Nagesh Kukunoor on love, sway of OTT and not chasing box-office hits
Revathi and Nithya Menen feature in one of the six episodes of Modern Love Hyderabad streaming on Amazon Prime from this weekend. Nagesh Kukunoor has directed three of the episodes in the series.

Nagesh Kukunoor on love, sway of OTT and not chasing box-office hits

In an interview with The Federal, filmmaker Nagesh Kukunoor talks about what went into making his new Amazon Prime series in Telugu, Modern Love Hyderabad, and the advantage of OTT over cinema theatres

“The beauty of the Modern Love Hyderabad series is the fact that there is no proper definition for love. It is just a bunch of beautiful relationships between the most unlikely of people. It is also based on one of the most popular columns in New York Times, and that is the reason I agreed,” says filmmaker Nagesh Kukunoor, on what attracted him to work on the series, which started streaming on Amazon Prime this weekend.

Kukunoor is back to basing stories in his hometown Hyderabad after a hiatus of over two decades. It was in 1998 that Kukunoor, an NRI chemical engineer, made his debut in Indian cinema with the charming indie film, Hyderabad Blues, which turned out to be a major hit and paved the way for more filmmakers to experiment with this genre.

Clueless to start with

When Kukunoor was offered to make the Modern Love series in Telugu, he was clueless about the popular American series that had featured actors like Anne Hathaway, Andy Garcia, Dev Patel and Kit Harrington. Each episode of the series offers a different story inspired by the essays penned by readers in New York Times‘ Modern Love column. That’s when his producer Elahe Hiptoola made him watch the original and Kukunoor was “truly blown” by it.

Mistakenly, he had assumed they had to do with ‘sloppy love stories’ in which he had no interest at all. The 55-year-old Kukunoor, who is not into making that ₹100-crore box-office movie, and likes doing his “own thing”, was also excited to work on short format films, which he had not attempted before.

“I like to try out something new all the time. Also, I had never adapted something from an essay written by someone else, so there were a lot of firsts for me while doing this series,” admits Kukunoor, whose oeuvre includes delightful films like the 2005 sports drama Iqbal (on a deaf and mute boy who yearns to become a cricketer and play for India), the 2006 Dor (on an unlikely bond that springs up between two women from different backgrounds); and the 2015 Dhanak (on a young girl’s mission to find Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan to help her blind brother).

Also read: Resul Pookutty calls RRR ‘gay love story’ with Alia Bhat as ‘prop’

The Modern Love Hyderabad anthology, unlike Modern Love Mumbai, which tackles a gay relationship (sensitively portrayed by actor Pratik Gandhi) in one episode, pretty much follows a familiar trope. There’s a mother-daughter’s fractured relationship which needs to be cautiously stitched back together, a grandmother and grandson’s poignant bond, a father’s protective love for his daughter and so on.

The original plotlines from the Modern Love essays are retained and the stories and scenes  crafted to make it relevant for the Telugu audience. Kukunoor, incidentally, is warming up to do more projects in his mother tongue Telugu.

Kebabs and khubani ki meetha

So, besides being a “love letter to love itself”, the city of Hyderabad, drenched in the dakhini culture and known for its rich and delicious cuisine, figures prominently in the series.

In one episode, My Unlikely Pandemic Partner, helmed by Kukunoor (he has directed three of the episodes here and is the showrunner for the entire anthology), he got to work with his other love – food. The episode (which incidentally appealed to him a lot and is clearly the best one) revolves around a mother (Revathi), who is trying to ingenuously win over her estranged daughter (Nithya Menen) in the only way she knows — by cooking scrumptious, heavenly dishes like kebabs, khubani ka meetha, ande ka lauz and khatti daal.

“I’ve always wanted to bring my other love into my films somehow. I was always hunting for an opportunity to have Hyderabadi food in a film, and I got it with this episode,” says Kukunoor, with a chuckle. He also had a “blast” exploring an unfamiliar, modernised Hyderabad city.

Also read: Anantham director V Priya on homosexuality, child sexual abuse, and battle for OTT viewers

Big stars in Modern Love Hyderabad

Kukunoor prides himself on always casting lesser known actors in his films. But, in Modern Love, Hiptoola and he made a conscious decision to work with established actors.

Aadhi Pinisetty and Ritu Varma in ‘Fuzzy, Purple and Full of Thorns’ episode in Modern Love Hyderabad

“This time we went after known names and luckily we landed all of them. It was a proper line-up,” he says. Besides Revathi and Nithya, there’s Aadhi Pinisetty and Ritu Varma (who play a live-in, very much in love couple caught up in a misunderstanding involving a purple feathery shoe), Suhasini Maniratnam (who essays the role of a poverty-stricken, sacrificing grandmother), Naresh, the father who is over-protective of his daughter (Ulka Gupta), who’s on a dating spree to find her soulmate.

Kukunoor particularly enjoyed working with Revathi and Nithya. “Both have two very different acting styles but are two wonderful actresses,” he says. This particular episode featuring the talented duo is clearly the best in the series.

Fabulous and vibrant time with OTT

It took his team a year to complete the project. Each episode was like working on a mini film, says the director. “Each had to be cast, each had its own art director and own costume designer. Shooting the six episodes with a one-week gap between each was  challenging,” he says, pointing out that post-production for OTT films is also extremely complicated.

Kukunoor, however, is grateful for OTT platforms, which have given an opportunity for new filmmakers, writers and actors to “burst forth” on the scene.

“It is a fabulous and vibrant time. OTT platforms lend themselves to experimentation, and we are being able to tell stories that we couldn’t do in the traditional theatrical format. Thankfully, there are no gatekeepers like distributors here who are constantly worried who will watch the film and what the numbers will be,” says Kukunoor, whose political thriller, City of Dreams, streaming on Disney+Hostar, has got a solid fan following and is all set for Season 3.

Ulka Gupta in ‘About that Rustle in the Bushes’ episode in Modern Love Hyderabad

On whether it is a numbers game in OTT  as well, Kukunoor says, “Yes, it is pretty simple feedback. If numbers and reviews are good, you get another season, if not, it won’t happen. That still exists but it is not like a theatrical release. If your film doesn’t do well in the first couple of days in theatres, it is pulled out. At least, on OTT, films get a chance to breathe and grow as they sit there. This is what happened to City of Dreams; it took a while to take off because we did not have well-known actors.”

Also read: Ajay Devgn to direct Hindi remake of Tamil hit Kaithi

A lot of films that don’t fare well in theatres now have a chance to build an audience on OTT, asserts Kukunoor.

Blockbusters such as RRR, Vikram and KGF2 need to exist as well, he says. “We need massive spectacle films. The business model in order to bring a movie to the theatres no longer makes sense for smaller films. There was a time when it did, now it doesn’t. We have to find alternative ways to bring it an audience – OTT platforms currently being the perfect way,” he adds.

Further, Kukunoor continues, “The feeling that a film has to be seen on a big screen is not that important anymore, as long as the film finds an audience. I love to go back and do a film but there is no guarantee that it won’t get a direct release on a streaming platform. I don’t chase big stars and do films with them, so I’m not likely to do those mega films.”

It is not a dream Kukunoor has ever chased, so it does not affect him.

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