Kamal Haasan tackles questions on everything from his insatiable appetite for films to the fear of losing audiences.
AS I ENTER the 112-year-old bungalow on Eldams Road, I am shown into a spacious hall. While I sit restlessly on a sofa, a massive oil portrait of the legend stares down at me. Every corner of the house illuminates our Ulaga Nayagan. Besides an impressive glossary of books, an antique Matchless bike and a figurine of him as a child actor from Kalathur Kannamma—this world of Kamal Haasan’s boasts his legacy, family, childhood, fame, art and memories. With four National Awards, 19 Filmfare Awards, a Padma Shri and a Padma Bhushan, the 60-year-old has practically donned every hat in his 50 years in the film industry. Having fielded communal controversies with his previous film (Vishwaroopam), the actor is relieved that his latest, Uttama Villain, is finally releasing in two weeks. “Along with freedom comes responsibility. I am responsible. I don’t think those who throw allegations at the wind are half as responsible as they expect me to be,” he begins, before speaking about the film, critics and Indian cinema:
No film falls in place, the way we want it to. It takes a life of its own and becomes disobedient, when so many things go out of hand and then Murphy rules. But we got Uttama Villain under control, out of experience, I guess. Working with director K Balachander (KB) in the film is another angle. I have worked as his assistant, I have given him a story (after joining him knowing nothing), I have done several roles and even dance-composed for him. It didn’t feel strange, or like a special day. It felt like it was long overdue.
Uttama Villain is not a musical. I got a music director, Ghibran, who was itching to do something different; that made two of us. We call every film a musical, but a musical is far more complicated than what most people think. We wanted to attempt something midway, to use music as a narrative tool. I am a great fan of Carl Maria von Weber and Alain Boublil who wrote Les Misérables. They became sort of a template and we started working on those lines. The lyrics of Jesus Christ Superstar and CATS are so surprising and we wanted to bring about that kind of a style.
Qualified critics take themselves too seriously. I think it should be left to the people. Your angst is all about getting them to say good things about your film. So do you expect them to only say good things? What sort of a megalomania is that? I expect them to like and dislike my film. They have sculpted me. This grotesque or beautiful sculpture is thanks to them.
The biggest pleasure is when the film is already a big success and yet they are criticising it. That said, apart from ridiculing the critic for not being part of the major crowd, you might get a clue of the unknown quantum, about the minority that has been thinking. It is nice to know that also. After all, they might be the future audience.
From the advent of independent cinema, there has been no attempt to make a film purely for children. Similarly, we have neglected adults.
To be a film, our films have ended up being juvenile and I don’t exclude myself from this.
We are underestimating or overestimating what the youth want. Directors think they know the demographic. They don’t know that I watched Godfather, not for Michael Corleone, but for Marlon Brando and Francis Coppola. Only later came Al Pacino. I was a young kid myself and that’s how I thought. At that age, you want to look at the other side of the world.
There are so many young filmmakers today. I would rather kill them because I am so envious of them. I don’t even know their names. And if you think of it, they are not all in America.
Hey Ram changed me. Gandhi changed the way I think. I was a hell of a Gandhi basher, just like the rest. Nobody told me that it was wrong or punished me. In my ignorance and under peer pressure I had to say the most shocking things. And claiming he is not my father, was the first step. Then I discovered Gandhi and Periyar. Gandhi became my hero on my own merit.
He pulled off certain things that nobody could till date.
Going to the Oscars is not even a pinnacle, it’s a journey. My aim is to take our films internationally. It has taken me 30 years to talk like this confidently. Perhaps I might even act on it.
It is nice to be with equals because leading can be boring. You have set an example and there is no more to learn. You are all the time teaching and teaching itself is such a sacrifice. You might be a PHD but if you decide to teach undergraduates you are stuck with only undergrads for the rest of your life.
Amitabh Bachchan is like MGR with a grain of Sivaji thrown in. But he kept to his place and played it safe. It is only in recent times that he has done different roles. I still miss Amitabh from a Pukar, Anand and Deewar. Even when it was an Amitabh circus—he was the elephant, the horse and everything— he maintained his grace and never lost his dignity. I have learnt a lot from that.
After a point you lose stage fright, then comes money and fame. What matters to me is losing audiences. That is my greatest fear. You are reading poetry and somebody is yawning; you have lost him.
I attribute my success to my family. Some of them are practitioners, not performers or professionals. My sister, Nalini Raghu, is a very good teacher and is one of the best among the family. What is important is making others dance. Why Kamal Haasan becomes important or KB becomes important is because they make other people instead of putting the spotlight only on themselves.
I never raised children. They just take care of themselves, like a tree. I will see to it that they don’t lean onto a wall or break the wall. I don’t even want to clip the tree, like bonsai. I want to make sure they grow tall. Pretending that I made that leaf sprout is silly. It will happen with or without me. That is photosynthesis.
I’m a proud baapu today with my daughters doing well. I thanked Balki again and again for Shamitabh. Akshara refused to act in Avvai Shanmughi as my daughter. I knelt before her, I kissed her hand and begged her to act in the film. She thought about it and in the morning when I asked her again, she gave me a condition. That she will act with me only for three days. That left me with no choice. So for her, entering films is long overdue. But they have a long way to go. Even today, Shruti told me how she is hollow. She is successful but hollow. I told her it is a good feeling, as being hungry does not make you ill, it makes you grow.
Given a choice, I would be with the least clothes in a public forum. But I need to maintain decorum. I shield my thoughts too sometimes and values. When people ask, ‘it must be driving you mad?’ I say, “I have my sessions. No, I don’t go to a psychiatrist. I do interviews.” (laughs) Indian cinema isn’t going the right way. The industry is run by money bags who don’t think straight because they are constantly palpitating about their money. They don’t need a bag, they need diapers. They are soiling their pants in the fear of what will happen to their money. They don’t think of the film, that’s why the fail.
Inside a young mind
[[We have no clue what films school children are talking about these days, especially the so called critically acclaimed films. My daughter Subbulakshmi and her friends are fond of directors like Roland Emmerich but they look at it from another point of view. Two years ago, I tried impressing her with Robert Graves, and she finished his I, Claudius. They are out reading or playing the piano or understanding photography. What do you think selfies are all about? A selfie will take you away from self absorption and turn the camera the other way, soon.
■ I like Chad Kultgen’s disturbing kind of writing which is very honest. It goes to the deep core
■ I am learning cooking, and Gautami helps me. I have learnt to make rasam and drumstick sambar
■ I am sporadically learning piano. I learnt for sometime from Karthik Raja, but he was fed up and told me I was pretending not to understand anything!
■ I have a new app which is not for total public consumption. Called ‘Live,’ it lets me colour correct and work on my edit notes. It is my current toy
I watch about 100 hours of moving images per month, which is at least 30 films.
I see all the European and American television series. I like Borgia, Marco Polo, Peaky Blinders, Breaking Bad, Killing. I watch a lot of documentaries because they give me better ideas than films. I don’t attend film festivals these days. It is too political, and I’m on the inaugurating end. I would like to go to a festival with a bag on my shoulder, take notes, sit in a tea shop, rip a film and then go back.