Kamal Haasan: ‘I have turned out to be like Thevar Magan’s hero’

Ahead of the release of Vishwaroopam II, actor-director Kamal Haasan fields my questions about the franchise that he admits is rooted in Hollywoodian ideology

Much has changed for Kamal Haasan during the five years since the controversy-laden release of Vishwaroopam. We have seen the release of two other films of his — Uttama Villain and Thoongavanam — that didn’t exactly turn out to be super hits. His directorial, Sabaash Naidu, was shelved, revived, and it’s anybody’s guess what’s going on with it now. In more exciting development, he announced plans to do a sequel to Indian, arguably Shankar’s best film yet. The truly groundbreaking news, of course, is his entry into politics, and the insinuation that he could likely retire from cinema entirely. And now, his film, Vishwaroopam II, after underdoing its fair share of uncertainty, is finally ready for release.

It is in the backdrop of all this tumult that Kamal Haasan arranged for this conversation. His only request before the interview? “Can we keep the questions to just Vishwaroopam II please?” And so we did, even if the answers naturally were about a lot more.

Excerpts from a conversation with the ace actor-director:

Are you worried that audiences may not recall the events of Vishwaroopam, given the five-year gap in between its films?

We don’t see this as a second film; it’s simply part of a whole. We have also tried to remind people of the first film’s events with the screenplay. In any case, Vishwaroopam II has been conceived as a standalone film. Think of standalone classics like Godfather 1, 2, and 3. If anything, Vishwaroopam II, I think, will revive interest in the first film. It’s the fulcrum around which the events of the first film occur.

The film is at once a prequel and a sequel. The seeds of Wisam’s patriotism are sowed here. Andrea’s character in the first film may have seemed a bit like water on a lotus. Here, you find out she’s more than just an overconfident student.

Small scientific ideas have often come to play an important part in your stories. In Dasavatharam, salt – NaCl as you called it – negates the effects of a dangerous vial. In Vishwaroopam, a Faraday Cage stopped a bomb from being detonated.

Science is everywhere, isn’t it? Back during the days, we communicated through doves. Sometimes, in our stories, a voice from the sky would tell the hero what he should do. Today, it’s a phone call. Earlier, we would have to create a bus stand, so we could show people falling in love. Today, a phone screen is enough to do that. Faraday Cage is an idea quite a few writers have used as a simple solution to get out of a seemingly unsolvable problem.

At a time when there’s increasing emphasis on stories rooted in our region, is it fair to conclude that the core idea of the Vishwaroopam films is rather Hollywoodian?

Absolutely. Espionage as an idea in films isn’t really ours. Vikram (1986) was supposed to be something like this too. Sujatha (writer) and I thought of it as a partial spoof. I remember we called one department, Bureau of Research and Analysis, so it abbreviated to BRA. But the director had a different mindset. Someone like Mani Ratnam or Singeetham Srinivasa Rao may have ensured everything fell in place well. We had someone who seemed to believe in the ethics of Kodambakkam.

It’s not easy to adapt such ideas to our cinema. Imagine James Bond removing his shoe, so he can enter Kabali temple. I remember Jaishankar’s cowboy films that had buffaloes running in the background. They would have village festivals in place of Mexican festivals. It all looked incongruous and frankly, a bit silly. College kids, I remember, had a ball in the theatre seeing Asokan play a cowboy. Vikram, in a way, turned out to be that.

Are you then trying to make our version of an inherently Hollywood idea?

We have all already become global citizens. Look at what we are all wearing. Today, we can talk what Spielberg is talking, and with less money and more efficiency. The overseas film market may have just opened up for us, but we have one billion consumers here, if we know how to whet their appetite. China is our only competitor. We are telling our people they don’t have to look Westward for these films. Our national language, according to me, is English. How does a Telugu-speaking person communicate with a Hindi-speaking person? What’s the lingua franca? English, of course.

I saw Vishwaroopam with an American from Fox Studios. He turned around after the film and told me I am a bada** for pulling this film off. There was another American who felt that the scene of Andrea’s character being interrogated by an African American in the first film was pandering to racism. But overall, if we are a bit careful, our films can easily travel to foreign markets too.

I can assure you though that they don’t want to see naach-gaana in our films. Their musicals are far more interesting. They may, however, be interested in a Salangai Oli. They want a film that’s also about our culture.

Does the five-year gap mean that people will find it harder to consume this idea?

At the 30th anniversary of his Muhammad bin Tughlaq, writer Cho thanked politicians for keeping his film still relevant. Politicians still are stupid and corrupt; so that story continues to work even today. I think the same applies for Vishwaroopam. It will be useful as long as we have leaders like Trump who build defence corridors to save their country from others.

One of the striking visuals from the trailer of Vishwaroopam II was your bloodied body on a stretcher. It was a throwback to similar visuals in films like Kuruthipunal, Guna, Anbe Sivam…

I’ve been through many accidents. I’m trying to tell others about this trauma. This is an expression of anguish. I’ve not been in a war, of course, but I’ve trained with soldiers. I’m a fan of not only Kurosawa. I also admire Cronenberg, David Lynch and Sergio Leone. The latter especially… We grew up on his films. Also, I think the more pleasant your life, the more you are drawn to writing about violence and crime. Crime writers typically don’t work from prisons. Take Hitchcock, for example. He was from a sophisticated family, and made every film about crime.

As for the stunt scenes, I try not to write scenes I know I cannot perform. I perform most of the stunts myself, assisted by technology, of course — there’s no point hurting yourself.

How do you marry mass elements — like that opening fight scene in Vishwaroopam — into a story like this without compromising on integrity?

Very carefully. You don’t see Dracula biting every time. He hardly says anything violent. It’s his grim approach that is frightening. Virumandi was about thuggery. So, it could be violent. That’s why we called it Sandiyar. Some political intervention occurred there too, and it came from the same source.

Shame on the ruling government and the-then CM for doing it. I don’t understand the fun of trampling on ants if you’re an elephant. During the Vishwaroopam aftermath, we sued the government. In a way, I think I’ve taken after the lead character in Thevar Magan. I considered leaving, like he did, but have come back, and decided to stand my ground.

That’s why I think I’d like for Vishwaroopam II to be among my last films, because I have work to do. I’ll do these last few films I’ve already committed to because I need money for myself and the party. Once my political responsibility increases though…

This interview was written for Cinema Express, the cinema division of The New Indian Express. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to its page if you’d like to share it.

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