The month of December has been hectic for Kamal Haasan. He has been flying across the country in a private jet to promote his forthcoming film, Vishwaroopam (as the cosmic form of god is referred to), but more than that the actor-producer-director has been talking to producers, theatre owners and direct-to-home (DTH) companies.
Haasan is facing the ire of theatre owners. Several Tamil Nadu theatres have threatened to boycott the film which has been written, directed and co-produced by him and in which he appears in the lead role. Haasan has, after all, done the unheard of.
On January 10, a day before Vishwaroopam will release in theatres, Haasan is broadcasting the film on DTH at prime time — 9 pm. He has roped in six DTH operators to show his Rs 95-crore film in Tamil and Hindi. The movie will later be release in Telugu.
It’s never easy to catch hold of Haasan. Long waits outside his office and his house, several phone calls, repeated requests — nothing worked and the 58-year-old actor remained evasive for nearly three months. The last week of December then suddenly presented an opportunity when Haasan held two events: one, to announce the tie-up with Airtel DTH and the other a get-together with producers, theatre owners and DTH partners.
Haasan appears unfazed by the hullabaloo created by his decision to air the film before it hits theatres. Ask him about his penchant for landing into controversies and he quips, “Don’t you think it’s nice to remain in headlines?”
From his 1992 film Thevar Magan, which had the Thevar clan opposing his portrayal of the communal violence on silver screen, to the Vishwaroopam dispute, several of Haasan’s movies have been embroiled in controversies.
His 2000 movie Hey Ram, which looked at Gandhi as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and not as Mahatma, was labelled ‘anti-Muslim’ and ‘anti-Gandhi’ without much thought to the layers it unraveled and the nuances it explored. “That man (Gandhi) is an important hero for me. Not because he is a Mahatma. I have already stripped him of the halo around his head which was disrespectfully hoisted there by people with political intent,” Haasan told students of IIT during an interaction in 2011. “I am a man and I look at him (Gandhi) as my peer and I imagine what I would do if I were in his shoes. That’s what I am doing within my chosen small spectrum called cinema.”
Controversy also chased his 2004 Tamil film Virumaandi, an eloquent, but disturbing, argument against capital punishment. The film had over 40 killings. Haasan says he knew it would lead to heated debates right from the time the first shot was canned.
* * *
While his critics say he’s trying to get mileage and free advertisements by courting controversies, Haasan argues that not many understand him. The decision to broadcast Vishwaroopam on DTH before its theatrical release — a first in the world, he claims — is an experiment against piracy which, Haasan believes, is worth trying out.
He has signed up with six DTH players for around Rs 50 crore, say industry sources, to telecast the movie. A viewer can watch the movie on January 10 by paying Rs 1,000 before December 31 or Rs 1,200 from January 1. This will be a one-time viewing. The show aired on DTH, says Haasan, cannot be recorded and it will not remain in the DTH system after the show.
The recording features have been disabled and an auto erase feature would ensure that the movie would not be recorded in the set top box, says Shashi Arora, CEO of Airtel Digital TV. Unlike the regular ‘pay per view’ format, where the movie can be bought and stored in the box for 24 hours, the premier of Vishwaroopam would not be available for storage.
DTH players involved in the project have agreed to disable the private video recording (PVR) system to prevent commercial establishments from recording and selling the film. Till December 29, Tata Sky was not part of the deal since it had not disabled the PVR. But after it agreed, it too was roped in at the last moment, says Haasan.
Stealing the movie during the premier show would be difficult, adds Arora, since each digital box has its fingerprint number which leaves a mark on the screen of each subscriber. Any attempt to copy would result in the copying of the fingerprint too which would give away the identity of the culprit. Airing the film on DTH, says Haasan, would help curb the menace of piracy which is seriously hitting the industry.
Besides, this initiative will only bring more people to theatres, he says. And how? “While people have portraits of Lord Venkateshwara at home, this does not stop them from visiting the holy shrine at Tirumala. The case of cinema halls is something like that,” says the actor who, incidentally, makes no bones about being an atheist, You can have the joy of watching the movie at home, but not the experience of viewing it in the theatre since the film boasts of latest sound technology, he adds.
But theatre owners argue that this initiative will kill their business since more producers will follow Haasan’s example. If the movie is shown in clubs and associations, like IPL matches, would people visit theatres, asks Abirami Ramanathan, president, Tamil Nadu Theatre Owners Association. The association wants Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa to intervene. Along with Madurai-Ramanathapuram United Film Distributors, the association has threatened not to screen the film in the Madurai and Ramanathapuram districts. They have also said that in the future too they will boycott the films of all producers and actors who decide to give licences to DTH companies for airing movies before their theatrical release. Multiplexes and cineplexes like PVR Cinemas and Satyam have also decided to boycott Haasan’s movies.
An exciting off-screen drama is being openly played out in a state which has, since 1967, been run by people from the film or theatre industry. Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s career too had started from films.
Haasan, the controversy magnet, couldn’t care less about the goings on. “These people are giving me publicity. I can’t stand so much publicity,” he quips. “I had a budget for publicity, but I should thank those who’ve given me several times more coverage than I could’ve managed.” Haasan has so far succeeded in convincing 390-odd theatres across the state to screen his film.
* * *
Haasan wasn’t always this sure of himself. After receiving a national award for the 1987 Tamil movie Nayagan, he said in an interview: “After the first film, I did not want to pursue acting since I had an inferiority complex — a feeling that I didn’t have the ‘in’ look and I wasn’t handsome.” His debut film was Kalathur Kannama which released in 1960 and in which he shared the screen with veteran actor Gemini Ganesan. As a child he acted in five more films alongside legends like Sivaji Ganesan and M G Ramachandran.
His father, Srinivasan, wanted his sons (Chandrahasan, Charuhasan, Kamal Haasan) and daughter to focus on their studies. But while his brothers went on to study law, Haasan became a dropout. “Whatever I learnt was outside the walls. I learnt everything on my own and by asking questions,” he told the students at IIT. This school dropout now speaks eight languages — Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, Hindi, Bengali, French and English. It was director K Balachander who helped Haasan overcome his reluctance to act. Haasan was then working as a dance assistant and writing scripts (his first was at age 18 for the film Unarchigal).
Haasan’s first serious role was in Balachander’s Aval Oru Thodar Kathai (1974). It became a super hit and paved the way for Balachander-Kamal Haasan collaborations that explored comedy, tragedy and social themes. If he played a womaniser in Manmadha Leelai, for Avargal, regarded as one of the most sensitive movies on women’s liberation, he learnt the art of ventriloquism.
Many people say he lives his characters, but Haasan counters: “I don’t. I just rent the space to the character. I just walk into them, live happily, but not ever after. And, I walk out.”