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THE incident defined the Kamal Haasan I knew, and spent oodles of time with, in the late 1980s. During that period, I was helping to write and produce, on the most frayed of shoestrings, an English film fortnightly focusing on Southern movies.
That job entailed spending time on various Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu film sets, from dawn till way past midnight, collecting material for the stories I would write late into the night.
That was work. To relax, and to have fun, I would find out where Kamal was shooting and hang out there -– on the sets of films ranging from Vetri Vizha, director (and my Christian College-mate) Pratap Pothen’s indirect nod to the Robert Ludlum thriller Bourne Identity; K Balachander’s Unnal Mudiyum Thambi; Indrudu Chandrudu (Mayor Saab, in Hindi) and Apoorva Sahodaragal.
Each set, each director’s working style, was different. There was the casual chaos and amiable anarchy of Pothen, the military discipline of Balachander, the unassuming, unobtrusive, presence of Singeetam.
They all had one thing in common: Kamal, a dervish of creativity, bustling here, there, everywhere, involving himself (some would even say, interfering) in every aspect of filmmaking.
He would suggest alternate ways of doing scenes. He would introduce props into the scene the set designer had not thought of.
No actor, to my mind, uses props better. If there is a corner table, he will trip over it. If there is a low-hanging lamp, he will bump into it. If there is anything at all on a set that is not nailed down, he will find a way to use it.
He would engage in animated discussions with everyone, from his fellow artistes to the lightboys, cinematographer, dance choreographer, director, whoever.
Why, I once asked him. Why do you have this urge to get involved in everything, when your fellow actors (the honorable exceptions, to lesser or greater degree, being Malayalam stars Mammootty and Mohanlal) are content to give their shot and retire to their reserved chairs, waiting till they are called for the next shot?
We were at his Alwarpet house then. By way of answer, he played on his television a master copy of the Mani Ratnam classic Nayakan that had won for him his second National Award for acting.
Every so often, he would pause the film. See this scene, he would go.
What is it trying to do? What mood is it trying to convey? Now imagine if the lighting were different. If, say, it were brighter. Or imagine if the set was different, like this wasn’t here or that wasn’t there or the room was done in a brighter, or darker, colour.
Or, for instance, if instead of this position, the actors in the scene were here- and here-
Time and again, he did this to drive home his point: an actor’s performance, he said, depends on much more than his intrinsic skill, or the director, or the script. Every little thing from the way the set was created to the way it was lit could add, or detract from, what the actor was trying to do.
Thus, he argued, the more you knew about the various departments of filmmaking, the more you could channel that knowledge into refining your own craft.
That was his defining philosophy -– the drive to learn, to know. Then, to use the totality of that knowledge, often acquired at considerable pains.