Asked what India could do to
match China, Haasan said he
spoke to some professors at
Wharton who told him it could be
done. He said China’s transforma-
tion in the last 20 years had been
phenomenal, and felt “there’s no
harm in cannibalizing some of
their ideas and fixing it to (fit) our
Asked why he called himself a
reluctant actor despite having
acted in 200 films, having seven of
his films becoming the Indian con-
tender for the Oscars, having won
four National Awards and 19
“Anybody, however reluctant,
has a price,” Haasan responded
and laughed. “As the price kept
increasing, my reluctance
He said that when he chose to
enter the film industry, he
dreamed of becoming a technician
and, finally, a director. He remem-
bered his mentor K Balachander, who heard
that, and told him, ‘Hmm, so you want to
come to the studio in an autorickshaw?’
When Haasan pointed out that Balachander
himself came in a car, he replied, ‘I’m lucky,
but you could be luckier because you have
something others don’t have.’
So he soldiered on in Tamil films and when
he tired of the kinds of roles he was doing,
Haasan said, he fled to Kerala to do more ‘sensible’ films.
Asked to speak about five of his films, even if all the films
could be like his children, Haasan responded, “They’ve all
His Telugu film Maro Charitra became his debut in Hindi
films, Ek Duje Ke Liye. He followed that up with another
Telugu film, Sagara Sangamam.
“There were other films that were celebrated a little belatedly,” he said. He cited K Balachander’s Avargal (with a
strong female lead), the failure of which embittered the director so much that he decided if kitsch was what the audience
wanted, he’d provide it. So Balachander made the romance-laden Maro Charitra, and its remake, Ek Duje Ke Liye, both
of which were enormous successes, a fact that perhaps perversely confirmed his analysis.
Haasan spoke of Balu Mahendra’s Kokila and Moondram
Pirai (later made in Hindi as Sadma). He said the team was
very confident about Sadma’s success, but it failed at the box
office. They found that the audience, going by previous experience, expected him to sing and dance.
Haasan paraphrased their concerns: “‘Why the hell is he
doing something which is supposed be done by (character
actor) Sanjeev Kumar?’”
“We didn’t prep the audience. Even for war, we have to prep
the nation, not the soldiers,” he said.
Actor and director Trilok Malik remembered asking direc-
tor Gautham Menon about directing Kamal Haasan and
being told, ‘You don’t direct Kamal Haasan. Actors like that
you don’t direct. You just navigate him with the vision I have
in my mind’.”
Haasan joked that people who use GPS know how impor-
tant direction is. “The first mirror that an actor sees — even
before the camera — is the director because very few actors
can remember their (own) face. What happens when you
twitch or smile or pout — if you remember that face, it’s fan-
tastic. But very few can do that. That’s where the director
comes in... You need someone. However big you become, the
more complacent you become.”
He said everyone was needed to make a great film.
Asked about his film Thevar Magan, and working in with
with Sivaji Ganesan, a legendary figure in Tamil cinema,
Haasan pointed out that he wrote the story for the film.
He said he had indeed rehearsed some of the more explosive scenes in the film with Ganesan, but through their interactions over the years.
“I have spoken back to him and he was hurt that I spoke
like that, including (about) my marriage. Exactly some of the
words he said to me when I tried to invite him to my mar-
riage (were) ‘Are you inviting me or informing me?’ And I
said both. He didn’t like it.”
Ganesan told him he had heard Haasan’s father was not
attending the marriage, and that he himself was expected to.
Haasan told him, “Sir, you’re right. I’m informing you.”
Haasan said that when, as a writer, he read the lines to
Ganesan, he smiled. “He knew where I was coming from.
(Thevar Magan) is a love story between Sivajisaab and me,”
Haasan said. “I wanted to become him, and he allowed me to
become him. It very rarely happens that way.”
Haasan said Ganesan’s own sons accepted him as their
Sreenivasan read out an online question from a person
named Karthik about whether Haasan would do another
movie with Rajinikanth.
“Well, we’ve been talking about it,” Haasan said. “I think
some business expert will have to work out how to make a
(successful) film in that budget after Rajni and I have collect-
ed our fees.”
Asked if he would be acting in films in Hindi and
Malayalam, he said he was often asked by businessmen if
someone from the Hindi film industry would also be acting
with him. He was to make a film with Malayalam director
Chanakyan in Tamil, Malayalam and Hindi, but for business
reasons that was changed to Tamil, Telugu and Hindi.
Sreenivasan’s sister-in-law Deepa Unnikrishnan spoke
about Haasan’s performance in Salangai Oli (the Tamil version of the Telugu original Sagara Sangamam) and asked
Haasan about his interest in dance.
“I don’t know why I took up dancing,” Haasan said. “I think
I wanted to find one more excuse to drop out from school.
My mother asked me, ‘What are you going to do?’ I said
His mother was not impressed and told him that if he still
held that view the day after, he
would get a dance teacher. “It
started as a whim and I got
sucked into the vortex of it,”
Haasan said, adding that the cul-
ture was not new to him since
he’d seen his sister training.
Encouraged by the teacher,
who lived with his family above
his home, Haasan began training
for seven hours a day, in the hope
of becoming the next Uday
Shankar. When he found that
there were no backers for his
ambition, Haasan flung his
anklets into the sea. But he got a
job as a dance assistant to dancer
master Thangappan. When
Thankappan became a director,
Haasan became an assistant
director and, under the tutelage
of another assistant director, R C
Sakthi, became a co-writer at 18,
and a year later acted in the
Haasan said he got tired of
being forced to dance in films,
When he came back to dancing in film
after many years, in Vishwaroopam, Haasan
said he was happy to train under Kathak
dancer Birju Maharaj for two months. After
the training, Haasan recalled, the veteran
dancer blessed him, saying ‘I see a young
Birju in you.’
“Your style is not easily imitable, sir,”
Haasan recalled telling him. “It took 40
years. You calculate (the) two months (you taught me); I’ve
been watching you for 40 years.”
Asked if budgets determined the addition of unwanted
scenes and songs, Haasan responded, “Absolutely. It’s such a
bare truth that we’ve been trying to hide.”
Asked how he would remake his Unnal Mudiyum Thambi
— which dealt with social issues such as the pitfalls of alco-
holism — for an audience of millennials, Haasan said he has
actually discouraged his mentor K Balachander from making
it, resulting in a rift that lasted 15 years.
“So, if you ask me if I would remake it, no,” he said.
Haasan was asked about the variety of roles that he has
done, from the action-packed Kuruthipunal to the comic
Singaravelan and Panchathantiram.
Asked about the issue of freedom of expression, which has
become a big issue in India, Haasan replied there was a need
for constant vigilance.
“Freedom of speech is not like money in the bank. It is
something you will have to keep constant vigil about. There
will be some government, some institution, some syllabus
trying to coerce you, to silence you. They will give you the
opportunity for soap box oratory but that’s not freedom. Just
allowing you to use expletives in cinema is not freedom.”
Sreenivasan’s wife Roopa Unnikrishnan asked the final
question about how an Indian mother like his let him do all
the things he did.
“I was a very late child of my father. I was suddenly a little
toy, who appeared from nowhere. Everybody experimented,”
Haasan said, pointing out that his elder brothers were 24
and 18 years older than himself, and his father was 51 when
Haasan was born.
“My eldest brother was Charu Haasan, (the second)
Chandra Haasan. I should actually have been named Oops
Haasan. Thanks to the influence of Charu Haasan, whose
education in philosophy percolated down and diluted the
Vaishnaivite rigor of the family, the youngest one was given
the freedom to experiment.”
He was asked, then, why he was not directing his own
daughter in her new film.
“For convenience,” he replied. “It’s very difficult directing a
daughter. Ask my mother.”
ÂITÊS VERY DIFFICULT
DIRECTING A DAUGHTERÊ
Kamal Haasan with fans and the media at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, March 26. P RAJENDRAN