Kamal Haasan, in his typical style, resorts to an analogy to explain why he chose to do Papanasam . “When we see a good shirt, we immediately want to wear it. Though Drishyam was a film done by a top actor (Mohanlal), I thought it’d be a good idea for me to do it; I wanted to bring it to my people.” In the last five years, the actor has had a mere two releases as lead, Vishwaroopam and Uttama Villain — both imposing, ambitious films. In that sense, it’s not a surprise that people are comparing Papanasam with Mahanadi . “Maybe because I wear a dhoti in both films?” he laughs and shrugs away the comparison.
In Papanasam, he plays a self-made man from Tirunelveli called Suyambulingam. The credit for his Nellai Tamil, he accords to “friends and teachers on the sets”. “The story could have been set in any place really… like Vasool Raja . We could have made that film work in a Tirunelveli setting too.” He also reunites in cinema with his partner, Gautami, who returns to films after 19 years. “I was a bit sheepish when her name was suggested by Jeethu Joseph. I asked her if she wanted to, and she responded by asking me if I thought it was a good idea. And so, we went, back and forth, without quite deciding, until Jeethu convinced us. Now that I’ve seen the film, I can confidently say that she’s perfect in the role. This also made me realise that no matter how experienced one is in the film industry, an outside perspective (Jeethu’s, in this case) can sometimes be a great thing.”
As anybody who’s spoken with Kamal Haasan will attest, he is a man full of interesting little nuggets of information. For instance, when asked about the title, Papanasam , he talks of Nashik in Maharashtra, and explains that its full name is actually Papanashik. “There is also a river called Papanasini (destruction of sins). These are holy places people people go to, to wash away their sins. Like Kasi, Rameswaram and Ajmer.” He lets you make your own conclusions about the film’s story from these little factoids.
He is reasonably confident of Papanasam ’s success. “The story has done well in three languages (Malayalam, Kannada and Telugu), after all.” About the lack of commercial elements, like fight scenes, he isn’t unduly perturbed. “ Aval Oru Thodar Kathai ran at a time when MGR and Sivaji films were the rage.” The lesson: a good film does well, even devoid of commercial considerations.
It’s quite intriguing that Papanasam releases a week ahead of Bahubali , a film that has cost over 150 crore to make. When asked if Baahubali ’s ambition reminded him of his own Marudhanayagam , a big-budget period film that never got made, he says he has no regrets. “I’d have made that film had American investors not washed their hands off the project. They’re good at doing such things, those Americans.”
Invariably, due to the nature of the film, the conversation veers towards sexual abuse. “Gandhi mentioned that we can consider ourselves to be truly free only when a woman can safely walk outside at midnight wearing her jewellery. So, clearly, we aren’t free yet.” Kamal doesn’t believe that harsher punishment is the way to go though. “What’s ‘harsh’? I don’t support capital punishment as I don’t trust a system with doling out irreversible judgements. As good people, we must practise self-restraint. If the rules stop us from crossing the ‘stop’ line at signals, we must follow them, without waiting for a policeman to enforce them. Take the new helmet rule, for instance. People don’t need to view it as a some draconian law enforced by the government.” Interestingly, it was only recently that Kamal himself apologised for a scene in Papanasam that shows him riding a bike without a helmet. But he also expects people not to take everything in cinema seriously. “MGR hung off chandeliers. We don’t hang off tubelights, do we?”