On the eve of the 9th Chennai International Film Festival, Kamal Haasan explains why these events are important and how they've changed his life. Baradwaj rangan listens in

Do you remember the first foreign film you saw?

The first truly foreign film that shook me to the core was Bergman's Touch. It was released as regular fare in Safire. I think they made a mistake. They must have thought it was something else, or maybe they got it cheap. I saw it with Mr. RC Sakthi, and after the film, we didn't talk all the way back to my house, a distance of about two kilometres. Then we started talking about the film, and we went back and saw the film again at the night show, because the language was new to us, and the subtitles concept was new to us. We wanted to see it without the distraction of subtitles. Bibi Andersson's performance made me a different actor, a different director.

In this age of downloading and watching movies on the computer, is “shared movie-going experience” still a valid selling point of film festivals?

Yes, it is. You may have Venkatachalapathy at home on a calendar, but going to Tirupathi is another thing altogether. Of course, for me both are boring experiences. The festival atmosphere, the people — it's something else. Everybody has a kitchen. Why do they go to the hotel, then?

What, in your opinion, is the use of a film festival?

Cinema is a language. You have to practise it to understand it, to become more fluent with it — not just the critics but also the audience. When Pudovkin came in with his cuts, I'm sure audiences must have found them very jerky and not easy to comprehend. But over time, we have come to accept cuts midway through scenes and narrations in reverse order. A film like Christopher Nolan's Inception would not have been understood 30 years back by a general audience. The film's success today means that this audience now understands the language of film.

How can a country like India, whose filmmaking grammar is so different, benefit from film festivals? For instance, we're stuck with the interval concept while writing screenplays...

In another five years, we'll be laughing at this interview and say, “Remember, we were talking about intervals?” This interval concept is stupid. It's been enforced by canteen people, who are actually equal partners in any theatre. I would say — and this is as much a whip crack at my own screenwriting as of others — make the film short. Make it only an hour-and-a-half long, as long as the bladder of even the worst diabetic can stand it. Allow audiences to buy food when they go into the theatre. That way, you conveniently do six shows in the same time you do four.

Long ago, the film world was fascinated by names such as Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni. Do you think that was a different culture back then, which allowed art film directors to evolve into international superstars?

I fear there's a nostalgic element here — a little too much reverence for Bergman and Fellini. They're dead. A classic can be made today. Classics are being made today. No Man's Land is a classic. My friends would tease me when I dropped names like Rossellini or Fellini. “Avanga sister peru Nalini,” they'd joke. Because the moment it was not cooked like a dosa it was not palatable. Even if you told them that there was something called pancake, something called pita bread, they wanted only a dosa.

Do you think major Indian filmmakers are recognised to a large extent in the international festival circuit?

That's what IIFA and other people are trying to do, introduce foreigners to the taste of Indian cinema. It's a stunning cultural shock for them. So someone we consider a good director does not translate well. It happened to me with Virumaandi. Somebody at a film festival asked me to reduce the noise levels in the jallikattu scene. I asked why. He said there was too much cacophony. I said, “No, that's the volume level for this scene.” He said he couldn't take it. And you know how Europe is. It's so silent. It was a paid festival. He'd bought his ticket. I told him, “It will not be done. I am the director. You are the audience. You don't like it. I'll return your money.” He took his money and walked away. I stood my ground because India is like that. You cannot ask me to wear soft colours. There will be saffron. There will be red.

How have your experiences with foreign cinema and festivals contributed to your films — say, Viswaroopam, which you're making now?

Viswaroopam itself is proof of that. It is not the regular Tamil cinema fare. But it will satisfy my people. I know it. Thevar Magan is not the regular fare. You can see I am a man exposed to international cinema — the way I shoot, the way I write, the way the characters are, the way a scene ends or begins abruptly, it's all the influence of world masters on me.

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