Interview: Kamal Hassan

‘There is no separate pedestal for the performer’

Print edition : October 18, 2013

Kamal Hassan at the office of his Rajkamal Productions in Chennai on September 18. In the background are the busts of his parents, D. Srinivasan and Rajalakshmi. Photo: R. Ragu

With Savithri in "Kalathur Kannamma" produced by A.V. Meiyappan. Kamal Hassan made his debut as a child artist in this 1960 film.

In "Dasavatharam" (2008), he donned 10 roles.

With Madhavan in "Anbe Sivam" (2003).

In "Ilamai Oonjaladigirathu" (1978) with Rajnikanth.

Kamal Hassan. Having been part of the film world for 54 of his 58 years, Kamal Hassan is today an epitome of versatility. His career started with a bang: he won the President’s Gold Medal for his debut role in Kalathur Kannamma, when he was just six years old. In this interview he gave Frontline at his office in Chennai, this quintessential actor comes across not only as an artist with a passion for cinema but also as a thinker with unique perspectives on the social, political and ideological issues underlying this modern art form.
100 years of Indian Cinema

Indian cinema is 100 years old. You have been part of it for more than half of its century. Your perspective is important to us. How has it evolved over the years?

It is like people remembering their first day in school, first vaccination, circumcision… the ear-piercing ceremony…. These are truly traumatic for children. But these are memories …. My very first memory is cinema. I am truly a child of cinema. I am glad that I am not orphaned by the new technology or bad performance by me…. I think I have been helped by good directors. In my opinion, cinema was gaining respect and then lost it.

I think it is a political design that this keeps happening. When a lot of film people became successful, politicians started making fun of cinema. Cinema had nothing to do with it. First the upper crust believed that it was a modern art. Though Gandhi is my hero, the greatest injustice was done to cinema by him... because this man with a great vision didn’t like cinema.

What about (E.V.R.) Periyar?

Periyar also. He, too, didn’t like cinema. Though both were my heroes who have done great work, they thought that cinema was not an essential service. That is probably why they thought of cinema like that. Gandhi had the same attitude to cinema as the mullahs. Very surprising… for a man with so much vision, and a man who accepted telegram… vaccination.

But the Dravidian movement used it…

Yes. The Dravidian movement did it. But when it became successful, they started ridiculing whatever made them successful. All the tools that made the Dravidian movement successful were made fun of. The rhetoric was made fun of, the tools were made fun of. And it emanated from the north… the Centre… when they realised that the Dravidian political strategy had gotten the better of them [the Congress]. That’s politics. But then one affects the other. I am not a politician. I am just an artist. As a child I could see this kind of prejudice, jaundiced view of cinema starting again…in the mid-1960s.

Is it not a paradox? Cinema has lost its respect but it is becoming more and more popular.

It will become popular… it has to… because it is such a strong medium. I don’t think of cinema anymore as contained in its aspect ratio, which is defined by technicians. Wisely, the British government and even [Shyam] Benegal saab called it “moving images”.

That is what it is going to be. And all our formating will change now. The way we consume… use cinema will change. In a way, we are coming closer and closer to the audience that there is no separate pedestal for the performer. Like Andy Warhol said, “everyone will get their 15 minutes of fame”.

Now in the time of the Internet, everyone can create their own cinema. I think that is the future of entertainment, as a very, very personal entertainment created by huge conglomerates who think, research and use your own fantasies to create your entertainment….

The new set of Tamil film-makers, who have made films like “Soodhu Kavvum” and “Attakaththi”, are creating this kind of…

We are still talking in terms of this Kodambakkam and cinema. I think it has already jumped the fence. It is for commercial reasons and because of the formating facilities that we are calling it that. It is already in the hands of the common man… anybody can become a writer and a film-maker. The award-winning film by Santhosh Sivan on toddy tapping, I think, is the most important documentary that we have forgotten. We forgot the crux of cinema. Cinema was neglected. But it is recovering from a kind of quarantining it was subjected to. Now it is an art close to science. That is why it will succeed. And it is becoming more and more scientific, and we are trying to demystify it, and trying to make it more and more replicable.

Film-making can no longer be seen as a god-granted miracle. You can aspire to be a film-maker and get trained. You may not make the greatest of films. But it is not beyond you. I think instead of saying that it is some strange DNA structure that makes you a film-maker, we have to say that it is your passion to become a film-maker that makes you a film-maker. If racing and breeding can be such a passion that you spend your lifetime on it, cinema also can be made like that.

A new trend started in Tamil cinema in the mid-1970s with the advent of film-makers such as Bharathiraja, Mahendran and Balu Mahendra, when film-making moved out of the confines of studios. They took cinema closer to the people. This trend stopped or was interrupted. Why?

Always… it will always be interrupted. It is mercantile intervention. Take America. It is a great country. But it is full of business. Even wars are fought for business. The same thing happens in any field. I am not trying to ridicule the business community. The business community wants to simplify it. They want a conveyor belt, where the model could be replicated. But cinema is not that. It shouldn’t be that.

To be more specific, the change came about with “Sakalakalaa Vallavan” and “Murattu Kaalai”.

Yes. Anywhere, when they say this is better… because you know that there are four songs… five fights… some story. I have a studio. I have built this. I have 200 soldiers, costumes. Let me make another one. So they will never be part of the revolution. And they will always come back. If I have slowed down in my experimenting, it is because I have invested. It is no more a lark. What the industry has not done is to refurbish the seed and take the weed away. That is why the industry suffers. This is where the government can intervene. The most ridiculous thing we are fighting for now and the government has looked into is the Cinematography Act, which is 57 years old.

And even in your publishing industry, you still have to send one copy to the government. How stupid it is. If the government wants to see it, it can see it on the Net. Why should you cut down trees? It is all changing.

The censorship… we have stopped making films for children because we are making, as a business proposition, films for everyone. We provide adult entertainment in children’s film and children’s logic in adult films.

In today’s Internet-savvy world, pornography is part of everyday life. If Internet search engines have become more and more powerful, it is not due to science… it is due to flesh. Everybody does it secretly once or twice. And the number is exponential when you look at the world population. Of course, there were other factors that made it flourish. But what triggered it was the simple need to watch flesh. It is the oldest profession and nobody will be able to eradicate it. It is now digitised. Not yet legalised.

What I am saying is, you tell them that you will not sell alcohol to people below a particular age… like that there should be adult entertainment. We must treat adults like adults. I am not talking only about sex. I am talking about politics. There should be political freedom. The kind of freedom that was available in Periyar’s time is not there for Kamal Hassan. Even if you are bold, you don’t have freedom. Even Veeramani [leader of the Dravidar Kazhagam, founded by Periyar] does not have it.

We have made the borders tighter and tighter and tighter. Because we think everybody has a voice and everyone can raise it for any reason. We are almost gagged. The undercurrent of my film Thenali is about the sufferings of ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka. I took it in a subtle manner. Madras Cafe showcased one side of the story. Even if I wish to take a film on the other side of the ethnic issue, I will not be permitted to do so. For that matter, no film on the Sri Lankan issue could be contemplated. Here there is no freedom of expression. I, as a film artist, have no freedom, which writers such as Jayakanthan and Periyar enjoyed many years ago.

Intolerance…

Yes. Intolerance. A cultural habit.

In social media, too, this intolerance is evident. People are threatened and bullied.

If you disagree with someone, prove him wrong. Don’t take a life to prove somebody wrong. The biggest shame in India is the killing of a man like [the rationalist Narendra] Dabholkar. It is a shame. I am very proud that amid all this confusion and chaos, Tamil Nadu has escaped whatever the north has suffered.

That is because of the tradition created by people like Periyar. The Self-Respect Movement.

I am a product of that. Where was I born? I was born with Suprabatham ringing in my ears. I used to pray two hours a day until I was 10 years old. It is only because of his [Periyar’s] influence on my brother, my uncle, and my father. They would scold him, criticise him, but they would chuckle at his wisdom. So he had fans in the opposition camp. And I came from that opposition camp. I never pretended to be anything else. I’ve lived a life like that. My cinema continues to speak of it [Periyar’s ideology].

When people use this medium for propaganda, I can use it to convey my belief. But I don’t want to convert anyone.

The now-famous dialogue of yours in “Dasavatharam”, “I am not saying there is no god. I only say that it will be good if there is a god.” That struck a chord with people. But how far are you able to do it in the time of commercialisation…

The killing of Dabholkar might be disheartening. But it won’t dissuade me from speaking out, thanks to Tamil Nadu. I am very proud about that fact. There are so many things wrong here, including the Adyar and the Cooum [rivers]. So many things we have not corrected.

I don’t believe in miracles. But I believe in magic because it is when you fail to see something that magic happens. Cinema is that. What you see between the frames… that blur you don’t see. That magic makes cinema. But miracles happen when you fail to think. Anybody can create magic. I like rational thinkers because they do not evangelise. They don’t convert. Conversion has to happen through a very slow process called education.

But communal ideas are easier to spread because they blur the distinction between myth and history.

The problem is, what is our history? Is it the Ramayana or the one that is written? Ramayana is mythology. Everything is mixed. They point to a particular place and say that it was there that Rama stood. They even show Rama’s footprints. When I went to Kanyakumari as a boy, they showed me a huge pair of footprints. I was then into the Bhakti marg. They said it was Rama’s feet. It was so huge that I asked them whether Rama was a rakshasa [demon]. The route for my rationalism started there.

That was your rationalism. Now, coming to “Anbe Sivam”, it was on a totally different plane, dealing with liberalisation and globalisation.

People think I am a closet communist. The fact is no “ism”—capitalism, socialism or rationalism—is a complete answer to social ills. Everything is work in progress. According to Carl Sagan, the human brain is work in progress. We have to go farther in the evolutionary process. We are not fully evolved in our brain part. I will say something that will shock people. Had Spartacus succeeded, both Mr Christ and Mr Marx would have been rendered redundant. Had his revolution succeeded, the whole point of view of the world would have changed. Marx would still have written the Communist Manifesto but it would have been a different book. Christ would still have been the man he was. But he would have spoken different things because the injustice in society would have been a different kind of injustice.

We would have been emancipated to a level that wouldn’t need intervention. Another kind of intervention would have been needed.

Your turn to full-length comedy was a surprising transformation though there was always a streak of humour in your films.

Weakened and worried warriors become comedians. I truly believe that comedy is a serious business. Comedians are like court jesters who make you laugh and also make you think. I saw the spirit of humour in Periyar and Gandhi.

The inevitable question: Why did you and Rajinikanth decide not to act together? Films featuring both of you were big hits.

We have our own ways of functioning. It was a very pure business thing. They started paying one salary to two of us. It was like tearing a hundred rupee note into two to pay us.

Modern Tamil literature is a rich resource for films. Why is it not used in a big way in films?

Film-making is incestuous in the Tamil industry. Kerala is connected with literature. The biggest hits were connected to novels. Here, it is a pale imitation of Hollywood. They imitate and keep churning. That shows how original we are. Many accuse Kamal of copying. Many great cinemas are not original. Which is original? We must bring people from outside. Why do I celebrate good writers? Tamil cinema also should have that connect. Good writers must involve in Tamil cinema.

I was instrumental in convincing Sujatha. We brought Balakumaran. Tamils should read Tamil novels. Tamil actors and directors must read Tamil and its literature. Bharathiraja came through a medium, understood it and went into it. You need proper schooling. People like K. Balachander never stopped learning.

Cinema is a versatile medium; you cannot limit it. It is too versatile. It has all the ingredients—science, circus, journalism. It is like running one editorial for 100 years.

How do we bring about a change in the film industry?

Only transparency will bring about change.

Where do we start?

I have zero tax balance. I do not touch black money. It took some time for us to evolve. We must pay our taxes.

What is your view on making cinema a part of the curriculum?

Technology alone will not enhance it. We are talking to people to start film institutes. Hurried education is useless. The same applies to cinema. Balu Mahendra has been talking about it. He went to the Pune Film Institute. A cinema man should open a cinema institute. I even told AVM [Productions]. People started slowly believing that the entertainment industry is growing. I think we have done 100 years. The cave life was fantastic. It is high time we marched fast.

What is your politics? The question is in the context of the phenomenon of fan clubs, which in some cases played a crucial role in meeting the political ambitions of actors.

There is a constant question whether I am political in nature. My answer is, I am social in nature. That is why my fans associations were converted into social service organisations. It is a strange construct. It has a strangely constructed hierarchy, in which I am the leader and my fans work according to my guidance. There is a set of rules and guidelines under which we operate.

We have roughly calculated that over the past 20 years, we have spent Rs.20 crore towards social service. We have donated, in terms of commitment and will, more than 200,000 eyes so that when we are gone, our eyes would be donated to deserving persons. I have set an example by donating my body to science and many have followed suit.

We are working towards replenishing the blood banks of rural India, which is facing a problem. We have more than 35,000 donors. Instead of confining blood donation to the metros, we are extending it to the rural areas of Tamil Nadu where it is most needed. We seem to be the forerunners in this blood donation, which started 30 years ago. Thirty-three years, to be more precise.

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