Sometime interviews are not serious question and answer sessions. There is an easy flow of energy that makes it conversational where the film discussed is embellished by the various spaces it inhabits – rural Indian mindsets, the concept of superstar- dom, sibling rivalry, far-fetched promises kids make to each other and the innate goodness in people. Meeting Nagesh Kukunoor, Elahe Hiptoola and Manish Mundra, the team behind Dhanak has just been that experience. At the Le Meriden, right in the middle of Ramadan, Dubai will get to watch a film that, at it very core represents the spirit of the season – the spirit of connecting to an inner higher self, the innocence of children and the fact that the world is a after all a good place. Manju Ramanan speaks to Nagesh, Elahe and Manish and returns refreshed by the experience of films that reflect hope. Dhanak releases on June 16th in the UAE.
Dhanak released at the Dubai International Film Festival. How different is this version?
Nagesh: The one that played at DIFF was an International version of the film. The one that releases on the 16thof May is the Indian version. It has one lip sync song and has three more gorgeous songs. Also we had a bit more editing choices that went better with Indian cinema.
Why did you have the SRK angle to the film?
Nagesh: There is an SRK and Salman Khan angle to the film. The truth is that through Shahrukh Khan, we are trying to establish the mythology of the superstar. When you go towards villages where SRK would have shot scenes of his films, each and every one in the village seems to have a memory of him. The sister’s character driving the film believes that SRK will cure the brother. It is the kind of belief that is not new to our audiences or people in general who are into hero-worship. Remember the days of Rajesh Khanna that so many women committed suicide when he got married. The logic is simple based on the Indian psyche – it is about ‘darshan’ time. The effect is similar to when the devotee’s eyes fall on the idol, there is magic. That is a running gag in the film – everyone has a personal interaction with the superstar.
Elahe: Sometimes the mania is ludicrous. A theatre was burnt down in Andhra Pradesh because one of the main actors was slapped onscreen. So many of us bragging rights to Shahrukh Khan. How often have you heard people that I have SRK’s phone number? The more important thing is whether SRK has your number.
Tell us about the book on Dhanak?
Elahe: We launched the book in three different cities in India. It has been published in a novelized form. And Anushka Ravishankar, who can be called the is the SRK of children ‘s literature has written it. Anushka has a huge fan base worldwide.
Nagesh: It is a different experience to have made the film and then read the book. I was curious to find out what would Anushka do with it. She brings in a couple of interesting things to the book. The cutest thing however is that I could actually hear Pari’s thoughts and Chotu’s thoughts through the narrative.
You have incorporated the iconic Dum a dum mast kalandar to the film?
Elahe: Yes we have. It is the Shahrukh Khan of all songs and people often debate if the one sung in India is better than the one in Pakistan or Dubai and nearly all singers have sung it. In fact there was a mini twitter war on the origin of the song.
How was it working with children?
Elahe: Manish was handling the kids so he would know.
Manish: I heard a one-line narration from Nagesh and agreed to produce the film. The essence of the film touched me. We made the film to show the world how lovely and mature kids can be and how brave they can be too. Kids have their own feelings and we need to help, protect and nurture the feelings. It is not your typical film. Also the film was shot in my hometown Jodhpur in Rajasthan made it special.
Nagesh: I don’t say this as a clever answer. When I was writing the script, I ensured that it was about a journey. The only condition was the world was a good place. Though as a writer, I was often interrupted by the cynic, the disbeliever saying that everyone you meet may not be a good person. All of this prompted me to change my script but I stuck to what was the premise I started out to make.
It is lovely to write from a child’s perspective. Innocence, believing in magic is a mandate. I wanted to remind myself of the India I grew up in. We went to school by ourselves. My brother at 8 years of age got into rickshaw by himself and return home all by himself. There was so much trust.
Elahe: I was sent to school with the gardener on his bicycle sitting in the small front seat with him breathing down my neck. There was absolute trust.
Manish :On my way back from school I befriended a dhabawala who served dal chawal. In Marwari families like mine, we had rice only once a week and I love rice. So, on my way back from school I would have dal chawal at his dhaba.
You’ve always given the onscreen disabled characters another space?
With Iqbal I had an axe to grind. I wanted to break the Indian cinema cliché of how the differently abled were portrayed. That war was fought and won there. Now it is about why not! A brother-sister duo walking across Rajasthan is a story in itself. By creating the character of the blind brother whose sister resolves to cure his eyesight – it takes Pari’s character to a heroic level. Kids do this all the time. They make unreasonable promises. Also blindness is not the story. It is incidental.
How do you translate the magic onscreen?
Nagesh: You have many tools at your disposal – the biggest one is editing. (Laughs) But you cannot take away an iota of what talent children have. Once they figured out how they could be natural in front of the camera they got it right. Initially they were schooled into roles by what they had already done -clawing cuteness and typical clichéd portrayals. At times you would see a stroke of genius and you didn’t know where it came from.
Elahe: When I asked Krish what he learnt from Nagesh sir he said, “ Maine seekha ke sing-song me nahi baat karni chahiye.” He was very happy that in this film he is the central role. (Laughs)
How many children did you audition for the roles?
About 450- 500 children were auditioned. I looked at each and every audition even if I knew that the child wouldn’t make it. Krish had done a couple of films but not as the lead as he said. Hetal is a complete natural.
What has been the response to the film worldwide?
Nagesh: When we won at Berlin, Manish had predicted it. And he hadn’t said it in arrogance but with insight and understanding. We are hopeful it does well here too.
Elahe: In Kolkata’s Nandan, the crowds were overwhelming. A lady came upto me and fell at my feet thanking us that the film showed her that the world was a good place. Another response was when they told us that you put on the lights right after the film for interaction with the director and we didn’t even have time to wipe our tears.
Manish: In Nigeria where I have a 300 seater auditorium, the film was very well accepted by the cross section of the Indian audience. Everybody there was involved. There dance on Damadam mast kalandar. It is 10 days and they still remember how much they enjoyed the film.