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September 1, 1997


'Direction is challenging, acting is soul-satisfying'

Nasser directing Vineet
For audiences down South, Nasser is an actor with enough marquee value in his own right to need no further introduction.

To Bollywood audiences, he is recognisable as the cop who is also the godfather's son-in-law in the Kamal Hassan starrerNayagan, as the cop in Roja, as the blind composer in Sapnay... and, among forthcoming films, he will be seen again in Chachi 420, the Kamal Hasan production that recently hit the headlines thanks to a rather public showdown between Hasan and director Shantanu Sheorey.

Not so easily recognisable is Nasser the director. His debut film, Avatharam (Incarnation) earned him critical acclaim, but failed to kickstart the turnstiles. His second film Devathai (Goddess) is, however, off to a steady, if unspectacular, run at the box office.

A fantasy-type flick dealing with reincarnation -- Nasser has thus far displayed a marked penchant for the outre -- it centres around Shashanka, a dacoit who starts off as a Robin Hood type before lapsing into mass, and merciless, killings.

He then falls in love with the daughter of one of his captives, only to be spurned. The dejected dacoit commits suicide.

Years later, the girl is reborn in Dubai, grows up, falls in love and is on the verge of getting married when she makes a visit to India, to the family's ancestral home. Disturbing thoughts, hallucinations and meetings with a bearded man who is, though she doesn't know it just yet, Shashanka reborn, mark the visit. The rest of the story traces the action, as the doomed dacoit and his erstwhile love play out their roles in their second innings.

Besides direction, Nasser plays the lead character while Keerthi Reddy debuts as his love and Vineet -- of Dilwalon Ka Duniya fame -- plays the boy Reddy loves in her second avtaar. Music by Ilayaraja, cinematography by Sridhar and art direction by Trotsky Maruthu all range from the good to the outstanding.

Keerthi Reddy
Excerpts from Nasser's interview with

Why take up reincarnation as a subject for your second film? Haven't there been enough potboilers on the theme already?

Somehow, reincarnation has always fascinated me. I remembered a story I had first heard as a child, it stayed with me and gave me the creative seed for this film. Also, I think it's been a long time since we had a fantasy film -- reincarnation gave me the opportunity to fill that gap. And people, I notice, always find the possibility of life after death fascinating.

But reincarnation in this age of reason -- weren't you worried the audiences might not quite swallow that?

No, for like I said, people love stories of reincarnation, ghost stories, that kind of thing. In fact, one of the most popular love stories in Tamil Nadu is actually a ghost story. Also, remember that my film doesn't argue a case, pro or con, for reincarnation. So in that sense, it is a theme, like any other theme -- it so happens it is one that attracted me.

Your film doesn't take a stand, pro or con. How about you -- do you personally believe in reincarnation?

Absolutely not.

Okay, you wanted to make a fantasy. Muslim literature and mythology is rich in such fantastic subjects -- did you ever, given your own religious roots, consider using one of those for your film?

Keerthi Reddy and Vineet in Devathai
No, why should I bring religion into films? Funnily enough, I have done almost 150 -- maybe more -- films, roles... and yet only two of them were Muslim characters. True, there are fantasy stories in Muslim lore, ditto in Hindu lore or in that of any country or religion, for that matter and for me, it is all equally fascinating. It so happened, like I said, that the kernel of this film was a story I heard as a child. Who knows, maybe sometime I'll work on a film with a Muslim background. Again, I've been wanting to do a children's film...

You said earlier that there was a dearth of fantasy films. Why is that? I mean, wouldn't logic dictate that fantasy is the ideal canvas for films?

Fantasy has mass appeal and it is not like we've never had fantasy films -- even in the past, in the early days of film-making, we've had films based on magic and such fantastic stuff. But yes, there is not as much of it as you would think there should be -- and I suspect one reason is that we don't have a strong comics culture. We don't read illustrated versions of stories to, the extent that we should. True, upper middle class children and the upper class ones get to read Asterix and Tintin and stuff, or cartoons. But Indian stories? No way, there is a definite lack there.

Even our Amar Chitra Katha series, the comics are more narrative than illustrative -- the pictures in there are merely caricatures, it is the words that tell the story. I guess that is why we don't much have the 'visual' culture - it's a pity really, because fantasy can be very fun, satisfying. Like in Hollywood -- take a Jumanju, for instance...

Your earlier film, Avatharam, was strongly rooted in folk arts -- so what was the inspiration for that?

Again, childhood memories. I remember perching on my father's shoulders, watching the street theatre form, Theru Koothu. Now, that art is dying. I wanted to do something to preserve it, and this seemed as good an idea as any. Even in my second film Devathai I used a folk theatre style of narration to tell the first part of the story -- the one that flashes back to the past.

The 'rebirth' portion has Dubai as locale -- was that a commercial choice?

Actually, even in stories, folklore, you have the expression "crossing the seven seas". I used the image of the soul crossing the seas and taking a fresh lease on life after a long passage of time. At another level, Dubai, I felt, had never been properly exploited by a film-maker, which also prompted my decision to shoot there. At a third level, the first portion of the story was necessarily a period piece, so I used a modern locale by way of contrast.

And how was the experience, shooting in Dubai?

Nasser and Revathi in Avatharam
Oh, very good. Actually, when we first applied for permission, we were turned down. Apparently the ruling family there felt that Dubai was being grossly misrepresented in Indian movies, used mainly as the villain's hideout and such. Then we sent them the script, told them the story -- and after they heard us out, they couldn't do enough for us.

The ruling house gave us the permission. Dubai is a lovely place. I think the people there are very hard-working. It is not just the luck of sitting on a lot of oil. They have adapted modernity to their needs, rather than embraced it blindly.

To take another tack, you wear two hats, that of director and actor. How difficult is it to do the two jobs at the same time?

Direction is, to my mind, the more responsible chore. I am a very organised person in real life, mainly because I hate chaos -- so I guess that helps me in my role as director. True, being actor and director at the same time is somewhat tedious, but I frankly loved it.

One thing though -- after two films as director, I find that basically I am still an actor. Direction is challenging, acting is soul-satisfying.

And how tough is it acting to your own direction?

I don't think that's a big thing, really. Even when I am only acting, I am a very 'planned' person, I have everything worked out on paper and ready to execute on the sets. So being my own director doesn't make that much of a difference.

Nasser and Vineet in Devathai
In Devathai, you appear to have used different methods, styles of acting, sometimes for same character. Why? Isn't that liable to become confusing?

True, we have used different acting styles, methods. For instance, the physical movements of the girl, her expressions, they are borrowed from Indian theatre. Shashanka is an invader from an alien land, so his movements were given an outlandish feel, for him I borrowed from Shakespearean theatre, even from ballet.

What was, for you, the most interesting aspect of making Devathai?

Researching the earlier portion, of Shashanka the dacoit, recreating that period. Trotsky Maruthu, my art director, and I put our heads together to shape it all up, and I think we managed to make it quite spectacular. Again, the use of computer graphics -- I enjoyed that. The overall goal, as this was a fantasy film, was to make it visually appealing, and we managed to do that.

Talking of challenges, which of your previous roles did you enjoy doing the most?

I have done around 145 roles to date, from my debut in Kalyana Agathigal. But my big break was Nayagan. Then there was Thevar Magan, where I got to work with Sivaji Ganesan besides Kamal Hasan, and that was challenging too. Avatharam, under my own direction, was a role that was close to my heart. Then I can think of Kurudhi Punal (the Tamil adaptation of Govind Nihalani's Drohkaal) which was a very good, very demanding role. Of late, I've begun restricting the roles I take, because I don't want to become stale.

And how about Minsara Kanavugal (Sapnay, in Hindi)? A rather comical character, and very unlike your usual roles. Why?

Oh, I enjoyed that one, that was for fun and it really turned out to be a delightful experience. I play a bubbly character in the film, and it was like, going through my youth again. Dancing, for instance -- I never thought I could dance, but in this film I did it and loved it too.

And what do you have coming up in the pipeline?

Nasser directing Devathai
There is Jeans, under Shankar's (Kaadhalan, Gentleman, Indian) direction. That is a role I am looking forward to. There is Ladies Only in Hindi. A Malayalam film with Mohanlal, and a couple of Telugu films and one Kannada film, all of which I have chosen with much care.

Is there some role you won't ever do?

As a professional, I have to do what I am offered, assuming I like it enough to take up the assignment. Either due to lack of time, or even lack of challenge in the role itself, I sometimes turn down projects. What won't I do? Well, I guess I won't do stale, repetitious roles.

Who are your inspirations as an actor?

I really can't pick on any one name. You get to see so many good films, good performances, from many different countries and in many different languages and you learn all the time. So I guess I don't really have any one single source of inspiration.

Any projects as director, that you have lined up?

Yes, but nothing concrete yet. For a change I want to do something small, I have just finished a huge project, I would like a change of pace.

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