Geeta Padmanabhan, Chennai writer, journalist and blogger, met with maverick director Nagesh Kukunoor who also writes his stories and screenplays. In the following interview, he discusses ‘Iqbal’ and the trouble with portraying people with disabilities.
Nagesh Kukunoor flew into Chennai in the first week of January for a mission that he now looks forward to. For two years now, he has been on the panel judging the winners of the CavinKare Ability Awards. These are annual awards given to exceptional people with disabilities. The Eminence Award is given to a disabled person who has overcome his limitations to help those around him. The two Mastery Awards are given to people with disabilities who have excelled in their chosen field. Once the nominations are short-listed, representatives go to where the nominees live to do interviews and shoot films about them. Then the panel meets in Chennai to watch the video clips and read up the reports to choose the winners through a weightage system. NK’s wonderful treatment of disability in Iqbal has made him a great friend of Ability Foundation, that co-hosts the Awards. I caught up with him at lunch following the final selection. “Do you pick food that helps to think better?” I asked. NK looked through the thick-framed glasses he wears now and laughed. “I just eat everything that looks good,” he said. “See, my plate is full.” In more ways than one. GP: Where did you get the idea for Dor? NK: From a newspaper report. I hear something similar happened after the movie as well, with a different ending. GP: One criticism about Iqbal was this. How could a boy in a village bowling to a couple of sticks be included in the state team? He is not shown to be playing in local matches at all. NK: You know, Ajit Agarkar (playing for India now) has had a run. So that part is not all imagination. GP:How do you view disability? NK:There is no self-pity in any of my characters. Iqbal never pities himself. In the Indian psyche self-pity and sympathy are very strong. We get lost in these emotions and never get to step 2. Pity is understandable, even unavoidable. I went into step 2. For me the stronger issue is disability can be overcome. GP:Ever considered asking a disabled person to do the role? NK:My job is to tell the story well. In a feature, you are fictionalizing a story. A phenomenal person with a disability may not be a good actor. GP:Some people wonder why kids have to look cuddly and loveable (as in Anjali) when they are portrayed with disabilities. NK:Oh, come on. A director works with a limited number of tools. Many people said Hyderabad Blues II was better than Hyderabad Blues I. But the movie bombed. You know why? I didn’t have a good-looking heroine. When disability is highlighted, I have to force people to watch. I have to make the movie accessible to a wide variety of audiences. And they don’t want to be reminded of everyday life. A director has to pick his battles. If I had a good-looking girl, the red-blooded males will come. In a story where women are sidelined, when we show how they are treated, if the woman isn’t pretty, there will be no empathy from your audiences. Even in Iqbal, Thalpade was cast for his wholesome, cute looks. Of course, I am not going to succumb to the “beauty rule”. But I don’t want to lose my audience. I have to pick my battles. GP:What is the next one? NK:Probably a love story between an Indian and a Thai girl. The dynamics of such a relationship. (Smiling mischievously), You can be sure the Thai girl will be stunning to look at.