Nagesh Kukunoor recalls how his debut film Hyderabad Blues boosted the 'indie movement' in India

Udita Jhunjhunwala

July 18, 2018 08:15:35 IST

There are a few movies I clearly remember as events. One was Sholay, another Top Gun, then there was Satya and soon after, Hyderabad Blues. There were a few after 1998 too, but since both Satya and Hyderabad Blues mark 20-year anniversaries this month, it seems appropriate to hit pause and rewind.

A few weeks after watching Satya at Eros on a wet monsoon night, I returned to the Mumbai theatre for the matinee show of Hyderabad Blues. The buzz around the film had been building steadily. Nagesh Kukunoor’s script followed the character of Varun Naidu (Kukunoor) in an autobiographical story that explored the culture clash faced by a NRI returning home to Hyderabad and facing dilemmas of identity, reconnecting with friends and fending off family pressure of an arranged marriage.

A still from Hyderabad Blues. YouTube

Vikram Inamdar and Nagesh Kukunoor in a still from Hyderabad Blues. YouTube

Like me, many others remember watching Kukunoor’s home production (quite literally since the cast and crew comprised a number of friends and family members) 20 years ago. Writer-director Vikramaditya Motwane recalls a houseful show in Bandra’s Gossip theatre where the audience was “hooked and laughing at all the right places”. The Udaan and Trapped director says, “I remember thinking how cool that someone can make something without song and dance but with real interesting characters in real situations. I was really blown away because in the 1990s, we were so used to seeing a certain kind of film and tonally, this film felt so different, yet it felt like you were connecting with it.”

Shot in 17 days on a budget based on chemical engineer-turned-filmmaker Kukunoor’s savings, Hyderabad Blues was a fresh and unfiltered hybrid that touched a generation of “foreign returned” English language speakers. Like us, the characters easily switched between languages and spoke of emotions and ideas many of us could relate to.

Apurva Asrani, editor of Satya, also remembers the impact of the English-Hindi-Telugu film that many consider to be the pioneer of the multiplex movie. “Satya had released just two weeks before and the theatre where it broke through was the same, Eros. Hyderabad Blues had a freshness and a grammar of its own, and may have paved the way for true-blooded independent cinema. The actors felt like real people. The issues they dealt with were real issues that we all grappled with — arranged marriage, overbearing families, a western mind trying to reconcile an Indian heart, and close friendships that made sense of all the chaos. I related fully with Nagesh’s characters,” says writer-editor Asrani.

Dev Benegal’s English, August had released in 1994, but while defined as an independent film, its  success was not comparable to the commercial achievements Hyderabad Blues. Later in 1998 came Kaizad Gustad’s Bombay Boys and before you knew it, a path had opened up for the Indian indie, also referred to as the multiplex movie or the new wave.

Motwane agrees. “With Hyderabad Blues and Iqbal, Nagesh is really a pioneer of the multiplex film which could reach a wide audience which was actually paying attention to this kind of stuff.” Asrani adds, “The film spoke the language of the urban youth and didn’t pander to any existing market. It also taught us that we could target niche audiences without appealing to the lowest common denominator mass audience. I also think the release strategy by Shyam Shroff and Shringar Films needs to be commended. It was a good, honest product that was given a unique release, which is why it became a game-changer.”

Elahe Hiptoola, who made her debut as an actor (playing Seema) and assistant director with the film, and has been Kukunoor's long-time collaborator, says, “I had never acted in a movie before and for most of the time, we all felt like we were on a picnic. Only Nagesh knew what he was doing. The rest of us were so innocent.” When single shows played in single screen theatres in Mumbai and Hyderabad (to start with), she recalls being stopped outside Eros theatre, and being asked for an autograph. “I was so thrilled that I kept thanking them,” she said.

Elahe Hiptoola and Vikram Inamdar in a still from Hyderabad Blues. Kukunoor Movies

Elahe Hiptoola and Vikram Inamdar in a still from Hyderabad Blues. Kukunoor Movies

Indeed Kukunoor had cast mostly non-professionals, including his uncle’s wife and a friend of his cousin among others. He himself played the protagonist, and like Hiptoola, was often approached by those who had seen the film. “I started getting recognised and it used to piss me off when people would say, 'Hey, you are the actor from Hyderabad Blues.' My reaction was I spent my adult lifetime to become a producer, writer and director and I spent only 17 days in front of the camera but I get recognition for that! I would get so irritated. It took me a while to accept that recognition comes from what the audience sees.”

Kukunoor has often shared that he had no expectation of his first film getting a theatrical release, let alone becoming a commercial hit. Not prone to sentimentality, yet pushed to reflect on this 20 year milestone, the Iqbal and Dor director says, “When I think about my first film, I think two things. First, that inadvertently something happened with that film that jumpstarted the indie movement. Inadvertent because I was not expecting it do well in India. For me, personally, it was a game-changer. From a chemical engineer I became a storyteller. Second, it took some pig-headed bullishness to make Hyderabad Blues possible and I think I have been able to use those qualities to make every one of my decisions over the last 20 years. I recently reminded myself that when a movie that had no business working did work, it means don’t listen to people. It means be patient and continue to have the courage to follow your dreams.”

Although he refuses to watch his films once they have been completed, ask Kukunoor if he thinks his debut feature is cringe-worthy or cool today and he does not hesitate before replying. “It’s cringy taken to a ridiculous degree. I want to crawl under a car. It’s awful! I am being forced to watch it on 17 July, 2018 but I am not sure I will,” he says.

Updated Date: Jul 18, 2018 08:15 AM