The dynamic Kamal Hassan, speaks about his career challenges, that made him what he is today in the film industry.
It’s incredible to think of you as 61?
Why? Does it remind you of your own age? I’ve never thought about my age until you reminded me… Sometimes I’m audacious enough to think I’ve been learning over the years. So yes, I’d say I feel two hundred films old.
Out of these 200 films how many have encouraged you to go further?
Success is very important to go further. Monetary support and applause, however crass, do work as impetus. Sometimes I’ve felt I won a lottery when performances in which I did nothing were hugely accepted. At those times I got very embarrassed. For example, my Tamil film Sakalakala Vallavan where I worked as a paid performer and not an actor. I went through the motions without feeling the emotions. It was made by AVM who discovered the actor in me as a child. The director would pick me up as a child and run into the studios because my little feet at the age of 4 couldn’t walk fast enough. There he was, directing me as an adult actor. At the silver jubilee of Sakalakala Vallavan one of the AVM bosses commented on how little I thought of the film. But it was a humbling and confounding experience, one of my biggest Tamil successes. It cleared certain notions in my head about the mistakes I shouldn’t make.
You realized audiences’ tastes couldn’t be trusted?
No, the same audience that accepted me in this film also wanted to know when I would do more films like Moondram Pirai, Thevar Magan and Appu Raja (aka Apoorva Sagodharargal). Nobody says, I don’t want good films. Just because we tolerate potholes on the road does it mean that politicians should spend the public’s money in gratifying themselves? Just because we’re culturally habituated to answering the call of nature on the roads, does it mean we don’t build public toilets?
Do you feel the same way about some of the Hindi films that came after Ek Duuje Ke Liye?
Yes, some of them were conspicuous failures. But they didn’t affect me. I did them out of friendship. Then I realized one didn’t do such things for friendship. My failures in Hindi showed up more glaringly because my Hindi films took longer to make. If they were completed on schedule I could’ve done fifty films during the same time. I chose to stay away from Hindi films because I’ve a short life and lots of work to be done. Some of my best friends took forever to make their films. Ramesh Sippy took two years to make Saagar.
Which are the Hindi films you’re proud of?
Hey Ram. A German scholar has opened up a website where he has reviewed Hey Ram along with Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa. He thinks the two films are in the same league. Besides Hey Ram? Ek Duuje Ke Liye, Saagar and Pushpak….
But Pushpak was a dubbed Tamil film.
Where was the film dubbed? It had no dialogues, remember? I’d say Pushpak was a film meant for all Indians, and perhaps the world. I’m very proud of Pushpak. I’m also happy about Chachi 420. I enjoyed making that film. In spite of all the setbacks, I had a great bunch of actors working with me. Hiding in a sari and rubber padding and directing could have been killing if it wasn’t for my brilliant actors like Paresh Rawal and Om Puri. They were like the character who enters the alien body in the film Alien. They blended into their characters and added their own inputs.
A lot of your admirers think Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan is the best film you’ve done?
It’s a very important film. But even Mani Ratnam would say his best is still to come. Now when we ‘re thinking of working together again we’re scared whether we’d get an equally powerful script with everything happening just-so.
Was Nayakan designed as a desi Godfather?
Yes, both Mani Rathnam Saab and I are great fans of Mario Puzo and Francis Coppola. I love Marlon Brando. But Coppola was my hero in Godfather. I was proven right when the uncut version of Godfather was recently shown at Cannes. The man is still a hero. The underworld genre is nothing new in Hollywood cinema. Paul Muni had done Scarface many decades ago. It’s part of their culture. We wanted to get away from the Hollywood stereotype and re-root Nayakan into our environment.
Were you offered the Hindi remake of Nayakan?
No, never. Mr. Feroz Khan wanted to do it. That’s why he bought the rights. As for my opinion of the Hindi version, Mr. Mani Rathnam and I share the same opinion. They missed the point. Even I miss the point sometimes. There’s nothing more that can be said without ill-will or sarcasm.
How do you rationalize the frenzied fusion of cinema and politics in Tamil Nadu?
It started with the DMK who wanted a propaganda tool. The world over cinema has been used as one of the most powerful mediums of political propaganda. So why not Tamil Nadu? When C.N. Annadurai Saab incepted the Dravidar Kazhagam party, it was not a contesting party. Annadurai Saab was also a screenwriter. When he died Karunanidhi Saab was unanimously chosen as his undisputed successor. From then on, he has been a dominant factor in Tamil Nadu politics. His only rival was MGR whose personal charisma and political knowledge are legendary. After 1967, Tamil Nadu hasn’t seen a single non-cinema chief minister. Even N.T. Rama Rao in Andhra Pradesh saw the close link between cinema and politics through MGR. NTR played almost every role in Telugu cinema that MGR played in Tamil. Plus, NTR had the religious aura to his personality.
What do you have against active politics?
It isn’t practiced properly or decently. We’re responsible for that… Change isn’t going to fall in our laps. To quote Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, be the change you want. If I join politics I would have to give up cinema completely. Like acting and direction, politics requires absolute concentration. I think I’m doing my bit by doing my chosen work properly and sincerely. If all of us did that, democracy would be on the road to recovery.
But MGR and NTR combined career in films and politics. And they were good at both, weren’t they?
They were successful at both. It isn’t as if I don’t see cinema as a tool for political propaganda. I make very angry social statements in my films.