International Director You Should Know: Nagesh Kukunoor

Nagesh Kukunoor
Sumit Deshpande

Nagesh Kukunoor got his start making low-budget Indian movies, but this year’s “Dhanak,” about a blind boy whose sister is determined to help him get a cornea transplant, won a grand jury prize in the Generation Kplus section at Berlin, and has helped the 48-year-old writer-director realize his goal of connecting with international audiences.

Life Imitates Art

Kukunoor got a degree in chemical engineering, and worked for a number of years in the U.S. In 1998, he made the English-Telugu “Hyderabad Blues,” in which he also starred, about the culture shock an Indian man experiences upon returning home after a decade of living in the United States. He subsequently moved back to India to become a filmmaker.

Changing Course

Gaining a local following for movies like the cricket-themed “Iqbal” and the bigger-budget mystery “8 x 10 Tasveer,” Kukunoor was troubled that distributors were marketing his films only on the subcontinent. In an attempt to break out, he got a Toronto fest premiere for his  2014 film “Lakshmi,” based on a true story about a teenage girl sold into prostitution. “Starting with ‘Lakshmi,’ I made a big push as a producer to sell internationally at festivals, and only then sell in India,” said Kukunoor, who was in L.A. for the Indian Film Festival Los Angeles where “Dhanak” was the closing night film in April.

Coming Full Circle

European festivals have been more open to his films, but Kukunoor said he would enjoy a return to the U.S. “I lived in the States for a long time,” he said. “I would love to come to Sundance, and (am) interested in working in Hollywood.” But, he added, making movies with themes that matter is important to him. “There are so many untapped stories (in India), because commercial cinema works in a very narrow sphere.”

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