#FcPicks: In this super interview, Haasan tells Knowledge@Wharton about using his fandom wisely and embracing digital platforms when no one else in India did. 

Dancer, choreographer, actor, screenwriter, director, producer, lyricist and playback singer—there’s nothing Kamal Haasan hasn’t achieved in a career spanning 57 years. But there’s more to come. In this insightful talk with Knowledge@Wharton he reveals his ambitious plans for Indian cinema and making it a better place for young talent entering the business. Haasan’s decision to convert his enormous fan base into a social arm tackling civic issues is proof of his foresight. Below is an edited excerpt of the interview.

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 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 die-hard 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.

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 labourers 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: If you look at Indian cinema, there are some great movies. There is 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. Could you tell us why — despite India being such a big film market — it hasn’t been producing great cinema?

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 Independence. 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: What does it take for writers to get due attention in the Indian film 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 Assam, Meghalaya and the Northeast Frontier itself.

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: 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?

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?

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. 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: 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.

This story first appeared on Knowledge@Wharton

(Graphics by Aditya Dhotre)

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