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Nagesh Kukunoor’s 5 Finest Film

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Nagesh Kukunoor

Nagesh Kukunoor’s 5 Finest Film

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.

Join Zeenat,then, on her bizarre impossible  quest to find a  achingly   young newly widowed woman  whom Zeenat has never  seen, met or even heard of until  her husband’s sudden tryst with crisis.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.It’s the Takia-Panag sisterhood that sustains the narrative. Both  the actresses are huge revelations, Takia winning more sympathy  votes  for the sheer poignancy of her character’s predicament.  Scenes such as    the  one where she falls unconscious while hearing  the news of her husband’s death over the only  cellphone  in  the village, or  the one where   she  furtively dances  to You’re my sonia stay etched beyond   the  frames.

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 who is committed to restoring his eyesight.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.Do the siblings, on a cross-country trek through rural Rajasthan, meet Mr Khan? Let’s just say Dhanak is a far better and more worthy tribute to the stardom and aura  of Shah Rukh Khan than the recent Fan which messed it up by getting the superstar-fan relationship wrong in the second-half.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 J P 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. I wouldn’t say that’s a blind spot in the narrative. Good knows in a  world that addresses itself to a drugged-out diabolism we need all the sunshine and positivity we can get. Without overdoing it Dhanak offers ample doses of both.No, 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). (Also read: Preview: Kukunoor`s arty sequel vs potboiler)I don’t think any 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 snd 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 Arora) 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. It’s all a bit of a been-there-done-it-all marital drama but played out at an unusual octave.

We almost expect a last-minute airport reunion between the couple. But aha! Kukunoor is smarter than we think. He delays the inevitable. The reunion comes at an NRI cousin’s traditional wedding where, amidst the sounds of marital vows, Ashwini sobs her way to Varun’s heart.On the surface HB2 follows all the rules of the traditional romantic comedy. It has the chirpy boldness of a Woody Allen fable and the musical aspirations of a traditional Hindi romantic musical (the sporadic songs on the soundtrack are sensibly introduced into the narration).But beyond the savvy dialogues and the raunchy-and-comic rituals of romanticism Kukunoor creates a world of lived-in characters. They seem to have been on screen long before G.S Bhaskar’s quietly inquisitive camera was switched on.While Kukunoor is so in-character as Varun that it’s impossible to imagine any other actor replacing him, Jyoti Dogra’s performance is lacklustre. Playing the realistic versions of the roles that Anil Kapoor and Tabu did in Biwi No.1, Elahi Heptullah and to a lesser degree, Vikram Inaamdar as the protagonist’s friends are delightful. Heptullah as the busybody running a home and a marriage bureau is so natural, we wonder if she knows what many Kukunoor’s characters don’t: that life can be taken seriously only at the individual’s own risk.Curiously, Kukunoor introduces homosexuality into the picture a little late in the day. Ashwini’s doctor-colleague – in a sequence that’s somewhat contrived and badly acted – confesses his sexual preference. “I’m not ashamed of being gay. But it’s the loneliness that bothers me,” says the doc.The character’s confession stands out in a film and a scenario where no one is ever alone, or given the chance to be lonely. Swarming with characters and teeming with remarks that replicate the rhythms of the educated middleclass in the metro, HB2 is the most likeable film in ages.The hybridised Hindi-Telugu-English dialogues which were undoubtedly the USP of Hyderabad Blues, continue 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.

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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.I also thought of the actress Supriya Choudhary in Ritwick Ghatak’s  Meghe Dhaka Tara  shouting into the dispassionate mists in the mountains, “I want to live.” The echoes reverberate all the way to Kukunoor’s heart warming funny and elegiac exposition on the truth that lies on the other side of that illusory mountain we call life. 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 Indian 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.John in Harrison Ford’s hat and whip cuts a starry figure. He has never been more fetchingly photographed. John’s smile reaches his eyes, makes its way to his heart and then to ours. This film opens new doors in John’s histrionic hospice .It’s a performance that heals and nurtures.John’s finest moments are reserved for a hot-tempered sharp-tongued 17-year old girl on a wheelchair, played with intuitive warmth by Anaitha Nayar. He guides the relationship between these two unlikely comrades of unwellness with brilliant restrain and candour. She wants him to make love. He does with his eyes using his unshed tears as lyrical lubricant.Here is a performance that defines the character through immense measures of unspoken anguish. Rajesh Khanna in Anand? Nope. John pitches his performance at a more wry and cynical world where true feelings are often smothered in worldly sprints across a wounded civilization.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.

City  Of  Dreams Part  1 and  2 (2019,2021): 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, 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.The aforementioned wounded politician’s daughter Poornima (a very lovely and emotionally empowered Priya Bapat) fights it out with her out-of-control debauched brother Ashish (Siddharth Chandekar).

The two actors play off against one another with controlled acerbity, bringing out Shakespearean levels of power-greed as the plot unfolds in a gripping game of one-upmanship.Priya Bapat is specially effective, negotiating the power spaces that her father has vacated with guarded velocity.In one sequence, Poornima Gaekwad accompanied by the family advisor (Jiten Pandya) meets a business benefactor friend of her father who informs her in very crude words, that he is ready to be ravaged in the missionary position but won’t be sodomized.The characters shock themselves with their sudden swerve into sleaze, none more than Sandeep Kulkarni playing the political family’s money launderer. Playing a placid family man with crippling financial liabilities (money launderer with no money: get the irony), he cultivates a secret life where he watches ‘Sunny’ (as in Leone) in “Badan Part 4” and befriends a mysterious seductress.Kulkarni brings out the frightening stillness that defines his character’s existence.Not one to go down without a fight is Ajaz Khan’s burnt-out encounter cop act. He is a once powerful man now forced to look at his pathetic personal and professional life straight in the eye. The part is memorably written. And Ajaz Khan makes the best of it though he could have mumbled his lines more coherently.The problem with being Marlon Brando is we don’t know what he is saying.The series has some striking threads of plotting, fluttering across the episodes with inviting assuredness. My favourite is the loan agent Gautam (wonderfully played by Vishwas Kini) and his unlikely telephonic friendship with the brutalized sex worker who calls herself Katrina (Amrita Bagchi).There is potential in this friendship for a full-fledged feature film.”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.

The line  dividing the  world of politics and crime in  City Of Dreams is  so think,  it is almost non-existent.The simmering  cornucopia of   characters are forever in the danger  of  slipping through the cracks.And  many of them  do. Poor Purushottam(so  poignantly  pathetic as  played by Sandeep Kulkarni). As  Poornima Gaekwad’s trusted lieutenant he  finds  himself  falling into the honeytrap  . Flora Saini  is  curiously  tragic and seductive as the  moll who  ensnares and destroys   poor  Purushottam .

I loved her  sequence at the end  where she comes  to meet Purushuttom’s  simple trusting wife  who asks the pretty lady if her husband had an  affair with her.Without  blinking, Flora denies it.Sometimes  a  lie is worth   many times  more than the truth. Even Mahatma Gandhi  thought so. Not that there are any Gandhian  politicians  in this intricately  conceived game  of  power and  deceit.Our heroine herself  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 Bapat play  the estranged wife  to a political activist Mahesh Aravale(Addinath M. Kothare, well played). And  before we  shout ‘Aandhi’ , Kothare  himself  describes himself as  Sanjeev Kumar in  Gulzar’s film and even hums  Tere bina zindagi se koi  to his  estranged wife.

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