"I have about 200 unpublished poems, I didn’t have the courage to publish earlier," says Kamal Haasan who recently released the hope anthem Arivum Anbum

Kamal Haasan on the making of Arivum Anbum, how the film industry will evolve after the current crisis ends, and the heroes who have influenced his thinking and approach to the arts

Ayesha Tabassum Published :  01st May 2020 12:00 AM   |   Published :   |  01st May 2020 12:00 AM

Kamal Haasan

There's no stopping Kamal Haasan. His voice is loud and clear. The filmmaker-actor-writer-politician, who has always been vocal about his thoughts, recently released Arivum Anbum, an anthem about hope, positivity and love, for these critical times. The actor’s idea of unity, love and kindness, conveyed through this anthem, has been received positively. The three million-plus views (and counting) that the track has garnered on YouTube serve as all the proof you need.

“I never expected the song to get such a response. We didn’t work on it to become famous, we worked on it because we enjoyed the process and we felt this is the right thing to do now,” says Haasan, who roped in other stars and musicians like Anirudh Ravichander, Yuvan Shankar Raja, Devi Sri Prasad, Shankar Mahadevan, Bombay Jayashree, Siddharth, Lydian, Andrea Jeremiah, Sid Sriram, Mugen Rao along with his daughter Shruti Haasan, to be part of the song that’s composed by Ghibran and edited by Mahesh Narayanan.

For the people
Arivum Anbum captures the mood of the country through its visual narrative. While it features the artistes who have collaborated for the song, it also showcases cities that are under lockdown. But more importantly, it highlights the predicament of the poor. Heart-wrenching images of thousands of migrant labourers carrying their belongings and walking back to their villages, and of those who were sprayed with disinfectants, are at the heart of this anthem.

“I am not able to go out on the streets and help them (referring to migrants) because of my age and the conditions that we are in. It’s an important situation in my country. I feel my people are lost. They are going in any direction they can, without a compass. I’m more worried about the poor. For the rich, life and livelihood are two different things, but for the poor, life and livelihood is a single unit. When they lose their livelihood, they lose their lives. These images reminded me of the time when India was partitioned, and people were left homeless,” says the actor, who had explored the theme of Partition in his period drama, Hey Ram (2000).

A still from Hey Ram

“Today’s visuals make me feel guilty that I did not treat these people well. They remind me of our ancestors who were pushed to march across the border. It doesn’t matter what religion they belong to, I know they are related to me. We can’t abandon them like that,” asserts the actor. Haasan’s intention behind including these visuals was to ensure that people don’t forget the plight of the people in need of help. “Our mind has a tendency to block out not only physical pain but also insults and shame. But this is something we can’t forget because it’s about us. And if we don’t correct it, we’ll keep repeating this mistake,” he says.

It’s this empathy for the masses that has made Haasan the beloved megastar and icon that he is. Every time he makes a film or speaks on a public forum, his commitment to people reflects in his work. Some of his movies such as Mahanidhi, Thevar Magan and Sathya portray his affinity towards capturing the quandary of the common man. Arivum Anbum too echoes the sentiment that Haasan stands by his people. “This anthem is for my boys and girls, my brothers and my sisters, who have been reaching out to the poor. They’re not doing it for votes. This anthem is for them because they are alleviating our people from such disarray… this anthem is also for those who are at the forefront for us,” offers the actor.

Kamal Haasan

Hero worship
Haasan has previously collaborated with music composer Ghibran on films such as Uttama Villain, Thoongaa Vanam, Kadaram Kondan and Vishwaroopam II. He reveals that he had written a poem and discussed it with the musician at first. But later, he realised that the usual way of composing the tune and then writing the lyrics would work better. “I didn’t want to constrain the music director because music plays an essential part. I wanted Ghibran to be an equal partner in this initiative. I told him, ‘You know the flow of my thoughts, so go with that flow and create music, don’t worry about what I write.’ I have always said these things (referring to equality) in my films, through my dialogues and in my speeches. I believe, the longevity of the ascent of man is because of his wisdom and kindness. If he loses both, he is lost. If he just has one trait, he’ll still be lost. That’s what I believe in. (Fritjof) Capra has written about this in The Tao of Physics, where he says, ‘Please understand and level yourself. Get a grip on your position in the system called the galaxy and see the world in a grain of sand.’ These are the ideas that come to my mind when I am working,” says the actor, who has scripted over 35 films and produced over 25.

Haasan is considered a legend in Indian cinema for being an actor, dancer, playback singer, lyricist, director and producer all rolled into one, but he never shies away from acknowledging his teachers and mentors. He considers his heroes his biggest influences. They defined his thinking and approach to filmmaking. “I am inspired by my heroes — K Asif, Kamal Amrohi, Hrishikesh Mukerjee, Dilip Kumar and Gulzar. I remember watching Achanak (1973) when I was an assistant director. I liked the film so much, I kind of became an underground PRO for this film. Hindi films were very rare in Chennai. So I would ask people, ‘Have you seen this film?’ I remember telling Gulzar that Achanak is a precursor to Sylvester Stallone’s First Blood. K Balachander too was my mentor. I admire M Karunanidhi and CN Annadurai’s work. Some of the stuff they have written was way ahead of their time. Honestly, when I look at my stature, it’s not truly mine. It’s built on the stature of my heroes, the heroes I chose and clamour about,” he says emphatically.

Keep rolling
While many stars from Indian cinema have come forward to do their bit for the country during these difficult times, Haasan minces no words when he says the film industry too will reel under economic losses once the crisis is behind us. “The whole country and the world is going down. It’s a challenge for mankind. There’s no bravado here, we have to accept the fact that we’re vulnerable. The cinema industry will suffer like every other industry. Yes, it’s very sad, but we are not an essential service,” he comments. However, though the industry will take a hit, the actor says there is light at the end of the tunnel.

A still from Vishwaroopam

A visionary who gave Indian cinema such technically advanced films as Dasavatharam and Vishwaroopam, Haasan has always looked at the future of cinema and filmmaking. However, he says, “The film industry has been very resistant to any kind of evolution or revolution. I’ve been at the forefront of such changes. And there has always been resistance. We need to work with synergy in today’s multimedia world. Platforms are merging together and we cannot think of these as separate entities. Art is going to be more and more democratic, and more accessible. Today, critics of cinema can become filmmakers. It was very difficult (to become a filmmaker) during the times of Jean-Luc Godard, François Roland Truffaut and Éric Rohmer. When they came, they had to run a magazine first, then older filmmakers challenged them saying, ‘You criticise existing cinema trends, then why don’t you try making a film?’ They did make films and changed the face of French cinema, and probably World Cinema, forever. So those things are about to happen. I’m an optimistic man. It’s okay to be a sceptic. But you can’t lose optimism because of that. You have to be reasonable, and I think, in my reasoning, this industry and this art will change.”

Though Haasan is upbeat about what the future holds for Indian cinema, at the same time, he cautions that only talent will survive and remain eternal. When asked about the future of superstars who are loved by the masses, and who guarantee house full shows, the actor expresses his acerbic opinion. “The audience and respected critics need to understand that talent is remembered and stars are always transient. I am not talking about actors like Dilip Kumar or Shivaji Ganesan. They weren’t just stars. There is a difference. When stars become more aware (of themselves), you find they are not bitter. They may be critical (about their work), but that’s because they know their job. They tend to be more successful when they are retreating from their work and going towards leisure. Happy and successful ones go out with a smile. I’ve seen such actors. I’ve seen them go. I’ve seen my own guru, my father figure, Shivaji go away very gracefully. There was no remorse at all. So what happens to a star is probably the worry of the ardent fans. But it won’t bother the actual star and I’ve had the honour of meeting such people. Nobody needs to worry, even the stars themselves will accept what is given to them.”

Kamal Haasan

Looking forward
With the release of Arivum Anbum, the actor’s love and penchant for writing is back in the spotlight. When asked if his fans will get to read the original poem that he had penned before the lyrics were written, Haasan reveals, “I have about 200 poems, which are not published. I didn’t have the courage to publish because I rub shoulders with some of the best poets from different countries. So, I had this inferiority complex (about my poetry). I felt like Kuchela from Mahabharata, I wondered, how could I go and show them my poverty (referring to his poems). This was holding me back. But now, I think I am ready because there are ‘poorer’ people (referring to other poets) around me. I think I am not so bad. I will probably publish these poems because I’m under pressure from people who love me and know me.”

But the actor who forayed into politics with the launch of his party Makkal Needhi Maiam in February 2018, also discloses that there is a long way to go for him before he retires. He says, his passion to serve people will keep him engaged for now. “I woke up with this calling and I didn’t even realise it was a call. For 60 years, the people of India have appreciated me and made me happy, despite all my vagaries. I don’t care for money like some of my peers do. But I am happy. I eat well, I drive a good car and stay in a good place, unlike my poorer friends (referring to migrants) who are walking from Delhi to Agra. I’m very grateful to those guys who are walking on the streets, some of them must have paid to see my work. I need to pay it back with my blood and sweat. By paying taxes, I have done my duty. But it’s not enough. That’s why I entered politics. And that’s why I call myself a neo-polity culturist. Not just a politician,” he signs off.

Kamal's secret to staying calm
The actor says, "Calmness comes from knowledge, it does not come by throwing punches. You attain this state when you receive punches because then you know where these are coming from and how you need to respond."

The auteur’s take
For the Hindi version of Arivum Anbum, Haasan has requested Gulzar to translate the song. The actor says, “Gulzar had done a wonderful translation of the song Kanne Kalaimane (from Moondram Pirai) to Surmai Ankhiyon Mein for Sadma. His version was such a hit that people later couldn’t tell if the Tamil track or the Hindi translation was the original. If he agrees to translate, he can take Arivum Anbum across the country.”

On Dalton Trumbo
“When I was 18, I discovered Dalton Trumbo. I thought of him like family, I felt I discovered him, and that he came from my native place. I rejoiced when Hollywood celebrated him now. It was as if my father or my uncle was being celebrated.”