‘I wrote Thevar Magan, that movie is a Sivaji-Kamal love story’: The best of Kamal Haasan's 90 minutes with die-hard fans in New York
Kamal Haasan opened up a treasure box of experiences and anecdotes to a room packed with fans at the New York Metropolitan museum, one of the city’s great cultural landmarks toasting Indian art and artists this spring.
New York: Award winning Indian actor Kamal Haasan’s next movie will be a comedy shot almost entirely in the US, he’s going to start an acting school at a scale “much bigger than you think”, he will “definitely” make a Youtube movie and there’s a secret ingredient to the Thevar Magan chemistry between Kamal and Sivaji - a love story.
Kamal Haasan opened up a treasure box of experiences and anecdotes to a room packed with fans at the New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art - one of the city’s great cultural landmarks toasting Indian art and artists this spring.
Kamal Haasan flew in to the US on a recce trip for his next movie and stopped by to speak at Wharton before landing in New York.
Dressed in a black silk kurta/ patiala salwar and an off-white Nehru jacket, Kamal Haasan charmed a packed hall with his spot-on wit, anecdotes, raw emotion and loads of dope on some of his best movies.
Sree Sreenivasan, the Met's chief digital officer kicked off the session introducing Kamal to an eclectic New York audience and soon threw the floor open for questions.
For Kamal fans all over the world who can’t get enough of the Sivaji - Kamal chemistry in Thevar Magan, one of the wow moments of the evening came when Kamal let us in on how Sivaji allowed Kamal to “become Sivaji” in the film.
"He is my hero, I'm not taking any seat except in the front row today," said Srirangan Rajagopal, who made the long journey from Princeton to uptown Manhattan just to see his idol from childhood.
Thevar Magan, Uttama Villain, Saagara Sangamam, Viswaroopam, Sadma - Kamal Haasan spoke on many of his favorite movies, his mentor K Balachander and his craft.
Kamal spoke to Firstpost on how the Indian government has handled recent storms like the JNU Row: “If your manifesto is weak, you manifest hallucinations for people. When you have a strong goal and tenacity of purpose, any squabble can be settled,” he said.
"Democracy is a vague word, it’s a lot like love. We have to keep raising our voice. We have seen other governments. Have they been saner?"
After the talk and posing patiently for photos with every single person who attended, Kamal went on a quick tour of the Met's India galleries in the Asian Art section, including a special exhibition about Vishnu/Narasimha masks used in Tamil drama of the 19th Century.
Below are the best moments from Kamal’s 90 minute session, starting with movies, finishing off with politics.
“I wrote Thevar Magan…It’s a Sivaji-Kamal love story”
I wrote Thevar Magan (stunned silence...and then ringing applause). Some of those sequences in the film where you feel we have rehearsed…yes Sivaji Saab and I have practised those scenes for years and years. I have spoken to him, spoken back to him…including about my marriage. When I invited him to my marriage, he asked me if i was informing him or inviting him. He was hurt and I could see that hurt. He said your father is not attending your marriage and you expect me to! Then I said yes, I am informing you. But then he loved me and you will see those moments in the film. So, yes, we did rehearse over many years in real life for Thevar Magan. As a writer, when I showed him the lines, he smiled at me…he knew where I was coming from. Thevar Magan is a love story about Sivaji and me. I wanted to become him and he allowed me to become him and for that I am grateful. A lot of circles likes these have been completed in my life, in my film - his son accepted me as his own elder brother. KB saab (K Balachander) acting in my film, in my script…in Uttama Villain. I learnt everything I know from him. Lots of love went into making Uttama Villain, I am glad I got KB saab into the movie just in time. During the movie, he often asked me “What will you do if I die?” I told him he’s taught me enough tricks, I can manage.
“I wanted to be a film technician”
However reluctant an actor I may have been, all actors have a price. As the price kept increasing, my reluctance kept decreasing. I woke up in this film industry when I was 3 and a half. When I later joined the industry as a technician at 16, I realised the engine was controlled by the backroom and I dreamed of becoming one.
“I see something special in you”, Balachander said
My mentor and visionary K Balachander who promoted me from a bit role actor to an actor with 4-5 scenes per film…he asked me what I wanted to become and by then it was clear he liked me. I told him I want to be a director like you. So you want to come to the studios in a autorickshaw? he asked me. “But you come in a car,” I said. Then Balachander said I could do better than that…I see something in you, he told me…you’re training for it. Just make yourself a home, buy yourself a car and then think about it. You have it in you, any amount of training will not take that away from you, he told me. But I was very reluctant…I was a bit careless…I so hated the repetitive work, I ran away to Kerala to do more meaningful work.
“I am so touched by the love I get”
The films that I thought were the best in my career were outdone by masters who came up with better films.
In Telugu - Maro Charitra, In Hindi - Ek duje ke liye and then Sagara Sangamam…These are also my favourite films because when we were doing the films, we enjoyed it so much that we never thought about what will come out of it. Today, so many years later, when I see the love and affection in my fans’ eyes, I am so touched by how grateful they are…I was doing a job and getting paid for it ( laughs). There are other films which were celebrated a bit belatedly - like Balachander’s Avargal. It was in anger that he made Maro Charitra. Balu Mahendra’s Kokila which did very well in Kannada, and Moondrampirai. Sadma did not do well at all. This new boy from South India who dances well in one movie is doing Sanjeev Kumar stuff in Sanam Teri Kasam...some of that did not work.
“The bigger you become, the more complacent you can become”
People who rely on GPS…all of you! Without a director, you can’t move ahead. The director is the first mirror you see…that’s where he comes in…The bigger you become the more complacent you can become…that’s why we need a director, that’s why you need co actors, technicians - everyone. We navigate with the help of each other.
When will we see a Rajini - Kamal movie?
We’ve been talking about it…some business expert will have to work out how to make a movie with Rajini and me after we have collected our fee!
“I get offended when…”
I’m doing a Hindi film now but I get offended when they ask is there also someone from the Hindi film industry….I get offended when I get dissected and separated like this. This happens in the industry - not the creative folks.
“I used to dance 7 hours a day”
I needed one more excuse to get out of school ( laughs). It (dance) started as a whim but I got sucked in. I was the audience when my sister was learning Bharatanatyam. I was drawn to it. My teacher was looking for a place to stay with his wife and small daughter and we had a room upstairs. His dance classes shifted there. He was a nice teacher and thought I should learn all forms of dance. I was 12,13,14….and it was 7 hours of practice every day. I wanted to become like Uday Shankar saab. I found that there were no backers for that. I was so upset, I threw my ghungroo into the sea and said I won’t go back to that. I was ready to do anything, even mazdoori. But I got a job only because of my dance - as a dance assistant. At 18, I started co writing with RC Sakthi, at 19 I acted in a film I wrote. Many years later, we brought all that back with Birju Maharaj in Viswaroopam. For that movie, we trained with him for 2 months. He touched my head and said I see a young Birju in you. I said your style is not easy Sir, I have been watching you for 40 years. That is the depth of my love for that art.
Do film budgets force actors to do song sequences that are not necessary?
Absolutely, it’s such a bare truth that we are trying to hide.
“When you crash with comedy, it’s dead”
“Comedy is equally difficult. The accidents that can happen are far worse than what happens in action sequences. When comedy falls flat, it’s dead. My training with Balachander he was capable of making a Bama Vijayam or an Arangetram. For me doing Mahanadi and Panchatantram is equally difficult. When I watch Mahanadi, when he reclaims his daughter, I cry. I become you and that is the success of the whole team.
"I owe my kids the freedom I had"
I was a very late child, I was suddenly a little toy who appeared out of nowhere. My eldest brother is 24 years older than me, the second brother Chandra Haasan who’s my partner in my company is 18 years older - so everyone experimented with me. My father was 51 when I was born, I should have been named Oops Haasan. By 13, I was talking rationalism and did not participate in any of the religious things my father did. They allowed me to do that after a deep discussion. Now, when I give my kids freedom and they ask me why and I say I owe it.
"Our ambitions are oversized, skills training is limited"
The world requirement for engineers per annum is a million. We produce 900,000 of them every year. We have a situation where engineers are ready to become chauffers. What we need are skilled workers of international quality. I have thought about it very selfishly…we need to step up the quality. I am a worker myself…and it’s not easy to learn skills in India. I was very fortunate to find kind gurus who paid me and taught me. Everyone wants to become an actor or director. Our ambitions are oversized. Straightaway we land up and want it all. We are recognising prior skills and listing them out in existing industries and enhance it with training. Now we aspire to have master carpenters, for example. Within the media and entertainment field itself the verticals are mind boggling. Within make up for example, you can have so many types of make up; within music production, there are so many specialities and we need well trained, world class people. The government is putting in some money - but remember that dole will not work. The industry has not yet invested money only time. Eventually, the indsutry will have to spend money, and not just sit back and complain. We are complacent that we have a captive market at home.
"Democracy is a vague word, it's like love"
I think we’ll have to be on constant vigil. Freedom of speech is not like money in the bank. There’s always some government, some institution trying to silence you. Allowing you to use expletives in cinema is not freedom. We are trying to reform the censor certification system - all that with clear understanding that nowhere will freedom of speech be troubled. If your manifesto is weak, you manifest hallucinations for people. When you have a strong goal and tenacity of purpose, any squabble can be settled. Yes, people are getting upset…you call yourself a nation but there’s always a dictator lurking, there’s always fascism lurking, there’s always a left wing trying to prove that they’re the only answer to all the woes of the world. We are now in a buffet system where there are all kind of political systems available. We have to pick and choose our political diet very carefully. I have never been comfortable with politics in India so why should I be now? Democracy is a vague word, it’s like love. We have to keep raising our voice. We have seen other governments. Have they been saner? India has great responsibility towards itself in the world. We cannot bring in caste and religion. Religion will not and must not come in the way of the ascent of man.
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