Arts Illustrated

March 18, 2020

The Hero with a Thousand Faces

In an exclusive interview with the legend, the man himself – Dr. Kamal Haasan – we spoke about a variety of things, from cinema, to writing, to politics and to the fleeting nature of fame and the lasting nature of influence

Praveena Shivram

The year was 1992. I was 10 years old and at a film director’s house for a birthday party, where I met Kamal Haasan for the first time. He had a beard, the Thevar Magan beard, and he was wearing his shirt tucked into his high-wasted jeans, a black belt firmly holding it all together. He was married to Sarika then, and was there with six-year-old Shruti Haasan, and barely-a-year old Akshara. In true style, Kamal Haasan, who has always remained fiercely rooted to his culture while hurtling into the future with his experimental ideas, the game he organised for all of us to play wasn’t musical chairs or passing the parcel, but kabaddi. We were swiftly divided into two teams – Kamal himself joined one of the teams, my team, his jeans rolled up to his knees – and the game began. Right in the first round, Shruti lost. And, like any six-year-old unable to understand how that even makes a difference to ‘playing’ the game, she begged her father to let her in again. She complained, cried, went looking for help from her mother, but Kamal did not relent. ‘It’s a game,’ he told her. ‘You lost fair and square. You have to wait till we finish this game and begin the next one.’

In many ways, this personified Kamal Haasan to me. It was the first time I was encountering a parent who drew the boundaries of ethics and morality so clearly, and the first time I was seeing in the flesh an actor who was not afraid to be himself. At the end of the party – we played kabaddi twice, and the second time Shruti managed to stay in for a couple of rounds – I took a picture with him. I don’t actually remember posing for this picture as much as I remember the game of kabaddi and his magnetic presence at the party, but I have a physical copy of the photograph to help me remember. ‘In all humility, we deserve to be forgotten,’ he said when I showed him the picture, his trademark smile swiftly wrapping up the moment like a coloured ‘shawl’ on a politician’s shoulder. ‘Only the wisdom should remain. Sometimes we prefer to name the wisdom or the personality, otherwise what we leave behind will over time be forgotten. So all these memories – if anyone remembers that birthday party or marriage reception, it is that person who has taken the picture; we have only some friends we want to smile and be with, otherwise it is a cheek exercise which hurts. I am not ridiculing. The enthusiasm of the person who wants to be photographed will not be reciprocated by the person he wants to be photographed with. But the fact is that when you bring something like this, it is worth that. Even though we don’t realise it like that at that moment; we have to go, we look at the time. Including this interview, see? How interested I am, we don’t know,’ and he chuckles, and I feel like Shruti in that first game of kabaddi, but he continues, ‘We don’t know, but you realise you are reaching out to so many people, who might turn the page and be influenced and even remember it and act and make an impact – that’s important.’ I was back for round two.

*

In 2019, Kamal Haasan celebrated his 65th birthday and 60 years of being in cinema. From child artiste to lead actor to writer to director to producer – Kamal Haasan wears many hats. For those of us in Tamil Nadu, it is hard to delineate the fabric of our growing up years from the fabric of Kamal Haasan’s own trajectory as an actor-film-maker. We delighted in his skill as an actor in Moondram Pirai and felt that gut-wrenching jerk in the climax as the iron pole rammed into our heads too; we devoured the fact that the iconic scene in Nayakan when he breaks down at his son’s funeral was done and redone by him several times, each time with a difference; we marvelled at the dwarfed Kamal in Apoorva Sahodharargal and waited patiently for years till the secret was revealed; we cheered when he worked on his first Hindi film with his mentor K. Balachander and knew he would take over Bollywood too, but when that didn’t happen, we quickly huddled around him and claimed him because he belonged to us anyway; we easily appropriated the hilarious lines from Michael Madana Kama Rajan or the philosophy of Anbe Sivam and made it part of our everyday conversation; we admired the emotional heft in his directorial debut Hey Ram and commiserated on his unrealised ambition Marudhanayagam; and we stood by him when his other directorial dream Viswaroopam faced political backlash. Kamal Haasan existed on our screens as much as he did in our lives. His fans are those born out of a deep-rooted allegiance to that highest form of memory – autobiographical memory – that, like family, forgives the excesses of youth or the conceits of privilege. We even forgave him when he turned host with Bigg Boss.

And then, he plunged into politics. In 2018, we woke up to a new symbol – hands holding hands in an eternal loop of solidarity – and to a new political party, the Makkal Needhi Maiam. Suddenly, the man who was largely part of a fictionalised world streaming into our collective reality at individual frequencies was now part of that collective reality itself. He stepped off the screen and on to the street, and we had to retune ourselves. ‘I thought there won’t be a need for me to talk at all. I participated in the democratic exercise and I thought that would suffice. But now, the time has come. Continuously watching for 40 years…I am part of this crime. I can’t be accessory to this general crime – genocide does not mean you kill people directly and overnight. If you do it over years, it is still genocide. And Tamil culture and Tamilians were slowly being destroyed. It doesn’t take a Rajapakse or anybody to perform a genocide. Even these kind of corrupt politicians without guns are still destroying people. What will they do with all those 50,000 crores and 20,000 crores? All that amassed wealth did not help Ms Jayalalithaa get back her kidney or her health. So they must realise that. They might say that they will re-plough it back into corrupt politics, or as a means to perpetuate corruption, but that’s not acceptable,’ he said, already a year into a massive political debut.

*

In 2019, another thing happened. On New Year’s Eve I got my first Smartphone.

For close to ten years I resisted the shift, believing that somehow a ‘touch’screen would forever malign experience and render nuanced thought obsolete. It was almost an atavistic resistance, a primal fear of something in the environment shifting and life irrevocably changing. It was safer inside the cave, Plato, the shadows were friendlier, familiar. Maybe this isn’t the right context for this metaphor, but in a lot of ways, it was the fear of not being able to embrace this blue, flickering light, into my life, even as the narrative threads around me shifted from the light, casual ‘you are living under a rock’ to the thick-with-longing, ‘you are lucky you don’t have a Smartphone’. The knots became tighter and tighter.

And, then, as the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, I met Kamal Haasan, who instead of mourning like me how we remember and how archival our memories have become, was more interested in how we communicate. ‘I mean, people wrote diaries, now it has become easier. I only remember snatches of what has made me a better person or worse – I remember both. But now with these things, I can sort of revise, look at it again; it’s a great device, nothing to be worried about. It is another enhancement and we have become more cognizant as human beings,’ he said. ‘The web and technology have brought us closer in expressing ourselves. Communication-wise it feels like we were blind before and now suddenly we can see. It sort of astounds me. Even now, I look at the airplane and always wonder, how can you make – leave alone defy gravity, but 350 people defy gravity – with a metal bird? So that kind of astonishment I have for technology and the way we have started communicating with each other. And yes, I am more careful in saying what I am saying now. Even a joke has to be said well, or not at all,’ and his eyes crinkle up.

K. Balachander and Kamal Haasan on the sets of Unnal Mudiyum Thambi (1988).

It struck me then that for someone who has been in the public eye since the age of five, this visibility in the digital world, which most of us grapple with, was not a scary proposition or unfamiliar terrain. It is actually the opposite. Where once the wall of stardom kept him away from the world outside, where access was only through interviews, the digital age brought dialogue back in, shattering constructs of accessibility and shared experiences. ‘The technology doesn’t overwhelm me, not yet. But when it does, I would then be called the senior citizen, gently nudged out towards extinction,’ and we all break into laughter. It was a joke rendered for the moment, a self-deprecatory joke well told.

*

The day we got time to interview Kamal Haasan was the day Chennai was hosting its first anti-CAA protest in Valluvar Kottam. I ended up going straight from the protest venue, carrying with me the voices of hope, of defiance, of – yes, resistance. While my colleague and I waited in the conference room of the service apartment he was staying at post his surgery where an implant placed in 2016 was removed from his leg, my mind was still buzzing with songs and slogans of freedom. And the Tweet doing the rounds a week ago of a scene from Balachander’s film, Varumayin Niram Sivappu, where an interview panel asks Kamal’s character, Rangan, who the chief minister of Maharashtra is, and he replies, ‘Today, yesterday or the day before? Because there is a change every day, you see?’ The past and the present through that one scene put back into our active memories, and the voices of the protest, somehow made the interview seem urgent. It was meant to be about his legacy in cinema and the craft of film-making, and not about politics, but is it even possible to separate the political from the personal today? In fact, was it ever? ‘All my film scripts matter to me personally. That’s why my films are becoming more and more political, for the past 30 years. What I believe in, I do. I used to do films that didn’t matter to me at all, but that’s for the money. But then when I became a film-maker, when I had the capacity to control the aesthetics, then it became my kind of film,’ he said.

Kamal Haasan on the sets of Vishwaroopam (2013).

‘Not only in writing, but in life, you must be aware of things around you. There’s no easy out. And it’s because of avaricious men like Trump – I am using the word Trump, because there are no personalities here. We can say the rich, ugly American, or the rich, ugly Indian – they far out-populate the wise Indian or the wise American. That’s why people don’t remember what Gandhiji meant when he said, “Nature will provide for every man’s need, but not even for one man’s greed”. It’s a great saying, not just a punchline delivered. There is no end to greed. Ultimately, how much can you eat in a buffet? And why do we even need a buffet?’

At the time of writing this piece, the world around me was crumbling. Fires were burning Australia’s forests, wiping out half a million species; 15,000 trees had been cut in Odisha’s forests to make way for a coal mine; and my country was still protesting, but now, with the anti-CAA, NRC and NPR were added. Kamal’s words especially rang true, not so much as a politician or actor but purely as a citizen. As a voice being raised. As someone refusing to hide behind the cage of silence because the cage itself was a social construct. ‘What’s your name in your dream? You don’t have a name in your dream. That is the best way to be. In my dream, it is ‘I’, no one needs to call me by name. I recognise myself, that’s what matters. Inside all my clothes, I am nude. I will never ever forget that. That’s why we keep adjusting our dress because that is the basic truth. So even in my poems I say that you advertise your nudity by the amount of clothes you wear, they are all your advertisement boards.’ Something to remember in a country right now whose government is busy equating people’s identities to clothes.

At the end of the interview, I asked Kamal for a picture, to recreate my childhood memory of that birthday party. I did not forget to remember his comment earlier – and the fact that in the middle of the interview a big group of people had come to meet him briefly, all of them taking pictures with him and getting autographs signed – but something about the day, and air ringing with cries of ‘azaadi’, and something about the interview itself that went from one subject to another like disparate dots being joined by criss-crossing lines, or Kamal himself – dressed in track pants and a T-shirt, walking with the aid of a crutch, being human in his vulnerability and strength – something about the day put us on the same ground. ‘Life is that: we are not the same person, we shed skin every day,’ he had said earlier. In that moment, we both seemed to be standing at that cusp of change, holding hands in an eternal loop of solidarity, and I just knew, it was worth being captured as a memory. And, some legacies belong to the present.

All Images © Dr. Kamal Haasan.

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