Guest Editor Kamal Haasan in conversation with Team Box Office India
Let’s start at the very beginning. Fifty years ago, when you started working as an assistant choreographer in the Tamil film industry, did you have any inkling of the fame and success that would come your way later on?
(Laughs). No, not really. I think my mother believed this. She kept telling me stories like all mothers do. She said I should learn Hindi. And at that time, there was an anti-Hindi agitation that was going on. The Central Government has announced a policy wherein without Hindi, you couldn’t get a government job. So, Tamil Nadu was fighting for its right to be diverse and to hold on to it.
I wasn’t planning on learning Hindi but my mother kept insisting that I should and I asked her why. She said if I didn’t get any film opportunities here, then I could try in North India. I thought she was a silly old woman. What did she know? (Laughs). It was only when I was offered a role in Ek Duje Ke Liye I understood what she had said. More than me, I thought, it was my parents who thought I would make it. I never thought I would make it into anything big. I just wanted to live and die as a technician.
Though you had previous success as a child star, your acting debut as an adult happened after being a dance assistant, an AD, etc. Do you think all these things prepared you for what lay in store?
In hindsight, yes. It looks like that for me at the moment. But that wasn’t a plan, as such. There was no strategic plan I had for it. As a matter of fact, I had come to the conclusion when I was around 16 years old that it was classier to be a technician than to be an actor. That was what I was aiming for and my zenith, according to me, was to become a director. I didn’t want to go where the stars were. I thought being behind the camera was a respectable place to be.
Indian film stars, irrespective of language, tend to have a specific on-screen image. But from the very beginning, you have been doing all sorts of roles. Was it by design or was that just coincidence?
It happened because I was a reluctant actor (Laughs). I was not trying to hold on to this. And wherever I went, I worked with my friend who I didn’t know then but who turned out to become my mentor, Mr RC Sakthi. We were assistant directors together. We kept looking at new subjects and working on that. We didn’t really know the business and hence were careful. And when I worked with Mr K Balachander, he was an experimenter all the time… and that kind of rubbed off onto me. Basically, when I started understanding the commercial possibilities of cinema and the luxury and safety that it offered, I started mixing the grammar of doing unexpected things in the commercial space. It’s not new. In Hollywood, people like Brando (Marlon Brando) have done it.
But it was unheard of for Hindi cinema back then.
Yes, that is true.
We say the cinema industry is becoming a much more evolved industry in terms of content. Does that give you any satisfaction?
Absolutely! We anticipated this kind of distinction between art cinema and commercial cinema. We didn’t want the distinction to be there ever. It was either good cinema or bad cinema. Good cinema was where it did collect; bad cinema was where it did not collect. That’s all it has to be. So, if you mix them both, that is our feeling right from the beginning, even 40 years ago. But it’s happening now. It is all, sort of, coalescing into a form.
Do you think we are making better cinema now than we were making before?
Definitely, yes. But there was more passion in even a small group before. Now, the passion is widespread but it has been spread thin, like butter.
Is it because the stakes are very high now?
They have always been very high. The stakes were very high for Mr K Asif when he made Mughal-E-Azam. Nobody would take a risk like that today. The stakes were very high for Mr Guru Dutt when he made Kaagaz Ke Phool, but he still made it. The stakes were also high when I made Appu Raja. It was a commercial film but it was still different because it did not have the regular content.
Pushpak is one of everyone’s favourite films including ours. What was the thought behind making a film like this, a silent film, in the ’80s?
We wanted to do it and were very sure that the audience would stay with us. But to make sure that we had double indemnity, we all cut our price. I got half my usual price at that time. We made the film on a budget of 35 lakhs. So, there was no chance of it failing. I took the rights for Tamil and sold it for 40 lakhs. We were home free and nobody lost any money. When we were making the film, it looked unnecessary. If we had made it a commercial film, it would have probably cost 10-20 lakhs more. But look at the longevity of the film.
It is one thing for a young actor to experiment. But after you attained superstar stature and a lot of money began to ride on you, did you ever feel that you should play by the rules, go by the convention?
The rule for me is to make a successful film. The rule for me is to entertain the audience. And instead of doing extensive market research, the basic thought process is the same that you are not going to buy the same colour shirt next Diwali. You want another design. People are also like that, they are not going to go and watch the same stuff. They want change. So, how do you do that while also giving them what they want? They want newer and newer stuff.
Look at your magazine, for example, it would have been enough if you had made it simple and used less fancy paper about 40 years ago. The purpose was not necessarily to make it so beautiful. But now you have the technology and you go further than just printing it. One has to move in that direction. I don’t think that it is experimenting. If you ask an old person who had been running an industry magazine, he will say that this is all unnecessary, this is all experimentation.
That is absolutely true. Another striking feature about your filmography is that, unlike many other people from non-Hindi film industries, you managed to find success in Hindi films. What do you think was the cause?
I think it’s chance. It is just that India was becoming aware of all its body parts. It was willing to explore.
But there were other superstars too from other language industries…
(Cuts In) They did not want to go beyond that. It’s not that they were not talented. They never thought of it. They were very happy. If you look at people from different states in our country, our travellers, there are Gujaratis, Bengalis and a few others who like to travel. But it is only recently that Tamilians have become travellers, Keralites have become travellers. Otherwise, they were quite happy sticking to their own place. They wanted to go to America but never to other parts of India. That changed.
I think when the era of television came, India became aware of its diversity and they looked at various art forms. Otherwise, we would have had to wait for Mr V Shantaram to show us various art forms in India. Television did that instantaneously and also there was an exchange of talent. It happens every 10 years. Suddenly, there was a spurt in Telugu remakes in the Hindi film industry and vice-versa.
For you, as an actor, was there any difference in doing a Tamil film vis-à-vis a Hindi film?
No, I think it is the same. That’s why I keep telling my producers that since we have a market there and instead of letting it go, defunct or atrophy, we can actually use it because the cost is only one and a half times. It amortizes the cost, like you build an expensive set and then you demolish it. But if you use it for two different markets, it makes sense. That is what Vishwaroop 2 is all about. It is anyway going to cost this much because I am making it in one language.
Then they say why don’t you dub it? Baahubali did that and maybe Baahubali can get away with it because of the visual experience, I think. But if you try to convince people the same thing with a film like Chachi 420, if I had dubbed the film from Tamil to Hindi, it would not have worked like it did. The saree that the character wore and the language that was spoken were vernacular. All of it made it more entertaining and more believable. The suspension of belief was there.
Coming to Vishwaroop 2, what have you done to cater to the Hindi audience?
Actually, there are certain things you have to explain culturally when you switch languages. You have to explain why somebody is eating rasgulla in the morning because that happens in Bengal. You will have to explain it to a Tamilian because nobody does that down South. But Vishwaroop 2 was actually set in the North. It was more suitable to be a Hindi film. I have explanations like this in the Tamil version. But none is required in Hindi. At certain times, I have to explain how Omar Qureshi speaks in Tamil. But there is no such explanation required in a Hindi film. He can speak Hindi. So it is actually more suitable as a subject to Hindi. That is why I wanted to make it in Hindi.
With the body of work that you have, what was it about Vishwaroop 2 that you wanted to make it in Hindi as well and not some of your other films?
Actually, I couldn’t convince my producers to make Dasavathaaram in Hindi. It could have been done and it could have been much more effective than it was. I wanted to remake many of my films. But you know sometimes… like Hey Ram was done in two versions. It was a very costly film to make because of the period setting. But on table profit for me came; for Raaj Kamal Films International as a production company only in one film called Hey Ram. Like in Pushpak, I was telling you, we were very careful about how we hedged our bets.
You are an actor, a director and a producer. When you were shooting for Vishwaroop 2, which hat do you take off and when?
You are hatless. (Laughs). But you must not be clueless, that’s all. The fact is that automatically falls into position. When does the mother become a cook, a nanny and a chaperone and then a policeman? She takes up all these positions in your life. A mother is a cook in the morning. When she takes you to school, she is a nanny. When she checks your homework, she is a policeman. It sort of changes. They automatically happen.
For me, I prep the film, which is what everybody is doing now. I am happy about that. We sort of complete the film including the shots. On the spot we only compromise. We don’t come up with ideas, we only compromised. Sometimes, necessity the mother of invention.
On my set, it is very strange. I have my first AD who calls all the shots. People think saying ‘start’ and ‘cut’ are very important parts of being a director. But I think saying ‘cut’ is the most important part because sometimes you let the scene flow and you get something unexpected. Someone who doesn’t have the full vision may cut the shot too early.
So, I don’t get involved at all in starting the action and I only say ‘cut’. That is a strange phenomenon on my set. That is also because I am an actor-director. A long time ago, I used to want video assist on all my sets. Nobody was using it at the time. But I thought that an actor-director should watch it from the outside too. I wanted that view. At that time, when I asked for it, it used to be a luxury. I am talking about 30 years ago. They used to say that it is too much. He is thinking of too many gizmos on the set, which are not necessary. Now everybody has it.
There was a fabulous quote of yours, where you said, ‘Kamal Haasan the star funds Kamal Haasan the technician’. You have alluded to that in this interview too. What is it about being behind the camera that intrigues you so much?
I have extended the lease of life of Kamal Haasan, the star, only because of being behind the camera. Mr MGR (MG Ramachandran) and Sivaji (Ganesan) were very fortunate people because they held stardom for 25 years. I used to tell my other friends who stayed on, don’t think of quitting because of a small debacle. Don’t think of debacles as insults and leave. You are lucky. While they had 25, we stayed on for 30, 40 now.
Every day is a boon given to you. I don’t know about other actors; that happened because the technician came up with innovations for the star to prolong his life. The longevity of the star was ensured by the technician. The plans and grandiose plans were financed by the star.
For a star, it is easy to sit back and be complacent. But you have always been ahead of the curve. How do you keep at it, what motivates you to keep going?
When they ask you what you would want to become. As a director, what is the zenith? I said becoming a part of the audience; not being invested heavily. The nervousness of an investor sort of throws you off balance. It produces knee-jerk reactions to the smallest of things. You must have the same peaceful mindset of the audience to call out crassness as soon as you see it. That is the beauty of the audience.
The audience’s investment is also equal as he would have spent 500 rupees, which he could have spent elsewhere. But he comes here, he is willing to gamble. He has the mindset of a gambler. ‘Maybe the next film, this one is a bomber. I shouldn’t have paid 500.’ He stays to watch or leave halfway. That mindset should come, and it is there in most visionaries. The audience is not nervous. SS Vasan saab or Asif saab or many of the great filmmakers were not scared to try. Yes, everybody is worried about failing, but not trying is not going to assure you success.
When all the major actors were chasing double roles, you decided to play a ‘one and a half role’ in Appu Raja. How difficult was it? Today, with VFX, it is easy.
As a matter of fact, we are planning to make a ‘making of the film’ now. We want to do that. When I first came up with the idea, it was a lark. I had tried something for Mr Balachander’s film, I think. I told him I had an idea. We could make a film. He said it was too complicated, why do you want to do it? And nobody cared for it.
I was doing Saagar. I showed Ramesh Sippy saab a little trick and he was astounded by it. But we couldn’t use it in the footage. It is about the leg getting shorter. We had made an optical illusion like that in Saagar, which was just before the Sach mere yaar hai song. Then, again, I went to my mentor and said let us do it. Fortunately for me, he said, ‘You do it. Only you are fit to do this kind of madness.’ So, I went back and started working on just the technical aspect of it. I did not think about the screenplay, I gave that to somebody else. We started shooting for ten days. I was so immersed in getting the midget to work that after the first schedule when we came back, I found out that the screenplay was also a midget. So I told them this film won’t run. They said you were part of it. But I was totally immersed in making the midget work. This is not going to work. My brother, who was a partner, thought it was irresponsible of me to not even look at the script and then call it bad. I said, do you want the audience to vouch for me, especially after I say it is bad? They asked me what I wanted to do now.
I had told him that these ten days of work is a workshop that showed us how we can achieve the dwarf. Now we have to make the film. I cancelled shootings, sat back and worked on the screenplay. Sometimes, an overall view is most important. That is the great lesson I learnt, that you must not lose perspective because you are excited about either success or a big budget. Nothing matters. You can’t set out to make a Baahubali. The beauty of it is that the man thought of it, he had an overall vision that is very important.
Speaking of Appu Raja… How were the action scenes, especially the killing scene, choreographed?
I write all my action scenes. I don’t know if you have watched the first Vishwaroop but that action scene was not composed by a stunt master and accepted by the director; it was the other way round. It was written punch-by-punch, on paper. Then they tried to emulate what was realistically as possible.
How difficult was it to choreograph an action scene like that?
Very difficult, all of it exists. I see a shot in a web series called Sherlock, and I see this bullet coming down and knocking off stuff, and we had done it about 30 years ago. It gives us great pleasure. It’s all available in science labs and stuff. We read a lot and worked hard. And working with live animals was another task. And we never use the same gag to kill. Once it is a gun that shoots backwards, another time it’s a trained tiger, another time it’s a domino set-up that finally shoots an arrow.
How do you manage to make a complicated scene look so easy, like the climax of Sadma?
One, I had great teachers. And the director of Sadma himself is a brilliant director and cinematographer… multi-faceted. We work on what would otherwise become over-the-top. That kind of performance is not new in cinema. Dilip saab was a forerunner. If a young actor had been offered Mughal-E-Azam, he would have hammed his way through Salim. Such clarity of thought… I don’t know where he trained, how he trained, and some of the restraint that he has, especially in Mughal-E-Azam, one of my favourite films.
He permeated the industry with that kind of constraint. Every other actor wanted to do better than that. There was a particular time in Indian film acting when acting was thriving, like Motilal saab on one side, Dilip saab on one side. Things suddenly went downhill and in the ‘70s they became very bad. They didn’t care about acting.
In the ’70s and ’80s, over-the-top was in and, in fact, being a good actor was almost a liability that relegated you to parallel cinema like it did for Naseeruddin Shah or Om Puri. You managed to marry both, acting and stardom. How?
Om Puri saab used to say, “You are a fox. How do you do this? Before screenplay, I think you sit and roll the dice or talk to a jyotish… What do you do?” But it happened. I am happy that Om Puri saab saw the success he deserved before he passed away. They are all good actors and are forerunners, who were alone in the ‘70s and ‘80s and still held on.
When you spoke to your friends about playing a midget or doing a silent film or playing Gandhi’s assassin or playing a sexual predator, didn’t anyone advise you against this, saying it would be the end of your career?
We were so busy at that time, I was doing 15-20 films a year. You like something and you did it. I was just an actor. In one particular year, 1975, 22 of my films were released, which meant I slept in studios, woke up in studios and met friends, partied in studios. My whole life was inside studios at that time, I mean, on a film set of some sort. If not that, I would be sitting in a car listening to a story. We didn’t have any time to ruminate and make decisions.
When that time came, my previous experiences helped me. Don’t sweat the small things. Go by your passion and see with your experience, what worked before and why should it not work. The assurance any big filmmaker, company or corporate can give you is nil. At least, go be driven by passion. If a whole unit believes that a film can succeed, it invariably succeeds. But the whole unit should believe with great passion. And they will somehow drop in the nuts and bolts to make it stand.
Cinema is the greatest mass art form we have. For someone who has been at the top for so long, how do you keep in touch with what’s happening with the common man?
I travel alone quite a lot. Very few people know that after Ek Duje Ke Liye, I took local trains in Mumbai. I used to kind of disguise myself and travel all across Bombay. For me, enjoying stardom was that. Not sitting in with a Scotch in hand. Of course, that is fun too, and it comes in handy if you are going to be playing an alcoholic!
And, above all, I am a film buff. I watch other films. Now I think I am watching fewer films and I am a little worried. But thanks to Netflix and Amazon and Hulu, I am still watching films. Smaller films, bigger films, different films, are all there. So, that’s where I think I can keep in touch with what’s happening all around I am grateful to YouTube and other things because I see life through that, without disturbing life.
Do you also believe that the audience down South is different from the audience in the North?
Clearly there are things that one culture may find dischordant in another. But universally there is one chord that binds. For example, Ek Duje Ke Liye was not an experiment. It was a superhit movie from the South. It worked all over the South. It ran as a Telugu film in all language states. Imagine a Gujarati film running in Delhi for 300 days. It was like that. It was phenomenal and so Prasadji decided to produce it in Hindi. Still, we were nervous because there were so many things that might not have worked out, but did.
I think universally there are certain things that don’t change, in religion, in sports. The whole country likes cricket, the whole country doesn’t care much for football. Bengal cares for it. Kerala cares for it. Except for places like that, most things work everywhere. For example, 50-60 years back, chapatis and naans might have been rare in Tamil Nadu. Now in Punjab and Delhi you can find idlis and dosas. There is acceptance. Yes, there are certain things that won’t work at all. The syntax is different. A joke said in Tamil has to be rephrased by a fantastic writer in Hindi. That’s what Gulzar saab did to Chachi 420. Exact translations of the jokes in Tamil would not have worked. He brought it to the Hindi syntax.
Coming back to Vishwaroop 2… What is it like to take an original story forward in a sequel? What is the thing you keep in mind while doing it?
The thing is, Vishwaroop 2 is not an afterthought. It was written as a two-part film. I didn’t want to stop writing. When certain things flow, you let them flow and then I had a 200-page script, that’s a page a minute and that’s 200 minutes. I said, what do I do? Which part do I cut because everything seems interesting and I let it be there. And I went back to it again. And, instead of reducing it, I wrote 20 minutes more. I made it a little more complete and cut it mid-way and made it into two films.
After the success of this film, will we see the next series, Vishwaroop 2?
Not with me going into politics. I think I have a very few films left to do, so I’ll have to be careful about what I do.