Sunday January 13, 2013
By SHARMILLA GANESAN
Kamal Hassan, one of Indian cinema’s most multifaceted stars, shares his thoughts on acting, filmmaking and his latest project.
PICKING a favourite Kamal Hassan performance is no easy task; not only has the South Indian thespian acted in over 150 films, they span a range of genres from social dramas to comedies to thrillers to romances.
After all, how does one choose from a long list of lauded performances that include (just to name a few), an iconic turn as an underworld don (Nayagan), an impoverished bharatanatyam dancer (Salangai Oli), a would-be assassin of Mahatma Gandhi (Hey Ram) and estranged quadruplets in a hilarious crime caper (Michael Madhana Kamarajan)?
In fact, any Tamil film enthusiast would find it difficult to list his or her favourite movies without including at least one Kamal Hassan-starrer, so ubiquitous is his presence in the industry (many would argue that his popularity is outshone only by Rajinikanth).
Hailing from Paramakudi in Tamil Nadu, Kamal made his debut in Tamil cinema at age three. His break as a lead actor came in 1975 with Apoorva Raagangal. He has since made a reputation for himself as a multifaceted method actor who can essay practically any role with elan.
Considered by many to be the greatest living actor in South Indian films today, the 58-year-old holds the distinction of garnering the most National Film Awards (Best Actor for Moondram Pirai, Nayagan and Indian, and as producer for Thevar Magan) as well as a record 19 Filmfare Awards. He is also a holder of India’s prestigious Padma Shri title, the country’s fourth highest civilian award given to citizens for distinguished contributions to various sectors of activity including the arts, education, sports and science.
To say then that each new film of his bears the heavy burden of expectation would be an understatement, and his upcoming thriller, Vishwaroopam, is no exception. Kamal, however, takes it all in his stride.
Speaking about the film during a recent interview in Kuala Lumpur, he shares that it is an international story revolving around terrorism and war. Kamal, who also wrote and directed the film, plays Vishwanathan, a kathak dancer who is settled in the United States in a marriage of convenience with Nirupama (Pooja Kumar).
Sharing the screen with them are Rahul Bose, Andrea Jeremiah and Shekhar Kapur. The film, which features music composed by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, will also be released simultaneously in Hindi as Vishwaroop.
The idea for the movie came from a need Kamal had to talk about the violence the human race inflicts upon itself.
“I had a comment to make as a common man, on the total disregard for human life. Be it the Nazis, Israel, the US, India or Pakistan, we have all regretted unleashing wild terrorism or war against other nations, because the results have never been conducive to civil society.
“If you ask the common man, the answer to all this world violence is so simple, yet great governments and huge parliaments are not able to make that sensible decision,” he says.
The question, he adds, was how to put such deep issues into a film that is also meant to entertain.
“The foreign policy of Britain was very cleverly ridiculed and satirised in a great film like Lawrence Of Arabia. Vishwaroopam is not a political film, it is (framed as) a thriller, but I suppose you could call it a political thriller too.”
Kamal is no stranger to intertwining complex issues with entertainment value, whether it is communism in Anbe Sivam or capital punishment in Virumandi. He is also well-known for taking risks in his films, from acting in a silent film (Pushpak) to forgoing the standard song-and-dance formula of Indian films entirely, as in Kuruthipoonal.
Vishwaroopam, meanwhile, will be one of the first few films in the world to be equipped with the Auro 3D sound format, which delivers an immersive and reportedly more natural soundscape (Red Tails and Rise Of The Guardians are other examples of films that utilise Auro 3D).
Kamal is also attempting to release the film on direct-to-home (DTH) platforms ahead of its theatrical premiere – a move that has resulted in vehement protests from Indian theatre owners.
Constantly pushing the envelope is what keeps his passion for films alive, Kamal says, adding that he would be as bored as the audience if he didn’t experiment with his work.
“I’m a very uncomfortable monkey in a box, and coming out of the box is not a logical or planned decision, it’s a need. It’s exactly the same need as the audience that wants to go and see a different film.
“I want the changes in the content as much as the audience does, otherwise I might as well be working for a car factory, making the same hubcaps over and over again,” he says.
A celebrated screenwriter, producer and director in his own right, Kamal approaches his projects from a unique point-of-view, one that has been honed by his many years of experience working with the finest talents in the Indian film industry.
“When it comes to filmmaking, I’m a confused student. My teacher, (director) K. Balachander (who directed many of Kamal’s early films), never gave me parameters. I’ve done everything from holding light reflectors to performing stunts to pouring watering cans for rain scenes. In a way, he ruined the possibility of me being a disciplined monocultural actor.
“Becoming a director or writer are not hats that I wear, they’re tasks that I get into as and when necessary. It’s responsibility-based rather than ego-based,” he explains.
When asked if he finds it a struggle to balance his sensibilities with the predominantly populist fare favoured by Tamil film audiences, his answer is pragmatic.
“I’ve learnt to accept the truth, like George Clooney, Steven Spielberg or even Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa is a great example of someone who was a commercial director in Japan, and was also hailed as a master by the rest of the world, and that happened within his lifetime.
“I’m a keen student of Kurosawa and even (Francis Ford) Coppola. The Godfather (directed by Coppola) is a very commercial film, but it’s also an iconic classic that will go down in the annals of cinema as a cousin to Citizen Kane. I feel that there’s nothing wrong with reaching more people with a great idea, and if you’re honest and brave enough, there need not be a compromise to do that.”
Already creating buzz with its stylish, fast-paced trailer, Vishwaroopam has been drawing comparisons to Hollywood movies, with its thrilling plot, exotic locations (filming was done in the US, Afghanistan and Jordan, among others) and high-octane stunts.
Kamal, however, prefers not to be compared to Hollywood, even though he is often cited as India’s best chance of one day bagging an Oscar – he holds the distinction of having starred in the most number of films submitted by India for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
“With true respect, I want to say the Oscars are not world-standard. I have made an Indian film, so I should look for fame and glory among my peers. What’s the use of being treated extraordinarily well when I’m a guest somewhere? That’s the only way they’re going to treat a guest.
“All my nominated films were not in competition with American films, they were given special guest status, and they’re going to forgive and be nice because I’m a guest. The only way I will respect any Oscar nomination for myself is when I’m on a level playing ground. An Indian film looking to meet American standards is silly; I think we should set the standards,” he asserts.
Vishwaroopam is slated to open worldwide on Jan 25.