Kamal Haasan’s masterclass on the making of Michael Madana Kamraj – Part 1
An exclusive interview by senior journalist Jyothi Venkatesh
Part 1 Compiled by JYOTHI VENKATESH
When I said master class I was not talking about me as the master. The reason I did not teach is because teaching needs a bigger sacrifice, that which equals a mother. I am a student, a perennial student which means I am more selfish than a teacher and I am willing to learn with the class but to address a class I am not too sure .Not that am nervous but it’s because I have a bigger appetite than a teacher and that’s why I need more teachers ,like I need a bigger plate to eat from. I have always stayed that way and this is the reason why I learnt so much from Ananthu ,Singeetham and K.Balachander ,who are all masters at the art of teaching which is one of the noblest and ancient professions.
I have always had gurus who only gave and I am trying to emulate the same quality and share my experiences during my learning process, but only if you return the favor by promising to do better than I and my gurus. New age film makers should move beyond being awed by what we did 30 years ago and create their own classics now. Let me tell u why it matters; Chaplin is somebody who unnerved me when I saw his films and made me question myself on my eligibility to become a filmmaker /film actor .All these questions throng me because apart from the massive work that he has done the halo around his head was blinding. Thanks to his daughter Geraraldine Chaplin who has done the greatest service to Chaplin and extended his longevity for at least another 100 odd years by creating a film using his leftover footage’s called ‘Unknown Chaplin’.
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As an artist the applause one gets confuses him as you become thirsty for more of that but that’s not good work as it’s merely an addiction. How do you space your applause, your works and your income? It’s a dichotomy that tears most of the actors apart, Heath ledger’s suicide comes from that. Guru Dutt’s suicide is for the same reason as he could have gone on to be a Mahaguru and I could have learnt under him. That’s my sadness and I am very angry with him even today.
Comedy is serious business. You must be willing to shed tears, sweat maybe even blood but the rest around you will be laughing. Ask a clown and he will tell you. The pratfalls are painful. The bat hits are with slit bats, yet it pains and also one should remember the louder the noise the bigger the applause. Nothing is easy. Simply balancing on a ball will not get you enough applause; a dangerous trick will get the applause. Knowing all of these and yet to be there is bravery. I was doing the Malayalam film Chanakya in Cochin when Singeetham came to me.
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Even during Raja Paarvai he was telling me about a subject called Advaitha. Singeetham was then considered an art film maker who had done Dikkatra Parvati, Vamsa Viruksha, an integral part of Vamsa Viruksha which is iconic in Karnataka film movement. He has worked against all odds and carved a niche for himself. Even after directing hits he applied to work as an AD with David Lean when he came to make the film” Passage to India” in India. That’s Singeetham for you. I had never before found such company wherein I could admonish him, applaud him all at the same time. Balu Mahendra and K.Balachander were the only other two but the former had a teacher in him and the latter was above all.
Singeetham always thought we were classmates but we were both A class part .Age was the only chasm between a child like friendship. Anyone who tells you “isn’t it good” is not goading you to say the right answer, he’s actually exhibiting his doubt and he doesn’t mind doing so, that’s how Singeetham is and very few people would do it. It’s always felt that if you ask a question with the answer embedded that’s not a good question at all, but I don’t agree because it’s also a willing reflection of accepting am not sure I am like that. Singeetham is like that and that’s why we became friends in spite of our age differences. The seed for Mchael Madana Kamarajan came from our previous outing “Pushpak” which was an exercise that gave us the muscularity to do “Aboorva Sahodharargal” which gave us the gut and post the success of “Aboorva Sahodharargal “we wanted to stop being technobrats and become entertainers once again.
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I was very keen on doing Appu 2 and I wanted him to escape from jail. I had even thought of a scene high up in the mountains with a high tension cable walk and Appu would be the only man to walk across the high tension cable but unfortunately he chooses a windy day and that’s how he loses his pole. Today when I saw “High Wire” I was reminded of that short man walking. That was the mindset then post success of Appuraja but like I said, we wanted to stop being technobrats and become entertainers .Around the same time Singeetham and I went to a marriage of one of our technicians at Palmgrove Hotel and both of us told P.C.Sreeram that we have come up with an idea of making a film with 4 characters. He very quickly said no as he wasn’t going to do masking all over again. That was a quick gut level reaction, unlike how he refused Kangana Ranaut. Pun intended.
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The plot of MMKR was simple; it’s Yaadon Ki Baarat x 2 or Deivamagan plus 1, MGR’s Nadodi Mannan x 2. The idea itself is age old being done over and over for decades. I did a diagram and I explained the plot with the sketch I made which was full of arrows and squares and a high point which we call the climax, and that’s how the film began. Singeetham understood it and said ok right away. We first wanted to make Kameshwaran an inventer/scientist because we came up with the idea of balloon, wheel etc in Appu Raja the scientist kind to fit in with his eccentricity. Actually Kameshwaran did not surface at all. I once again repeat here that I am not talking about the techniques of how we made 4 people, 10 of my elderly technicians will decipher it and guide you through it like the back of their hands. That’s not the trick.
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We started the film with separated brothers and I was unhappy with spending time to set the premise. So we came up with ‘Kadhai kelu Kadhai kelu’. I found a guy with a bio scope who was a part of the shoot which had a carnival set up around there and he was the last of the mohicans and I bought the machine from him as he was worried that he could not do anymore with it. The idea originated from there and I told Singeetham about the bioscope and added to him that he, Singeetham would play the role saying it would be a good way to establish your authorship on it and you are the sootradhari! Singeetham has a spirit of a child and he agreed. These are bigger technical problems than just making similar looking people appear 4 times on the screen, and I am very proud of the same.
We wanted to establish the fact that it’s a funny film and set the premise and mood during the opening song and usually humor is done by making big headed cartoon figures in posters. I suggested to do it in hue film and speed it up to save time on the narration and we did it with 4 people. But immediately after that I was not happy with the scientist and thankfully the screenplay was between Singeetham and me. Crazy Mohan was averse to being contained within an idea of screenplay and liked to play around freely with dialogues. Hence we brought him in at a later stage only. I told Singeetham that Kameswaran as a scientist didn’t work as a scientist should take you back in time or into the future, in short, it will be anything but believable.
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We always believed that the least we tamper with a role, it works wonders. I am neither a fan of superman nor batman but only of The Phantom by Lee Fak as none of his trappings give him super power and he could die anytime. He was a complicated vigilante and that’s what I love. I wanted Kameswaran to be a genius in anything from being a toilet cleaner to a cook and thankfully, we did go to the right end of the alimentary canal. Then I came up with the character of a Palakkad Brahmin. My first wife (Vani Ganapathi) was a Palakkad Brahmin and I liked the sing song manner of speaking .My experience of working in Malayalam films and having a lot of friends from Kerala helped me understand what goes wrong and right in the language. My guru in still photography, Ramamani , loved the idea of me playing a Palakkad Brahmin and asked me to go for it and added that no one could do it but for me. That’s how Kameswaran was born.
The original name for the film was Jolly Jag Jeevan Ram which probably was due to my influence working in Hindi films. Nobody was happy with it, after all we are Hindi agitators and they said it wouldn’t work. Madhana Kamarajan was a title suggested by Crazy Mohan to which I said yes, but felt it was not inclusive. I suggested adding Michael to it and that’s how it was born. For Michael I wanted to use a Tirunelveli accent as I wasn’t sure about Coimbatore because I hadn’t met Kovai Sarala then. We’ve heard on the news and read on papers about the scam of counterfeit notes being printed in Coimbatore so I wanted him to be connected to that and that’s how we drew Michael’s character.
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Another thing we wanted to do is mix the 4 children across religions and did not want to make it obvious so we just left it at that. What’s more important than how we did the multiple exposures was how we got these talents together. Everyone has an ego and at that time Nagesh and Manorama were not in speaking terms. They came into this film for the love of me and the bond they shared with me and I consider them as my mamma and papa of Tamil comedy. So I spoke to her and massaged her ego and asked her to watch Saraswathi Sabadham where the great Nagesh would never miss a chance to swipe at any co artist. That’s Nagesh who let you perform and kept watching you with open jaws.
I love Nagesh and you should also love him is what I told her. And on the other side, I told the same story to Nagesh to get him onboard. These are the kind of challenges I put together. For the female protagonists; we had Khushboo who was at the top of her game, Urvashi who was very famous and a favourite in Malayalam alongside being Bhagyaraj’s heroine, and Roopini. All of them would be squeamish about what would be their part and we couldn’t take any more of it and that’s when we decided to keep Michael single. These are the actual challenges while making a film. But I must tell you that Nagesh and Manorama were used to all the trials and tribulations during Appu Raja and had seen the results, so they would never ask questions.
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Manorama used to wait outside the set for over 6 hours while the climax was being shot without a whimper at Rathna studios (back then) and would not let anybody come and bother me as she understood that it was a process for me and did not want to interrupt it. For me these come above all in making a movie, techniques are available and you can Google and find your way in or out but this is simply Human Resource. Urvashi who was Malayali did not fully comprehend the Palakkad accent.
She speaks great Malayalam and Tamil but to convince her to get on the middle ground wasn’t easy. She refused to dub for the film initially. I insisted and sat with her every single day of the dubbing because I knew she had the winning hand, so much so, she became the protagonist in our next film Magalir Mattum. I called her for a rehearsal to a house at Triplicane for an entire day before the shoot. It was the director, me, asst directors and yes the cameraman with minimal lights and that’s when and how Thiruppu and Kameswaran happened.
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I am not surprised by the magic of the climax, am surprised by the magic that happened here. Some sets we over plan but this house we shot in was my Sanskrit teacher’s house. I was in Hindu high school and his son was the newsreader Mr. Varadarajan and we were scared of the Sanskrit teachers at school and kept making fun of them too. Ironically, here I was a few years later shooting in his house and it was surreal. While rehearsing I found the rat trap and I wrote it into the script right there and the shelf I open up was also written in the script when I came across it during the rehearsals. I was also considering another scooter accident where I fall because someone keeps yelling “Thiruppu Thiruppu “ and the entire team instantly broke into a laughter and this is the magic I make in movies as opposed to making one man appear 4 times .
Read part 2 of this interview here: Kamal Haasan’s masterclass on the making of Michael Madana Kamraj – Part 2