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`Audience is my goal'

He loves to experiment. Why? What, according to him, is good cinema? Kamal Hassan unwinds as CHITRA MAHESH listens.

Pic. by K. Gajendran.

THE MAN has seen everything — the highs and the lows, adulation and brickbats. He has experienced a tremendous sense of fulfilment and agonising disappointments. The word crossroads just does not seem to apply to him because for him, upsets are just opportunities to do things differently. No matter how difficult or painful the exercise. And at the end of it all he remains what everyone knows him as — Kamal Hassan. It is cliché to even call him one of the finest actors India has produced. Once labelled an artiste, the man ceases to remain, not to be understood by common yardsticks.

On a quiet afternoon in his Eldams Road office, Alwarpet, he mulls over the things he can do — projects, decisions, research! All that cannot be achieved in a day. And he ponders over the past.

``People talk about `Anbe Sivam' and try to figure out why it hasn't done well. Is it because of the intellectual content? It is less intellectual than `Thevar Magan' and probably less grim than `Kurudhi Punal.' It's just that we have lost the audience. The theatres were not the best ones chosen. Publicity was not done well and VCD abounded. Basically any rule breaking crew has to be nursed. There are no nurses except what you see in the film.

What are your personal feelings about the film?

The idea had been with me for 10 years. If we had done it with Rajkamal, with this kind of expense, it would have been a hit. I can vouch for that.

How do you determine that?

Because you'll have to nurse it all the way. That's why I have decided that most of the films that I do would be for Rajkamal, which has a fantastic track record, except for ``Hey Ram." That was our only non-profit making film. We'll not include ``Maruthanayagam" in this. It didn't get made at all.

To be a box office hit, the film has to have certain ingredients. And if the content offers food for thought, it fails to reach the masses. Do you subscribe to this?

Well, anything that is slightly different is looked upon with great doubt. Anything that conforms to the rule is welcomed with open arms, totally businesslike. They will pay anything to get involved. The voicing majority is silent.

A scene from "Hey Ram".

But isn't that discouraging?

Not at all. I have been doing it for 25 years and I will continue to do so. I did it with ``Apoorva Sagodarargal." They didn't know what I was up to. These were people, my own peers, who said, `He is lost... doesn't know what to do.' But it was an overwhelming success. I am not discouraged because I have seen many falls and rises — the falls were because I am not obedient to the pundits. The audience is my final goal. I'll still be a long time in this market, continue to be the radical voice and give such films.

What makes you want to experiment all the time?

I am a cinema buff. I wouldn't like to see the same film over and over again. Just as I wouldn't like to hear the same song all the time. Of course, there might be a couple of songs that might haunt me. And a couple of films too. But for a new outing, I'd like a new film. Even when you remake, it has to be of a different calibre.

Now a movie like ``A Beautiful Mind," if done in India, do you think it will work?

It will, but it's not a vertically integrated industry. So you cannot expect those results here. Do not compare Hollywood because there it is vertically integrated.

But Indian movies tend to look at Hollywood all the time!

We would do better to learn and use their techniques of business.

Would it make a difference if the film industry becomes more professional, streamlined?

That's what we are all trying to achieve but my suggestion is, instead of talking, or screaming for a change, become the change. I am quoting Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi here. `Don't scream for a change. Become the change.' I've taken it seriously.

And have you found a receptive audience for that?

Oh yes. All through these 25 years. Look at my films. The producer of ``Nayakan" didn't want Maniratnam to direct the film. And the producer was not GV when it began. He took over the project. It was nursed. In my own production company there were people who didn't want Sivaji Sir to act in ``Thevar Magan" because that's not how an obedient filmmaker caters to the market. My own film company thought I had gone absolutely mad playing a short man while the trend was to be a six-footer.

Is this your way of distinguishing yourself?

It has to be excellence and that will come only with difference. And that's what I am trying. People say that I shouldn't be here. That I should be in Hollywood. I take it as a personal insult when they say that. I was born here and grew up here. When mediocrity sets the standard, people like me are mistaken for geniuses. I am not a genius. I am from the masses. I make films for them.

What is your view of the Oscars and the Academy's determination of what is popular cinema?

Well, that's their determination. Every year we send films hoping that we would get some award! Why are we so keen that they should appreciate us? We can stop sending films. Besides we are not being offered the Oscar in competition with American films. We are set aside. To put it bluntly, we are on the other side. The skin is different... It's only for American talent. And we are the frills to make it look like a worldwide competition.

So in a way are we acknowledging that they are the leaders?

Leaders, in what sense? Because they have vertically integrated the industry and have seen to it that their products sell? Is that proof of quality? But for World War II, Europe would be the leader in cinema. The only way Indian actors can feel proud about walking the hall of fame is to ask themselves why Oscar at all? Why not the Golden Globes? Why not Cannes?

What is your definition of good cinema?

It's very difficult to say. I think when people tell me; it becomes good cinema for me.

What exactly is that quality you are talking about?

Absorbing. But then the kind of chemical reaction we have depends on the kind of absorption. Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" is hardly talked about. At that time it was a disaster. But he believed it to be good cinema and it is. But ``Lord of the Rings" destroys it by virtue of its economical superiority. That will keep happening. Good cinema according to me can be defined in many ways. It is something, which is almost inimitable.

That which cannot be copied?

Yes. You can't copy it. When you do that you always miss out on something. Probably because of the time in which it was made. It's very original. There are some really great movies which many here don't even get to see. It's a pity. If films like that keep coming, if we do have a French cinema set-up, then suddenly the texture of Indian filmmaking could change. Because we copy freely. We get inspired.

Do we have a problem with originality?

Yes. That's because we don't read our own literature. Many people, I find, think it is demeaning to read their own stuff. Then it's the auto drivers, the middle class women and the lower middle class men who actually read this stuff. And those who reach this stuff to them are catering on the surface. We must get people's support in cinema.

What do you think of the crop of newcomers?

They are all obedient — to the Pundits. Unless they move away and make their own rules, cinema will remain a stagnant pool — safe to swim, but may not be clean because it has stopped flowing. They don't want to lose their cars; they don't want to lose their tax bracket.

So what do you feel, when you look back on your career and your life?

I think I am going in the right direction, but not slowly. People say I am 10 years ahead. I take that as an insult as well. There is nothing called ten years ahead. Actually, I am 20 years behind. ``Nayakan" should have been made in 1980 instead of '86 or '87. ``Thevar Magan," in '86 instead of '93, and I think I should have attempted ``Anbe Sivam" when I did ``Guna." I was ready... or perhaps mentally not quite... but these ideas were always there.

You are so much a cinema person. Is it easy to distinguish the artiste from the man?


What do you feel about friendships, about love, about so many things in this world?

I have had the best of all. Some have left, like say, some of my older friends. They couldn't stick around either because I grew up or they did. Some passed away, like Mahesh. Same with love too. Debacles like ``Marudanayagam" do happen even in relationships. It is there for everyone to see. But then these are very personal things.

What does the term friend actually mean to you?

Quite a lot. But then in Indian society it is very difficult to have a girl friend — it is always distorted. So I have very few friends, women friends! I settle for much older women or my sister and the close family unit. My sister is a great friend of mine.

Do you feel Bombay kept you away?

That's all imagination. I didn't try as vigorously as I have been trying here. I would have, probably if I had a flat to maintain in Bombay and a life there. I thought that would make me succumb to the glory and money that Bombay offered.

You didn't want that?

No, because I thought I could raise that kind of money here. And I have. Southern actors are the highest paid now in the country.

But a Hindi film, for instance, has a much bigger budget; you could probably do a lot more.

That's what I thought. But they end up spending some 50 crores! Fine, but I think that is a little too much.

Do you think there is a North-South divide?

I think it is inevitable. It's changing. But it's also because we alienated ourselves by not joining the mainstream for sometime. We stayed Dravidian. In a way it is good, in a way not good. But we have managed to keep our identity.

Can there not be an integrated thing, a monolith, like Hollywood?

Well, that needs a person with vision. There should be a filmmaker with the vision of Ambani.

Do you see yourself ever doing that?

I am an artiste. I am like Coppola. The best that I could do would be to reach the level of the late Vasan or Raj Kapoor. That's what I am aspiring to be. I also do it sometimes for survival. I want to make films and am using the star Kamal Hassan for the purpose.

You want to continue to act?

Of course.

What about direction?

Ah, that I am competent. I may concentrate on that. I have directed myself on many occasions.

Do you think it's a challenge to direct somebody else?

I've done that also.

It is easy to deliver. What about trying to get someone else to do that?

I've done that also. When you see some excellent performances in my films — in ``Anbe Sivam" for instance, I directed Madhavan in many scenes. But that is because as an actor I was able to speak the jargon better. So I took over.

Is that a plus point — to be an actor and a director?

Of course it is, because you speak the jargon. How do you see yourself later? Apart from acting and directing?

I do so many other things but they don't interest me as much as cinema. I keep going back to it. I write poetry. I'm constantly writing. Very few actors do that. You read a lot. Don't you?

Not now. I gave up seven years ago but I'm gradually picking up.

What, do you think, makes you constantly create things?

What makes a criminal? If you can answer that I could answer your question.

I am sure you know what it is that is propelling you all the time.

Well, I have never analysed it that way but I think I have a weakness for applause. So that could be the thing.

The future of cinema?

Moving images will be there but we should be less rigid about analogous cinema. We should move on technologically because it is going to become digital moving images.

Do you think digital cinema is going to open up?

It should have happened by now. What is stalling the process, I wonder. But it will happen.

Would that mean that what you have been doing so far will be in any way affected?

I don't see technology changing human psyche overnight. Do you see television as a competitor for cinema?

TV shows cinema most of the time. I call them lesser moving images.

Would you ever consider doing a serial?

When I say lesser moving images I'm not talking about technology. I mean there is no quality. That's because somebody else is running the show. It needs the advent of an angry young man, who will make the difference. Look at Magnolia in America, look at the serials that they are making. We are capable of it. But we settle for something less. That should change. Tamil filmmakers should get the inspiration from TV to improve.

Why do you think that's not happening?

I think, one, we don't have a training institute, for actors. There is no preparation because there is so much financial pressure on television serials that they give up half way. I don't blame them.

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