Two directors from Hyderabad are celebrating the twentieth anniversary of their groundbreaking films this year. One is Ram Gopal Varma’s gangster drama Satya. The other is Nagesh Kukunoor’s debut comedy Hyderabad Blues.

Written by Kukunoor, produced with his savings, and featuring a host of non-professional actors, including Kukunoor and his family members and friends, Hyderabad Blues was one of 1998’s breakout hits. The culture clash comedy that is partly inspired by Kukunoor’s experiences traces the adventures of the American-returned Varun, who visits his home after 12 years and finds that his family and friend circle is plotting his wedding. As Varun wonders where home really lies, sardonically measures the distance between Indian and Western values and hangs out with his college buddies, he falls in love with a doctor, Ashwini (Rajshree Nair). Unfortunately for Varun, Ashwini belongs to the camp of Hyderabadis who have a low opinion of foreign-returned men.

Hyderabad Blues set itself apart from the year’s other releases with its observational style, conversational dialogue (in English, Telugu and Hindi), situational humour, and asides on the culture clash between India and the West. Its success proved that a movie could dispense with conventional plots, big-name actors and songs. Sweat and tears were involved in the movie, but Kukunoor made it look very easy.

The movie paved the way for the independent-minded and formula-challenging experiments that followed in the 2000s and set up Kukunoor’s career in Hindi cinema. Among his subsequent releases were Rockford (1999), 3 Deewarein (2003), Iqbal (2005), Dor (2006) and Dhanak (2016). He recently completed the web series Mayanagari.

A screening of Hyderabad Blues has been organised on July 17 in Mumbai by the production company Drishyam Films. The screening is the second in a series called The Masters. Kukunoor will take questions after the show, and since he told that he hadn’t watched the film in its entirety since its release, the event will be a special one for both viewers and the director.

‘It talks to us directly’: Nagesh Kukunoor revisits ‘Hyderabad Blues’

I got a call from Drishyam Films telling me that they wanted to get their series The Masters underway with Hyderabad Blues. It is something that never crossed our minds because technically, the 20th anniversary was in 2017. I had finished the movie in 1997, but 1998 was when it was released in India.

I always have trouble watching anything I have made, so I am tied up in knots about the screening. I haven’t seen the film again since its release. Elahe and I would go to theatres to see how the crowds were reacting, but I have never watched the film in its entirety.

Hyderabad Blues (1998).

I had never intended for Hyderabad Blues to play in India. I had finished the film and left for the States. Before I left, a screening was organised in Hyderabad for friends and family. On the way out, we organised a show in Mumbai, which was attended by, among other people, Shyam Benegal. He was the chairperson of the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image, which was holding the first edition of the Mumbai Film Festival in November 1997. The film was shown in a section called View From Abroad, featuring filmmakers of Indian origin living outside India but making films about India.

The movie went gangbusters at the festival. Whatever coverage we got, whatever pre-publicity there was, all came out of the festival.

Then Shyam Shroff, the co-founder of Shringar Films, asked to see the film. He watched it by himself, and sat there motionless. Afterwards, he said, I will release the film on one condition: you get it censored.

The censors asked for 91 audio and visual cuts. Every “screw you”, every “fuck you”, even a kiss between Varun and Ashwini, they wanted it cut out. They even thought that the title referred to so-called blue films and showed Hyderabad in a bad light. We went all the way to the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal and finally got only three audio cuts, of Hindi swear words.

Nagesh Kukunoor and Rajshree Nair in Hyderabad Blues (1998). Courtesy Kukunoor Movies.

The movie was first released in a single show at 9.30pm at a multiplex called Cinestar in Goregaon in Mumbai. We opened on July 17, on a scarily rainy night. Shyam Shroff said that if it does two weeks, I will be really happy, and if it does five weeks, we can call it a superhit.

July 17 was in the middle of the monsoon. It started raining at 8pm or so and I remember being totally dejected that whatever chance anyone had of seeing the film was lost. The first show was houseful.

Somewhere before the end of the two-week mark, the Eros theatre [in Churchgate in Mumbai] asked for a print, and that was the gamechanger. For the longest time, our strongest audience was the college crowd. Eros was testimony to that.

No one knew what to make of the film at the time. I guess what worked the most was positive word of mouth – I don’t know what I saw, but I think you should go, kind of thing.

In Hyderabad, the film was shown at Sangeet, the premium theatre for non-Telugu and non-Hindi films. The owner of Sangeet, Dolly Mishra, refused to show the film because he could not figure it out. Back in the day, the single screen theatre owners were the power brokers and they would decide if they wanted to play a film or not.

Elahe [Hiptoola, a member of the cast and Kukunoor’s future producer] knew Dolly Mishra. She went and begged him and shed tears. The film did phenomenal business there.

Everything I had been told at the beginning as to why the film wouldn’t work were the reasons it worked. I was heavily influenced by American indie cinema. Pulp Fiction had happened in 1994 and you had a host of indies like Clerks and the one that did it for me, The Brothers McMullen. The world has exploded at least for me – I could make a film like this and there would be an audience that would take it. But I didn’t think that an Indian audience would take it.

The movie doesn’t follow any rules. It talks to us directly. People thought I had shot the film with a video camera. I had actually shot on 35mm, but the film felt like I had taken a camera into somebody’s home.

Elahe Hiptoola and Vikram Inamdar in Hyderabad Blues (1998). Courtesy Kukunoor Movies.

Hyderabad Blues was a paradigm shift. And it had three languages. I remember when I came to Hyderabad to make the film, I met a couple of filmmakers. They shall remain nameless. I got lectured by one of them – you think you are very smart with your American accent, you are going to make a film in three languages without songs, and you are going to cast yourself. It’s going to be a total failure.

Those were all the reasons the film worked.

The core of the film is autobiographical, and borrowed from my experiences. The arranged marriage had happened to my friend. I had come back to Hyderabad in 1996 thinking that I could get into the film industry. I gave up after a disastrous few days on a film set. Out of that wonderful depressive state came the script of Hyderabad Blues.

I did some budgeting, went back to the States, worked another job and came back. If there is one thing I am proud of, it is being able to quit my job for the second time. I had come here and failed and I was setting up myself for something potentially far worse.

When I came back as an NRI, people fell into two categories: the ones in awe, and the reactionaries. It always swung between extremes, and that is something I had experienced first-hand and threw into the script. But I didn’t lecture on the culture clash – that’s not me. I don’t lecture in any of my films. It’s my core and my philosophy. My outlook is, I’m okay, you’re okay.

Nearly all of us were non-professionals. I had trained in acting and done a couple of gigs, and Vikram Inamdar, who played my friend Sanjeev, has done a couple of plays. The woman who plays my mother is my uncle’s wife. The guy who plays my father worked in the Railways, had done a few plays, and was a friend of my cousin’s.

My dad played a small role somewhere, I can’t even remember. Rajshree Nair was also an amateur, she was a student at the time. Ashwini has a pimple on her cheek throughout, and we could maintain the continuity since we shot the film in 17 days.

Rajshree Nair in Hyderabad Blues (1998). Courtesy Kukunoor Movies.

I clearly remember the day the movie turned out to be a success. I turned to Elahe and said, it’s time to start on the next one. But it was also a depressing time. I thought people would line up to fund me, but it was the complete opposite. I got offered Bolllywood films. Everybody had passed off Hyderabad Blues as a fluke. So I was back to where I started.

A smart person keeps learning lessons as he or she goes along, and I am not a very smart person. The one thing that Hyderabad Blues taught me was that it had no business succeeding as it did. Since then, I have never questioned myself. This approach has led me to incredible highs and some godawful lows. I tell myself, be smart on the next one, but I never am. I am a little pig-headed when it comes to wanting to do my own thing.

The sequel came out in 2003. Did I have a story there? Sometimes, you feel very strongly about something and don’t actively question it. Some people liked the sequel and some hated it. More people hated it than liked it, to be honest. Ninety per cent of the comments were, why did you replace Rajashree [with Jyoti Dogra]? Rajashree was married and had gone to the US – the reverse of Hyderabad Blues. It didn’t work out.

I thought it didn’t make a difference. That, if you ask me in hindsight, was a mistake.

I have made so many films since then. Even after Iqbal and Dor were hits, I would still have people talking about Hyderabad Blues and I was like, am I ever going to live this down? I guess that when things begin to peak for you, your identity becomes associated with that one thing you did at the time. As you get older, you think that it’s not such a bad thing that people are remembering you for a film made 20 years ago that touched them. Rather than complain, sit back and enjoy it.

(As told to Nandini Ramnath.)