He is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest living actors of Indian cinema. Kamal Haasan is also an unrelenting experimentalist and multi-tasker. Through a nearly six-decade professional journey that began for him as a child, he has worked in over 200 films—as a writer, producer, director, actor, dancer, choreographer and singer. In this exclusive interview to MAXIM, the legend looks back on what has been, to borrow his words, “a very charmed life”.
by Anna M.M. Vetticad
Your Tamil film Papanasam and the Hindi Drishyam have both done well. Both are remakes of the Malayalam hit Drishyam. Do pan-India audiences have more similar tastes than we realise?
Yes, because we have a common mythology. And for thousands of years, Kashi, Rameshwaram, for half the time Ajmer, have all been part of our landscape. Gandhiji was one of the few people who understood that India has a collective consciousness. (Laughs) That can be put to good box-office use. Ek Duuje Ke Liye (1981) is a great example. It started off as a Telugu film (Maro Charithra). Producers were emboldened to try it in Hindi because despite being in Telugu and not dubbed, it did two-and-a-half years in Chennai. In Hindi, it became the biggest hit in (his long-time collaborator and mentor) director Mr K. Balachander’s career and mine too.
Why don’t more Indian filmmakers release films with subtitles outside their traditional markets?
They should. Fortunately, I’m constantly trying something better. My next Tamil film Thoongaavanam has also been shot in Telugu as Cheekati Raajyam. I intend to do more double versions now in Tamil and Hindi. I have so far done 23 double films. Thoongaavanam is my 24th.
Why did you try to release Vishwaroopam on TV before taking it to the theatres?
Because I’m constrained by the size of my stardom in the kind of movies I can do. I have to bloat a film to fit me—which would not be necessary if I had these kind of smaller venues open to release my films. I would then do smaller films too.
“I have to bloat a film to fit me” meaning?
Yeah, sometimes I’m told not to make a small film. I’m told: It will shrink your market.
After so many decades in films, how do you ensure that you don’t get bored or take your audience for granted?
I have never taken my audience for granted because I am one of them.
How is that?
I still like to see Kamal Haasan perform, and not the same kind of roles. I don’t look at myself as a trademarked John Wayne or MGR. I want to see myself in different attire, different moods. I also write, so there’s quite a variety still to be done. It would be easy to take it for granted because mine has been a very charmed life. I met the right kind of gurus at the right time without any endeavour on my part. So there’s all the possibility of taking it for granted. But I have not.
So your success comes from a combination of talent, hard work, discipline and good luck?
Good luck, yeah, I could say that. But I’ve never shunned hard work and never taken things for granted. So I never believed in luck that much. Probably because my life is so charmed that you don’t have to believe in luck. I have a funny saying that there is nothing called luck for those who deserve it. Mine is a very happy life. I can’t design a better one for myself. I might put in a little tragedy to make it more fizzy.
You mean, if you were to make a film on yourself?
Your life story is worth telling, is it not?
I’m not a mirror, I’m a box and I’d like to keep it closed.
You will not write your autobiography?
No. What is the purpose of writing something so dishonest?
Meaning, you won’t tell the truth?
You can’t, because so many people are alive, they wouldn’t like it either. It’s better that I leave the lies to others.
Today’s male actors are very body conscious. What do you think of them going shirtless to display their gym-toned torsos?
It’s a fad. But that will not complete an actor. Everyone should have a good, healthy body. How many muscles you should see on the outside is a question of aesthetics. Among the bodybuilding community, the beefcake look is going out of fashion. They’re now looking at slim, wiry, muscular, beautiful bodies. So it’s changing.
You think it will change in filmdom too?
Definitely. I have always admired good physical form. From the time of Da Vinci, Greece and Rome there has been admiration for good bodies. Some actors have been lazy and not taken care of themselves, but I thought Kirk Douglas was well built for his time. He was not a bodybuilder but he was built well. All the actors who played Bond had fairly good musculature—not enough to win Mr Olympia, but good.
Name a Tamil actor from a previous generation who was similarly fit.
Without a doubt, for his time, M.G. Ramachandran. I became a gym enthusiast because of MGR.
What are your fitness mantras?
I work out. I never used protein shots. I’ve eaten protein, which in itself is wrong. I’ve taken so much protein to build my body, which I learnt later was unnecessary, but I’ve never taken any of these booster shots or animal stacks or any of those things. That is very commonly used now to get a quick body. Any good nutritionist will tell you that you can’t get that kind of musculature overnight without resorting to these kind of drugs. Otherwise you will have to spend six-seven hours in the gym every day. Most guys don’t do that kind of exercise.
So you’re saying most youngsters today who display really heavily muscled bodies are using these supplements?
As quick fixes.
Why did you never do it?
I never saw this as the only route to success, so my health was very important to me. I wanted to live a little longer and not get instant results. Above all I had someone like Mr KB (K. Balachander) supporting me, so I thought I had a long career ahead.
Are young actors who opt for such quick fixes being irresponsible role models?
I’m sure by the time they are ready to die with kidney disease, good medicines would have been found for kidney troubles. But it will affect them. They will get a heart attack or kidneys will fail. This is not wishing them bad, this is just warning them.
So are they being irresponsible role models?
No, they’re irresponsible to themselves to begin with. If one or two of them are not using these quick fixes, I congratulate them.
At the Habitat Film Festival this May, an audience member asked when you would act with your daughters. You said you were waiting for them to become actors, right now they are busy being stars. What does that mean?
(Laughs) Actor and star are different things. Star is something you can be by luck, a good actor you have to be by hard work. Shruti wants to be both, I don’t know what Akshara would be.
Do you see yourself as an actor, a star, or both?
I started off as a technician. I had scant regard for both actors and stars. But then Mr Balachander foisted (laughs) this new armour on me and I think I became a little more invincible than I would have been if I’d just been a technician. He gave me this financial armour called stardom.
So if you want to be a producer, director etc, is it a huge advantage if you’re a star?
Absolutely. It’s not hubris, but the confidence you find in my voice comes from that advantage.
Many people consider K. Balachander’s Apoorva Ragangal (1975) your big breakthrough. Do you?
Apoorva Ragangal was one of my important films, but I think my breakthrough came when Balachanderji made Manmatha Leelai (1976) and then Maro Charithra (1978) after that. He kept making films only with me.
Was the breakthrough the fact that he decided he wanted to work with you?
Ya, he decided, I had no choice in that. I was a nobody. He sort of discovered me and sometimes I suspect he could have invented me. (Laughs) Because I didn’t believe I could or I wanted to even be an actor. He brought it about and he kept on. We made 36 films together.
So your original ambition was to be a technician, a director?
Ya, a filmmaker. He asked me one day when I was 19, “What are your plans?” I said, “I’m not ready to discuss my plans with you, sir.” He insisted, so I told him I wanted to become a director like him. To which he said: “That you will. You have the capacity to become that, but what you have inside you is something not many do. With training you can become a director, no amount of training can make the star that you are going to be. You’re going to be a phenomenal actor, don’t lose sight of that. Build a house, become rich and then think of making films.” And that’s what I did.
That’s amazing practical advice.
And I took it. That’s even more practical of me. (Laughs)