In 1997, Georgia University of Technology graduate Nagesh Kukunoor returned to his hometown intending to shoot his debut film Hyderabad Blues. The movie, which is centered on an NRI who experiences culture shock, was shot with Kukunoor’s own finances and relatives helping out behind the scenes. The director himself said he never expected the film, which Shyam Benegal described as ‘delightful’, to work in India. Released with one show in one theatre in Goregaon, it went on to become a massive critical and commercial success and was credited with kick-starting India’s indie film movement. As the film completes 20 years this month, Kukunoor spoke to us about cutting costs, being the film’s director, lead actor and producer simultaneously, and the censor board’s reaction to his iconic ‘Dil pe mat le’ line:

ON SHOOTING ON A BUDGET AND WORKING WITH RELATIVES

I just show up here, I know no one, I have money which I’ve brought from the US as contraband, just my savings in cash. I was carrying cash and some gold coins. All the way through till marketing, it [the film’s budget] was $40,000. At that time, it was about Rs12 lakhs, I think. If you add in the marketing, it totaled up to Rs16 or Rs17 lakhs, but the feature was done in about Rs12 lakhs. As you know, my mom, dad, my aunt, cousin – not to mention another eight aunts and uncles and all – everyone chipped in with their homes and everything else, but these four-five people were at the core of everything that happened. And obviously, they knew nothing. So I would give them printouts of scenes with costumes. It was truly a mom-and-pop shop experience.

WHY HE CAST HIMSELF AS THE LEAD ACTOR

When I came to Hyderabad circa 1997, there was no organised pool of actors, there were no casting directors, there was no one. And I was looking to make a ‘feature’, which most of the people thought was a hoax because there was Hindi, English and Telugu. So who fills that slot? And I needed to get the American accent right. I actually started casting. It wasn’t some narcissist thing. But it became very apparent in the first week that I was there that it would have to be me. Because no one had that bastardised Indian-American accent, no one could speak Telugu and the dakhini that we speak in Hyderabad. And everyone had grown up on really bad ’90s Bollywood. So once I started auditioning, these guys are freaking hamming. So it quickly became apparent that I had to wear that hat.

ON HOW THE FILM’S SECOND LEAD BECAME HIS AD

I come to Hyderabad to make the film, I ask around, and they say, ‘Oh there’s a person who could connect you with a lot of other people. She’s truly connected to Hyderabad. Her name’s Elahe.’ I try reaching out to her, can’t. She’s busy with other stuff. I come back and now she’s available. So I meet her, and while talking to her I said, ‘Oh my god. This is Seema.’ So I asked her, ‘Would you audition?’ ‘Yeah, yeah, of course.’ So I auditioned her, she was perfect – so I cast her. February 17, 1997 is when we started shooting, February 12, we did the first reading at my place. Everyone’s gathered around and it’s awful because most of them are not actors, there’s chaos in the room, people are reading stuff and I’m trying to make sense of it. I stepped out to go grab something. When I came back in, there was a huddle going on and I hear Elahe helping the other actors – ‘You know, maybe you want to say the line like this.’ So I watched it from a distance. We finished the reading and I said, ‘Do you want to be my assistant director?’ She’s like, ‘Yeah!’ not knowing what it entails, absolutely clueless. You know she had a designer store? A lawyer who had a designer store decides to act in the film and is then my AD.

ON HOW HE FOUND HIS CAMERAMAN

There’s a scene in (Kukunoor’s 2001 film) Bollywood Calling where the actor shows up to the set and there’s no one and finally the cameraman shows up. This guy asks him, ‘Why are you on time?’ and he says, ‘I’m beginning cameraman no? When I get famous, I can also be late.’ This actually happened to me. I went on a Telugu TV set and met this cameraman and he and I were the only two people (there). So he foolishly said, ‘Someday if you shoot your feature, I’ll shoot it for you for free.’ His name’s Ram Prasad and he’s a very well-established Telugu film cameraman now. So I called Prasad and I said, ‘Will you shoot this film?’ and he said, ‘Yeah’. And he being from the industry, gave all his requirements for lights and everything. And I said, ‘Listen, I have this much money. So whatever you can get in this much is plenty, yeah?’

ON THE FILM’S ‘SHAKESPEAREAN’ CLIMAX

The budgeting for the climax was done for those two days. I had rented a marriage hall and every single relative was requested to come on that one pivotal day. So we filled the mandap and if you look at it, it’s only low angles. Because only the front row has about 10 people sitting and then the seats are all empty from the back. And we just went at it. If you see the climax, I was trying to be clever when I said it is Shakespearean, farce-like, but it is just chaos. ‘You sit here, you sit there.’ And things like crossing the line and stuff like that – I wasn’t thinking!

ON THE ICONIC ‘DIL PE MAT LE’ LINE

It almost didn’t make the final cut. So when Udta Punjab created this big furore –  oh censor board, this, that – I was kind of laughing and I said, ‘Get in line.’ Because Hyderabad Blues got 91 cuts. We did the evaluation, we did the review committee, then finally we went to the tribunal. As you know, the tribunal’s like a mini court. So we’re sitting onstage and Mrs. Kutty was representing the censor board and I was on the other side and she said, ‘Oh and this line Dil pe mat le…’ and she took a pause and she said, ‘It’s a reference to masturbation.’ So once the quote-unquote accusation is made, the filmmaker has to defend it and I said, ‘Yes.’ And Justice Lentin laughed and said, ‘Let it go.’ It’s obvious that that is what it is referring to. That came out of a drunk session with my buddies. I think it was in the second or third year of college, I don’t remember. And obviously someone found it clever enough to say. ‘Dil pe mat le’ is a common Hyderabadi phase. The ‘haath mein le’ was the add-on, the innovation. Then our group used it a lot, so it made its way into the script.

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