In 50 years in the film industry, Kamal Haasan has acted in around 150 films, put on the director’s hat and excelled as a producer, playback singer, choreographer and lyricist. He’s won four National Awards, and held a Guinness World Record for his 10 roles in Dasavatharam.
In his latest film, Unnaipol Oruvan(Eenadu in Telugu), a remake of the 2008 Hindi film A Wednesday, the spectre of terrorism looms over Chennai instead of the original’s Mumbai as an unprepared police department deals with red tape, political lethargy and the alien nature of a threat that “only ever happens in the north of the country”. Haasan spoke to Lounge over the phone on the eve of the film’s release. Edited excerpts:
Bird’s-eye view: Haasan reprises Naseeruddin Shah’s role from the Hindi original.
Why did you choose to remake ‘A Wednesday’, and what has changed in translation?
This is something I felt was a salute to your peer. When I saw the original film, so many ideas came to my head, and I felt good things should be passed on.
The content itself is not new; we have added certain things that were not there in the original without disturbing the pace of the film. I wanted to make this with greater equipoise than the original—the common man should have equilibrium, not just anger at a community. Both sides always have conflicting stories. A clash is never possible without involvement from both sides.
To me, it was also about adapting it for a different audience. We have regionally different politics. The “national agenda”, even during a general election, is never singular. The only unifying things are religion and ahimsa (non-violence), which Gandhiji preached. The other thing now, unfortunately, is himsa (violence) or terrorism. My film takes a dig at this, at the complacence of “Oh, it’s happening in Mumbai. So what?” My film gets very angry at that kind of attitude. This is a morning alarm and we have to make it ring while it’s still morning. All of this is redundant at twilight.
You’ve worked in many regional films, and in a number of multilingual films. How important do you think language is in building an identity for Indian cinema?
Language is very important, and this is another area of complacence that comes often from the north of the country… I love the language, but the myopia of Hindi and the Hindi film industry is unacceptable to me. This is a larger nation. It is knit together. You cannot bring a monoculture into it and impose it. I think all actors should understand the strength of working in different languages. Of course, there’s the attraction of more money, but this, to me, is a very fulfilling way of expanding your audience.
How did working in multiple languages help you grow as a performer?
It makes an artist understand how big and how accommodating the country is, given a chance. India is a country where you have to take a linguistic passport every time you cross 300km on the map. Art should transcend these borders. My so-called “Bharat darshan (discovery of India)” came through my work. It’s a travel worth its while.
Do you see mainstream cinema transcending these borders?
Yes. This was an attempt, even way back, by people like V. Shantaram. You can see in his work attempts to put characters from all over the country.
It seems to be happening again now. It’s not the pop singer, the ma, the beti, the lame sister and vengeance any more. All that has changed. I was a caustic critic of these themes being regurgitated again and again. You can’t strategically place an Amar, Akbar and Anthony any more. You must have reasons to put them there. They must have greater dimensions to their characters. And that is happening.
Could you give us a few examples?
I’m seeing it in the work of people like Vishal Bhardwaj, who tries it very subtly and effectively, and Ashutosh Gowariker. It’s not propagandist. It’s a passionate plea to be inclusive and isn’t rhetoric alone. The whole “Gaana nahi hai, fight nahi hai (There are no songs, no fights)” is going away, and audiences are taking this in their stride. I’m enjoying watching Hindi films now.
Over the years, you’ve played characters from across the political spectrum, from a Communist to an anarchist. Which one is the real Kamal Haasan?
Sometimes these are mere roles. Do you think all the actors on television believe in the products that they’re selling? If they do, then I believe in all my roles too. What I believe is probably close to Anbe Sivam, and probably close to Virumaandi. In Dasavatharam, I played the role of a priest…which I don’t believe in, personally. I’m not agnostic or an atheist, I’m a rationalist.
Are there particular political themes that you try to explore?
I’m not a political commentator, but I’m very sure that we have not reached the “ism” that is the panacea for all evils. We may be the world’s largest democracy, but the democracy of ancient Greece, the republic of Rome, then later the founding of America—these are all different beasts. We are in the process of evolving systems: So, I ask why stick to it and make a dogma or a diktat out of it. When people dismiss an ideology, when they say, for example, “There goes communism”, I ask “Why?” Karl Marx has done his bit. It’s part of a continuous evolution. We are yet to arrive at the promised land, and I’m glad. The ascent of man has happened because of this continuous evolution, and not because of diktats that we believe are the final word. That is why you see me playing various parts: to find the logic in each argument. I’m only a spectator, not a legislator.
Unnaipol Oruvan is currently running in theatres.