Acting Legend Kamal Haasan Looks to the Future of Indian Movies

In a career spanning 57 years that began at age four, Indian actor and filmmaker Kamal Haasan has played many roles — dancer, choreographer, actor, screenwriter, director, producer, lyricist and even playback singer. He also proved to be a successful businessman, with his own film production company. Add this to the list: Man with a social mission. Haasan mobilizes his enormous fan base to perform good works — a task that has garnered him even more recognition, this time from the Indian government.
As a pioneer in the movie industry, he sees the inevitable use of digital platforms for Indian movie makers even as Netflix and YouTube make inroads into the country. And while the Indian film industry could learn a thing or two about movies from Hollywood, Haasan believes they have an advantage when it comes to producing quality films under tighter budgets.
He shared his insights into the Indian movie business in an interview with Knowledge@Wharton, conducted by Wharton professor Kartik Hosanagar, at the recent Wharton India Economic Forum in Philadelphia. Below is an edited transcript of the interview.
Knowledge@Wharton: Kamal, thank you so much for joining us.
Kamal Haasan: Thank you, my pleasure.
Knowledge@Wharton: Before we begin, I want to share a quick anecdote. I went to college at BITS Pilani in India and … one year, the Pilani Summer Association screened [Avvai Shanmugi]. Before the screening, a few students walked in with a big portrait of yours, garlanded it, did an aarti [a Hindu prayer] and then the screening began. No other film and no other actor got that kind of attention. I know they did it in a lighter vein, but it speaks volumes about your fans and how diehard they are.
Could you tell us a little bit about your relationship with your fans?
Haasan: My relationship [with my fans] has been very different [from those of other actors.] … I have become — from just [being] their entertainer — their elder brother and sort of a leader to them.
I was not planning to lead or even follow, but it just happened that I had this enormous manpower [at my disposal] going to waste — or to politics – and I didn’t want either happening. So we converted all of them into a social service arm. Now, we have about 300,000 to 400,000 actual workers who could go out into the field and do things on command, but only for civic reasons, not political or rabble-rousing of any sort.
“It’s a reversal of roles. I have become their fan for all that they are doing for society and we are working together.”
We are part of the Clean India movement … launched by the [Indian] prime minister. We have been doing that for the past 30 years. So being chosen as one of the [program’s] ambassadors is more of a recognition for me than a new appointment. And it’s only because of [the fans].
The amount of money that has been spent — in dollar terms, it might mean little — is $6 million or $7 million. But those currencies are wet with sweat — they are from hard working [people]. Some of them are laborers earning very little, but they donate. We have created a habit of donating and serving among even those who are [barely] making ends meet.
Knowledge@Wharton: Wow.
Haasan: It’s a reversal of roles. I have become their fan for all that they are doing for society and we are working together.
Knowledge@Wharton: As you reflect on your career, what were the key moments or the key opportunities that changed your career trajectory?
Haasan: Well, when I see actors, not only in Hollywood, but even [elsewhere], they scheme, they plan, they sit and decide what they are going to do. I did nothing of that sort. If I tell you the coincidences that happened that made me go from one to another, it’s unbelievable. When I had given up on acting because my father thought I should pursue school, I was seven or eight and I had an accident in school while fooling around. I fell into the well of a staircase, three stories down.
That notoriety gave me a visibility that took me to theater. I was known as the kid who survived the fall. Somebody looking for a child actor for his theater group found me and became my guru. And I became one among [his] family. He is T.K. Shanmugam, the doyen of Tamil theater … after whom I named a film, ‘Avvai Shanmugi.’
He has mentored so many actors and I was one of them. Then I became a dance choreographer — again, another accident. I was only playing sound for rehearsals, then they found I could dance and took me in. My boss at that time became a director, like how Bob Fosse [moved] from choreography to film direction. I latched on, and became an assistant director. All this happened between [the ages of] 16 and 19.
[That was] probably the perfect time — it’s like going to film school. But I wish I had gone to film school. It was [about] finding my way, which was very bad. I wrote my first screenplay when I was 19. The director of the film thought I should star in it because I understood the character best. Then, my mentor, [Indian actor, producer, director] Mr. K. Balachander found me.
He liked me and I told him, “I’d like to become a director like you, sir, one day.” He said, “Don’t be a fool, take up acting. I see you becoming an actor.” And I was wrong and he was right. And he said, “You can become a director whenever you want, because you are trained for it. But this is something else that doesn’t happen to everybody.” I did 36 films with him. He was like a father to me.
Knowledge@Wharton: Are there other people or maybe other films that inspired you? You’ve been an inspiration to many actors and directors, and so I am curious to know what inspires a person who inspires others.
“It’s time India started making its films in the language that it communicates in — interstate communication.”
Haasan: I thought my world ended with [Indian film acting legends] Sivaji Ganesan and Dilip Kumar. Then later, we saw [Marlon] Brando. We understood Brando, then Orson Welles and [other actors] like that.
My horizons broadened further. I saw European actors. We had thought Hollywood was the zenith. Then we found various pockets of genius, where even Hollywood picks up [ideas] from. We got introduced to Japanese, Chinese, Dutch cinema and they have all been inspirations in my career.
Knowledge@Wharton: You also are trained as a dancer and your experience in the performing arts could be a source of inspiration for you as an actor, but tell us a little bit more about what you draw upon as an actor. Is it sheer instinct? Is it dance training? What is it?
Haasan: Dance training can be only one part. If you see Christopher Walken, I never knew he could even dance. That’s not what I admired him for. It was a surprise that he could dance. Dance could be just a part of your acting prowess. As a matter of fact, [take] Fred Astaire … they always talk about his dancing. Or Gene Kelly. Both of them were good actors, too. They didn’t focus on it as much as they did on dancing.
Cinema is a very versatile medium. To be serving that medium, you have to be versatile; you have to know so many things. I enjoyed it and as I grew up, my eyes opened to cinema. I probably understood, like, how a child born in a computer environment plays easily with it than the person who … slowly touched it and got used to it. It’s like today’s children who … start playing baby games on an iPad.
Knowledge@Wharton: Let’s talk a little bit about your movies. You’ve had some amazing films, like ‘Nayakan,’ which I saw for a second time this week and was blown away by its intensity. But there are so many others — the list is so long. ‘Michael Madana Kamarajan,’ ‘Avvai Shanmugi,’ ‘Saagar,’ ‘Rama Shama Bhama’ and many others. I am curious to understand how you go about selecting your films. What is the process in deciding ‘I am going to do this film and not that other film’?
Haasan: It’s complicated, but it’s very simple, also. It’s the way you select the films you see. Some people pick the right movie all the time, because they have been doing only that; they love it. They say, “Not this one,” and you are wondering which one to pick. And there is this wise cinema geek [inside you] who tells you, “Go to that one because I think it’s going to be good.” It’s still taking a chance. But that’s what I obey — that audience in me.
I think ultimately all directors are trying to become the audience they once were — where you could totally concentrate on the center of screen. The moment you become a technician, you start watching the corners. So you’re not actually immersed into the watching of the film. Other details crowd your mind. So most great directors are simplifying their job and becoming the audience is probably the zenith of their wish list.
Knowledge@Wharton: You gave the perspective of the director or the cameraman, and you, yourself, have been a producer, you have directed, you have written. Could you tell us a little bit about what got you into producing and directing, and why did you decide to do it yourself?
Haasan: Survival. It’s like being a gladiator and then starting a gladiator school and then becoming Spartacus. It became that because the kind of films [other filmmakers] were doing were not satisfactory, and the kind of films I was suggesting would [be seen as interfering with the director’s plans]. Some people were lucky. Brando got a say in any film he did — he was such a big star. But I didn’t want to risk bad PR. So I put my money where my mouth was, and it worked. We have now produced 40 films under my company, of which we have more than 30 hits — hits which include films like ‘Thevar Magan,’ even ‘Rama Shama Bhama’ we were part of.
Knowledge@Wharton: Kamal, let’s talk about Indian cinema in general, and the challenges and the opportunities it faces. If you look at Indian cinema, there are some great movies. There is [Indian film maker] Satyajit Ray, your own film, ‘Nayakan’ directed by Mani Ratnam, which has been listed by Time magazine as one of the 100 best films of all time.
While we have produced these movies, it’s also true that given how massive the market is, these movies are more exceptions than the norm of the industry. You also alluded to the fact that you became a producer because the kinds of films you wanted to make weren’t being made. Could you tell us why — despite India being such a big film market — it hasn’t been producing great cinema?
“You cannot stop technology — it will come. And it is the way to go. Netflix and YouTube are coming in … and that is the future.”
Haasan: More people with money started dictating the proceedings of the business — [fewer and fewer] visionaries were doing it.
I would put the blame on great people like [Indian film director and producer] K. Asif who were taking so long to make films. If they had only made them faster, they would have set examples, set the pace, set the bar higher every time.
It was very difficult, a very tough market and there weren’t any studios; they all shut down soon after [India’s] Independence [in 1947]. Everybody was an independent producer. They didn’t go the Hollywood route, so everybody was risking it.
Even at my own company, [we are] two brothers running the company. But we are visionaries, we look at what we want to do and we bet. The stakes are high, but we bet on what we believe in. And it’s worked about 30 times for us.
Knowledge@Wharton: If you look at Hollywood, for example, development, which is licensing a book or writing the screenplay, takes up 10% to 15% of the total budget. I looked at similar numbers for the Hindi cinema industry, and it was around 1% to 1.5%. And I imagine it’s similar in other Indian languages.
Haasan: No, it’s even less. It’s so reliant on [movie] stars and their existing fame that it doesn’t try anything else. They don’t believe truly that content could become king. They think they need an actual king with a crown in physical form. That’s why they go to stars all the time.
But things are changing now. It’s time India started making its films in the language that it communicates in — interstate communication. It is not done in the Kannada [language] between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka [adjacent states with different spoken languages]. Interstate communication between Maharashtra [state] and Tamil Nadu happens because we have one national language — called English. So that is our strength and we should start making films in that language.
Knowledge@Wharton: What does it take for writers to get due attention in the industry? Is it happening already?
Haasan: It’s slowly happening. My company had screenplay workshops where we had international writers come and attend. [Indian Institute of Technology] Madras was kind enough to offer space, and that’s probably one time where the two spectrums met. They never ever got together, and both need each other that way — the creative writers and technical talent. IIT is where the intelligentsia is supposed to reside. If that connects with Tamil filmmaking, look at the kind of synergy they could create.
I am very keen on [setting up] a media school. All those opportunities that I missed should be given to this extraordinary talent. We have neglected most of the talent in India, like in [Indian states like] Assam, Meghalaya and the Northeast Frontier itself.
Knowledge@Wharton: Another criticism of Indian cinema tends to be the nepotism in the industry. It’s hard for a newcomer to get in and it’s easier for insiders. What’s your take on that? Is that fair? More importantly, is it possible for somebody with new creative ideas or with great talent to break in even if they have no connections?
“With platforms, with or without television, delivering material direct-to-home is going to work.”
Haasan: No, it’s happening. I was a nobody when I came into [the movie industry]. But they welcomed me. That’s true of Hollywood, too.
Knowledge@Wharton: Well, there are fewer father-son [combinations] that you can point to in Hollywood.
Haasan: A kid who has been in cinema from three-and-a-half [years of age] benefits. He understands it better. Look at me.
Shruti, my daughter, is in the movies. She understands it better, but she didn’t want to become an actor. She actually is a graduate from Musicians Institute in [Los Angeles]. But then, she came back and she took to acting. She has kept her career on hold as far as music is concerned, but now, after becoming a star, she is using it to her benefit.
Knowledge@Wharton: What would be your advice for somebody who wants to break in, has talent, has an idea, but doesn’t have the connections? What’s the right way to approach it?
Haasan: I’m trying to create a media school that trains. People [will tell you] that they have worked under somebody — like a director, and learned film direction from him. It’s a lie. You cannot teach warfare during battle.
Knowledge@Wharton: That’s an interesting perspective.
Haasan: Yes, you don’t teach them stroke by stroke, you don’t tell them how to defend, they just watch and pick it up. And that’s dangerous. The best way is to learn in a school for fighters and that’s what should happen. My advice is that my career took a strange twist and turn and got me into the right spot, but I don’t think that’s a good example to follow, because not everyone can be that lucky — finding good teachers all the time. For me, my teachers paid me instead of the other way round. They paid me and taught me. And that’s not going to happen [to everyone].
So they should prepare themselves, like it’s a serious business like cinematography. You can’t just come in here and handle a camera. You have to know where the switches are, what an aperture is, how it grabs light and what all you could do further and what you could do on film.
You must know the earlier history of how we suffered and how this has gone even further ahead. All that is knowledge and study and that should be done, even in acting, and even in film production. Carrying a bag load of money and becoming a producer is no good. That’s what happened to [Indian cinema]. That’s what went wrong. Now is a time when even the producers will have to be trained.
Knowledge@Wharton: Let’s talk about digital platforms and their relevance in India. Netflix entered India recently. In India, the Internet as an option [for movie streaming] is increasing, but at the same time, broadband speeds aren’t quite the same [as in the U.S.]. What’s your take on digital platforms for movies and related content?
“If you want to pull off a film like that in Hollywood, it will cost you $20 million, $25 million. We’ve done it at half the price and the quality is not bad at all.”
Haasan: I have both cut my teeth and broken it on that platform, in the sense that I was the first man attempting day and date release on a DTH (direct-to-home) platform. The whole industry came piling down on me, like American football.
Knowledge@Wharton: Was this ‘Vishwaroopam’ (a 2013 movie)?
Haasan: Yes, ‘Vishwaroopam.’ They banned the film, they stopped the film, they did everything possible, then I had to wave a white flag and say, “Okay, not DTH, I will come back to the theater.” Which is okay, I guess, but the door is already open, the idea is planted.
You cannot stop technology — it will come. And it is the way to go. Netflix and YouTube are coming in and I’d like to explore them, work with them and that is the future, because the convenience of the customer will garner more money, if you supply to that need.
Knowledge@Wharton: In fact, these platforms in the U.S. have also made a new kind of content possible. For example, Netflix has produced several shows, and so have Amazon, YouTube. Netflix has “House of Cards,” which is a great success, and many others. Is there a similar opportunity in India for certain kinds of films that have an audience, but perhaps, are not meant to be large-scale blockbusters?
Haasan: Not all satellite channels in India are owned by companies. Some are held by politicians. So it’s only a propaganda tool — news, propaganda and that’s it. They are not looking at it as a great business opportunity. The moment they do that, it will be great.
Knowledge@Wharton: But you think the opportunity is on the TV side, and not so much Netflix and YouTube doing that?
Haasan: Netflix and YouTube have a fantastic potential in India. Maybe a few more will try to follow the pattern of success. That’s the way to go, especially in a country where there’s no transparency at the box office. I am so happy to see the way television in America is going, because it’s not driven by people who are only crunching numbers. It’s taking a very intelligent turn.
Knowledge@Wharton: You’re hopeful there could be a similar renaissance of television in India as well?
Haasan: I hope so, but I don’t know. It should have happened by now; we are already late. But I think it will copy. With platforms, with or without television, delivering material direct-to-home is going to work. Now, direct-to-laptops and gadgets is going to be the way. The length of the film might become extraordinarily long, but it will become smaller, like serials. A 10- to 20-minute short might soon become 10 minutes and you will do hundreds of them, so it will become a 1,000-minute show.
Knowledge@Wharton: We’ve talked a little bit about what has gone wrong and the challenges Indian cinema faces. What is perhaps the most important thing that other film markets can learn from Indian cinema?
Haasan: Oh, that is the ingenuity of making films with whatever we have. If I tell you the budget of ‘Vishwaroopam’ … You won’t believe it, because it is a little less than $10 million, and that includes my remuneration, which is a big chunk.
Knowledge@Wharton: It’s a big-budget movie, right? It has a lot of special effects and all of that.
Haasan: If you want to pull off a film like that in Hollywood, it will cost you $20 million, $25 million. We’ve done it at half the price and the quality is not bad at all. You’ve seen Hollywood films and you’ve seen ‘Vishwaroopam.’
Knowledge@Wharton: Yes, I’ve seen ‘Vishwaroopam,’ and clearly, in terms of the effects and all of that, it’s on par.
Haasan: So that’s what we shouldn’t lose, because our shaking hands with Hollywood shouldn’t grease it with a lot of dollars and make us complacent. Our quality comes from our use of budgets and working hard. What they should learn from Hollywood — most of the filmmaking industry — is the prep for a film. The way Hollywood preps is astounding. There is no bragging element in that — it’s all necessary, the way they do it. Yes, it looks a bit flamboyant for people who are budget-conscious. An Indian producer will still not understand why it is so important to spend money there.
Knowledge@Wharton: Finally, let me come back to where you began, which is your film career. After such an illustrious career, what is there left for you to do in cinema? What keeps you ticking within the film world?
Haasan: Applause and money.
Knowledge@Wharton: You never get tired of it?
Haasan: No, no, no, not of both. But apart from that, there’s a lot of work to do as far as India is concerned. As you I told you, the media school itself is a dream.
Now, we are writing a script with American writers — my friend Charles Oliver and a few other writers are sitting together and we are making a script in English. Hopefully, films like that would happen more often [instead of just talking about it].

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