Why have you been maintaining such a low profile?
I’m 50 now. I have suddenly realised how much time I’ve wasted. I should’ve planned my dream Maridunayagam more carefully. I need 40 more years as a filmmaker. Although it may seem so, I’m not a workaholic. I took one entire year (1990) off thinking I could afford it. I’m one of the few filmmakers in Chennai who takes every Sunday off.
You’ve been around for 30-odd years as a leading man. What changes do you notice in the film industry?
I’m still trying to execute those dreams that I had at 19. I agree that the Tamil industry is quite stagnant. But as long as I live to tell the story, I guess I’m going to do so.
Aren’t your films very expensive?
All the films I do for external productions are within the budget. When I did Hey Ram on my own, it cost as much as Shankar’s Hindustani, although it was a bi-lingual. When it comes to my films, the forthcoming film has to be better than the earlier ones.
Are your dreams getting bigger?
No. I don’t believe in daydreaming. But Maridunayagam remains one of my dreams. Now, I can get most of the finance in India, but only if my next few films do well. Luckily, portions where I’m supposed to look younger have all been shot so that my growing older in person would become a part of the narrative.
Is it becoming difficult for you to make films on your own terms?
It’s always difficult, whether on my own or on others’ terms. But I’ve no complaints. I’m a pampered technocrat. Filmmaking is not an isolated endeavour; it’s like fighting a war. You can lose any time. Your soldiers might fail you. Your courage might fail you.
Singing is an abiding passion for you, isn’t it?
I’ve sung about 50 songs for my films and majority of them are in Tamil. My father wanted me to become a singer, a classical vocalist. I learnt classical singing but not to the level he wanted. Due to my other pursuits, I couldn’t take up singing seriously. Now, my daughter Shruti is learning Hindustani classical music.
What do you feel about another Kamal Hassan coming up in the industry?
They’re already there, though they aren’t my direct offsprings. My replacement is probably smiling at me and calling me passe. I only hope I can groom him without jealousy (laughs). I remember commenting on my seniors’s performances. We’d look at MGR and Sivaji Ganesan films and wonder why they did some of the films that they did. Of course, we became eager chelas once we entered the industry.
Where are the replacements for you and Rajnikant?
Earlier, people used to say that no one could replace Sivaji Ganesan, and he would modestly say that his replacement would arrive. It took a long time for Sivaji saab to see a spark in me —he took me seriously as an actor after 17 years. I’m being realistic when I say a replacement will come. There are so many gifted new boys. And I’m eager to encourage them.
What do you enjoy the most—acting, producing, screenwriting or directing?
That depends on which of these capacities are required for, at any given time. I was a reluctant actor who was cajoled into acting. Now I enjoy it too much to give it up. There’s so much applause you get. But if my visiting card read ‘Kamal Hassan, Actor’ I’d be slightly perturbed.
When your ex- wife Sarika had a near-fatal fall you subconsciously recorded the incident for future reference?
That’s a common trait among actors. Though I can detach myself from tragedy, no one is immune to tears and fears. As an actor I’ve recorded a number of tragedies for reference. But this was one crisis where I kept the actor completely at bay. However, the child within me remained curious about the fall and wanted to know the technical details. That didn’t in any way, diminish my affection for my wife. But the truth is, I was seeing a bizarre screenplay in my mind. I went from shock to gloom within no time.
So you realised that audiences’ tastes couldn’t be trusted?
No, the same audience that accepted me in this film also wanted to know when I would do more films like Moondaram Pirai, Thevar Magan and Appu Raja.
What about your Hindi films after Ek Duuje Ke Liye?
Some were obvious failures. But they didn’t affect me. I did them out of friendship. My failure in Hindi cinema was more conspicuous because those Hindi films took longer to finish. If they were completed on schedule I would have done 50 films during the same time. I chose to stay away from Hindi films because I’ve a short life and there’s lots of work to be done. Some of my best friends took forever to make their films. Ramesh Sippy took two years to make
You have a formidable acting reputation to back up your films in Mumbai.
I’m just a musafir (traveller) in Mumbai. I drop in once in a while and shake up the statusquo as I come and go. I’m not present in the market to generate faith in my standing. So when I do come with a film they say, “Ah phir aa gaya?!” But in Tamil Nadu it’s another story. Alabandhan is being looked upon as a huge event.
Is there a Dravidian prejudice in Mumbai, because Madhavan too is facing the same kind of stumbling block.
But Madhavan is facing a stumbling block in Chennai as well. If in Mumbai he’s seen as a Madrasi boy, then in Chennai he’s the Bombay guy. It’s unfortunate to enounter so many parochial attitudes. To a large extent, Tamil cinema is free of those biases.
Many of your fans feel that Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan is your best film till date.
It’s an important film. But even Mani Ratnam would say his best is still to come. Now when we’re thinking of working together again we’re scared whether we’d get an equally powerful script.
Was Nayakan designed as a desi Godfather?
Yes, both Mani Ratnam and I are great fans of Mario Puzo and Francis Coppola. All the same, we wanted to get away from the Hollywood stereotype and remake Nayakan into our environmnt.
Were you offered the Hindi remake of Nayakan?
No. Feroz Khan wanted to do it. That’s why he bought the rights. As for my opinion of the Hindi version, Mani Ratnam and I share the same opinion—they missed the point.
What do you think about the frenzied fusion of cinema and politics in Tamil Nadu?
It started with the DMK who wanted a propaganda tool. When C N Annadurai started the DMK party, it was not a contesting party. Annadurai was also a screenwriter. When he died, Karunanidhi was unanimously chosen as his undisputed successor. After 1967, Tamil Nadu hasn’t seen a single non-cinema Chief Minister. Even NT Rama Rao in Andhra Pradesh saw the close link between cinema and politics through MGR. NTR played almost every role in Telugu cinema that MGR played in Tamil and also had a religious aura to his personality.
Why have you and your guru Sivaji Ganesan shied away from politics?
I have. He hasn’t. He won several elections and even started his own party. He lost his focus on cinema for a while. How could I advise him against it? How can you tell the headmaster to run the school? We disciples humbly murmured our disapproval.
What do you think about Rajnikant as an actor?
When we were still in our 20s I had asked him why he was so stylised on screen. He said that’s the secret of his future success. I assured him that my style would also be a winner. He turned around to say, ‘Fair enough. You do your thing and I’ll do my own.’ Rajni is a phenomenon too. Both of us were young actors who started from scratch. We didn’t have fathers to make movies for us. But we had the same godfather K Balachander. It’s quite strange, but our paths as actors were always intertwined. We made our way up together.
Are you keen on doing a film with Rajnikant?
It depends. He said if we do a film together he wouldn’t direct it. It has to be either me or someone else. It would be interesting to do a film with him. At the Thenali silver jubilee function Rajni recalled an incident when he was riding pillion on my bike. When the bike skidded Rajni asked if I knew how to ride a bike! I assured him that even if I fell, I wouldn’t let him fall. I was so touched when Rajni said at the function, ‘That’s what happened in our careers. He never let me fall. In 1983, when I wanted to leave everything behind it was Kamal who cajoled me back to the material world.’ I guess we’ll do a film together. We’re worried about the expectations.
You’re accused of becoming increasingly self-indulgent in your films.
I was self-indulgent earlier. I am an actor who can do Bharat Natyam and Kuchipudi, skid on a motorbike and select films from different languages for a remake. Is that being self-indulgent? I don’t think so.
Anil Kapoor has done a large number of your Tamil films in Hindi.
Somewhere he must admire the way I conduct my career. Maybe he wanted to use some of my career tricks. But no re-make can be the same as the original. Even Moondram Pirai and Sadma aren’t the same though they were done with the same cast and crew. Just as Shakespeare’s Othello is played by so many actors why can’t two actors in India interpret the same character in two languages? I was offered the chance to do the Hindi remake of my Swathi Muthyam (which Anil Kapoor eventually did as Eeshwar) by Raj Kapoor. If I had taken the offer I’d have belonged to one of the most illustrious film families in India, just as I belong to Sivaji Saab’s family.
Where do you think our cinema stands globally?
It’s time for our films to move ahead of V Shantaram’s musical milieu. I may not succeed playing a vigilante. It’s not enough for a Mani Ratnam or a Kamal Hassan to change the status quo. We need more celluloid reformists. It happened in Karnataka through a governmentsponsored scheme. Suddenly, I was very proud of a neighbouring state. I’d run to Karnataka just to be part of the cinematic revolution at a time when Tamil Nadu was making crappy commercial films. Just being in B V Karanth’s house was comforting. I feel the same movement can start in any part of the country. Why should we depend on Mumbai for it? I think our cinema has never grown up since Shantaramji’s days. But I’m trying.
Why this aversion to songs and music?
I’ve this Guru Dutt-like background. I used to be a dance composer. In four years, I must have choreographed about a hundred songs. As an actor I’ve done about 500 songs. To me songs make commercial sense, in the same way that whores make sense to someone in the prostitution business. As an actor, songs often seem stupid. I played a psychopath in the Tamil film Red Rose. Everyone expected me to go on stage and sing a pop number with girls. I told my director that a serial killer doesn’t sing. In our films everyone from a dentist to a follower of Vinobha Bhave sings and dances. I’m fed up of bringing music into every aspect of life on screen. We don’t need to mix genres. At the moment we’re cooking up a strange gypsy dish made up of leftovers and disposable food.
Do you feel music is a huge impediment to our cinema’ progress?
Yes. My greatest disappointment was when my hero Shyam Benegal succumbed to the song trap in Zubeidaa. See how the film industry is coercing some of our greatest filmmakers. When I first saw his work. I remember meeting him after Ankur and I asked him the name of his next film. He said, ‘We don’t have to name the film now since we don’t have to sell our songs.” I admired him for that. Now I can understand his desire to be market-friendly. We all have to change. He’s still my hero.
Your fans want your talent to be recognised in the West.
They should stop dreaming of an Oscar for me. Oscar isn’t the ultimate reward for an Indian actor. Hollywood doesn’t allow us to participate on an equal level; we can participate only as foreigners. It cannot be a world endorsement of cinematic excellence. It doesn’t even endorse American cinema fully. My dream project is to create a film festival like Cannes in Chennai where the top prize would be one million dollars. Then we’ll have Hollywood participating without reservation.
Do you think our cinema is finally being noticed abroad?
We need to take our cinema forward and free it from bigotry. I’m bored with what we’re doing. I’ve my own sensibilities as a filmmaker. I want to apply these to international standards. Hollywood comprises multi-cultural talent. Likewise, we need to wear our cultural badge and still look cosmopolitan.
There’s a lot of speculation about your personal life.
A broken marriage isn’t a crime. In Tamil Nadu, the press seems to respect my feelings. I’m a child of the Tamil industry. I’ve gone through grief. I repeat, give me my privacy. It’s my fundamental right.
Your problems have made you compassionate.
I always believe there’s no such thing as luck for those who deserve it. You’ve to work hard for it. I paid the price for wanting to be a director. I lost money but I gained critical fame. Now I wonder if the bargain was worth it. As a struggler, I dreamt of owning several cars, living in an air-conditioned home etc. I was paid Rs 15,000 per film and I was doing 10 films at the time. I wanted to cross the Rs 100,000 bracket and act in only one film at a time. Today I’ve many luxuries and liabilities including alimony. But my dream of making films hasn’t died.