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Salvos at his own self

SANDHYA IYENGAR

Kamal Haasan, who has acted in more than 200 films and has won several awards, is in Bangalore. The actor, who's starring in a Kannada film after nearly two decades, dismisses his early work as gauche



IN RETROSPECT Kamal Haasan: `If I was an angry young man earlier, then I am angrier now, about everything. 'Photo: BHAGYA PRAKASH K.

He's acted in more than 200 films in six languages (including one in Bengali), he's an acclaimed producer and director, multiple National Award-winner, internationally honoured in countries as diverse as Germany and Korea and has achieved superstardom in a fickle film industry. You'd imagine that these successes would place Kamal Haasan in an enviable position: looking back contentedly on a perfect past and looking forward excitedly to a future filled with possibility. Instead Kamal Haasan is brimming over with a passionate anger. Meeting him on the sets of Rama Shyama Bhama, which marks his return to Kannada cinema after nearly two decades, Kamal Haasan says: "The decoction is stronger now. If I was an angry young man earlier, then I am angrier now — about everything: my industry, yours, governance, critical analyses..."

But the `angry' actor, adrift after Mumbai Xpress's indifferent performance at the box office, is now acutely aware of the dangers of not fulfilling high audience expectations. After much deliberation, he and director Ramesh Aravind chose a simple and safe comeback to Kannada cinema for the star: a remake of Sathi Leelavathi, an earlier Tamil hit.

Almost half a century into his film career (which began as a child artiste with Kalathoor Kannamma), Kamal Haasan is still raising his bar and pushing himself mercilessly to excel. "In the '70s, I was trying to prove myself, create a niche by whatever means; there was this hunger and thirst to learn," he says. For his early success, he credits director K. Balachander. Despite being what he calls a "reluctant actor," (his aspirations lay behind the camera), the veteran director spurred him on: "You have something beyond talent, you're going to be a star".

Decades in cinema

His own performances in those early years he shreds with a typically scathing tongue, admitting they were gauche, jumpy, very much the work of a novice and appreciated only because "there were worse actors around". Even in the '80s, he says, "I had my eyes closed and I was reading cinema through Braille; I should have opened my eyes, but I didn't... that was silly and a waste of time. I could have come into my own much earlier."

The failure of Raja Parvai (1981) was a huge disappointment, and he withdrew into a self-imposed hibernation. It was only later, he explains, "that hope set in — with Sagara Sangamam and my production Vikram, the stage was set for me to take off."

In 1990, Kamal Haasan took a hiatus and did no films, choosing instead to travel to the U.S. and absorb the influences and formal education in his discipline that he hadn't enjoyed earlier. Courses in screenplay, writing and equestrian skills exposed him to different aspects of his art and when he returned, he was brimming with new enthusiasm for makeup and effects used so expertly in later resounding successes as Indian and Avvai Shanmughi.

Through a chequered career, he has persisted in seeking out different kinds of roles and films — playing a ventriloquist, aging don, desperate lover, circus dwarf, and elderly nanny to name just a few — but he dismisses the notion that he's constantly seeking out a challenge. "It's a shopper's mindset," he says, simply. "You won't find me wearing the same clothes; nor would you. For instance for Deepavali I want more crackers... it's more fun. I'm sure the audience are also like that."

The multi-faceted star's latest offering is Mumbai Xpress which despite much hype has had dubious success at the box office. But Kamal Haasan, while admitting to have disappointed a few, is unfazed, claiming to have suddenly discovered a whole new audience in the process; "it's like cricket refusing to look at football".

Explaining that he kept away from the continuous gags of his usual brand of humour — "brahmin, sabha humour; derivative of P.G. Wodehouse", which cannot work all the time, he says Mumbai Xpress "has a more wry European humour which consists of connecting and weaving the jokes together into a basket."

But the fate of each new offering notwithstanding, Kamal is grateful to have what he calls "the best share of the big pie" in Tamil cinema. In the kind of wildly imaginative allegory that has sprinkled the hour-long interview, Kamal likens his position in Tamil Nadu to "a recluse given the kind acceptance of a temple bull: they can't milk me — I am mating and eating at my own will and everybody feeds me."

Distancing himself from sycophancy, he says he has dissolved all his fan clubs, converting them to welfare organisations instead.

Discovering peers

And while cynics may acknowledge superstars in other Tamil heroes, Kamal makes it clear that he operates on a broader canvas. "These are the years to discover my peers," he says, adding that his best decade is yet to come. He names his peers based on their work "not populist perception" and says that although he has a few contenders (naming specifically Om Puri and Pankaj Kapoor), he is fortunate that those of whom he considers "capable" of taking him on have either not made it or work elsewhere. "You have to humble yourself to discover your peers; as Thyagaraja wrote, "yendaro mahana bhavulu..." and this is the time."

Luck and fortune have no place in Kamal's exacting work culture: "You have to pursue your profession with tenacity — I have great respect for Mr. Dev Anand who spent the last 30 years just writing his own career." He himself will soon come to the stage where "I will be proud and dignified about what I do or do nothing at all. That's probably called retirement. I'm coming slowly towards that — it started some years back. I've started pulling the reins. I do things according to my terms, which are getting stricter."

With no steady family life, what is Kamal Haasan's anchor today? "My daughters... partly." He pauses. "If Che Guevara's life finally is the revolution, mine would have to be cinema."

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