Filmmaker and actor Nagesh Kukunoor likes to go incognito on his trips, driven by the thrill to discover something new, to learn from it. He talks to Nitasha Panda about his experience in Peru, Bolivia and Chile
He has always believed the story to be bigger than the stars, and this has showed in each one of his films – be it Hyderabad Blues, Iqbal, Dor, Lakshmi or 3 Deewarein. And, after about a two-year break, he is back with Dhanak, which created waves on the international movie circuit even before its mid-June release in India. It has already won accolades at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival and the Montreal International Children’s Film Festival.
Yes, for Nagesh Kukunoor, it is all about breaking stereotypes. He has never believed in giving audiences anything other than a compelling storyline and brilliant performances. Even in Dhanak, his two protagonists are children. “The film is about a brother-sister duo, Pari and Chotu, and the magical journey they undertake across Rajasthan to restore the latter’s eyesight,” he says.
Talking about how the film was shot extensively in deserts, Kukunoor suddenly diverges to churma, his favourite dish in Rajasthan. “I can’t get enough of it!” he exclaims. But we know there is something he loves more – Thailand and its exotic list of preparations. “Oh, the way they prepare the squid, and even the pad Thai and the soups, especially tom kha,” says the avid traveller. His favourite island in Thailand, he adds, is Koh Chang.
However, this traveller might just have found a replacement. “My recent travels have taken me to Latin America, specifically Peru, Bolivia and Chile. We know so little of the Latin American culture, and I was stunned by how beautiful it is. Every place has its own vibe, which stems from its culture. The people, too, are extremely friendly,” he says.
He emphasised that all three countries were safe for tourists. “You can become almost invisible here and just wander the streets, roam free without worrying,” Kukunoor says. So has he found anything better than Thailand’s squid? “The Guinea pig,” Kukunoor says. “It’s a delicacy there. Peruvian food is all about loud spices and heavy flavours. It plays with your palate and titillates the taste buds, leaving you asking for more. Peru is also known to have the most number of indigenous ingredients and an assortment of culinary techniques from Europe, Africa and East Asia.” Turns out it’s not just the food he loved but also the drive he took on the Pan-American highway. “The highway borders the Pacific coast in South America. And it’s beyond spectacular! It had a certain element of danger to it, because the road was right up against the Pacific – one wrong turn and you would tumble into the ocean.”
But Bolivia remains etched in his mind. “I saw the most spectacular rainbow in Bolivia – it was circular and around the sun!” he exclaims. Must be a coincidence that his film Dhanak also means “rainbow”. Its vibrant history of Hispanic and pre-Hispanic traditions, along with 30 native languages and 36 native cultures, make Bolivia one of the most colourful countries in Latin America. “I loved the salt flats of Salar de Uyuni, the largest in the world. What I wouldn’t give to see them again. When it’s dry, theblue sky and the white ground are a beautiful contrast, and when it rains, the white reflects the sky and the horizon vanishes!” Besides its natural beauty, Bolivia’s street food is unforgettable.
In Chile, however, the food was a disappointment. The landscape was another matter altogether. “I visited San Pedro de Atacama, the town in which the world’s largest copper mines border the Atacama desert. And then there’s Iqueque, a gorgeous coastal town,” Kukunoor says.
But it was Chile’s spirit that captivated him. “I went to Chile with two assumptions – that Latin American women were beautiful and that everyone could dance. And both turned out to be true,” he says, laughing. “You can walk into any salsa class and watch people dance for sheer joy. It was a wonderful experience.”
The trip to Latin America also ignited a nostalgia in the director. “Old India was exactly like Latin America – and I miss that a lot. There is a clear connection between the cultures and the people, which is missing in India today. We have become too aggressive. Every trip teaches me something. And on this one, I learnt that life need not move at such a frantic pace. We need to take things a little slow – learn to stop and smell the roses,” he says, smiling.