Everything about Indian actor and politician Kamal Haasan screams aura and gravitas.
The 67-year-old matinee idol, who was in Dubai to promote his ‘high-octane’ action thriller ‘Vikram’ on June 1, doesn’t walk in with an entourage of stylists, bouncers or handlers, but exudes quiet confidence and palpable star power.
His famously throaty voice isn’t loud and every word is deliberately measured. He can seamlessly quote late acting Goliath Marlon Brando or revered Indian freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi when he wants to underline his stream of thought.
“Acting is a neurotic business … If we go into the deeper facets of acting, this is one neurotic business and we actors play with that neurosis,” said Haasan in an interview with Gulf News. He was quoting Brando here, he clarified.
Haasan, who began acting at the age of three and who boasts a sturdy body of work encompassing more than 200 films, claims he’s found ways to keep his sanity intact.
“Imagine you are joking about your own father’s death. But you are joking to calm yourself down. It’s morbid and neurotic, but it makes sense to you … Or people with an impending heart surgery or blocks might joke about them popping off. It’s their way of comforting themselves. Actors are like that. We get to die many times,” said Haasan. But the allure of acting and reinventing themselves never fade. With every film, the actor who’s fondly called “Ulaga Nayagan” or “hero of the world” by his legion of ardent fans, wants to push the envelope.
In his latest production ‘Vikram’, also starring acting heavyweights Fahadh Faasil and Vijay Sethupathi, Haasan plays a retired police officer who embarks on a fierce mission to release a high-profile hostage from the clutches of two disparate sibling kidnappers.
Haasan is a lot more seasoned and iconic than his versatile peers Faasil and Sethupathi, but there was no competition or sense of rivalry among them. The process was easy because they were so good at what they brought to the table, maintains Haasan.
“‘Vikram’ is a high-octane action thriller, but it’s not a fairy-tale kind of narration. And, it’s not going to be as realistic as ‘Nayakan’ either. This film will put you on the edge of your seat and you will not leave the cinemas with a smirk but awe,” said Haasan.
Without any sense of artifice, Haasan reveals that he didn’t know these two acting powerhouses intimately. Both Faasil and Sethupathi are actors who don’t look like conventional heroes but have made an indelible mark as ferociously good actors.
“I didn’t know them as people intimately. But they have been following me. It’s like I was in this glass cage and they had a one-sided view of me. They knew all about me, but I had to get to know more about them and what they had done. Both claimed to be my admirers and I believed them,” said Haasan in all humility.
The pair reminded him of his eternal fan-boy moment with the late screen idol and politician Sivaji Ganesan. Though he acted with Ganesan as a child and other several films, he remembers how he was reluctant to express his adulation because he feared being rejected or slighted (“What if he just nods, when I profess my love. That’s like love being denied.”)
“Peers admiring you and the general audience admiring you are two different things. It’s very difficult to get peer respect. It comes from a reluctant source and it must have come from a deep place for them to say it aloud. Critiques from your peers don’t come with an open heart. They are your competitors who are always looking to critique you. They tend to sit on their hands instead of applauding … It must have taken them a lot to come out and tell me.”
But he wasn’t always born with that aura of tangible star-power, he warns us.
“It’s a confidence that comes over time. I have always wondered why Brando has this panache and I am not able to get it. When I say his lines, I sound so juvenile. Life saturates you with a certain stillness that comes with experience. Otherwise, you are like a little brat running around and doing too many things. As you mature, you sit down and start watching instead of just looking,” said Haasan.
The actor has been on a publicity blitzkrieg and was at the recently-concluded 75th Cannes Film Festival. A few hours after this sit-down interview, he was planning to head to the Burj Khalifa to unveil the trailer of ‘Vikram’ to his UAE fans. So what was the reception at the Cannes known for its discerning cinephiles who are notorious for booing if what they see isn’t impressive?
“They understood that this genre is different. And remember, we are not competing with Fellini [Federico] or Godard [Jean-Luc] … They are not going to either hoot or applaud after watching ‘Top Gun’. They just known what to expect with such films. The audiences at Cannes is getting an understanding of not only celebrating excellence, but top-notch techniques are also appreciated,” said Haasan. They are learning to appreciate a blockbuster-friendly material like ‘Top Gun’.
“Making films like ‘Top Gun’ or ‘Mission Impossible’ is not easy. Shooting a scene where he scales up the Burj Khalifa isn’t easy and they know that.”
Talking of ease, nothing about ‘Vikram’ was particularly stress-free and smooth. The film has survived multiple lockdowns and production delays owing to COVID-19. The film began around the same time when Haasan was ‘deep into politics’. Tamil Nadu politics has a rich history of influential actors entering the fray. In February 2018, Haasan launched his own regional political party in Tamil Nadu called ‘Makkal Needhi Maiam’
“Yes, I was into politics and I went deep into it to get a grip of it. To do films and politics was difficult in the beginning. But actors like MGR and NTR have done it before. But they all began calling me a full-time politician, but that doesn’t make sense … There’s nothing called a full-time anything. There are so many facets to us. What if you like skydiving or deep-sea diving and is a bigger passion than being a journalist?,” he asks softly. Even when he’s airing his solid views, his voice doesn’t sound defiant or defensive. His philosophy when it comes to his craft of acting and politics is uncomplicated.
“I am not in this game for money. Money, my films will give me … But I am not into politics for the money,” said Haasan. He has an interesting analogy. In life and politics, he has learned to look at the bigger picture and refuses to be that antsy driver of a car who keeps looking at the parking ticket clock move.
“Around 36 years ago, I stopped acting in many films at one time. When I did ‘Nayakan’, I was just doing that one film and my acting technique improved. I wasn’t looking at the parking meter … the waiting period for a film to release — even if it takes four or eight years — didn’t daunt me at all.”
And remember, nobody can do everything. He claims he’s competing with his own body of work and has no time to wonder what his peers are up to either.
“I am not being arrogant or narcissistic either. But I know I have to be different from myself instead of competing with others. I trim my beard every day because I get bored of myself and I want to change it up. And perhaps, that’s why I do so many get-ups in my films.”
While movies and politics excite him tremendously, his unflappable and almost-Zen exterior sees a variation when he talks about his biggest pet peeve in life. Apathy towards who’s governing you in a democracy can ruin his day.
“Everybody should participate with due diligence. You have to keep a vigil on things. I always tell my party people and those who are reluctant to talk about politics … there are thugs in politics. It’s like dealing with the mafia … So you must have your own voice … Take care of your politics as much as you look into your bank account books. The way you check those numbers, check what in politics works for you.” Choose your leaders wisely, he warns.
“Socrates or Oliver Cromwell were all saying the same thing … If do nothing we become a part of this demagogy … Gandhiji taught us that you don’t have to be somebody special to do ‘satyagraha’. If you believe in your truth, you stature in society does not matter.”
His politics also invariably seep into his films. He’s often taking up social issues in his blockbusters.
“Remember, you can be a billionaire like Elon Musk or Mahatma Gandhi who can denounce everything and still own everything … And like Gandhi said: ‘there’s enough for every man’s need, but nature cannot provide even for one man’s greed’,” said Haasan.
This actor, who comes across as a powerful orator, only exercises greed when it comes to making films that have global appeal. Ask him about how South Indian films are casting a shadow over Bollywood films with its blockbuster reign, Haasan keeps it pragmatic.
“It’s a cycle … Remember a Malayalam film like ‘Chemeen’ with Madhu became a national film. I was from Tamil Nadu and I saw crowds thronging to see a Malayalam film. It wasn’t a verbose film … I consider ‘Aradhana’ and ‘Padosan’ pan-Indian films back then … Cinema has a language of its own and it goes beyond language barriers.”
“Any movie will hopefully talk for itself. We have done enough hype about ‘Vikram’. But we cannot keep beating our chest and say that this is the best film ever made … I don’t believe in perfection, I believe in excellence.”
Don’t miss it!
‘Vikram’ is out in UAE cinemas.