Unsurpassable! A milestone in Indian and Tamil Cinema! That is how synonymous this can get with Dasavatharam! How can someone even think of such a grand, glossy, brilliant, mind blowing screenplay at a time when filmmaking wasn’t developed enough to visualize its actual potential? But we do have a polymath who is one of his kinds to do this and he did. The name Kamal Haasan is called fondly by his fans as “Ulaga Nayagan ”. Celebrating 13 years of Dasavatharam here is an exclusive from his archive on the making. Read what Kamal Haasan has to say about celebrating 13 milestone years of his film Dasavatharam.
Over to Kamal. “A coveted file, which makes more sense when released today than yesterday. When you make art for posterity, do not expect sponsors to be in agreement .They are temporary and would think only for the moment. The greatest sponsors are artists themselves, fortunately in history sponsors have also been connoisseurs for instance and hence it helped art. You cannot expect that from corporations in a hurry who work for a quarterly review. People with vision register in history. For instance the Mogul Emperor, the German Monarch, Ashoka ,Chola and many more down the line in history.
DASAVATHARAM – THE THOUGHT AND PROCESS
Talking about embarking on this journey of making, he begins by saying Dasavatharam was a script which was declined by many directors who said they didn’t understand it, and quite unexpectedly Ravikumar jumped at it. He immediately claimed it a winner on cards and was surprised that it was turned down and asked to make the film while on a telephonic conversation with me at Eldams Road. That’s how the movie came into being! Most of the time I work alone and like to take the opinion of seniors and well wishers while on a project. For Dasavatharam it wasn’t any different and thus I wanted to take Mr Mukta Srinivasan’s opinion as he has strong instincts and is a brilliant short story writer. In Nayakan, thanks to Mr Mukta, the heroine’s character was beautifully written as a young girl who prepares her exams while being an inmate in a brothel.
Mukta Sir heard the Dasavatharam script and he said “Kamal you must watch over the film closely as it’s your idea and go further and foster it like your child. They will kill the child otherwise if you only decide to walk in and out of shoot”. I took his advice and spent all my time on it. Once I finished the logline with Mukta Srinivasan, the director was still skeptical about the way the script was written. We had Mr Sujata, Madhan, Ramesh Arvind, Mr Crazy Mohan all sit with us for a narration and I answered all the questions they kept asking. It was a very important exercise as they are all experts and have the expertise to analyze the script. My biggest support was from Sujatha who said “you got it bang on man”. The rest were new to the ideation, scale and budget.
Any producer would have found it ridiculous that the director and I went to the US for 21 days just to do make-up tests for all the looks, but we did it. Michael Westmore bent over backwards and did a stupendous job during the trial. Every day for 21 days was hard work and one time Mr Michael also pushed himself in helping me with wiring me for a photo shoot and held me too as I wanted to try a kick a certain way. Sometimes I did two different looks /make ups as we were building the makeup in layers and it was done in a lab. During the process Ravikumar realized the full scope of the looks and immediately engaged a photographer for $250 a day to record each look. Our producer was enthusiastic to immediately release all of the 10 looks in the media. However I had to stop him by telling him that people would not find a need to go to a cabaret or a strip tease if the advertising posters had images from the final climax and there is nothing further to entice them in!
“I knew we had something precious and convinced him to hold back and am grateful he understood then. I had taken to heart the advice of Mukta Srinivasan to closely guard my baby and just kept doing that. Towards the end of the filming, during the tsunami sequence we realized we needed a crore more to achieve the visuals written by me for the climax. Now people nonchalantly talk about 20 to 30 crores, but back then it was huge. I offered to rewrite the script without the tsunami and end it with the train sequence, but the butterfly effect would have been lost. But I was willing to do it or else I had to have an alternative producer. You must remember here that I once made a film named Vikram which was then called ‘Oru Kodi Rubai Kanavu’, but within two decades it was about a crore more for just one sequence, but that’s the evolution of cinema with technology. However, Ravikumar had fully understood the script and fought tooth and nail to get the climax done as scripted originally and we spent the additional 1 crore. I gave Ravichandran some of my rights to the film as I ALWAYS invest in my movies and we were partners in the film and he had seen my vision to fruition and we pulled off what was near impossible then. That’s how Dasavatharam was made and saw completion.
Everyone was pushed to their limits during the project. Gauthami’s contribution , art director Sameer Chanda did the first 10 minutes of the film and left, Thota Tharani picked up from there followed by Prabhakar who did the airport sequences. They all did a fabulous job. I remember that Jeeva was supposed to be the cinematographer but couldn’t take up the project. We had so many other good technicians who weren’t able to come on board. The entire concept of the film was new and challenging, like just the first 10 minutes sequence in re-creating a period cost 2.5 crores which was new to everyone. I am not being myopic to budgets, it is just that I am grateful to each and every technician who stood by me and made me achieve my vision.
“Be it art directors, stunt directors as some of the stunt sequences were like never before, the CG team who we used to quarrel with over budgets as they wanted 2 million and we used to ask them to show us a khadi Gramodyog way of achieving the output and that’s why due the lack of budgets some portions of CG might not look the way it was supposed to have looked. All of my technicians helped me complete the project through all the insults, quarrels, stressful environment etc and I am grateful to them and on the other hand, I would never forget or forgive those technicians who gave up and ran away like rats ditching the project. If you believe in something, it can always be achieved and example from way before is Aboorva Sagotharargal. It was not done by just a number crunching producer, but a visionary too. Pushpak, which had two visionaries and a businessman as producers helming it, was done on a small tight budget and yielded great results.
THE LOOKS AND THE MAKEUP
Westmore is a master of his craft and believes in least intervention with reality while creating a look and I consider him my Guru. He delves into the script completely and works on the looks. So much so he asked me why I had decided to name the samurai Shingen Narahachi and I had to explain to him how I am weaving in mythology and this character was an analogy to the Narasimma avatar and hence ‘Shingen’ like ‘Narasinghar’ It was amazing how he made my round eyes into beautiful Asian flat eyes to give me the perfect look for the character. Naidu was so simple yet went up a notch because of the accent. Westmore’s contribution to the film is equivalent to mine. Westmore was the 11th Avatar of the film, without him the other 10 would not have been possible. The easiest to carry off was Naidu and the most debilitating was Krishna paatti. For the latter he gave me a cataract eye and I couldn’t see. I was like a tortured animal and wanted the scenes with the paatti character to finish soon. It used to be excruciatingly painful every time there would be a delay due to technical issues.
Those apart now am going to talk about the actual “FIRST LOOK” of a few of the characters I preferred this Bhuvaraghavan but the team were too surprised or probably they did not recognize me at all, but I have many friends who look like that too but this was denied for various reasons. Though it was a personal favorite of Mike and I, we ended up having a more handsome looking Bhuvaraghavan. For me personally handsome was never about that face but that is what cinema loves so we decided on a slightly more cosmetic look for Bhuvaraghavan. The cliché look of what a scientist looks like in Tamil Cinema was a bespectacled nerdy guy almost played with a wig slapped on head that looked more like a scholarly cap than hair. Mike and I decided not to tamper with that and I felt that’s the only part where I play myself but for various other characters I had to shave my head based on schedule so unfortunately I landed up with a wig well done for the days I can see through it now but then it seemed convincing, so went with that.
I would have settled for Govind who was balding which Mike would have pulled off like a wizard that he is. The Balram Naidu wigs took 2 redos and finally ended up taking 2 months making us nervously teeter on the edge of breaking a schedule but it landed on time. My personal trainer who’s been with me for years did not recognize me as he stood beside Balram while the shot was being prepped. I wore the least prosthetic pieces for Naidu. Applause to the wig maker and Michael Westmore once again. The director wasn’t happy with this version of Bush because he was looking for a hero with every character.I was also looking for villains as a writer and Bush was an international villain according to me.
Most unforgettable was the first sequence where I had come up with a lot of the designs as the others didn’t know how to visualize or present it but I already had lessons out of experience from Maruthanayagam and taking notes from on not over building anything unrealistically but keep it believable. For example, the two guards standing on either side of the elephant were designed by me. It was novel for us, but done in history where the bodyguards would protect the king while on an elephant. It is basically two footboards on either side or the elephant actually felt very comfortable with the footboards pressing into it. We wanted to make a masterpiece and we didn’t look at money or fame, just our contribution to the art of cinema. We had various stunt directors supporting us which can be seen in various styles portrayed through the film as Fletcher’s stunts had to be different from the Samurai and that from the first and all this within a shoestring budget.
Lots of music directors found the script uninteresting and I was confused by their reactions. Worried by this, the producer said he will suggest names and suggested Himesh Reshammiya and added Mallika Sherawat too as his suggestion. Himesh did a wonderful job with the music when it was a time the press wasn’t very supportive of him. He delivered surprises like Mukunda Mukunda and Kallai mattum kandal which were big hits and weren’t like anything he did before. He allowed me to render the pallandu pallandu bit and added it as an overlap to his music. I was very embarrassed as I was conducting a group of singers here to record it and sent it to him. We never worked together again, but he proved a point with his good work then. The BGM was by DSP who was a bundle of energy and fun to work with.
Exemplary points were when Naidu realizes Srinivasulu is Telugu where it isn’t subtlety but on the top humor. We had so much fun working together that we decided to carry on the collaboration with him, the director and myself on to Manmadhan Ambu. We did not have good budgets for any of the artists/ technicians who came from overseas as with the conversion rates it was much lower to what they would get otherwise, but no one complained. Everyone worked with enthusiasm and enjoyed the process of being a part of a novel project.
Going back on the memories now, Dasavatharam was a master class for me on every technical aspect. There were many masters to teach and learn from and cinema was the ultimate master and very forgiving when we failed in some parts, definitely more forgiving than the audience who made it a hit. I can say I learnt democracy during the making of this film. The project would not have been possible with just me , or just Ravikumar or Ravichandran or just Westmore. It is all of us together that made it happen.