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March 15, 2001


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His handshake is not firm. The smile never reaches the eyes and he's affable to the extent of sounding inaudible.

It is as if he is conserving all his energy, emotions and expressions. It is as if he is always waiting for that magical command, 'Action'. That's when the body undulates and the eyes light up. That's when the actor transforms into the character.

Meet Kamal Hassan, the master of masquerade.

He has come along way. He has traversed the length and breadth of the land, breaking linguistic barriers and leaving audiences incredulous at his repertoire and his seemingly inexhaustible bag of tricks. He has seen it all.

His careergraph, as a stock market analyst would put it, is full of higher tops and lower bottoms. But the fundamentals are strong. He is the trapeze artiste who walks the tight rope between art and commerce. He has faltered but never fallen.

The press has fawned and frowned upon him depending on their personal equation with the man. Like the well-known critic who would rate any Kamal Hassan film as a classic till a personal spat. After that, Hey! Ram was an exercise in self-indulgence and Govinda was suddenly a better actor.

As an actor, there's none to match him in contemporary Indian cinema save Mohanlal, to a certain extent. It's not as if Kamal is incapable of bad performances. He has hammed in most of his Hindi films, including Saagar.

Kamal Hassan Even in his latest release, Thenali, his performance is theatrical. His problem is that audiences yearn for something different and spectacular each time he appears on screen.

That is the kind of unique niche he has carved for himself, unlike superstars like Amitabh and Rajnikant, who are prisoners of their images and whose fans will not tolerate variety.

I meet Kamal at his office on a day when he seems relaxed. He is dressed in jeans and a tight black T-shirt that shows off his newly developed pectorals and biceps that even Popeye would envy. His face shows sings of ageing, but his body is fit and his mind as sharp as ever.

Part I of a two-part interview by S Shiva Kumar:

Do you feel, as an actor, you've reached your peak?

No. I thought I had crossed the peak, and after that, it was all going to be a race downhill.

So, I was thinking how I should stop the momentum and all my efforts were concentrated towards stopping the momentum and not to rise. Now, I don't know again. So it seems to be an undulated terrain. You can't call anything a peak as such.

Whenever I ask myself what stage of career I'm in right now, I don't really know the answer. It's very confusing. Ten years ago, I thought I was racing very fast, downhill. I thought I'll have to change route, find another profession.

You took up direction after a long time. But in the interim, you've always been called a closet director. Any film that wasn't directed by the top liners like Mani Ratnam or K Balachander, it was assumed that you were wielding the megaphone.

That is, in a way, true and in a way, false. Because I feel no cinema is a single man's effort.

People like Akira Kurosawa did give you that feeling, but there are so many contributing factors. You cannot control that, especially the way it is done here. You can't be alone even to supervise your ideas.

Kamal Hassan There are so many inputs and there are so many undeserving, as well as humble contributors. Some don't contribute at all and those people I call undeserving. There are some who really contribute and walk away without even asking for applause.

Even if you say I made Hey! Ram, it wouldn't be completely right. It is not possible to do it alone. My cameraman, my art director and my costume department are equally important. I could sleep well at night because I had this crew.

I don't say this out of humility. I'm confident I would have made Hey! Ram without the Thirus and Sarikas, but that's an arrogant way of looking at it. It would have moved away inch by inch from whatever little perfection we've achieved.

About this closet direction, no. Mine was a glass case. Everyone knew.

At what point did the director in you start taking over?

I have been doing this right from the beginning. I never wanted to be an actor. I love my crew. I want to be with them, not rise above them. Rising above them is easy. You become a tyrant, a genius or an eccentric. You rise above them and they give you a misnomer. They'll call you a tyrant, a genius and vice versa.

Mediocrity has been the standard and the easiest thing to achieve. To rise above mediocrity is about the best thing for any man who seeks excellence. But I am not even rising above mediocrity. I am mediocre and have kept myself that way."

Aren't you being too modest?

No, I'm not. I am mediocre because that is my audience. It is not that I am generalising. The daily collection report says that my general audience is mediocre. The minorities who talk as cleverly as I do don't matter because they can have a private conversation with me.

It's said that when you make suggestions, they seem to enhance your character but do not contribute to the general flow in the film. Is that a rather selfish approach?

As an actor, if you will take my suggestion, well, that's what I'll do. That's what even Marlon Brando would do.

I'm not going to tell him how to place the shot. If he asks me how to place the shot, it might improve the general film itself but nobody does that. I wouldn't.

Kamal Hassan and Jyotika Girish Karnad worked in my film. I will never go and ask him how to do a certain scene. But I would take his suggestion and analyse it.

Right from the beginning, I've been working as an assistant director to all my directors. Even now, for me, the making of the film is more important. It doesn't matter who gets the title. I can afford to say that because I have my face printed on celluloid.

Isn't it also because you have more at stake than anyone else?

For the last 15 years, it's my neck on the line every time. Nobody has the audacity to talk about personal losses, if at all there is any.

Well, aesthetics does not have a price. But if at all anybody's neck is on the line, it's mine. And I bear it every time with minimum pain to others.

That's why I don't try a Apoorva Sahodarargal (Appu Raja in Hindi) for others. Well, when it succeeds, it's okay but when it doesn't, it becomes a Hey! Ram. But the pain is similar and enormous. I cannot dump it on somebody.

When I do it for others, I see to it that it's something as simple as a Guna or a Mahanadhi. Even if something goes wrong, the investment is minimal. Or, for that matter, even Thenali. It is quite a compact film and won't crunch into their bank account.

Talking about a mediocre audience, do you call them so because they don't seem to like what you do?

It's not that. It's the general attitude to look at the human. Vendors are now deciding what the editorial will be in a newspaper. The downfall is not the people. When the vendor decides, then the newspaper is gone.

So who calls the shots in the film industry?

Kamal Hassan in Hey! Ram The middleman, always. When they call the shots, that's the end of the film.

Even where a Kamal Hassan is concerned?

Everybody. I am talking about the whole industry. From the time the studios and their distribution network failed, the middlemen emerged. They have nothing to lose.

But that doesn't seem to have stopped you from experimenting. Are you the rebel then?

I keep trying because I'm a student of cinema and a film buff. That's why for the last ten years, I've not done a single day's work. It's a continuous paid holiday for me. I don't care.

I am worried when people don't appreciate work. But the minority has been so kind to me. That's why I won't insult them. As a matter of fact, my survival comes from the minority, who go around like propagandists telling others how good my films are. But the purpose is not served.

My kind of films mature and I've already sold the wine. Somebody else matures that drink, not me. I lose. But mediocrity comes from training. It's not a DNA structure.

Do you feel you're unique because the common man likes you as much as the cognoscenti?

That's because I've humbled myself. I am not reluctant to shake hands with the common man. I used to be a common man and all that I've achieved is not real. It's all piled on to me; it's acquired.

The core is the same, simple man. That is why I see the difference. But you can't segregate the two genres and cater simply to one.

That way, you are risking the market saleability factor. I'm the brand, so I can't have a Lifebuoy and a Surf. It's not a filter cigarette versus a non-filter cigarette, produced by the same company.

So what are you trying to do? Raise the audience's taste?

No, no. Just trying to walk the tightrope and hope for applause.

Kamal Hassan And what happens when an underrated classic (like Mahanadhi) flops?

For me, Mahanadhi is a very important film. It's going to the Rotterdam festival -- pretty late, I know, six years since its release. But now Mahanadhi, Kurudhippunal, Hey! Ram, Nayakan and Pushpak are going to the festival.

It is called Focus On A Filmmaker, and focuses on a filmmaker who has a mulit-dimensional contribution to films. So one film will promote me as an actor, one a director, another as a writer and one as a participant who creates on the spot.

I have no complaints.

Also read: Part Il

Courtesy: Stardust

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