Kamal Haasan’s heart-to-heart with AISFM students!

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Kamal Haasan, a man who has been acting since the age of four, a man who has seen the industry change over the years and reinvented himself to stay hugely admired, a man who is an actor, screenwriter, director, producer, playback singer, dancer, choreographer, lyricist, philanthropist, a man who has four National Awards and 19 Filmfare Awards to his credit, a man who needs no introduction. He visited AISFM recently, much to the delight of everyone.

The session started off with Amala Akkineni, Honorary Director, AISFM, welcoming the star and leaving the discussion open for discussion. What followed was a memorable and brief master class on filmmaking conducted by Kamal Haasan himself! When one of the students’ expressed her concern over ‘nervous energy’ and asked the star to excuse her if she fumbled, he completely put the students at ease by saying “that’s one energy I fully understand.” So, here you are, here is the complete interview session:

Can you tell us how you feel, going on a set and how you approach a character?
Let me tell the beauty of cinema that I like, while some people say to the contrary that there’s nothing like going on stage because the reaction is instant. I do agree but been a conscientious art I wouldn’t take a chance, I would like to test my bungee before I jump. Just the adventure, the adrenaline, the dry throat and the beating of the heart; people who have been on the stage will understand, the warm flush on your face when you start speaking and your voice doesn’t sound like it did in the rehearsals….all that is fine, but I don’t think that’s excellence, that’s just nervous energy. Excellence comes with constant practice and you know when you see professionals, they become professionals only when they lose that nervousness. They defocus the audience and perform and get an instant reaction. But in this age of YouTube, I think reactions are equally instantaneous and dangerous. So I think I am right in rerehearsing, regrafting, honing, perfecting and then giving it to the audience. I don’t like a big crowd in my kitchen, so I like cinema. I am very nervous when I go on stage, so many things can go wrong. That’s why I said, I understand nervous energy. For me, it’s a big tension, I would rather settle for cinema anytime probably because I was born into cinema and later went on to stage. My view is slightly askew; it’s not like everybody else. I was born to cinema. I woke up and my first dreams, visions and memories are all about cinema. So, no wonder I talk in praise of cinema.

You are a screenwriter, a writer, a director; of all the roles what drives you to make a movie, is it the character, is it the plot or is it the technology that inspires you?
It’s a strange thing. I always say its applause. I think that’s true. To an extent, it is the applause that drives me. There’s a certain amount of wanting to say the thing that you believe in. And especially in my position, now I have an audience, I want my voice to be heard. So that’s what is driving me. I have a message in all my films. My pet peeves are seen in my movies and that’s what drives me. The other driver is money, of course, that’s what drives my car too. And like all other artistes, I have the need to exhibit. If I know a new trick, I want to share it. It’s all connected; applause, money and sharing. It’s a simple answer but that’s the truth.

You have played versatile characters, from a dwarf in Appuraja to a nanny in Chachi 420, how do you prepare yourself for the role; both as an actor and as a producer?
(Laughs) Not like Stanislavsky (Konstantin Sergeyevich Stanislavsky). This actor prepares differently, every actor prepares differently. It’s not so much like a thumbprint, but every madness has its own method. My madness is different. I very seriously ask this question without ever beating Stanislavsky. I have read his book, but none of my questions were answered, believe me. Somewhere some were, but none of them completely. My understanding, my culture needed a different book, a different primer. My grammar was different, my syntax was different, and so I cannot take a general thing. It applies not only to acting but also to communism. The same methodology, the same ideology when you practice, you implement it differently for India. Same thing applies for democracy. Democracy, practiced in England, India and America are three different animals. They are not the same. The fourth one is what was practiced in Greece. So everywhere it changes. So when you say, how an actor prepares, I prepare from the most honest core; the moment. I prepare for that moment. That moment has to be the most crucial moment the writer can bring and usher towards that focal point; the writer, the cameraman and even the temperature. I can always pretend and say that this is a cold room, but it is not, you and I know it. But if it is also cold, it does add. There is nothing wrong with that. People ask me, why do you wear prosthetics? This art is the most versatile art in the 21st Century. So I cannot just exhibit my talent and walk away. It’s a democratic art. It’s not just me. It’s not just Van Gogh and his canvas, and he can either cut off his canvas or slash his ears. It’s not like that. It’s 200 hundred other people. Even if I know half-way through that we are making a bad film, I’ll have to push through. I can’t shatter dreams, I can’t shatter bank accounts. So we sometimes continue, knowing fully well that we are part of a bad film. It’s like a doctor delivering a dead child. The mother has to do it, the doctor has to do it, and it’s for life itself that we have to do it. So when you talk about an actor preparing, it’s a very complicated process and acting is a psychosomatic business. Asthmatics will understand what psychosomatic is. They just have to imagine dust in the room and they will start sneezing. I used to be one as a child. So probably asthma helped me apart from my gurus. If I am saying that it looks like I am nurturing a certain amount of madness, we all do. The human mind is work in progress, it’s not complete. It’s not as complete as my knee or my elbow joint or my ear. The components are in place. That’s why we have aberrations like poetry, god and even our own art coming up. In that, the even more complicated part is acting, in that you make-believe and believe and that moment for me is the most important thing. ‘It doesn’t gel for me, it doesn’t sound true,’ say some actors. That’s because the dialogue is not helping it or he is looking up at the camera, whereas he is sad and he should be looking down. Something troubles you; so many things can go wrong with acting. When everything comes together, I perform better. I thought that by becoming a director, I could make that happen more often. That’s not true. It is a democratic art. Even if you mechanize everything, sometimes I wait for the noise on the set to quieten down, and my AD will say ‘shall we?’ and I will say ‘no’. That’s preparation and I want to come to that moment and there is nothing to it like crying or bringing tears. Like Mr. Nagesh and I used to play this little game of ‘who will be able to let out a tear?’ so it used to be just the two of us, looking at each other and trying to form tears. Anybody who’d look at us must be thinking that we are two mad men who should be in a padded room. But we used to do that and its sort of an exercise. Somewhere it’s not that we are picking on a funeral or something else, it’s just a core emotion waiting inside you and you can evoke it when you want. And that’s a technique some actors get and some actors don’t. And I recognized that in Mr. Nagesh because he can bring it out but he had not been trained properly or he had not taken that part of him seriously because he went on to do something more serious, comedy. Comedy is very serious business. So when you ask me how an actor prepares, I can only give you vague answers like this. I can give you strong answers but it’s still vague because it’s like trying to explain a sneeze to a child or a smile. What’s that funny thing, why do you do this? A child would never ask it because it knows by instinct. But if someone does ask you, how do you explain ‘why do you smile’? It’s a feeling that you will have to understand. I think a more correct example of what acting is, is when somebody asks me ‘when did you learn to speak English. I can say ‘how’ but I cannot say ‘when’. It’s not definitely the first few months or years. It’s a process, so what I told you is just a process. To summarize and bring it down to the crux, you will have to go back to Buddha and say ‘live that moment’. That moment is the true moment for me, it’s godless, it’s friendless and if you ask me it’s even dialogue-less. It’s an empty moment and everything else can be attached to it. It’s not only for the scenes where you are emotionally upset but even a double take has that. Everybody does a double take but there are moments where you won’t even know that an actor is doing a double take. You see all of comedians do that (and he turns his head twice trying to look to his right), it’s a double take. It can be shrunk to so tight an emotion that you only feel that he has noticed and then saw it a second time. And the lens is so beautiful that it tells the truth as equally well as your eyes. So these are the tools with which you work and an actor especially in this medium needs all the support and all the training. Everybody has their neurotic agenda of how you approach acting. I come from a very very professional environ like this studio. I was born almost in AVM Studios. I was three-and-a-half when I walked into AVM. So, I feel that you cannot make any of those pretences there. You just came in and delivered. Because I saw Sivaji Ganesansaab do it that way. I saw Savitriamma deliver the lines that way. So I thought that’s the way the world operates and never choose any of the technologies as we discussed. They were neurotic and they had a technique. Savitriamma had another technique. She could shed tears for music. I have never seen anyone do it. People apply glycerine and she too applied glycerine but she knew how to control her tear ducts. So when the music played a tear will fall first from one eye and then the other. I tried it in a movie and it worked for me. What I learnt when I was three-and-a-half years old came to use for a movie I did called Tenali, where when I talk about my father, one tear would come and when I talk about my mother, another tear would come. I don’t know if I should call it the mechanics of acting, the technique or maybe it’s a combination of both. That shot in Tenali does not have glycerine. It starts as a funny scene and slowly the actor has to turn the audience, a laughing audience, into tears. It’s as difficult as making yourself go from a smile to tears, because you will have to change the audience’s reaction. So I don’t know where the technique is, it’s the fear of wanting the audience to change that drives me or truly the inert sadness. Human beings are the entire time ready to cry more than laugh. Believe me, that’s why comedy is very difficult. For every reason they are willing to cry. Everyone. They hide it. That’s why Charlie Chaplin is hailed so high above the rest for making people laugh. Because that is difficult and that doesn’t come naturally. That comes with intellect. So you know now how confused I am about acting. (smiles)

Could you tell us about two movies, one Indian and one outside of India, that have truly inspired you and what is it about these movies that has inspired you?
It will be a temporary answer, it will change next year. It’s changed over the past 30 years. Everybody likes to say Carl Theodor Dreyer changed me, might have, but he didn’t change me. What did change me as an assistant director, cinematography wise, was a movie called Klute. That lighting got us thinking as to what we are doing. Its anti Hollywood and John Nicholas Cassavetes grainy films got me and it’s not for commercial consumption at all. So these are the things that changed me and what truly changed me and what people expect me to say is Satyajit Ray. I graduated to Satyajit Ray through Shyam Benegal. Because I come from Tamil Nadu from the commercial film industry, so Mr. Ray was a little too thick a medicine for me. And suddenly after Benegalsaab I understood Ray, so he’s my primer to Ray. So when he made a documentary on Ray, I felt that the right man is making the documentary. And Malayalam films are my window to the Western film world. It was Malayalam films that made me watch the rest of the world. Bengali films also. But the fact that I watch Bengali films came from the fact that I watch Malayalam films. For me it never mattered. You must understand that all of us sing a Bengali song as our national anthem. That’s the beauty of our country. So we should watch each other’s films. My most favourite film is Spartacus (1960) because it had everything. It had brilliant actors and it was one of those films which approached Rome absolutely differently and that stands good. The later Spartacus pales in significance in front of Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus. It is truly a classic that should go into the film appreciation repertoire. Moments where they know that they are good and yet humbled themselves before the frame, it’s fantastic. I keep showing that to my crew when I have to explain about how difficult it is to make a complete good looking film. There are moments when Ingmar Bergman actually woke me up to a kind of cinema like The Virgin Spring. I have never seen a rape scene that shocked me. I have seen all kinds of rape scenes in films. But Bergman’s actual scene, very little of the human body was seen. Actually the only naked human part of the body that was seen was of the rapist body and not the raped. That was the brutality of the act in The Virgin Spring. I have never seen scenes like that. And Bergman was full of that in the film, where he brings you to the edge of the film and there is surprise, nausea and anger in the film without going over the top, without dialogues. And you suddenly become human when the protagonist throws a child on the wall. That is a great film for me. That changed me. But there are many more films that changed me. And I saw Benegalsaab’s Ankur that was shot in Hyderabad. And RC Sathyu was a sort of a mentor for me. I am full of teachers and mentors. I had them shielding and taking care of me, all the time. So I had my own mobile film institute travelling with me J Mr. Ananthu, K. Balachander’s right hand man was that for me, he was my teacher. He would watch my film and rip it to pieces and say that ‘you are wasting your talent, let’s go see a good film.’  And then he would take me to a good film and that’s when I got to see good films. And now I have a library of nearly 5000 films and I could almost tell you the story of each one of them, but sometimes I make up my own. When you say affecting, you must be affected by films because your speech, your language, your mannerisms come from people that you love, never from people you have hated. At least if you decide to hate your formidable enemy that you admire discreetly, that comes to you. Like Gandhiji’s costume later on become Indian but till then he was reflecting his nemesis, the British Raj rule. He was wearing a suit. So you must see a number of films. Like Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds and Zbigniew Cybulski’s performance in it, where actors dying on screen is a very dramatic thing to watch and very few people can do it like you believe it. It’s like when you see an accident, you have no questions. It just happens. Very few action sequences in films give you that believability. Likewise a man dying on screen doesn’t convince you all the time. Brando in Burn! (Italian: Queimada) and Cybulski is Ashes and Diamonds taught me so much about dying on screen. These are little things. Ashes and Diamonds for an actor is a great movie to watch. Andrzej Wajda Hunting Flies is another movie for lensing. He tells a story through lensing and I tried to do that in Mahanadi simply because my production manager could not get me the lenses on time, so I had to let go of that idea. Filmmaking, that’s why I say is such a democratic process. An idea can get crumpled to rubbish by somebody who is not prepared for the making of the film. This cannot be done by one genius. It also needs a lot of people who are intelligent, who are all focussing onto a central point of getting the movie made of quality. So tomorrow when you are working as a cinematographer, it’s not just your assistants who are going to ruin your day. Don’t aim only for them. There must be a producer, a production manager who doesn’t get you the lights you want or give you the colour temperature that you require. Or finally the producer, because of budgetary constraints, will totally change the location where all your colour schemes will go askew. But you must also be ready to take the blame because it is a combined thing. It is the prepping that you should all learn. You are no more normal people. No more can you look only at the centre of the frame and get carried away with the film. That innocence you have lost. You no more are a virgin audience. You’ve lived a life. You begat children. So you start watching the corners. You have to start concentrating on something called prepping a film if not all your dreams will go down the drain. Then you will end up blaming either the food or the fool. Invariably the fool is never here (points to himself) it is always on the outside. But I start here so that it doesn’t happen the next time. I would recommend that if there is already one, then enhance that thing; and scheduling and budgeting a film is the most important thing, which I learnt 25 years too late in the business. That shouldn’t happen to you. Automatically goes without saying, that you must have a script where all the departments have spoken to each other and then it goes to scheduling because you’d want to shoot a scene at a particular time which might throw the costs up, so how do you compromise? So all of you should sit together, find that moment and work towards that time of day and see that the producer does not lose the call sheets. We did that for Nayakan. Let’s take an example. We wanted a particular light and colour temperature. So all of us, the actor, the director, the cameraman all worked towards it and understood that this is what we wanted for the film. So we ended up having only five days to shoot in Bombay for a film which is based in Bombay. And we had this dream of shooting it at certain hours. So we started shooting exactly at 5.45am and wrapped up at 7.30am in the morning, and then started at 3.45pm and wrapped up at 6.45pm at night. That made it 4 call sheets. The producer was very upset because he thought that we were out to avenge the production and make the five-days cost a 15-days shoot for them. But that was not true. You can do that and use lights efficiently. It’s choosing the time of the day. Another one is, when two people watch the whole field waves, in the film Mirror. I heard they did that with helicopters. One is going there and making nature help you and the other is bend nature to help the scene. The other example is The Exorcist (1973) which is pre-cg era and where they used only cameras. In that, the room where the exorcism happens was refrigerated to -20 degrees because they wanted frost/smoke. See this is bending nature. So there is a man who would have worked on the cost of refrigerating to -30 degrees so that when you light up it looks like -20 or -15degrees. So this is also part of our filmmaking technology now. We neglect it at our peril.

Now, everything has gone digital. As film school students and a filmmaker yourself, do you think knowing how to shoot on film is still relevant and must be learnt?
You must know your history. I must know how silent films were made. That’s how we made Pushpak. So you cannot just say, throw it away, I don’t need it. You might need it. Also it cannot be the primary knowledge with which you take off also, there are some brilliant wisdoms to learn too. Read DW Griffin’s book The Cameraman. It’s about five or six years old. Two young filmmakers want to find out where this old man of about 86 years lived. He started worked with DW Griffin as a boy in his teens and became a cinematographer for a film called Intolerance. So they wanted to find this gentlemen and every time they went they found his apartment door locked. Then they found out that he was going out to work even at the age of 86 everyday. Then they went to his workplace and found that he was making ad films as a cinematographer. That’s how the book starts and he reminisces about his time with DW Griffin. It’s a brilliant book and you should go through that. He was a gofer and griffin made him a cameraman. So I think film is great, it’s good, but the digital media is here. That forum is dead, it is for the archives. I am one for digital, who is trying to rush the digital revolution. It’s delayed in India by at least 10 years and that’s because of vested interests. Some of them are my friends so I cannot blame them. They are laboratory owners so they are worried. People who owned cameras were worried that their running business will go. That’s why in 2004 I made a film with a CCD camera just to prove all this humbug about big machines. It’s the technique of filmmaking that matters now. Now, you can do it even better. That movie didn’t work. I was so angry that I tried to bring in the digital revolution. If you look at a film called Virumandi it eagerly looks forward to those trips. It’s the right question. People still say that black and white is the best colour for photography. Salt free diet is good but I like salt, colour is the salt of cinema, you must have it. We have not perfected it; black and white had about 70 years to perfect it. Now colour is being perfected thanks to new technologies. It’s getting better, better and better and we will beat film 10 times over in two years and its happening.

Are you tempted to shoot 360 degree virtual reality experience?
Yes, but it’s very complicated and tampers with my storytelling. That’s because I am old-fashioned. It will become the order of the day for a kid who has played that game so many times. His mind itself is thinking in 360 degrees. My dad can’t do many things at a time, I do three things at a time, but my daughter does six things at a time; listening to music, homework, slicing her cake, talking to her friend and answering me. I think it will be possible to do all that and we must go towards that. Already the technology we are talking about is behind. When you open the packet of your new equipment it’s already a month old and it’s got only five more months of life. And then new equipment will come. You are limited. It’s always a constant race keeping up with technology but you must keep up with it and not fear it at all. And do not seek safety in the caves. Go hunt.

As a filmmaker, when you make a film that has a historical layer to it, how do you objectively see it, because history has a trickledown effect on everybody? What’s your take?
Even historians have this problem. Its minimalist history. What happened to the people is the more important history that we should learn about. How the pharaoh died is less important than how many people died in a famine created by the pharaoh. It’s a changing viewpoint. It’s no more listing of the Caesars. It’s about how the Caesars changed the life of a Roman. There are many books written about how Caligula, Julius and Augustus changed the lives of the Roman for the better. Why did they let a tyrant like Caligula continue, because it changed their life. So they were truly heroes in public life and bad demons in private life. So that’s a new look on Caligula itself. You think of Little Boots going to the war as a little kid and how he danced in his little boots and that’s how he got his name, Little Boots Caligula. But who knows, that’s not true. There is a film called Nammavar where I play a college professor. I say please see where your history comes from, who teaches you history because they have an agenda and they are trying to tell you something. They talk about Islamic invasion, yes they might have invaded but every part of the world has been invaded. Like Sri Sri said rana rangam kani chotu, bu sthalam antha vethikina dorakadu! ……….. they did not take the money and take it back to Kabul or Afghanistan. They buried themselves in this land and fought for it and the last of the Mughal cried because he was kept as a prisoner in Burma. You must have heard of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s poem where he cries for his land, he craves for his land. That’s not an invader, that’s my brother. I’ll tell you what’s an invader and what’s an invasion. Why aren’t we calling the East India Company the Christian invasion? They left churches and took our money away. I am not talking politics. I am saying history is taught to you like this. Why it’s not called the Christian invasion, because the Christians were teaching you history. It’s very important for you as a history student to see the source. When I was talking about this in Nammavar, this whole scene was removed by the censor.  You understand that history is been retold and any other point is excised. I have suffered this and that’s why when I made Hey Ram…Gandhiji called it ‘experiment in truth’, I called it ‘experiment with truth’. Which history is right, I am confused myself. The critiques of Gandhiji are also right in most cases but the fan in me for this gentleman called Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi supersedes all that criticism and I feel that he is a hero and he still is. And that’s what Hey Ram is all about. I try to assassinate one Gandhi and bring alive another Gandhi that I know in the film.

Since technology has become a major part of filmmaking, how do you go beyond the technology to reach to the artist? When you are taking a VFX shot, somewhere you might lose the actor. As a filmmaker how do you take up that challenge?
Let’s go with an example. How many have seen Dashavathara? You know there are five characters and I cannot act all of it at once, so it was shot on different days with a motion controlled camera, already prefixing the positions. So when the camera moves, the mark is not right. Somehow the axis changes for the camera a bit. And I must always find the eye of the character; otherwise I am looking at the ear. This error makes the whole shot go wrong. ……there’s this tall and short guy Balram Naidu and constant chatter between them. You have to keep the performance going and it’s more important and not this angle alone. You have to hit the mark and do it a thousand times if you have to. There’s a film called City Lights of Charlie Chaplin. There’s a scene where Chaplin has to make believe the blind girl that he’s a rich man, so he goes from car to car in a parking lot to escape someone and he finally gets down and the blind girl is there. The memory of which is there in Pushpak; this is what Chaplin gave me. I am leaning on the car and she thinks I am a rich man like the blind girl in Chaplin’s film. So all that technology should not dazzle you, to lose that focus. We are nearly 70 years apart, Chaplin and I, but approaching the same idea. I am doing it in a different setup in colour…..but it’s the same. So the story is invariably the same. Read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

It is said that Ernst Ingmar Bergman in his later movies used a very different approach with his actors, where he just gave them a scene and asked them to speak what was apt. What do you have to say about this approach? What works better?
Lucky Bergman! Bergman had fantastic actors who were ready to make their own films. You cannot do it with all actors because they must have an understanding of the film. An actor has to go beyond his position to understand that. I would never trust, I am sure it would be the same case with Bergman; if the actor is deficient, he would never give them the freedom. You are talking about people who he has lived with. It’s almost like two minds thinking alike. That was the kind of trust you have and he is a very demanding director. There is a scene where he made the lead actress feel very cold and he was very cruel to her, in a boat sequence, and she decided to leave him. She didn’t leave him then, but she left him much later for another reason. That amount of hatred I could feel at that moment and he was doing it for a selfish reason. He wanted the shot to be better. It’s a lovely sequence, I met the lady and we spoke about it. You must have heard of the scene in Godfather, with Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, where the handing over scene happens. That scene was thought of by so many people and finally Robert Downey Sr. and Marlon Brando wrote it, not Francis Ford Coppola. Mario Puzo (writer) and Francis Ford Coppola is the best combination I have seen. Brando might have been a co-director of many of his movies. I asked the line producer Barrie M. Osborne (who graduated to line producer from Coppola’s 1st AD and he later on became the producer of The Lord of the Rings.) He said that, on set Martin Sheen had a heart attack and shooting stopped. Some of them left but the director refused to leave, and was doing one shot a day. They even celebrated 100 days of shooting, which is unheard of in Hollywood. Barrie said that ‘I learnt from a very badly planned movie like Apocalypse Now as to how to plan a movie’, because the crew insisted that the negative had to be polished only in Italy, while the shooting was in Philippines. It is nail biting tension for the line producer. He said ‘I aged at least five years in those two years.’ Federico Fellini would do that, saying, ‘just talk and I will shoot the scene’ and then he would sit and write the dialogues in the dubbing theatre, because he just wanted the vision. There are methods and methods of how you want to make a film. Abbas Kiarostami is a brilliant example of this. There is some magic in letting go and holding back. For me it was a new learning from Abbas. On how to handle actors, that’s another fine art.

You have worked in many capacities as a filmmaker, what are your prerequisites in terms of cinematography.
It depends; let me give you an example. I will tell you how lensing was used as a story itself in Hunting Flies. A man is very unhappy with his middleclass boring life. Because of the summer season they have oil paper to hunt flies, the children are playing, wife is cooking and not looking her best because she is always cooking; they shot it from the opposite flat. Everything is two dimensional and it’s like walking through a clothesline. He comes back and they use a different lens and the film ends. That’s a great study for us when we want to lens a film.

The veteran actor ends the session by saying, “To make a vision come through, there is nothing like prepping. If everything is perfect think that you are a sleeping partner and the only person awake is Murphy. If something is going to go wrong, it will. I am consistently asking you to remember from films. Because your speech pattern came from watching people talk. So the best part of knowing, apart from the nuts and bolts of it which is very important, is to watch other filmmakers constantly. Sometimes it gives you a superiority complex and sometimes it makes you feel so humble, sometimes it gives you an inferiority complex and you don’t want to be doing this job anymore. That’s how good some people are, they throw you out of business. That you must see, that keeps you levelled. Comfort food makes you fat. Comfort food is the popular regional cinema that addresses your basic senses. You are used to it, it’s a vicious circle. That industry is run by business people alone. You are going to make a change. You are not welcome but you have to go ahead and make that change.”