l was being an irresponsible filmmaker: Nagesh Kukunoor

Director Nagesh Kukunoor had earlier cast a 14-year-old girl to play the lead in Lakshmi, a film that deals with human trafficking and child prostitution. The movie now stars 26-year-old singer Monali Thakur as the protagonist

The last we heard, Nagesh Kukunoor’s upcoming film Lakshmi’s release date had been postponed from January 17 to a later date. Apparently, there were some censor issues, since the movie deals with child prostitution and human trafficking. But when we meet Kukunoor, the filmmaker clarifies that there is no such thing. “The film has to be seen by the Reviewing Commitee but we had been unable to set up a screening for all of them. We will get to know the release date soon,” he said. Excerpts from an interview.

Nagesh Kukunoor shot Lakshmi in exactly 22 days. Pic/Sayed Sameer Abedi

Congratulations on winning the Audience Award for best narrative feature at the Palm Springs International Film festival for Lakshmi. Were you expecting it?
Thank you. And no, I wasn’t expecting that at all. I was actually getting a little nervous as Lakshmi had not got through any major film festival. I was a little disappointed as I felt that this story had a worldwide reach because it’s a basic story of heroism that cuts across all boundaries. And now, trafficking is a topic worldwide, not just restricted to ‘third world countries’. So it was a huge sense of relief when we got into Palm Springs Festival. It was almost after seven years that I attended an international film festival. When they announced Lakshmi’s name at the award ceremony, I was in a daze for a while before a friend of mine pushed me towards the stage (laughs). It’s very gratifying because it took me three to four years to conceptualise Lakshmi, which is not a very long journey for a film, but it has been a really emotional one.

You are not known for your marketing strategy but with Lakshmi, it seems to have changed. You have been sending the film to film festivals, interacting with college students and holding screenings.
That’s true. With Lakshmi, I am very clear about one thing that irrespective of the box-office result, I want the movie to have a shelf life. And with a reasonable degree of confidence, it seems like it will. I’ve got offers from NGOs, schools and colleges for screenings. At Palm Springs, Elahe (Heptoolah) met a woman who is a member of the Congress who told her that she would like to screen the film at the House of Representatives in Washington DC. We’re also tapping into foreign universities. I want the movie to have a shelf life so that it can throw light on a topic that demands attention. Hence, my whole strategy for the promotion of the movie.

You cast a 26-year-old girl (Monali Thakur) to play a 14-year-old in the movie. Why not cast somebody who’s actually 14?
I did. Originally, around two-and-a-half years back, I had cast a 14-year-old to play the lead role. I started interacting with her parents while we were getting ready for the movie. The more I interacted with her parents, the more I started getting the feeling that I was really an irresponsible filmmaker. Just to get my story told, I was exposing this child to a truly ugly side of life. I know it’s a film set and it’s all make-believe, but I was dealing with such sensitive material. I think it was the best decision I took not to cast a minor, because when I was directing Monali through the difficult scenes, I could talk to her as an adult and clearly explain what the situation demanded from her as an actor. I could ask a co-actor to put a hand on her mid-riff or ask him to grab her and ask her if she’s okay with it or if she’s feeling uncomfortable. Can you imagine doing that to a child? I’m glad I took that decision in the planning stage itself.

Monali Thakur plays a 14-year-old in the film Lakshmi 

Tell us a bit about the casting and the shoot of Lakshmi.
I saw Monali at a party and thought she would look right for the role if I dress her up in two plaits. I didn’t know how good she was as an actor, but after I saw her audition, I thought she’s a seasoned actor. She was that good! Working with her was a breeze after that. I shot this film in Hyderabad in 22 days flat, which is something I haven’t done since Hyderabad Blues which was shot in 17 days. To have actors with whom you could finish off in one or two takes was great. The entire cast, including Monali, Satish Kaushik, Ram Kapoor and Shefali Shah was outstanding.

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