Being Kamal Hassan

Posted on July 14, 2008


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After the release of Dasavatharam, its multitasking hero faces a brutally candid volley of questions. Unfortunately, there are no answers.

JULY 2008 – AFTER DAYS OF TRYING TO INTERVIEW KAMAL HASSAN – hoping, praying, doing everything but stand on one leg and propitiate the heavens as anthills grew around my feet – I threw my hands up and settled for the next best thing: a fantasy interview, inside my head, the kind where I get to ask any question I want, without worrying whether my forthrightness would result in his moustached minions throwing me into the metaphorical dungeons of no-more-interviews-land. And so we are at his beach house. Kamal is a great host, asking me to choose from a dizzying array of single malts, accompanied by my favourite Cohibas. As the aroma of fine tobacco commingles with the salt from the sea breeze, Kamal tells me I can ask him anything. Anything. After all the talking he had done in the last few weeks, promoting his new film, today he was going to simply listen. All the talking would be mine alone. A few million questions are bubbling in my head after my viewing of Dasavatharam, and the first one to pop out is this. “An actor’s instrument is his face. What interests you – nay, obsesses you – about changing it, disfiguring it, burying it under layers of prosthetic makeup, so that it appears that the part is being performed by a shiny plasticine mask with arms and legs?”

“I know you’re somewhere in there, buried under all that latex, and that you cannot see yourself in relation to your co-actors (most of whom are played by you, anyway) – but do you always have to surround yourself with the kind of crew where no one wishes to point out these deficiencies to you? You didn’t look real in Dasavatharam, and as a result, do you know what I missed the most in all your ten roles? It was the actor who, regardless of the quality of the film around him, never fails to connect emotionally to his audience. I sensed that connection in the weary cop you played in Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu (one of your few concessions at being directed by a new-generation Kollywood filmmaker with a mind of his own), in the emotional fool you played in Mumbai XPress (an existential comedy if there ever was one; how sad that it was sold as an all-out laughathon), in the hotheaded villager you played in Virumaandi (that mostly masterful examination of truth). I admit I laughed along with Balram Naidu, the Telugu-accented cop who’s easily the highlight of Dasavatharam, but I couldn’t bring myself to invest in Govind at all – and he’s the protagonist, the one apparently carrying the fate of mankind (in the form of a bio-weapon) in his hand. Whether he succeeded or failed in saving the world, it was all one big shrug to me. Don’t you think Govind would have come off better with more screen time smuggled from the other characters you play, most of whom, in any case, refuse to register because of their lack of screen time?”

“So it’s true, then, what they say about your self-indulgence, that playing the ten roles became more important than ensuring that each of these roles reached the audience? Ah, but this audience will be distracted by the multi-crore special effects, you say? But these effects are completely underwhelming for someone used to watching the latest from Hollywood – and by now, I think most of us fall into this category – and yet the entire film is really one giant special effect, completely reliant on trickery and technology, so do you want your audiences to walk in after bolstering themselves with the caveat, ‘Remember this is a Tamil film. There’s only so much that can be done with the limited technology we have, with the limited money we have. Just think how hard this hero born amidst us has toiled, how hard he’s trying to take us places we’ve never been before.’ But isn’t that line of thinking a great disservice to you, a writer-actor who refuses to be limited by the narrow confines of Tamil cinema and measures himself against global standards?”

“Because isn’t that what you were aspiring for when you wrote and directed and acted in Hey Ram? Hasn’t that film, more than any other, set the template for the roles you now write for yourself, which have become increasingly baroque to the point where they’re practically a desi version of a Charlie Kaufman conceit? With all the layers and allusions and symbols and byzantine excursions into your thought processes, these serious roles in your serious films – as opposed to the comic roles in your gun-for-hire comedies – could each be titled Being Kamal Hassan, with the audience being required to take a deep breath and plunge into your subconscious. And in a recent press conference in Hyderabad, you revealed that your next film, Marmayogi, is set in the 6th century. Do you feel you’ve outgrown the simpler emotional effects of a Mahanadhi (incidentally, an astounding performance), where you did nothing more – and, more importantly, nothing less – than shine a powerful light into the dark recesses of the human condition in the present day?”

“Walking out of Dasavatharam – which didn’t do it for me at all, I’m sorry – I was puzzled about the kind of audience you’re targeting. Hey Ram, for instance, was clearly aimed at the (how I hate this word!) “classes,” but here, you base an entire film on chaos theory – in other words, if a butterfly flaps its wings in the 12th century, would its modern-day reincarnation take the form of a look-at-me, fake-CGI creation? – and yet, you have a Vaishnavite priest breaking into dishoom-dishoom in the sanctum sanctorum of a temple. There are a great number of high-flown references to religion – each one of your Indian avatars is named along the lines of Vishnu’s avatars, and even the Caucasian villain you play reflects his religion in being called Christian Fletcher (a nod to your idol Marlon Brando in Mutiny on the Bounty, no doubt, where he played Fletcher Christian?) – and yet, you end the film with a cheap shot, with George Bush executing a folksy jig amidst cheering (jeering?) masses in Chennai as the director of your film, KS Ravikumar, breaks into an embarrassingly overdone ode to his star, who’s extolled as the Hero of the World. Don’t you feel you’re alienating one section of your audience with the pandering and the other with the pondering?”

“You’re usually fairly upfront whether you want your audience to put their silly hats on, or their thinking caps – and that’s helped us understand beforehand that this is what we should expect from your films. We walked into Tenali and Panchatantiram and Pammal K Sambandham with the promise of nothing more than two-and-a-half hours of mirth, and though the consistency of the comedy may have varied from film to film, the films were at least consistent with our expectations. And similarly, Anbe Sivam and Aalavandhan and Hey Ram promised to challenge us, and that these films certainly did, to varying degrees. But with Dasavatharam, for the first time ever in your screenwriting career, I sensed some confusion. For didn’t the title and the pre-release promotion (that concentrated almost exclusively on the circus elements of the film, namely, “Come one, come all, for the first time ever, see one man take ten forms”) make the film out to be a gimmick, a light-hearted lark despite the hard work you’ve evidently put in?”

“But what unfolded was a cleverly constructed (and at the same time, contrived and sloppily executed) serious film pretending to be a light film and ending up in an outlandish limbo. Here you are, riffing on the Terminator template – to borrow the example of a “chase movie” that practically defines the genre – with the good guy on the run, being tailed by an unstoppable killer. I should be biting my nails, right? I should be at the edge of my seat, right? My palms should be moist with sweat, right? And instead, I’m suppressing a yawn as your film periodically sputters to a stop to launch into your by-now-patented excursions into theology and multiculturalism (you play a Dalit, a Sikh, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian, a Zen master from Japan… what, no Aborigine?) and the defining events at Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima. Do you expect us to be so dazzled by your dedication to your craft – for all those surely unending hours in the makeup room, we kneel before you, sire – that you think we’ll gladly gloss over what’s really important in a film, that it affects us, impacts us, and if we’re really lucky, moves us?”

“Or, dear sir, are you laughing at my observations because I’m so completely missing the point that you’ve pulled off what is possibly the slyest joke in Tamil cinema history – that the ten avatars were merely the box-office guarantee to pull in the crowds, the same crowds that refused to show up for your two avatars in Aalavandhan, and that once you got them into the theatres, you weren’t giving them what they wanted to see so much as what you wanted them to see? Are you saying that had the same chaos-theory yarn been spun around just one Kamal Hassan, you’d have had people like me show up and be exhilarated and subsequently frustrated about its commercial fate, whereas, with this gimmicky ten-for-the-price-of-one conceit, you’ve finally gotten the all-important masses to watch your class movie?”

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Posted in: Cinema: Tamil