When a children’s film wins multiple awards at 43 film festivals across the world, you know it’s an unmissable film. Dhanak, written and directed by award-winning filmmaker Nagesh Kukunoor, is releasing in theatres on June 17 — but you can now dive into the magic of the film before that: acclaimed children’s writer Anushka Ravishankar has adapted the screenplay into a novel, which is now available on the Juggernaut app.
Samina Mishra, a documentary filmmaker, writer and teacher, spoke to Nagesh Kukunoor and Anushka Ravishankar about the film and the book, and whether Shahrukh Khan really helps the two kids or not. Edited excerpts:
SM: What prompted the story [of Dhanak] and why did you set it in Rajasthan?
NK: There’s something magical about the desert, something supremely dramatic… Setting Dhanak in Rajasthan was triggered off by an image of the two children holding hands, isolated against the vast desert landscape… An idea was pitched to me for an ad for a courier company which was about a blind boy and his sister. The ad never happened but this little nugget remained with me of the sister wanting to ensure that her brother sees again. So I worked with that and turned it into a road movie. I wanted the kids to meet people who help them. I wanted to show that the world is not such a bad place. I wanted to go back to the India I grew up in where people trusted each other.
SM: Normally, it’s books that get adapted to film. But you had to do it the other way around. What was the hardest thing about the process? And what was easy?
AR: The easy thing first! The dialogues, since they had to be pretty much the same as in the film, were the easiest thing to do. The screenplay was in English, so I didn’t even need to translate, except where there was a variation. The hardest thing was finding the right balance: I had to be true to the film and yet, I didn’t want the novel to read like a screenplay.
SM: What was your process in getting the children to act?
NK: The core of the film is the relationship between the brother and the sister, which is very different in real life from the overly-sweet relationship often portrayed in our films. In real life, they are based on a foundation of constant conflict. I wanted that in the film. I don’t have kids of my own but I find I always have success with children when I treat them like adults. So, that’s what I did–tell them everything straight up, no babying. I also sent Krrish to a blind school so he could observe how blind kids function in their everyday lives. And he realised that it’s not like what he’d seen in the movies or on TV where they are constantly feeling their ways around, over-emphasising their blindness. In real life, they don’t need to do that because they’ve already mapped it all out in their heads. So, he got that.
The true challenge of shooting Dhanak was the elements–sometimes temperatures soared to 50 degrees! But the kids were absolute troopers, no whining. They were beyond adorable, a million times better than any adults. A few times we shot late into the night and Krish would fall asleep. So when I woke him up for his shot, he was groggy but never cranky. And what I tried to do was use that grogginess to my advantage, for example in the scene with Shamsher Singh, and it gave it a lovely texture of reality. I would shoot with these kids any day!
SM: The children in Dhanak are not English-speaking and that is often a challenge in writing books in English in India. Was it difficult to get the voice of the characters right?
AR: The screenplay was in English, so I only tweaked it a very little bit. As you say, writing in English in India, this is something we always have to deal with. But it’s like any work of translation, isn’t it? I think having the odd Hindi word thrown in is fine, but I find it really problematic when people put pidgin English in the mouths of people who are speaking in an Indian language… So getting the voice right then just means getting under the character’s skin.
SM: Adults are always looking for messages in books that will teach children something. Do you think this is misplaced and that children’s books can actually teach adults something?
AR: It’s such a pity that adults can’t stop seeing children as empty vessels to dump things into. I’ve spent much of my writing life writing nonsense to subvert that very idea! I’ve never wanted my books to mean anything or teach anything, and even then, I’m always being attributed with meanings and messages… The best children’s books can be read and enjoyed by adults as much as by children.
SM: Do you think current artistic practice–across media–sufficiently reflects children’s experiences of the world?
NK: I’m not really qualified to comment on this but I do think that most often, children’s films get dumbed down to the point of being boring. With Dhanak, having done screenings across forty-three film festivals, I can say confidently that it is more than a children’s film. Adults have come up to me and said that it’s made us realise all the things we have become cynical about. So I think we should guard against dumbing down. Kids don’t need that.
AR: It’s difficult to generalise, because adults are the ones creating these works, and it all depends on the artist. Seeing the world through a child’s eyes needs a particular kind of empathy. It’s also mixed with the memory of one’s own childhood, and being able to kind of slip back into that time of one’s life… It’s the same with children’s books. You have the preachy ones and you have the ones where the authors have become the children they were, as they wrote the book. And the difference is tangible.
SM: Since it is left ambiguous whether it was actually Shahrukh Khan who helped the kids, what do you both think?
NK: That’s the magic part of the film – it’s for you to decide!
AR: I think there is a clear clue about whether it was Shahrukh or not, but it’s possible to miss it, because it’s never stated. That’s my way of saying, if you want to find out, read the book, see the film, and draw your own conclusions.