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A comedy of manners

Kamal Hassan holds forth on how he puts in more into comedies than drama. The cast of Panchathantiram was in the City on a pre-release promotional tour and it was the star, rather than the press, that did all the talking.

Kamal Hassan: Wondering what to say... .

AN AWKWARD and funny silence hangs in the Park hotel conference room. The cast of Panchathantiram — Kamal Hassan, Simran, and Ramya Krishnan — are waiting to be asked questions by the press, and the press, in turn, is waiting for them to begin talking. But no one speaks. Kamal, in a nice bright yellow jumper, looks spiffy. Simran, understandably, looks sad, withdrawn. Ramya looks amused. And very attractive. Kamal suddenly guffaws, turns to Ramya and says, "Maybe we should ask the questions!" The laughter breaks the silence. I realize then what is wrong: like most press conferences in India, it's in reverse — held not after the film but before.

We haven't seen the film so there aren't too many intelligent or interesting questions we can ask and Panchathantiram's cast and director aren't allowed to give away the plot.

Finally someone asks the only question that could be asked at this point: "What is the movie all about?" Kamal smiles in relief and gestures to Ravikumar, the director, to take the question. Ravikumar, after a small pause, says: "It's a comedy," and falls silent. Kamal hesitates, then steps in and offers: "It's about the trials and tribulations of five friends. I wish we could screen the movie so that you all could see for yourselves how funny it is." His co-stars take it from there, talking a bit about their roles and the experience of working on Panchathantiram. The film, partly shot in Toronto, sounds like more than a promising comedy — it sounds like the mother of all screwball comedies; the kind of sitcom plot one dreams of.

Four couples — Kannadiga, Malayali, Telugu, and Tamil — and the chaos and complications that arise when they clash. Knowing what Kamal Hassan can do with a sitcom like this, Panchathantiram should be fun. I'm also hoping (guessing) it will be a little risqué as well — with the couples swapping partners, perhaps? (Hmmm... a bit like Town and Country?) I'm curious if Panchathantiram will work as well as his comic masterpiece, Kadala, Kadala, or be a disappointment like Tenali. So I ask him. "Oh, it's better than Kadala — I think we've even gone beyond that with this one. Michael Madana Kamarajan was actually my best structured script, but after that, I think I'm very proud of Panchathantiram."

Which prompts me to ask him why our comedies are so feeble; why our scriptwriters are content to come up with a few laughs and leave it at that. "Look, it isn't that they leave it at that — most times it's all they can come up with. It's just that I and Crazy Mohan and few others work away at it till we think we've got something that will really work — from start to finish. And often at the end of it, we don't know who contributed what. In Panchathantiram even the cast came up with lines and story ideas. So in more ways than one this is an ensemble comedy!"

Comedies are notoriously difficult to do even Hollywood falters. So at this point, I'm sitting there wondering how easily pleased we, the audience, are with our comedies. It's enough if they come up those few laughs, so starved are we for a comedy that is Indian. Sometimes I think if it wasn't for Kamal's screwball comedies, we won't have comedies at all.

Kamal bristles at someone's suggestion that these comedies are quickies made between his more serious and ambitious films. "Comedy is the most difficult thing to do," he points out. "In fact, I find that I put more of myself into something like Michael Madana Kamarajan than Thevar Magan."

And I think I know why but hesitate to tell him. It is in the comic roles that he finds his native genius: he creates characters that are uniquely Indian like the stunt man in Pambal K. Sambhandam. The film was uneven but his virtuoso performance stems from having found a completely Indian character to play. A character he had to invent from bottom up, a character who is familiar and funny in an Indian way. In his comedies, even when the concept and character are borrowed, he finds a way to make it his own. For instance, Avvai Shanmugi is funnier than Mrs. Doubtfire, and Kamal, funnier than Robin Williams. And he knows it. Grinning, he says, "I am Chaplin's grandson and Raj Kapoor's grandson."


Photo: K. Gopinathan.

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