‘I cannot make sugary romantic films’: Nagesh Kukunoor

Nagesh Kukunoor talks about his fondness for Hyderabad, aversion to romance as a genre and Modern Love Hyderabad, a conflux of both these elements  

Published: 05th July 2022 07:43 AM  |   Last Updated: 05th July 2022 07:43 AM   |  A+A-

A still from the film

A still from the film

Express News Service

With Modern Love Hyderabad, life has come a full circle for Nagesh Kukunoor. He left the city in his 20s only to return in the late ’90s to make his first feature, Hyderabad Blues (1998). Now, more than two decades later, he is back with Modern Love Hyderabad, the Amazon Prime Video anthology consisting of, well, love stories set in the city. If Hyderabad Blues was a cultural commentary on society, Modern Love Hyderabad is a love letter to the city itself.

“I was born and raised in this city and, ironically, through a twist of fate, it is a city I ended up coming back to, although I thought I wouldn’t return when I left to the US in 1988,” Nagesh says over a Zoom call. Elaborating on his relationship with the city, the filmmaker says, “It is quite a unique relationship. When you are born and raised in a city, you don’t give much importance to it, right? It is only when you grow older you begin to relate to all the things that made it special.” 

While his films have portrayed love stories, barring Mod (2011), Nagesh has stayed away from romance throughout his career. It is his disinterest in the genre that has restrained him from plunging into the genre, he says. “It is a genre that keeps getting rehashed across all languages without respite. When Elahe Hiptoola, the show’s producer, approached me with the gig, I turned it down instantly. I hadn’t seen the original Modern Love either. She insisted that I watch it and proceed only if I like it. When I watched the first episode — When the Doorman is your Main Man — I was sold,” says Nagesh, adding that it is his favourite episode from the show. “It is phenomenal.”

An opportunity to explore beyond the conventional man-woman, meet-cute relationships excited the storyteller in Nagesh the most. “I realised that we were not talking about usual love stories and that fascinated me. You see, relationships are fun and challenging, and I am up for such stories as long as they don’t fall under the narrow, cliched genre of romance.”

Nagesh’s intention to transcend conventional stories reflects in his choice of films in the anthology too. Among the three segments helmed by Nagesh, it appears like two do not fall under conventional romance. One is My Unlikely Pandemic Partner, which explores the bond between a young and a middle-aged woman, and Why Did She Leave Me There? which portrays the relationship between a young man and his estranged grandmother. Explaining how he chose these stories, Nagesh says, “Amazon had a repertoire of Modern Love columns published by The New York Times and we were given access to hundreds of them. We read nearly two hundred of them, shortlisted about twenty-five and picked these six finally. My idea throughout the process was quite simple: to ensure we were portraying different relationships. After zeroing in on them, we then went into the subgenres; some of these episodes are highly emotional, some are light-hearted, others are dramatic… you see, we tried to mix them up.” 

The actual challenge began after finalising the articles to adapt, Nagesh says. While storytellers continue to preach that love is universal, Modern Love is a column that documents the experiences and stories predominantly written by Americans and is, naturally, rooted in the cultural landscape of America. “The challenge right from the get-go was one question: will these stories work for our viewers?” And Nagesh has been vocal about his style of filmmaking, having described it once as a “wonderfully selfish and personal experience.” Modern Love Hyderabad demanded a change in his approach. “Although I don’t particularly care about the audience when I am making my films, this time, I had to care. I would pick an article and someone would go, ‘No. This might not completely work for the Telugu audience’, and I would back off.”

How did he crack this conundrum then? “The article had to speak to me on an emotional level. If that was solid, I would go ahead.” There is one more reason why Nagesh found the whole writing experience unique. “While adapting, we tried to pick and retain some aspects of the story, but we couldn’t completely change it either because the original writer had to give their approval. We had the leeway to make it accessible but the plot points had to be retained. You see, that’s where our creativity helps.”

One complaint about Indian romance is the exaggeration or, say, the excessive sweetness it thrives in. As someone who doesn’t particularly enjoy the genre, how did he approach his films? Nagesh has a delightful response. 

“Since I don’t care for it, I was incapable of making it sugary,” Nagesh reveals, laughing. “Those are not my instincts. Even if some actors would put on puppy dog faces, I would say, ‘No. We are in a different space here. Back off.’ There is no way I would end up doing a sugary romance.” Nagesh, however, quickly clarifies that he doesn’t loath the genre. “See, if the stories are well told, I will pay attention but the problem is, if nine out of ten films are love stories, it is an overkill,” he says.


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