My recent post on the Madhur Bandharkar's Mumbai trilogy, led me to reconsider my experience of Indian art-house cinema and prompted this post on the recent cinema of writer-director-actor Nagesh Kukunoor. They are two complementary directors. Bandharkar's cinema seeks to expose corruption at the very heights of Indian society. He uses fast cuts, hand-held cameras and the brash confrontational structure of investigative journalism. The over-riding tone is angry. By contrast, Kukunoor's cinema deals is more quiet, more personal, more sentimental and less polished.
Kukunoor's first film was his incredibly lo-fi 1998 feature, HYDERABADI BLUES. He plays the protagonist - a young Indian man who returns home after a decade in the US and finds himself bewildered by the traditional process of wooing a wife. Kukunoor shows his flair for comic dialogue and for creating authentic emotional dilemmas. But the film falls down for its ridiculous denouement and the rough-and-ready technical spec. So this is arguably an interesting movie for fans of his later work, rather than a must-see for general audiences.
Kukunoor's next movie was the 1999 coming of age tragicomedy, ROCKFORD. It's about pre-teen boys in an Indian all-boys Catholic boarding school. Kukunoor captures the dramas of growing up in a strict environment, friendship and first love with candour and wit. But this is a less successful film that HYDERABADI BLUES. Although filmed on a larger budget, the editing and framing still have a haphazard feel. The plot was a bit random too. Big issues, such as sexual abuse, are introduced and then neatly dismissed. And the lead actors, young Rohan Dey and Nandita Das give mediocre performances.
Next up is the 2001 satire on Bollywood, BOLLYWOOD CALLING. Pat Cusick plays himself - a failed Hollywood actor who decides to take bit part in a Bollywood movie directed a has-been played by the legendary Om Puri. Once again, the technical package ratchets up a notch in this flick, though far from perfect. Still, it was a testament to Kukunoor's increasing success that he managed to cast Om Puri. The script is especially good on the culture clash between East and West and in lightly mocking the intrinsic ridiculous of the Bollywood masala movie. But there is no rage and no anger - no exploration of the darker side of an industry with mafia links and a bad track record on sexual abuse. Instead we get a very schmaltzy denouement where, once again, all loose ends tie up neatly and in the best of all worlds. I mean, you don't have to make a movie as fierce as PAGE THREE, which is less a satire than a rant. But, BOLLYWOOD CALLING isn't half as perceptive, accomplished, visually inventive or tragicomic as Merchant Ivory's 1970 classic, BOMBAY TALKIE, for instance.
2003 brought a turnaround in Kukunoor's career, as far as I am concerned. With the dark thriller 3 DEEWAREIN (3 WALLS) he made a movie of real emotional depth and political importance. It is powered by surprisingly good performance from mainstream Bollywood actors - Jackie Shroff, Juhi Chawla and Gulshan Grover - as well as a typically brilliant performance from Naseerudin Shah. The movie opens with a no-nonsense depiction of three murders. We then move forward in time. Chawla plays an abused housewife who is interviewing three convicts on India's death row. They are played by Shroff, Shah and - in an absurd lack of humility on his part - Kukunoor. The thriller aspect arises from why exactly the woman is so interested in these men. The tension builds - there are no silly songs to destract from it - until a powerful and uncharacteristically dark denoument. The result is an accomplished and powerful film that breaks the Bollywood mould and is definitely worth trying to watch. Indeed, the only real flaw is Kukunoor's reluctance to cast a better actor than himself in a lead role.
After such a promising film it is disheartening to say that in 2004, Kukunoor released a flimsy cash-in - HYDERABADI BLUES 2. The least said about this mediocre feel-good nonsense the better. But things went from bad to worse with the admittedly critically acclaimed 2005 schmaltz-fest IQBAL. This is a polished, emotionally manipulative, hackneyed underdog/sports movie. Picking up from the plucky young things in LAGAAN, here we have a deaf-mute boy who triumphs over his family's objections to play for the Indian cricket team having been talent-spotted by no less a legend than Kapil Dev! Seriously.
But before we can write off Kukunoor as a Bollywood Spielberg-lite, he flip-flops back to form with this 2006 flick, DOR. Ayesha Takia plays a naive and kind-hearted Hindu girl called Meera who marries her childhood sweetheart. She lives with his highly traditional (for which read patriarchal and oppressive) family while her husband leaves home to look for work in a factory. But soon they receive the news that the husband is dead. He was apparently pushed from a balcony by his room-mate, a Muslim man from north India. Meera is now a young widow - at the lowest rung of the social ladder - and kept as a quasi-slave in her husband's house. Still, she does not object to this until she meets a North Indian woman called Zeenat (Gul Kirat Panang). Zeenat is a feminist Muslim who teaches her to have some fun and think for herself. However, Zeenat has a hidden agenda. Her husband has been convicted of killing Meera's husband and the only way she can save him from the death sentence is to persuade Meera to pardon him.
The movie is beautifully filmed and shows the difference in landscape, culture and customs of Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan. DP Sudeep Chatterjee does excellent work. The script and the two lead performances are also praise-worthy. In particular, Meera's awakening is subtle and convincing. All in all, DOR is a quiet, patient, lyrical film that, along with 3 DEEWAREIN, makes Kukunoor a director that it's hard to dismiss.
All these films are available on DVD.