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Sunday, May 18 1997

We are capable of making films for people worldwide

Mukund Padmanabhan

Although he claims he took to acting reluctantly, Kamal Hassan is a natural. Over the years, he has often defied traditional cinematic wisdom by churning out box office successes despite plumping for unconventional roles. That he received the national award for his role as an aged avenger in Indian (Hindustani in Hindi) is perhaps an affirmation that commercial cinema does not preclude good acting. Although an experienced hand in the cinematic world, Kamal Hassan is at a crucial stage of his career, having decided to direct his first film Marudanayagam this year.

Despite being extremely busy with the Hindi remake of Avvai Shanmughi (``I leave the house as 3.30 a.m. and get back when it is time to sleep''), Kamal Hassan found time to speak to Mukund Padmanabhan. During the interview, he spoke on what the national award meant to him, his constant quest to become better and better and why he detests the traditional distinction made between art and commercial cinema. Excerpts:

How does it feel to be honoured by the national best actor award?

Applause and awards always mean something to an actor. At 23 or 24, I would have said that what really matters is applause. Over the years, I have seen a lot of applause.

At this stage of my career, it means something to be selected among many other deserving actors for the best actor award. This year, the film Indian provided a vehicle for it.

How well do you think you performed in Indian? Wouldn't it be true to say you have done better performances?

Yes, I have done better performances. At least, critics and others have said so. However, when considering Indian, you have to account for its overall impact. The content is interesting. The make up is of international quality. All this put together has lent an edge to the performance.

Generally, however, I would say that the performance of the actor in Indian is better than that of the actor in Nayagan.

Why do you say this? Are you suggesting that with experience, you are improving all the time?

Well, there was more subtlety, more discipline in the Indian role. As far as improvement, the idea is to get better and better all the time. As an actor, I would like to believe I am inching towards excellence. To tell myself that I can pursue it.

Did the role of an elderly avenging angel in Indian especially appeal to you?

Well, there is a story connected with this. Just before I was offered the role, I had wanted to make a film with a strikingly similar theme that had an old man in the lead role. I had wanted Sivaji Ganesan to play the part.

Then (director) Shankar came along with the Indian proposal. (Laughs) I guess in accepting the role, the selfish actor in me overcame the director in me.

Does acting come naturally to you?

I acted in my first film, Kalathoor Kanamma, when I was just three and a half. But as I grew up, I did not want to pursue it. I had an inferiority complex, a feeling that I didn't have the `in' look. Namely, that I wasn't handsome or slightly plumpcharacteristics that seemed necessary at the time.

I started of as a dance assistant, went on to script-writing and so on. It was (director) K. Balachander who helped me overcome my reluctance to act. He revealed the opportunities before me as an actor and showed me that I had other capabilities than that of a technician.

Apart from advising me not to go in that direction, he also pointed out that acting could be a lucrative business.

You enjoy and appreciate serious Western cinema. Could the manner in which any international director has handled actors, influenced the way you act?

Well, that's too far-fetched. In this respect, K. Balchander is the one single influence as far as directors go.

However, among the foreign directors I appreciate are Akira Kurosawa, who is outstanding. I'm a bigger fan of Truffaut than Goddard. There is Orson Welles. Also David Lean, another outstanding talent. Though I am not necessarily thinking about Lawrence of Arabia and so on, but his earlier works.

Can you name a film where you have been especially satisfied with your performance?

To be very frank, I am always most satisfied with the film I am engaged with. It is when the film is ready, when the first print is out, that you begin feeling a sense of disillusionment. You feel you want to do it again, to get it absolutely right. But in this business, another chance is not offered to you.

As a talented actor, have you felt uncomfortable with striking a balance between art cinema and commercial cinema?

I get angry with this distinction that people make. In fact, I hate it. Shyam Benegal belongs to me as much as I belong to his world. When Thevar Magan celebrated its silver jubilee, people were surprised when I called Shyam Benegal to the function.

In the Hindi remake of Avvai Shanmughi, we have Om Puri, Paresh Ravel, Tabu and Amrish Puri. Actors cross the line. Amrish Puri is Mogambo one day, something else the next. What you really have is successful good cinema and bad cinema.

In terms of quality, I don't think India is far behind the rest of the world. Today, we are cpable of making films for consumers all over the globe.

What are your plans for the future?

I hate making plans. They seem too solid. Life is too transient for plans.

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