Nagesh Kukunoor wrote the story and screenplay and directed and produced the award-winning children’s film Dhanak, and it was novelised by Anushka Ravishankar. The book Dhanak is published by Duckbill in June 2016 and the movie releases on 17 June 2016.
This interview was conducted by Samina Mishra, a documentary filmmaker, writer and teacher based in New Delhi. She has a special interest in media for and about children.
SM: What prompted the story and why did you set it in Rajasthan?
NK: I sometimes jokingly say that I must have been born a Rajasthani in some previous birth because I automatically set stories in Rajasthan in so many scripts that I write. There’s something magical about the desert, something supremely dramatic. It’s an active participant in the storytelling.
Setting Dhanak in Rajasthan was triggered off by an image of the two children holding hands, isolated against the vast desert landscape. It was a far better setting than anything else I could have done. An idea was pitched to me for an ad for a courier company which was about a blind boy and his sister. The ad never happened but this little nugget remained with me of the sister wanting to ensure that her brother sees again. So I worked with that and turned it into a road movie. I wanted the kids to meet people who help them. I wanted to show that the world is not such a bad place. I wanted to go back to the India I grew up in where people trusted each other. This mistrust is part of the twenty-first century and I wanted to dispel that.
SM: Normally, it’s books that get adapted to film. But you had to do it the other way around. What was the hardest thing about the process? And what was easy?
AR: The easy thing first! The dialogues, since they had to be pretty much the same as in the film, were the easiest thing to do. The screenplay was in English, so I didn’t even need to translate, except where there was a variation.
The hardest thing was, I think, finding the right balance: I had to be true to the film and yet, I didn’t want the novel to read like a screenplay. There are fleeting expressions and spectacular landscapes, which contribute to the narrative in the film. For the book, it was necessary to decode those expressions and communicate the feelings evoked by the landscape. It was unfamiliar territory for me, and I hope I’ve managed to get it right.
SM: What was your process in getting the children to act?
NK: The core of the film is the relationship between the brother and the sister, which is very different in real life from the overly-sweet relationship often portrayed in our films. In real life, they are based on a foundation of constant conflict. I wanted that in the film. I don’t have kids of my own but I find I always have success with children when I treat them like adults. So, that’s what I did–tell them everything straight up, no babying. The toughest thing was to detrain them from their TV acting ways and get them to act more natural. I also sent Krrish to a blind school so he could observe how blind kids function in their everyday lives. And he realised that it’s not like what he’d seen in the movies or on TV where they are constantly feeling their ways around, over-emphasising their blindness. In real life, they don’t need to do that because they’ve already mapped it all out in their heads. So, he got that.
The true challenge of shooting Dhanak was the elements–sometimes temperatures soared to 50 degrees! But the kids were absolute troopers, no whining. They were beyond adorable, a million times better than any adults. A few times we shot late into the night and Krish would fall asleep. So when I woke him up for his shot, he was groggy but never cranky. And what I tried to do was use that grogginess to my advantage, for example in the scene with Shamsher Singh, and it gave it a lovely texture of reality.
I would shoot with these kids any day!
SM: The children in Dhanak are not English-speaking and that is often a challenge in writing books in English in India. Was it difficult to get the voice of the characters right?
AR: The screenplay was in English, so I only tweaked it a very little bit. As you say, writing in English in India, this is something we always have to deal with. But it’s like any work of translation, isn’t it? It has to sound good in the target language. I think having the odd Hindi word thrown in is fine, but I find it really problematic when people put pidgin English in the mouths of people who are speaking in an Indian language. One has to remember that they are proficient in their mother tongue! When there’s a bilingual conversation (with Chet Dixon, in this film) it’s more challenging, and I enjoyed writing those bits. For the rest, it’s best not to translate. So getting the voice right then just means getting under the character’s skin.
SM: Dadisa’s character introduces an element of magic, magic that helps the children. Tell us about your concept of magic in the world.
NK: Magic is a point of view. When David Copperfield gets a car to disappear on stage, you can start thinking of the scientific method that enables that or you can like kids, just believe it. I have explored magic as a point of view throughout the film–if you want, you can see the context of the people helping the kids as magic. But I thought the film needed something to crystallise that philosophy and Dadisa’s character does that. She has probably told the gypsy-woman many times that two children will need her help but that day, the prediction comes through. It’s the laws of probability but you can also see it as magic. It’s the point of view you take.
SM: Adults are always looking for messages in books that will teach children something. Do you think this is misplaced and that children’s books can actually teach adults something?
AR: It’s such a pity that adults can’t stop seeing children as empty vessels to dump things into. I’ve spent much of my writing life writing nonsense, to subvert that very idea! I’ve never wanted my books to mean anything or teach anything, and even then, I’m always being attributed with meanings and messages. And that’s not surprising. Because our concerns and our philosophies, such as they are, are bound to inform the books we write. The best children’s books can be read and enjoyed by adults as much as by children, and so yes, children’s books can teach adults a lot of things. Not to take themselves too seriously, for example. 🙂
SM: Do you think current artistic practice–across media–sufficiently reflects children’s experiences of the world?
NK: I’m not really qualified to comment on this but I do think that most often, children’s films get dumbed down to the point of being boring. With Dhanak, having done screenings across forty-three film festivals, I can say confidently that it is more than a children’s film. Adults have come up to me and said that it’s made us realise all the things we have become cynical about. So I think we should guard against dumbing down. Kids don’t need that.
AR: It’s difficult to generalise, because adults are the ones creating these works, and it all depends on the artist. Seeing the world through a child’s eyes needs a particular kind of empathy. It’s also mixed with the memory of one’s own childhood, and being able to kind of slip back into that time of one’s life. It’s not that it’s a superior skill, just a particular kind of skill, which not everyone has. So when you see a film like Killa or Gattu, you can see it comes from an understanding of what it is to be a child in a particular time and place. Nagesh has also delved into his childhood to get that authenticity in Dhanak. Whereas there are many so-called children’s films which are completely from the adults’ point of view. These films do not reflect the child’s experience of the world at all. It’s the same with children’s books. You have the preachy ones and you have the ones where the authors have become the children they were, as they wrote the book. And the difference is tangible.
SM: Middle-class children are leading increasingly protected and supervised lives. What is your opinion on this given the context of the children in Dhanak who set out to explore the world on their own?
NK: I went to a boarding school and credit my parents and the school for shaping me as a survivor. Most of us, in my generation, were taught to fend for themselves. I am not a parent and may not understand the realities of bringing up kids today. But there is a place for the concepts of “tough love” and “making a man out of a boy”–and I mean this in a more non-gender-specific way. Children need independent space to develop and discover who they are. Virtually, in every big city, space has become so restricted – where do you go to develop? You’ve been boxed in. Kids are never really left alone to figure out how to deal with crises.
I also think these days there is too much information available and parents go to that rather than falling back on their own instincts. So I think kids are over-parented, over-protected. But again, I’m not a parent and so, maybe this is what is required today.
AR: It’s true children in cities are inhabiting circles of smaller and smaller diameters. Their lives are circumscribed by so many controlled parameters, that they never see anything of the world which is neither related to them or moderated and curated for them in some way. They can never see children from other classes–the working class, the street children, the scavengers–as coeval to them, because they are brought up to only mix with children from their own class. There are some cities, like Mumbai, which are more democratic in this regard. You still see children travelling by public transport on their own, after a certain age–at least amongst the middle class and lower middle class. But perhaps that’s changing too. I hope that it’s different in smaller towns, but I don’t really know.
It’s disturbing to think of the kind of divide these isolated lives can create–I already see that young people today are actually blind to people who are not ‘like them’. They don’t exist for them. How will they grow up to have any empathy with the poor and the marginalised? That’s why I think it’s so important to have books and films that deal with children from different backgrounds. I don’t know if a journey of the kind that Pari and Chotu undertake is actually possible in today’s Rajasthan, but it makes for a lovely, lyrical story of hope. The flip side of it is that perhaps if they had been valued more, they would have had less freedom. But that’s a pessimistic view to take!
SM: Since it is left ambiguous whether it was actually Shahrukh Khan who helped the kids, what do you both think?
NK: That’s the magic part of the film – it’s for you to decide!
AR: I think there is a clear clue about whether it was Shahrukh or not, but it’s possible to miss it, because it’s never stated. That’s my way of saying, if you want to find out, read the book, see the film, and draw your own conclusions. 🙂