Kamalahasan, or KAMAL HAASAN is no stranger to avid cinema buffs, an actor, director, producer and screen-writer widely respected and admired in the Indian film industry. So much so that he has earned the sobriquet “Universal Hero” for his versatility in acting. JYOTHI VENKATESH caught up with him recently in Mumbai, for a freewheeling conversation on his approach to cinema, and of course, his latest film, “VISWAROOPAM”
Kamal says that he does not agree with cynics who snigger that Cinema is the root cause of all evils perpetrated in the society these days: “I am of the opinion that Cinema is only a mirror which reflects what is happening in society. Earlier we used to say that crime does not pay at all but now we have started saying that it pays politicians and there is insurance too for them. Kids today learn all kinds of gaalis not necessarily from films, but simply by observing their parents at home. My daughter Akshara will not know what a Sati is if I do not teach her about satis.”
Kamal opens our conversation with a mention about that one question he is often asked by journalists … why actors from the South have not had as much acceptance by audiences in the North, and proceeds to answer the question himself: “I do not think that there is any particular reason for this, except that we actors from down South keep quite busy with, and committed to our regional films, so often find it difficult to take time out to work in Hindi films”.
Elaborating further, he says: “Rajanikant or I were not the first actors from Tamil cinema to try our hand at Hindi films. Raja Sandow, who hailed from Coimbatore in Tamilnadu, was the first ever South Indian actor who had made his presence felt in North Indian films. Since then, there have been a host of artistes who have appeared in Hindi films, including Gemini Ganeshan, better known to the audiences in the Northern belt as the late father of actress Rekha.
Kamal admits that he does get annoyed when journalists refer to the Indian film industry as Bollywood or Kollywood, Mollywood and Tollywood. “Why can’t they just call it Mumbai, Tamil, Telugu or for that matter the Malayalam film industry ? It is high time that we stopped aping the West. Just because films being made there are known as Hollywood films, there is no reason for us to call films being made in Mumbai as Bollywood films”, he avers.
“Today, thanks to technology, there is no longer the element of parochialism as far as films are concerned, and films are being made in Hindi as well as Tamil and Telugu, like I made my film VISWAROOPAM in Tamil and Telugu, as well as in Hindi, VISHWAROOP.” According to Kamal, his film needed dedicated attendance and to put it simply, he just could not accommodate stars, and that included Kamal Haasan himself as well. “Everyone behaved like a technician on the sets– be it the acting, music or production department. The reason I decided to cast a newcomer like Pooja Kumar to play
the leading lady in my film is that I wanted talent and dedication, and not star power for VISHWAROOP. “I decided to give top priority to the content. If I cast Kamal Haasan in my film, the reason is as Kamal Haasan, I was ready to humble myself in front of the content. In case of Pooja, I had to make the choice as the director at the last minute since Sonakshi Sinha pleaded inability to be part of the project. I have nothing against the star system per se. All that I can say is that my film Vishwaroopam is too big for stars and hence I could not afford to work with stars in the film. Please do not for a moment forget that I too am a star. It is just that I just do not have that much of patience as a Ramesh Sippy …”
On his reasons for asking Shankar Mahadevan to compose music for VISHWAROOPAM instead of Ilaiyaraja, who has been the music director for all his earlier Tamil films, he shares his thought process … as VISHWAROOPAM was also made for Hindi, he had felt that Shankar would be able to do proper justice to the film, being a Mumbai-based Tamilian in tune with the pulse of Hindi audiences. “I have no rift with Ilaiyaraja … In fact Ilaiyaraja himself came to release the music of VISHWAROOPAM in Chennai.”
When setting out to act in a film, Kamal says he makes it a point to forget the fact that he is also a director. “I have learnt the ropes of direction by observing filmmakers like K. Balachander (who has been my guru) at work, at close quarters when I was acting under his tutelage. I have learnt to keep the actor in me separate from the director in me, because when I am on the sets I totally surrender myself to the vision of my directors. Like Shekhar Kapoor completely trusted me when he agreed to work in my film, though on his own right, he is an accomplished director today. There is no question of my disagreeing with what they ask me to do on the sets because in the first place I do not agree to work with a director if I am not confident of his caliber”.
Kamal explains further that if people accept today that he is a blend of not just an actor but also a filmmaker who is equally adept at acting as well as direction, it is because he has been an ardent fan of filmmakers like Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt etc., all his life. “People like Raj Kapoor or for that matter Guru Dutt didn’t just act but also proved that they could make masterpieces which were way ahead of their time. They were my Dronacharyas, even before I learnt what direction is from my mentor K. Balachander. Even today I am constantly on the job, learning from every good director. I am also a fan of Vishal Bharadwaj.”
On the subject of his daughter Shruti’s success, Kamal does not hesitate to show pride at her abilities like any other parent. “She has succeeded on her own steam, whether in the South Indian film industry or forsnigger that Cinema is the root cause of all evils perpetrated in the society these days: “I am of the opinion that Cinema is only a mirror which reflects what is happening in society. Earlier we used to say that crime does not pay at all but now we have started saying that it pays politicians and there is insurance too for them. Kids today learn all kinds of gaalis not necessarily from cinema, but simply by observing their parents at home. My daughter Akshara will not know what a Sati is if I do not teach her about satis.”
Kamal was the first producer in India to release his film with a DTH premiere even before its theatrical release. “I don’t want to burn any bridges or disturb the existing ecosystem of the business. Going to the cinema is a cultural habit – it’s a part of our milieu and it will never go away. But we are evolving and this is a part ofthat matter in Hindi or what I would call the Mumbai film industry”. He hastens to add that he did not launch her as an actress down South though he is a producer in his own right, because he wanted her to make it on her own first. “Today she is an actress in her own right because GABBAR SINGH, the remake of DABANGG in Telugu, with her as the leading lady is a big hit, and I am doubly happy because now there are two stars at home – Shruti and I. I will make a film in Hindi with her the day she manages to get a hit in Hindi too.” Kamal says that he does not agree with cynics whogrowth. Both can coexist, and there is enough room for everyone. I feel that a TV Premiere is entirely different from a set top box premiere, because while TV is for the masses and is available for free, you can see on DTH only once a day before the release of a film”.
Kamal concludes. “Any new avenue for garnering revenue is good for the business model. It is only when we set out to travel that we learn what new roads are, and what shipping means, isn’t it ? In any case, I think I had the right to decide, because I had put INR. 95 Crore into this film, so it is actually I who had to be more afraid than the exhibitors. VISWAROOPAM/ VISHWAROOP was a super thriller meant for the theatres and when I and my cinematographer, Sanu Varghese, saw it on the big screen for the first time during post-production, we were blown away. But I also knew at the same time that TV viewing will not take away from the theatre experience, just like having the calendars of Hanuman or Lord Shiva does not mean that your visits to your neighborhood temple will become redundant…”