprise. Of course you expect a certain aesthetic and technical finesse in a Nagesh Kukunoor creation. But nothing he has done so far—not the under-rated 3 Deewaarein and certainly not the hugely-feted Iqbal—prepares us for the luminous spiritual depths and the exhilarating emotional heights of Dor. The stunningly original screenplay sweeps in a caressing arc, over the separate yet bonded lives of two women, Zeenat (Gul Panag) in the snowscapes of Himachal Pradesh and Meera (Ayesha Takia) in the parched sand-storms of Rajasthan.

The picaresque pilgrimage of one woman into the life of another is charted in the resplendent rhythms of a rather zingy symphony played at an octave that’s at once subdued and persuasive. Dor could any time lapse into being one of those tedious works on women’s emancipation. Kukunoor controls the emotional tide with hands that know when to exercise restrain and when to let go. Dor flies high and effortlessly in an azure sky, creating elating dips and curves in the skyline without ever letting go of the thematic thrusts that take the director as far into the realm of realism as cinematically possible, without losing out on that wonderful quality of cinematic splendour that separates poetry from sermons.

The way Kukunoor weaves the two unconnected lives in contrasting hinterlands is not short of magical. The eye for detail (take a bow Sudeep Chatterjee, Munish Sappal, Sanjeev Dutta and Salim-Suleiman for conferring a subtle but skilled splendour through your cinematography, art direction, editing and music) is so keen, you tend to stare not at the screen, but at feelings and emotions that aren’t visible. From the initial scenes of tender bonding between between the two women and their respective spouses, to the indelible sisterhood between the two bereaved women that constitutes the end-notes of this sublime celluloid symphony…Kukunoor’s world of wistful peregrinations is as fragile as it’s powerful.

Dhanak (2016)

This is a very rare product of a breed of cinema where simplicity and intelligence come together in an unlikely marriage of excellence. The main characters are a little blind boy who is a brat and a whiner and a major drama king and his elder sister wiser beyond her years endlessly exasperated by her kid-brother’s antics but committed to being his support and anchor as they sets off to meet, hold your breath, Shah Rukh Khan.

The journey is interspersed with an array of interesting encounters with characters who appear so much part of the landscape you wonder if Kukunoor decided to include them in his young travellers’ journey just because they (the incidental characters) were around.

Dhanak doesn’t strike one false note. The two young protagonists played by Krish Chanria and Hetal Gada are such natural-born actors you wonder where Kukunoor found them. The two children bring unconditional joy to the script. And they speak a language that is real vital and believable. The conversations between the 8-going-on-9 year old Chotu and his 11-year old sister ring so true, it’s like watching them without the camera. As the two children set off on a cross-country journey to meet the superstar, Nagesh’s elegant simple and lucid screenplay weaves into the plot the kind of close encounters of the thundering kind that exposes the two kids into an incredibly expansive world of kindness and generosity.

Nagesh shoots Rajasthan’s desertscape with a reined-in luminosity, neither over-punctuating the topography for emotional impact nor underplaying it for the sake of counter-touristic brevity. Not since the cinema of JP Dutta has Rajasthan been shot with such skilful serenity. Chirantan Das is a poet masquerading as a cinematographer. The film’s other commendable component is the eventful music score by Tapas Relia. The songs and music urge little sightless Chotu’s adventures into areas of sunshine even when the clouds loom large. Barring one near-catastrophic encounter with kidnappers, Chotu and his protective sister never come face-to-face with peril.

You really can’t pluck holes in Nagesh Kukunoor’s enchanting excursion into the heart of innocence and salvation. This is a heartwarming ode to the dying spirit of the human and selfless compassion. Moving funny and memorable, the two child actors are miraculous. Ditto the film.

Hyderabad Blues 2 (2004)

After the grossly underrated 3 Deewaarein, Kukunoor needed to return to his roots. The film is quite engaging and is a satire on the middleclass. Varun Naidu hasn’t changed since we last met him six years ago. Still a bit flustered by the Great Indian Chaos, the most radical change in his life since we last met him is the dissolution of his green-card status. If the original (and boy, how original!) film celebrated the otherness of the foreign-returned dude with an attitude, Hyderabad Blues 2 (HB2) celebrates his one-ness with the spirit of the chaos in Hyderabad. The backroom jokes and the all-boys’ babble over a game of cards are among the highlights of HB2 (arguably the smartest, sassiest sequel this country’s cinema has produced).

No other film has so effectively been able to capture the spirit of the banal, lascivious but absurd camaraderie among male friends as they discuss – what else? – women and sex, in that order. Back home there’s Varun’s strangely disaffected-looking wife Ashwini (Jyoti Dogra) pining for a child. The sequel far more ‘sexy’ than the earlier film, as Ashwini plots with her best friend to get Varun more ‘interested in her. Sexy of course is a ‘relative’ term in Hyderbad Blues. The manner in which Kukunoor portrays the whole familial scenario makes him a disarmingly subvertive Sooraj Barjatya.

“I don’t know which of you I should kill first,” Varun rolls his eyes at his parents after they mess up his one chance to get back with his sulking wife. Oh, didn’t I tell? The baby plans in Varun’s and Ashwini’s cosy life dissolves into a divorce-like situation after Varun nearly commits adultery.The voluptuous new floor manager Menaka (Tisca Chopra) in Varun’s office, who happily admits she’s ‘made a career’ out of seducing her bosses gives Varun a peer into her cleavage. A disgruntled employee (caught earlier for sexual harassment) squeals to Varun’s wife about Varun’s escapades. The rest of the story follows a comic and tricky path, with Ashwini sending her repentant husband back to the States.

The hybridised Hindi-Telugu-English dialogues which were undoubtedly the USP of Hyderabad Blues, continued to lure viewers in this charming tale of heartbreak and laughter in the city of the Charminar. This is a film about coping with dying. But that’s not what makes it such a special experience. It’s the writer-director’s profound understanding of human nature that furnishes the simple story with a lucidity and coherence even when the protagonist’s mind is so numbed by physical pain he can barely think straight.

Aashayein (2010)

This film is structured as a journey from a bright delusory light into a place where the radiance comes from a consciousness of why mortality is not to be feared. In John Abraham’s eyes are mapped the entire history of the human heart, its follies and foibles as it struggles to make coherent the indecipherable logistics that define our journey across that bridge which everyone crosses from this world to the next.

As that very fine actress Prateeksha Lonkar (a Kukunoor favourite) says, “The only difference between the healthy and the ill is that the former don’t know when they are dying and the latter do.” Between that state of blissful oblivion where we all think life is forever (and a day) and that one moment when our delusions come crashing down there resides some very fine cinema. Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anand where Rajesh Khanna smiled his way though that wobbly bridge taking us to the next world, is an interesting reference point in Aashayein.

Kukunoor pays homage to life per se, and life as we know in the movies about death. Even in the most poignant places in the art Kukunoor ferrets out some humour. When John’s lovely girlfriend (Sonal Sehgal) hunts him down in his exilic place of the dying John quips, “So you are not going to behave like one of those heroines in films who dumps the dying hero?”

The fantasy element creeps into the hospice (yes, that’s the spotless space that the story inhabits unostentatiously) with the least amount of fuss. There’s a little boy (the bright and expressive Ashwin Chaitale) who weaves mystical tales borrowed from the comic books for the desperate and the dying. Here Kukunoor brings in an element of rakish adventure borrowed from the edgy hijinks of Indiana Jones. Who says money can’t buy love? John uses bundles of cash to bring a smile into these doomed lives. When he doubles up with pain in womb-like postures of helplessness we feel his pain.

This is unarguably Kukunoor’s most sensitive and moving work since Iqbal. We often find little sobs pounding at the base of our stomachs. Not all the characters or situations are fully formed and fructified. But even the partly-realized truths in Aashayein convey more common sense and uncommon affection for life than the “entertainers” of today’s cinema where laughter is generated through cracks in places very far removed from the heart.

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