“I am hungry,” says Kamal Haasan, to the huddle of journalists around him. This wasn’t a cinematic legend throwing a starry tantrum, but a 59-year-old man almost pleading to have a bite of breakfast. But when you are Kamal Haasan, you can’t get away that easily even if you are hungry. So he agrees to do a couple of more interviews while having breakfast. “No television interviews, please,” says the actor. “I don’t want to be seen stuffing food in my mouth while talking.”
This was highly unlikely as Haasan’s breakfast consists of just three eggs and a few pieces of fruit. “That is his routine,” says Kartik, his manager who is waiting to hand over the two pills Haasan is supposed to have after breakfast. But Kartik doesn’t stand a chance as more journalists and cameramen hound the actor just as he finishes his food.
You can’t blame them either. Kamal Haasan, known to most south Indians as Ulaganayakan or Universal Hero, is a legend. Period. Starting his career at the age of four, Haasan has acted in over 200 films in Tamil, Telugu, Hindi, Malayalam, Kannada and Bengali. The President’s Gold Medal in his very first film, three National Awards, the highest number of Filmfare Awards, the highest number of films that have been sent as India’s official Oscar entries… the list of his achievements would call for a whole other article. If Bollywood is going gaga over Aamir Khan learning ballet and parkour for his upcoming film Dhoom 3, let us tell you that Haasan was the actor who started it all as early as in the 1970s by learning mrudangam and even ventriloquism to make his characters authentic. An actor, singer, filmmaker, poet, songwriter, dancer, producer… the man is a prodigy.
Those in the northern part of the country would remember him for his Mrs Doubtfire act in Chachi 420, as Raja in Saagar, as Saket Ram in Hey Ram, as Vasudeva in Ek Duuje Ke Liye and most recently as Wisam Ahmed in Vishwaroop. They would also remember bits and pieces of his much talked about affair, marriage and later divorce with Maharashtrian actor Sarika Thakur. Those much younger would only know him as actor-singer Shruthi Haasan’s father. “That is the best compliment for both of us,” says the actor, in his characteristic broken baritone, as I join him in a black BMW for a drive to his next public appearance. Haasan is in Goa attending the 44th International Film Festival as a special guest.
He arranges his iPad and Samsung smart phone on the arm rest and quickly swallows the pills that Kartik hands over to him. “Being my daughter has been hard for both Shruthi and Akshara,” he says. “It is a lot of baggage for someone as young as them. Not just that, they went through a lot as children growing up with separated parents.” But he is a proud father, says Haasan. “I have seen some of her [Shruthi’s] films and I think she is handling her career to the best of her knowledge. And she is moving forward not just in steps but by leaps,” he says, with a conten smile. After having assisted Parzania director Rahul Dholakia, Akshara, his younger daughter, will be making her acting debut opposite Dhanush in R. Balki’s upcoming film.
Is he a worried father, considering that just two days before we speak Shruthi was attacked by a stalker near her Mumbai residence? “Like every parent, I have always been worried,” he says. “Be it when she broke her nose cycling as a kid, or when hot milk fell on her face or when she stepped on some glass. All this troubles me. She could have been limping for the rest of her life, she could have cut a nerve.” Haasan narrates an incident which left him terrified. Once Shruthi was travelling by train and by sheer coincidence she got down at a station where she wasn’t supposed to. The next minute the compartment she was travelling in blew up. Things like these always get parents worried, says Haasan. “My mother was worried whenever I went to school,” he says. “But in Shruthi’s case I am sure that she has that sense–an extraordinary common and street sense–which will help her tide through all this. She is a very brave girl.”
Bravery could well be inherited, given that Haasan is an actor who has taken the most amount of risk in his career by choosing to play unconventional characters and narrating untold stories. In his breakthrough film as a young actor (Apoorva Raagangal, 1975) , he played someone who fell for an older woman. In his 100th film, he played a blind musician (Raja Paarvai, 1981). He has played a Godfather-esque gangster (Nayakan, 1987) , an autistic man (Swathi Muthyam, 1986), a schizophrenic (Guna, 1991), a handicapped (Anbe Sivam, 2003), a dwarf (Apoorva Sagodarangal/Appu Raja, 1989/1990), a psycopath (Aalavandhan/Abhay, 2001) and even a woman. Be it Virumaandi, which dealt with the death penalty, or Vishwaroopam, which tells the story of an Indian spy, the films he directed, too, have always been noticed for its quirks. He is probably the only actor to have portrayed ten distinct characters in the same film (Dasavathaaram, 2008). And most certainly the only Indian contemporary actor to have starred in an out-and-out silent film (Pushpaka Vimana, 1987).
This year, which marks the 54th year in his career, has seen him being honoured with many a lifetime achievement award. “It has been a lifetime,” he agrees. “I don’t know if there is enough time, but there is definitely more life in me now.” Haasan admits that even after so many years and so much appreciation, there is always a fear of failure when he starts a project. “But fear is not the key. Confidence is the key,” he says. “Actually, fear is the wrong word to use. I am apprehensive. If you fear, then you will not even be able to cross the road.” In life, he says, one always has to take educated guesses. “That is how my life has been,” says Haasan. “And, after some time, most of your guesses start turning right and this makes you more confident.” But he surely doesn’t enjoy the title of ‘legend’ that is bestowed upon him. “There is a tendency for a past tense to creep into the term ‘legend’. I don’t like that,” he says. “Yeah, some people would like me to stop maybe. But I feel I am slightly a better judge than them.”
A career that lasts half a century is no joke. When Haasan says that he still sees this stage as just a beginning, it could be seen as either humility or arrogance. The humility of an artist seeking perfection or the arrogance of a star who knows his stardom will last for “at least another decade”.Haasan, who has just finished filming the major portions of the sequel to his last year’s Rs 100 crore hit Vishwaroopam, says that he thrives on his Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde-type persona. “I am the most caustic critic and the greatest fan of Kamal Haasan,” he says, with a smile. “Whenever KamalHaasan becomes complacent, the critic moves in. When he is diffident, the fan moves in.” As being a fan means sacrificing a part of your rationality, Haasan says he puts the fan to sleep most of the time and keeps the critic in him awake.
Another formula that Haasan devised at an early age is to keep both fame and failure at an arm’s distance. With years of experience of handling the media, he has reached a stage at which he is avble to brush off both the good and bad press he gets. “All the lauding and even the criticism, if it is not fair, then there is no use celebrating it or lamenting about it,” says Haasan. He became an overnight star at four following the success and acclaim of his debut film Kalathur Kannamma. “I lost it and got carried away by the fame when people started pinching my cheeks to let me know their fondness for me,” recalls the actor. Unfortunately, that stint didn’t last long, as Haasan had to take a three-year break from films to concentrate on his studies. “As a child, I was devastated to suddenly become a nobody from a well-recognised star,” he says. “That was a good training, which I think will help me cope with such a situation if it happens again. When you are much younger, it hurts you more that nobody recognises you anymore or nobody pinches your cheek anymore.” He admits that there was a time when he used to enter a room and hope without end that someone would at least recognise him saying, ‘Hey, I know you!’. Those memories are still fresh in his mind andHaasan is sure that if such a situation arises again, he will come out of it “much wiser”.
With age, his notions of happiness and contentment have changed, too. “There was a time when a full bar of chocolate used to mean happiness to me,” he says. “There were others when a lot of money replaced it.” He admits that he did run after materialistic things when he was younger, but what brings him happiness now is the acceptance of the fact that change is the only thing in life that is permanent. But is he content, with his life and career? “Contentment is like hunger,” saysHaasan. “As hunger is to the body, so is contentment to the mind. It cannot be fully satiated ever. You might feel full after a good meal or after doing a good deed, but in another three or four hours, hunger or the need for contentment will strike again.”
After the controversy before his last release Vishwaroopam, Haasan doesn’t want to make the mistake of divulging any information about his upcoming project titled Vishwaroop 2. Starting from the revolutionary plan of having a direct-to-home TV premiere, the prequel fell prey to many controversies including accusation from Muslim organisations of hurting their religious sentiments. The film was banned in Haasan’s home state, Tamil Nadu, citing law and order problems. The actor, who calls the controversy engineered, has decided to put all this behind him but is still tight-lipped about the sequel. “It is going to be as much a surprise and more,” he says. “It is a bigger film, more complicated technologically, and we are even more proud of it.”
Although known for his many talents, the one that is closest to Haasan’s heart is poetry. “I think it has great future. I like it as it is concise and succinct,” says Haasan. What draws him towards the world of verses is that there is “absolutely no coercion or complusion” for him to engage in it. “I enjoy it because I don’t do it for money or to satisfy a market of target audiences,” he says. “So, in a way, for me, it is pure form.” But he would not be liked to remembered as a poet, an actor, and not even a filmmaker, he says. “I am a human being first,” says Haasan. “And, if somebody says ‘he is a good man’, then that is a good start.”