In conversation with one of India’s finest actors Kamal Haasan

Try telling Kamal Haasan that his films are turning into an exercise in self-indulgence and the Chennai champion is quick to defend himself. “That depends on how you look at a film,” he reasons. “So what do you say to an Ingmar Bergman film? Or for that matter, what do you say about Lagaan? Where were the critics when it came to Lagaan? If you are not a cricket fan or a movie buff, then even Lagaan was boring. What do you say to Martin Scorsese’s Casino, which was three hours and 22 minutes long? And Francis Ford Coppola originally wanted to do Apocalypse Now as a four-hour film, which he did show (at that length) at this year’s Cannes film festival. So the self-indulgence part depends on what the film is all about.”

Well, there ends any effort on my part to grill Kamal Haasan, whose reputation has been toasted and sandwiched between two colossal box office catastrophes, Hey Ram and Abhay. The former had a great idea at its core—that somebody other than Nathuram Godse came close to killing Mahatma Gandhi. But much of the good points of the film were swept under the shadow of its auteur’s lack of creative discipline. But Kamal Haasan was unrepentant. “Hey Ram needs no more defence,” he snaps, pointing out that the film was taught in Iowa University for a semester.

And then he went on to repeat the same mistakes in Abhay.

It’s heart breaking to watch an actor who is arguably among the country’s finest stumbling all over his own genius. “Much of the impressive display of graphics and special effects in Abhay are Kamal Haasan’s brainchild,” remarks a Chennai-based filmmaker. “So you see, he has the vision. What he doesn’t have is the ability to stop himself in the larger interest of the film.” Which is probably why some may see the climactic duel between the two Kamal Haasans in Abhay as a symbolic clash between Kamal Haasan the Cinematic Icon and Kamal Haasan the Show-off!

Harsh words, when you consider that he’s done over 200 films and worked twice as hard as actors half as talented as him. And you almost wonder whether Kamal Haasan gets carried away by his own challenges only because there is so little he hasn’t already done on the big screen. Recall Ek Duuje Ke Liye, Sadma, Saagar, Nayakan, Swati Muthiam, Pushpak, Apurva Sahodaragal (Appu Raja), Chachi 420, Thevar Magan—it’s a body of work that would be hard to imitate or equal by any stretch of imagination. “If you ask me how many films I have genuinely done,” he says, “it’s not 200. It’s 50. The rest have been rehearsals. Sometimes disinterested, sometimes hard work gone down the drain. So, you see, I have only completed 50 house of cards. The rest crumbled.”

Some may see the climactic duel between the two Kamal Haasans in Abhay as a symbolic representation of the clash between Kamal Haasan the Cinematic Icon and Kamal Haasan the Show-off!

But failure never seems to stop Kamal Haasan. Hey Ram didn’t and nor has Abhay. For the actor is already onto his next project. It doesn’t bother Kamal that while he has to walk the extra mile for audience acceptance, his closest box office rival can have a hit by just tossing a cigarette into the air and catching it between his lips. “I will say that you will never feel frustrated about a taller man nor will you take great pride in a midget walking by your side—for it doesn’t make you feel taller. So I have passed envy. Now you have a parameter which you have set. And my life is not all about cinema acting. Cinema viewing is a major pleasure for me. As a matter of fact, cinema acting and producing itself comes from that need to watch a film the way I would like to see it. The most enjoyable moment for me is completing my work and watching it with people. All that hard work is for that one happy day. So the final act seems to be watching.”

As you can see, philosophy comes easily to Kamal Haasan, though he admits that failure does hurt. “But it only hurts financially,” he says. “What I can’t seem to manage well is the financial loss that accompanies it.” And he also admits that he’s been mostly losing money than making it in the last few years.

“But that’s because of my choices. Why should I do a Marudanayagam when I could have made three Tenalis? But that’s not the kind of complacency I would like to sink in.” For those unfamiliar with Kamal Haasan’s recent works, his performance as a Sri Lankan Tamilian in Tenali was a major box office draw earlier this year. But Kamal was forced to abandon his pet project, the historical opus Marudanayagam, after having sunk a few crores into it. “So I am not financially comfortable yet. I have to answer to the tune of Rs 10-12 crore.”

And he’s doing it without being lured into doing product commercials. “In the early stages of my career I didn’t want to solicit ghutka and tobacco.” He took the stand out of social concern. “Now they don’t come to me because they understand my viewpoint. But if they ask me to do an alcohol ad, I might consider it because it’s a vasodilator and not a vaso-constrictor. But definitely not for tobacco. It’s banned in Tamil Nadu.”

And the moolah factor can hardly lure him into Bollywood. “For one they can’t afford the kind of money I ask for,” says Kamal, whose price is reportedly in the range of Rs 5 crore. Secondly, he’s uncomfortable with the work culture in Mumbai’s moviedom. “It has a style of operation which cannot actually submit a script. They have an idea but they make it up as they go. But now I feel the time has come to drop this complacency about ‘yeh Bollywood hai, yahan aise hi chalta hai. Discipline Madras mein ho sakta hai, lekin yahan toh traffic jam hai!’ All that is humbug. I see spot boys coming at seven in the morning from far off suburbs, so why not a star? Somebody is not cracking the whip loud enough.” While he is disillusioned with the Bollywood experience, Kamal has found a new way of reaching the Hindi audience. “We now finance the Hindi version with the Tamil version. Simple logic—make both versions together. Like we did Hey Ram, which otherwise would have ruined me for life.”

While it’s too early to say what Abhay’s debacle will do to Kamal Haasan, it might pose a few questions about his approach to screenplay writing. “I became a screenplay writer by default,” he admits. “I dabbled in it in 1980 with Raja Parvai. Then after a few half-baked forays in that direction, my total full-fledged writing started with Pushpak, Appu Raja and Thevar Magan, for which I got kudos from Karunanidhi, who is a great screenwriter himself.” He also points out that Tenali’s original concept came from him, while Hey Ram was published as a script.

However, Kamal Haasan admits that he still feels insecure as an actor, even after 200 films. “From my first to my 1000th, I think I will never really know whether the pose I struck or that line I spoke really worked or not.”

But he claims his insecurity doesn’t extend to being scared of other actors stealing his scenes. “That has never bothered me,” he says. “Otherwise it would have been like a bad dinner table habit where you start spilling everything in your rush to get food for yourself. So before you steal a scene, you must ask yourself whether you would like to watch yourself doing that ugly act. In Thevar Magan, I do nothing much in the first half except humbly stand behind Sivaji Ganesan.”

Kamal Haasan is a smart man. So Abhay might be an aberration. And he will be back. For there is only one thing he looks forward to as an actor. “Applause, always. And appreciation.”

This article was first published in the January 2002 issue

Image courtesy: Neeraj Priyadarshi