Excerpts from an hour-long conversation between Kamal Haasan and AR Rahman, moderated by Abishek Raaja.
Who is a Tamizhan?
When moderator Abishek Raaja asked the legends about how they would describe a Tamizhan, Kamal Haasan said that it was someone who first spoke the language. But beyond this, he said he considers a person a Tamizhan if his eyes well up when he comes across great poetry and as someone who smiles when he hears the word vanakkam after long.
Madras as the Cinema Capital of the country
During the talk, Kamal proposed that Chennai or the Madras of yore be known as the Cinema Capital of the country. “Bombay cannot be called the capital,” he said, adding that it is not the norm for non-Hindi films to be shot there. Whereas in Madras, it was common for films in at least four or five languages to be shot at all times. He added that, back then, in AVM Studios, you could spot Mohammed Rafi or Shammi Kapoor.
Kamal finding solace in the Malayalam industry
When AR Rahman spoke about how Malayalam songs were a part of his daily routine while growing up, given that his father was a composer for Malayalam films, Kamal explained how the industry helped him break out into a better actor. Recalling a conversation with his friend Ananthu when he was 19, Kamal said he felt so jaded by the monotonous work he was getting in Tamil that he wanted to either leave the film business altogether or end his life. Then, it was Ananthu who suggested moving to Malayalam cinema to get his creative juices flowing again. Within a couple of years, the Malayalam audience so embraced him they took offence when he was called a Tamilian.
Music is faster than words
Explaining a fascinating point about how his mind functions, Rahman said that he finds it difficult to keep up with the pace of his thoughts using words. He prefers music for this, and that’s when he comes closest to achieving the real expression of his thoughts. To this, Kamal explained how there’s a certain loss of information that takes place even when something is being written down. He also added that he had never seen Kannadasan write a single line. He would just listen to the tune and come up with beautiful poetry.
Kamal was late to discover Rahman
Kamal explained how he was late to discover Rahman’s genius. He said that he really enjoyed working with Rahman as a director because he made his job very easy. “Even though people credit me with being ahead of my time, I discovered Rahman only when everyone was already talking about him.” He adds, “I was totally blanketed by Raja.” To this, Rahman replied, “Music makes people loyal.”
The unpredictability of Rahman
Admitting that he wasn’t initially impressed with Rahman’s ‘Kappal Eri Poyaachu’ for Indian, Kamal said the song became something else and he loved it when he heard the final version. He wasn’t used to Rahman’s pattern of work and realised what he liked most was his unpredictability. Kamal said that usually, in a composer’s work, you could anticipate when they would use a flute or a particular beat. But that predictability was never there in Rahman.
“I Saw Dil Se 41 Times”
The conversation then veered to Kamal describing how his house had a funereal atmosphere after the failure of Hey Ram, a film that is being celebrated now. Explaining how Hey Ram was a gift he gave himself instead of lesser things such as cars or bungalows, Kamal said he never regretted making the kind of films he had promised himself he would make, decades ago. To this, Rahman narrated a similar experience with Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se. Recalling the shock at the film’s failure, he cited a recent incident where a lady in an American studio stopped Rahman to specifically tell him that she had watched Dil Se 41 times and wanted to congratulate Mani Ratnam for the film.
Dasarathan, the other child actor
When Rahman asked Kamal about the impact being a child star has had on his mental state, Kamal said he got lucky. Remembering Dasarathan, a child actor he grew up with, Kamal said he couldn’t handle the life it came with and he ended up becoming an alcoholic, despite his talent.
How make-up made a difference in Indian
Rahman explained how there was always an anger in Shankar’s films that everyone connected to. The hero of the film becomes our voice, and that’s what he learnt while working on his films. Speaking about Indian, Rahman describes it as one of the first instances for him to work on patriotic songs, along with the songs in Bombay. According to Kamal, one of the major reasons why the impact of Indian multiplied was because they opted for a great makeup artist from Hollywood. Producer AM Rathnam, who had worked as a makeup artist, knew the importance of it and was willing to spend money to make Indian thatha’s look ‘world class’ and it worked wonders. Kamal even remembered how his father’s friends became very emotional seeing him in that attire, as though they were seeing their friend again.
How travelling led to Rahman the writer
Explaining how he became a screenwriter, Rahman said it began in airports abroad where no one knew him. Watching people, he would form their backstories. Travelling opened his mind to stories. Rahman also added how technology like Virtual reality could really open the minds of people to unlimited possibilities capable of matching one’s imagination. To this, Kamal explained how he felt that filmmaking would become extremely personalised, with the audience filling in the blanks of what the creators were offering. He had even written about a VR-like future for an article in a magazine called Bommai 30 years ago, he added.
The mystery song
Before signing off, Kamal and Rahman created a lot of intrigue with the promise of a song they had worked on together. Rahman joked if they should release it now, and as fans, we can only wait. Going by the excitement with which Kamal spoke about it, this mystery song is sure to be something else.