“Freedom of expression in India has always been under threat…”
He is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest living actors of Indian cinema. Kamal Haasan is also an unrelenting experimentalist and multi-tasker. Through a six-decade professional journey that began for him as a child, he has worked in over 200 films – as a writer, producer, director, actor, dancer, choreographer and singer, primarily in Tamil films with occasional forays into Telugu, Malayalam and Hindi. In this exclusive interview, the legend looks back on what has been, in his own words, “a very charmed life”.
By Anna MM Vetticad
Your Tamil film Papanasam and the Hindi Drishyam are both remakes of the Malayalam film Drishyam. They have all been hits. Are pan-India audiences more similar in their tastes than we realise?
Yes, because we have a common mythology. And for thousands of years, Kashi, Rameshwaram and for half the time Ajmer have all been part of our landscape. Gandhiji was one of the few people who understood our ethos and that India has a collective consciousness. So that can be put to good box-office use. (Laughs)
Ek Duuje Ke Liye (1981) is a great example. It started off as a Telugu film (Maro Charitra). Producers were emboldened to try it in Hindi with a new pair of actors because despite being in Telugu and not being dubbed, it did two-and-half years in Chennai. They were so astounded by the success that they decided to make it in Hindi with very few changes, like shifting the location to Goa from Vizag. And it was an equally big hit in Hindi. In fact, it became the biggest hit in (his long-time collaborator and mentor) director Mr K. Balachander’s career and mine too.
You released the Tamil film Dasavathaaram (2008) in dubbed Telugu and Hindi versions. You made Vishwaroopam (2013) simultaneously in Tamil and Hindi. Considering the national ethos we just spoke about, why don’t more Indian filmmakers dub their films into at least a couple of other Indian languages?
Dubbing takes away the essence of the language and makes the film more foreign than a foreign film. I would rather that we put subtitles in Hindi or another language and release it across.
Okay then, why don’t more Indian filmmakers release their films with subtitles?
They should. They should do it with English subtitles for a metro audience, but fortunately I have a better thing and I’m trying to constantly do that. I’m going to be doing more double versions now in Tamil and Hindi. Vishwaroopam 2 will be made in both languages.
I’m assuming shooting a film in more than one language is slightly more expensive so why don’t more filmmakers release with subtitles across India or do dubbed versions?
Actually not. No Hindi filmmaker can match the price at which we can make a Hindi film when you amortise it with two films. Vishwaroopam would cost Rs 80 crore to make just in Hindi, but you have two films for that price.
So financially, what you’re doing is more practical?
More practical. Only thing is with my earlier films something or the other went wrong. For instance, there was a ban on Vishwaroop and they tried to buckle me in, and I tried DTH and the theatre guys were upset and didn’t cooperate. But just because of a few mistakes, a sound business solution need not be left aside. The problem with Dashavtar (2009), the Hindi dubbed version, is that it was released a year later. If you do it together the momentum is national. The need to see the film is fuelled by national publicity. Bahubali cashed in on that.
It has become standard practice for big Hollywood action adventures to be released in India in dubbed Hindi, Telugu and Tamil versions apart from the original English. Are Indian filmmakers slow to tap into markets beyond their traditional audiences?
Ya, very very slow. I credit Hindi cinema for at least making it a little broader. It started with Bengali. Thanks to a few people or probably one man called Satyajit Ray, they went out and pushed their films. Hindi cinema has broadened its market. Tamil and Telugu cinema are waking up 2-3 decades later. Even when Ek Duuje Ke Liye was a hit, people thought twice about making a double version when we could amortise the cost. I never understood why, because it’s a win win. I thought it was laziness, and not knowing the market. I have so far done 23 double films. Thoongaavanam (2015, Cheekati Raajyam in Telugu) is my 24th. I have vast experience of succeeding and a few of them failing. So you’re talking to a man who has benefited from this.
You’ve tried various experiments over the years. You tried to release Vishwaroopam directly on television before taking it to theatres but you faced considerable opposition…
That is because I am part of this industry, so whatever I do is considered to be a turncoat kind of a thing. But if not me someone else will do it. I looked at it because it’s a great opportunity to do films differently. As a matter of fact I’m constrained by the size of my stardom in the matter of the kind of movies I can do. I have to bloat a film to fit me which would not be necessary at all if I have these kinds of smaller venues open to release my films. I would then do smaller films too.
Theatre owners objected to Vishwaroopam coming out on TV first. Is there greater unionisation…?
Is there greater cartelisation of elements within the Tamil film industry than elsewhere, because it does appear that in Tamil Nadu it is easier for associations and organisations to put a huge amount of pressure on individual film makers?
That’s because politics and the film industry have been very close. They’ve learnt bad habits from each other. Andhra somehow managed to pull itself out of these clutches and stay as a business entity. Tamil Nadu unfortunately has become a cocktail of both.
Is the problem you faced with Vishwaroopam to do with the fact that powerful politicians in Tamil Nadu own TV channels, and therefore control the film industry in many ways?
It is true that there are two. Both parties own TV channels and you have to be careful when you make the third choice. You don’t wanna hurt anyone. The industry could do without that.
Isn’t it suffocating for you?
At the time of Vishwaroopam’s release, you had said you want to leave the country.
I meant it.
Why did you say that?
Because of the general apathy to an artist. And it does not come from the audience. The audience either respects or disrespects according to the output, they applaud or simply decry the man for lack of performance. That’s a fair deal and they’ve been very kind to me for the past three decades. My exasperation is because the industry is a very unfriendly place for artistes. People who will come out and help are limited in numbers.
Isn’t that a huge irony, considering that the industry depends on artistes?
Is it not tragic rather than irony? It’s tragic. It’s all about business. Rather than celebrating a man who is going beyond the call of duty to make his work excellent, they ridicule him. The audience appreciates actors for having tried beyond. The industry simply wants you to shut up and behave, like in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. If you’re a pig, why do you wanna fly?
How do you deal with the frustration? Over the years, it does appear that you have ended up focusing a lot of energy not on the creative aspects of your work but on these battles.
That is why I said I’d like to leave this place, because it’s a waste of time. As a matter of fact even the time that I spend on marketing my films is a waste. I should be doing workshops imparting whatever I have learnt through my years, and making films. Instead I am trying to just duck the blows that come my way and they’re not blows I deserve either.
You said you wanted to leave the country but you did not of course...
(Laughs) Well it’s been too short a while since I said it, to know if I meant it. I might say it again. I hope I don’t have to.
Going back to your point that you sometimes feel constrained by your stardom because you have to bloat a project to fit you. Can you elaborate on that?
Yeah, sometimes I’m told not to make a small film. I ask why. I’m told: it will shrink your market, then they’ll say that’s your size. That’s not true. Papanasam, for instance, is a very small film which is not my market size at all. But I still did it.
But Papanasam is a remake of a Mohanlal-starrer. He’s a huge star in Malayalam. Why do you consider it a small film?
But it is a small film. A big Malayalam star can do that. In the Malayalam industry, Mammooty can do Mathilukal (1989) with Adoor Gopalakrishnan and next a big commercial entertainer. Mohanlal could do a small film like Namukku Parkkan Munthiri Thoppukal (Vineyards For Us To Dwell In, 1986) and then do a huge film. That’s allowed in Malayalam. Because it’s a small industry, the money spent is smaller, so people churn out more number of films. Mohanlal and Mammooty have to keep working on films. They come out with fantastic quality and subjects, of course. Nowhere else in India will you find so much variety within a small state. Point is, it’s nothing extraordinary if you go and do a small film in the Malayalam film industry.
But in the Tamil industry if you do a small film?
It’s dangerous, almost suicidal. You will never find Rajinikanth attempting anything like that.
But has your career path not gone down a road which is different from his as a result of which you can experiment more and take more risks?
I have kept that facility at great peril. The pundits said don’t do it, this is dangerous. I went ahead and did it, because I wanted that freedom. I was willing to fight for it and they’ve been kind.
They? As in, the audience?
Yes, they have not ditched me. If they do then I am finished because then the pundits would’ve been right. They stood by me, they have been my only strength. That’s why I continue with this. They are the only reason why I have stayed back. When you ask me the question (laughing): why have you not gone, you’re still here? The only reason is the audience, not the industry.
You’re in your sixth decade in films. What do you do to ensure that you don’t get bored and you don’t take your own audience for granted?
I have never taken my audience for granted because I am one of them. I never take myself for granted.
How do you see yourself as your own audience?
I still like to see Kamal Haasan perform and not the same kind of roles. I don’t look at myself as a trademarked John Wayne or MGR. I want to see myself in different attire, different moods. I also write, so there’s quite a variety still to be done.
It’s very easy to take it for granted because mine is a very charmed life. It will be wrong to say I suffered. I met the right kind of gurus at the right time without any endeavour from my part. So there’s all the possibility of taking it for granted. But I have not.
If I take my success for granted, I’m taking my audience for granted. Because where does the success come from? It’s not because I know I’m excellent, it’s them accepting that I am excellent, that’s where the success comes. I might think I’m the greatest actor in the world, but what if nobody else agrees that is the case? That is the tragedy I’ll die with. It has happened to good actors. I’ve seen many talented guys, many of my peers whose names you won’t even know, who were equally talented or even better who never got to see the light of day. They died either alcoholic or anonymous. Those are not wake-up calls, but they were quite stark reminders of what could have become of me, so I never took it for granted.
So your success from a combination of talent, hard work, discipline and good luck?
Good luck, yeah I could say that. But I’ve never shunned hard work and never never took it for granted. So I never believed in luck that much. Probably because my life is so charmed that you don’t have to believe in luck. I have a funny saying that there is nothing called luck for those who deserve it. It’s like that. Mine is a very happy life if you look at it. I can’t design a better one for myself. I might put in a little tragedy to make it more fizzy.
You mean, if you were to make a film on your life?
Yeah yeah, it is quite a pleasant one as far as the professional side of things are concerned. As I told you I met the right gurus at the right time, and not just one. Once might have been an accident or chance. I kept meeting them again and again and again. I don’t know whether I had humbled myself to meet them or they just found me. Over various stages of my career I found these people reaching out to me and helping me.
Your life story is worth telling, is it not?
I’m not a mirror, I’m a box and I’d like to keep it closed
You will not write your autobiography?
No. What is the purpose of writing something which is so dishonest?
Because you won’t tell the truth?
You can’t, because so many people are alive, they wouldn’t like it either. It’s better that I leave the lies to others.
Vishwaroopam was briefly banned in Tamil Nadu. This May, Vishwa Hindu Parishad called for a ban on Uttama Villain. This is happening more and more in our country? Do you think free speech is under threat?
I think politicians found that their manifestos are not helping acquire fame and attract attention, so they’ve turned to such shortcuts. Otherwise I don’t see a reason. There’s nothing at all they could have been so angry about with Uttama Villain – now the film has released they look silly.
Is freedom of expression more under threat now than when you were starting out in films?
It has always been under threat by moral policing, but now with the media it becomes easy for everyone to make a noise. So the brawls are looking bigger, but actually they’re not battles at all. They’re actually scuffles and frivolous scuffles.
Male actors of the present generation have become far more body conscious than in previous generations. What do you think of young male stars going shirtless to display their well worked out gym-toned torsos?
It’s like hairstyles at one time, dancing at one time, now this is the fad. But that will not yet complete an actor. Good health is universal. Everyone should have a good and healthy body. How many muscles you should see on the outside is a question of aesthetics. Among the bodybuilding community, the beefcake look is getting out of fashion. They’re now looking at slim, wiry, very muscular beautiful bodies. So it’s changing with time.
So within filmdom also you think it will change?
It will definitely change. I think I always admired a good physical form. From the time of Da Vinci, Greece and Rome there has been admiration for good bodies. Some actors have been lazy and not taken care of themselves but I thought Kirk Douglas was well built for his time. He was not a bodybuilder but he was built well. All the actors who played Bond had a fairly good musculature – not enough to win Mr Olympia but they were there.
Name a Tamil male actor from a previous generation who was similarly fit.
Without a doubt, for his time, M.G. Ramachandran. I became a gym enthusiast because of MGR.
Does being a dancer help you maintain your body?
Yes, but the body you saw in Abhay or Aalavandhan (2001) comes only from exercise.
As we grow older, achieving that kind of a body becomes slightly more difficult. What are your fitness mantras?
I work out. I never used any protein shots. I’ve eaten protein, which in itself is wrong. I’ve taken so much protein to build my body, which I learnt later was unnecessary, but I’ve never taken any of these booster shots or animal stacks or any of those things. That is very commonly used now to get a quick body. Any good nutritionist or physical culturist will tell you that you can’t get that kind of musculature overnight without resorting to these kind of drugs. Otherwise you will have to spend 6-7 hours in the gym every day. Most guys don’t do that kind of exercise.
So you’re saying most youngsters today who display really heavily muscled bodies are using these supplements?
Why did you never do it?
I never saw this as the only route to success, so my health was very important for me. I wanted to live a little longer and not get instant results. Above all I had someone like Mr KB (K. Balachander) supporting me so I thought I had a long career ahead and I didn’t want to support it with cortisone.
Are young actors who opt for such quick fixes being irresponsible role models?
I’m sure by the time they are ready to die with kidney disease, good medicines would have been found for kidney troubles. But these medicines will affect them. They will get a heart attack or kidneys will fail. This is not wishing them bad, this is just warning them.
So are they being irresponsible role models?
No, they’re irresponsible to themselves to begin with. If one or two are not using these quick fixes, I congratulate them.
At the Habitat Film Festival in Delhi this May, in reply to a question from the audience about when you will act with your daughters Shruti and Akshara, you said you are waiting for them to become actors, right now they are busy being stars. What does that mean?
(Laughs) Actor and star are different things. Star is something you can be by luck, a good actor you have to be by hard work. Shruti wants to be both, I don’t know what Akshara would be.
But is it also not destiny that you’re born with the talent?
No, I don’t think so. You aren’t born with it. I wasn’t born with talent. It was inculcated into me by gurujis and my family. Ilayaraja was not born with music, he acquired it later on.
Do you see yourself as an actor, a star, or both?
I started off as a technician. I had scant regard for both actors and stars. But then Mr Balachander foisted (laughs) this new armour on me and I think I became a little more invincible than I would have been if I’d just been a technician. He gave me this financial armour called stardom.
So if you want to be a producer, director etc, is it a huge advantage if you’re a star?
Absolutely. It’s not hubris, but the confidence you find in my voice comes from that advantage.
Many people consider K. Balachander’s Apoorva Raagangal (1975) your big breakthrough. Do you?
Apoorva Raagangal was one of my important films but I think my breakthrough came when Balachanderji made Manmatha Leelai (1976) and then Maro Charitra (1978) after that. He kept making films only with me.
Was the breakthrough then the fact that he decided he wanted to work with you?
Ya he decided, I had no choice in that. I was a nobody. He sort of discovered me and sometimes I suspect he could have invented me. (Laughs) Because I didn’t believe I could or I wanted to even be an actor. He brought it about and he kept on. We made 36 films together.
You said your original ambition was to be a technician. You mean a director?
Ya, a filmmaker. He asked me one day when I was 19, “So what are your plans?” I said, “I’m not even ready to discuss my plans with you, Sir.” He insisted, so I told him I wanted to become a director like him. To which he said: “That you will. You have the capacity to become that, but what you have inside you is something not many do. With training you can become a director, no amount of training can make the star that you are going to be. You’re going to be a phenomenal actor, don’t lose sight of that. Build a house, become rich and then think of making films.” And that’s what I did.
That’s amazing practical advice.
And I took it. That’s even more practical of me. (Laughs)
(A shorter version of this interview by Anna MM Vetticad appeared in the September 2015 issue of Maxim magazine)
Note: These photographs were not published in Maxim