If At All The Earth Could Think, It Would Laugh At Us: Kamal Haasan On The Covid Pandemic

Kamal Haasan has written Arivum Anbum, a Coronavirus awareness song that is to be released today. It has music by Ghibran, and features artistes such as Yuvan Shankar Raja, Devi Sri Prasad, Anirudh Ravichander, Bombay Jayashri, Sid Sriram, Siddharth, Andrea Jeremiah and Shankar Mahadevan. On the eve of the song’s release, Baradwaj Rangan spoke to Kamal Haasan. Excerpts…

How has the lockdown been treating you?

These kinds of lockdowns happen at a personal level when you’re hospitalised due to an accident, which has often happened to me. I locked myself down in 1990. I didn’t work the whole year because I was missing my family. I was reading and staying at home. I don’t really mind this lockdown.

You’ve always been surrounded by people. Does the fact that you’re away from people now feel different?

Thanks to the magic of technology, I’m not really away from people. I’m talking to you now. I talk to the cadre (of Makkal Needhi Maiam) who are out there helping people every day. I speak to many people regularly. They are my eyes and ears. 

You’ve written and directed a song about the pandemic. Would you have written the same kind of a song had you not entered politics? That is, have your grassroots interactions shaped it?

I was a dance choreographer early in my career, and so in that sense, I started off by making songs. After a point, I got so bored of it that I wanted to make films without songs. I feel I’m revisiting the early days again. 

The earlier Kamal Haasan was an elder citizen who has lived a long life amidst people. And, in fact, the nascent politician in me will have to learn something from the elder citizen. The politician in me is newer, more energetic, and works much harder with passion. 

What brought about this new song?

I keep writing poems. I’ve wanted to publish some of what I’ve written. Sri Priya has been collecting them for 40 years, though the things I wrote when I was 20 might seem dated now. She insisted that my writing was good, that I should continue to write. As I was rubbing shoulders with great poets in Tamil, I felt too shy to publish. 

People around me have been asking me to write for the past two years. I have written something now, something to address the moment. I suggested to Ghibran that we make it something like a Gregorian or Islamic chant. He understood what I wanted because he had done similar work in Vishwaroopam. 

A chant-based tune is also a great way to convey a message. When I worked with Laxmikant–Pyarelal, we made a song that had a similar chant-like quality inspired by the ‘Venkatesa Suprabhatam’. Or even take the title song from Anbe Sivam or ‘Kallai Mattum Kandaal’ from Dasavathaaram. The chorus with chants has a powerful quality, and it’s something we’ve inherited from our forefathers. The style has been used for a long time to convey messages.

What logistical problems did you have? There are several people from the industry who’ve participated in the making of this song…

I am a man who happily walks towards tomorrow. I’ve been looking forward to this day. It cuts the palaver, as they say in the Wild West. Most of the singers shot the video on their mobile phones. I feel we’re being a bit finicky about quality, but ultimately if you look at, say, Thyagaraja Bhagavathar’s work, you only notice the talent, the singing. 

For the great talents who’ve sung in our song, this was something they could have done with their left hand. I felt so guilty because all of them delivered as if I had paid them money, as if they owed me something. I was so touched, and I called each one to thank them.

What is the world that Kamal Haasan sees, once these restrictions are lifted?

(laughs) It will be the same world. If at all the Earth could think, it would laugh at us. It has seen meteor hits, the death of dinosaurs… from its perspective, this could just be the extinction of another species. It could go either way. Yet, we as a group persevere. 

I’ve been drinking iced water all my life. But, situations like these make one question what ‘essentials’ really are. Maybe, just good water is enough. 

People are catching up on reading, films, and music. What music would you recommend that people hear?

Ravi Shankar’s album ‘Chants Of India’, which was a compilation produced by George Harrison. It really opened my mind. I used to revisit it often. 

More importantly, I’d say, it’s important to listen to musicians live, when it becomes safe again to do so. The digital era makes you feel good with its gizmos. But, true talent like, for example, Lydian (pianist Lydian Nadhaswaram) is not something to just hear, but something to see. These are sights we go to watch, like eclipses.

If At All The Earth Could Think, It Would Laugh At Us: Kamal Haasan On The Covid Pandemic, Film Companion

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