Kamal Haasan discusses the vision that is needed to restore Chennai to its position of a national film hub
The most unique aspect of the film industry in Chennai, which used to be called Madras, is that it was the national filmmaking centre. I can boldly and without any confusion say this. And while I say this, I am not looking down on Bombay or trying to show one-upmanship over Bombay.
The fact is that Bombay never seriously went into the making of regional cinema, except for Mr V Shantaram, who did a Marathi film and tried to reflect the diversity of India in his work. The rest of them did not really think in terms of Pan-India cinema - they made only Hindi films – whereas the Chennai film industry made films with Ashok Kumarji, Dilip Kumarsaab, Sunil Duttsaab, all made and produced from Chennai. Many other language films were also made here in Chennai. Telugu films, Malayalam films, and I remember one or two Bengali films too.
So, truly, the national filmmaking centre used to be Chennai. But that is not the case any more.
REASONS FOR THE CHANGE
I think parochial politics changed everything. The limited awareness and the need to separate from one another, maybe insecurity with one another at some level, triggered the division. Everybody felt uncomfortable, hence Kerala went its way and started making its films separately; Andhra went its way; and Karnataka’s cinema became parochial.
As a matter of fact, instead of solidifying the South as a huge hub of movies, it splintered the South into many small territories. Chennai was an example of unity. With political support, it could have become a bastion of Indian cinema. But it is too late to complain or expect the tables to turn. In fact, this is how history works.
Interestingly, the other states that went their separate ways made cinema and still kept politics aside. In spite of the fact that Mr NT Rama Rao was part of cinema and politics, he kept things separate. In fact, the other states have got constant support from their governments… the Telangana and Andhra Pradesh governments have supported their cinema industries. The Chennai film industry has had no such luck.
CHANGE THAT WASN’T NEEDED
Fear of the future is common in all of us. And while other industries flourished post-separation, Chennai went down a different path. We have had people from different cinema industries across the country join politics. Some have been successful and some are better off being creative. However, the government here always knew that if they let anyone succeed, that person or those people would have massive local support in politics. This is something that the politicians never wanted and hence there has not been a great deal of government support in Tamil Nadu for us.
It is a classic case of the Herod Syndrome. They indulged their fear so much, that instead of being a part of successful change… they stopped it! They were very worried that facilitating this industry would only finance a future politician.
We could have joined the `100-crore club ten years ago. I say this because no matter what the film is or who is in it, we have the most loyal audience. On average, 14 per cent is the occupancy of cinema halls. That is not the case for a lot of other language movies.
If 3 crore people watch a film, with each ticket costing `100, the collection would be `300 crore. However, the politicos never saw this simple math. They opted to put a cap on ticket pricing, no matter what the budget of the film. This is the biggest flaw of our industry, to have allowed the government to impose this cap.
Films are not essential services like schooling or medicine. Films are for entertainment, which should fall under the luxury category. This continuous bleeding of the industry should not have been indulged in. We could have monetised well and grown bigger. We could have set up film institutes and the money could have worked for the betterment of the industry in all creative and technical aspects.
All that died because of the paranoia of the politicians and the avarice of the average businessman of the film industry. Politicians have come and gone, governments have changed over time, but no one has bothered to look at the bigger picture. They have mostly been busy safeguarding themselves.
STORYTELLING – THEN & NOW
In the good old days, people used to be inspired and read literature from other cultures in translation.
We were inspired by Bengali films and the likes of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. People used to read Marathi writers like VS Khandekar translated into Tamil. Then, over time, things changed. The urge to experience and understand other cultures faded. Hence the Tamil read only Tamil.
My mother was a great fan of VS Khandekar and B Chatterjee. With the culture of the literary writer phased out, a new breed of hybrid, crossbred or rather inbred people came in called film writers. These writers lived in one area, spoke the same language and the same reflected in their cinema as well. That’s why when educated young men like Javed Akhtarsaab or Gulzarsaab emerged in the ’70s, their films were totally different. They were educated and not limited in their cultural influences, because they were not part of this incestuous pool.
In fact, films made in Bombay have also gone through some massive changes. Earlier, the cinema there was mostly Bombay-centric. The stories were very urban, there never was nothing called a disco singer or a pop singer. At least, there weren’t such characters in real life. But by the ’70s, many heroes were pop singers, and where does he live in India? Nowhere except in Bombay films! He is a ghost who doesn’t walk!
Having said that, even Bombay films are changing now. They are telling more rural stories and we are also getting the culture of reading literature back. Zakaria, a Malayalam writer, is being translated now.
In terms of content and filmmaking, we have advanced, yes we have, but it’s too slow a pace for me. I started young and I thought change would happen in 10 years; it’s already been 40 years. Nothing much has happened at the pace I hoped it would. Things show some movement and then stagnate again, and the best of them sort of sell out shamelessly.
There was a time, I think around the ’70s, when there was a gradual climb. A little too slow because before it used to be distributors like the ones in Naaz building would decide everything and some of them at least had a streak of adventure in them. But now it has become all about the bottom line, the quarterly numbers. So cinema is treated like bananas.
DANGAL, BAAHUBALI – TWO CONTRASTS
Let’s talk about Dangal. I like it. Because there is an attempt at making good cinema, and it won. And I was happy because on one side you have this over-the-top Baahubali and then there is Dangal. One is all finance and the other one is all hope. And the fact is that good, hopeful cinema is usually the underdog when it comes to finances. “Haan, achcha hai, par kaun karega?” is the common refrain when it comes to backing these films. But that myth has been shattered by films like Dangal.
PROMOTING GOOD TAMIL CONTENT
I have always tried to explore good content. Nayakan was like that, Thevarmagan was like that, Hey Ram was like that and now Veermandi is like that. As a matter of fact, I went to Bombay and Govindji showed me his Drohkaal and I bought the rights and made it into a commercial hit. It was a silver jubilee hit here. So it can happen, and that exchange is what I truly believe India can offer.
TAMIL INDUSTRY & TECHNOLOGY
I play a very lonely game when it comes to technology because, while the others ultimately follow, they take some time doing so.
I think Tamil cinema, laboratory owners and the industry delayed the introduction of digital cinema by at least 10 years. And this is because of vested interests. They just didn’t want digital cinema. So much so that one of the lab owners said, ‘I have just built a lab so don’t make films in digital. If you make it in film, I will finance the whole film!’ And I told them, ‘No, I will make it in digital. And let me tell you this; you are going to buy digital cameras very soon.’
I was trained by a man who didn’t want to step into the same river twice. And that’s Mr Balachander, my mentor. Since I was 18, I have been trained by a maverick like him. And I went even further and so there is no return for me from that path.
CINEMA AND CROSS-CULTURE POLLINATION
Well, our common group, who were always whining and complaining, suddenly decided one day that we would stop whining and said, ‘Let’s just do it!’
Balu Mahendra was a leading light. He did Mani Ratnam’s first film. He was part of almost all the path-breaking films of that time. And we were happy to be part of it all. As a matter of fact, I respected him so much that even when I was not part of a movie – it was a Rajini (Rajinikanth) film – and they had a problem, I intervened and got the shooting done. I cancelled my shoot, went and sat there and saw to it that their shoot happened. I played a production manager for that!
I think there is a parochial attitude not only in Chennai but in Bombay too. They must free themselves up. Give things a chance and aim for variety. Just as one looks for variety in food and attire, extend that to aesthetics as well.
THE COSTLY CHANDRALEKHA & THE PUBLICITY CAP
In a very different way, this man (V Vasan) dared to go all the way and release a huge number of prints and he broke the glass ceiling of publicity. That’s when all the producers decided that you should have a ceiling for publicity. Because he made the film for a particular price and spent an equal
amount on publicity.
If you can afford it, you should be allowed to do whatever is demanded or whatever you believe you need to do. I think this kind of control mechanism doesn’t help the industry. Yes, a man can try to make a film which is beyond his means and fail… but that’s what this business is all about.
We keep shouting that we are a film industry. We want to be a recognised industry. But compared to any other industry, we have done nothing. It’s so sad. We have nothing to show for the 1,000-odd films we produce each year. Filmmaking nationwide should be a `100,000-crore industry by now.
LESS SCREENS, NO PROBLEM
Everyone talks about having too few screens, but I don’t think we properly exploit what we have. I think the best way forward now is to use all allied platforms for exploitation of material. Do not think that by protectionism, this industry will grow - it cannot. It’s like in the beginning the whole industry was worried about satellite television. They said it should never come. But how can you stop technology from coming in? And when I fought against that attitude, people said I should apologise.
When I spoke about GST, the honourable minister felt I was pressurising him through the media. I was not. What I was making was a request, and even now it’s not too late. You cannot treat national cinema like Hindi, which has six or seven states to play in, at par with regional cinema that is stuck in its particular state. You cannot load it with that kind of GST. And I will continue saying this because it cannot be allowed to stand or it will crack the industry up.
MILESTONES IN THE TAMIL FILM INDUSTRY
Post-Independence Indian films are closer to my heart. They truly defined the direction the Tamil film industry would take. Hence I start after 1947.
CHANDRALEKHA (1949) crossed parochial borders. The filmmaking style was the star, not a particular individual. It paved the way for films like Ek Duje Ke Liye and Baahubali to walk towards their respective victories.
PARASHAKTI (1952) was not the first socio-political film to make a mark. Yet it truly was the most successful and stinging critique of the state of affairs and the affairs of the state. The lyricist dialogue writer and the lead actor left a deep impact not only in the film industry but on society at large. The lyricist was Mr Bharathi Dasan, the most respected poet of the Dravidian movement. The dialogue writer was Mr Karunanidhi, who later became five-time chief minister of Tamil Nadu and the last standing icon of the Dravidian movement. The actor was Mr Shivaji Ganesan. He changed Tamil films’ approach to acting even with his debut in this film. This film accelerated the politics of TN towards Dravidian parties.
ENGA VEETTUP PILLAI (1965) MGR was at the peak of his career. This film is chosen not for its aesthetics but for its societal significance. Again, a film was used as a launch-pad, with MGR’s manifesto subcutaneously woven into the film as a song. Lyrics told his would-be voters what he could do if only he had the power. It was first made in Telugu but Mr MGR used an ordinary commercial masala film as a synopsis of his manifesto. The song rang through Tamil Nadu like his clarion call. It did not advance aesthetics in cinema but it was a catalyst of social change, which began with great ideological zeal, and then the same unlimited power MGR left behind was convoluted to suit opportunistic and avaricious politics.
PADINAARU VAYADINILAY (1977) was a movie away from all politics, inspired by people like Ray, Benegal and the great Malayalam and Kannada cinema of K Balachander and Puttanna Kanagal. A young man called Bharathi Raja changed the way movies would be made in Tamil Nadu. Like Mr Balachander, my guru and mentor. He revamped the star system and changed the contours of our path. This movie had Mr Rajini, Ms Sridevi, Illayaraja and I. All our careers got a boost that none of us anticipated. A small film probably made within `10 lakh smashed the box office. It was truly a milestone.
HEY RAM (2001) is a film that will grow as politics bares its talons. It is not a great hit. It definitely is a milestone in my career, though some might argue with my choice. It is as a film buff that I choose this film, not in selfish arrogance. I am humbled every time the film is recognised. It is my first direct political film. It forecasts the future through our past. I am glad I was able to make it.
I feel so guilty culling so many good films to arrive at a number of your choice. It is like debating who got us our Independence. Mine is just a point of view. There are many more milestones, for Tamil cinema has come miles and miles to get where it is now. I am sure it will move faster across many more miles.
(I could have chosen Indian (1994; director S Shanker) instead of Hey Ram, but looking at the larger picture and the kind of aesthetics that I root for, Hey Ram takes its place without guilt.)
- Kamal Haasan