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'The adulation for Kamal Haasan is incredible'

Last updated on: January 16, 2013 15:38 IST

'The adulation for Kamal Haasan is incredible'

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Aseem Chhabra in New York

Pooja Kumar's face was plastered all over Times Square in New York in 2002 when she appeared as a model in the posters promoting Andrew Lloyd Webber's Broadway show Bombay Dreams.

In 2008, she played the lead opposite Chris Kattan in the IFC mini series Bollywood Hero.

To promote the show, the film's producers hired double-decker buses in New York City, on which faces of members of the cast were prominently displayed.

Over the years, the New York-based Kumar has worked on a number of indie films, including Hiding Divya where she played Madhur Jaffrey's wayward daughter.

This month, 36-year-old Kumar, a former Miss India USA, will see the release of her biggest film so far. She plays the lead opposite Kamal Haasan in the legendry actor-director-producer's new film Viswaroopam.

The film will be released around the world in three languages -- Hindi, Tamil and Telugu.

Pooja spoke to Aseem Chhabra via skype, and chatted about her film, and working with an icon like Kamal Haasan.

You have appeared in big productions before, and in the case of Bombay Dreams, you became the face of the show.  But a lead role in a Kamal Haasan film takes you to another league. How does it feel to work with such a big star?

There aren't any words to describe what kind of human being Kamal Sir is. He is the epitome of a great artist. The fact that he continues to innovate, create, and wants to give his audience something new every time, inspires actors like us -- that you can't just keep doing the same thing that you feel comfortable with. And he believes in unlearning everything and starting afresh.

Honestly, I am so humbled and honoured that he wanted to work with me. He could choose from so many other women out there who are talented and beautiful.

For me, it was a dream to work with an icon and to share the big screen with him. I still pinch myself every day, reminding myself that I just did a film with an icon.


Image: Pooja Kumar
Photographs: Pradeep Bandekar

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'The adulation for Kamal Haasan is incredible'

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I saw images of you at a press conference with Kamal Haasan. You were sitting next to the superstar with his fans in the audience. Describe that experience to me.

I went with him to Madurai and Coimbatore and the adulation for him that I observed was incredible. We were on the stage and if we hadn't left the stage after the event was over, the public would have come up and broken everything down! 

There were 50,000 people. He arrived in a helicopter. It was unbelievable to see people putting their hands together saying 'Vanakam'. They were going on the floor, touching his feet. 

Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy were with us during the tour. They couldn't believe it either.

How did you get the role? Did you audition for it?

They had seen my work and contacted my manager in New York, who called me and said, "Do you know this actor called Camalle Haasun?" And I said, "Yes, are you kidding."

My manager said his team was interested in talking to me about a role, and my response was "Please organise an audition."

I later realised that it was a New York-based story and they wanted an actress who was trained in the US.


Image: Movie poster of Vishwaroopam


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'Kamal Haasan drives you to be excellent'

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You were in New York at that time?

I was in New York and he was in Chennai and he had already started shooting the movie. We set up a skype call where he could barely see me. And that's how I met him.

He said, "Hello," and I replied, "Hello!"

And then I asked, "Sir, how are you?"

To that he said "Hi, I am Kamal Haasan." 

So I replied, "Of course I know you. I am a big fan Sir. I've watched all your movies. My first Hindi movie was Ek Duuje Ke Liye."

So he joked saying, "Now you are aging me!"

He then mentioned the project and said, "We will be in touch."

It was a two-minute conversation. Next thing I knew, five days later, I was on a plane to Chennai.

You happened to be available. That was good.

Yes! They told me it would take about three months because they were shooting in two languages -- Hindi and Tamil and then they will dub it in Telugu.

The first day on the set I was so nervous. He is intimidating. And you hear about how Kamal Haasan is very strict and adamant about what he wants. Which is great because he strives for excellence. 

So I guess he gets misunderstood. And he drives you to be excellent.


Image: Pooja Kumar
Photographs: Pradeep Bandekar

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'Every female character Kamal Haasan has written has been powerful'

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You met him before the shoot?

I met him the day after I arrived in Chennai. He was shooting another scene, and he gave me my dialogues. My first reaction was 'Oh my God. How am I going to do this?' Because I can't speak Tamil.

They had written it phonetically in English. Eventually, he recorded the dialogues in his voice and I would speak it like that, because he has written the character and he knows what he wants. So you don't question anything that Kamal Sir says.

I brought a little bit of my training, the nuances here and there. But I surrendered to him, so I could do justice to the character he had created.

You said you were given dialogues. Weren't you given a script before?
 
He had narrated the character to me. He didn't send a script ahead of time to me. I had faith in him because in all his previous films, every female character he has written has been powerful. And they are memorable.
 
Normally, I like to read the script ahead of time and do some research. But in this case, there was no time because I was cast and was on the set in five days.


Image: A scene from Vishwaroopam


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'This is my first mutlilingual film'

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So how did your Tamil go? Did someone eventually dub your voice?

Yes, someone dubbed my voice because I am playing a Tam-Bram and the character speaks shudh Tamil. That was challenging. But I dubbed for the Hindi version and I was surprised about that because Hindi is not my first language.

But you have done Hindi films before.

I have done one Hindi film. I was in Anjaana Anjaani. This the first time I am doing a multi-lingual film.

I welcomed the challenge. We would shoot a scene in Hindi and then immediately do the same scene in Tamil.

I have seen the preview and a substantial part is shot in the US, right?

Yes, we shot in New York, Jordan and India. It is an international project -- it has that look, but it is an Indian story.


Image: A scene from Vishwaroopam


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'I play a nuclear oncologist named Dr Nirupama'

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What can you tell us about your character?

I play a nuclear oncologist named Dr Nirupama. My father had cancer and has passed away and I decide to come to America to do a PhD in nuclear oncology.

The only way I can go to the US is by marrying Kamal Sir's character for a green card. It's a marriage of convenience. Slowly she realises that her life isn't what she thought it would be. And Kamal Sir is more that what meets the eye.

I believe Samrat Chakrakbarti is also in the film. What's the role he plays?

Samrat owns the lab in New York where I work. He's my boss in the film.

So how different is it when the film is being shot in Chennai as compared to New York?

We had an air-conditioned set because Kamal Sir wanted that look of wintertime for the movie.

I was surprised by how professional the crew were here in Chennai. The only difference I could see was the language. Otherwise it was such an amazing mix of crew. Our makeup artist was from Hollywood and our production designer was from Vietnam.

We shot on the RED camera. And we had three cameras working simultaneously. So we didn't have to do the over-the-shoulder takes. We only had one to three takes for each shot.

But it was a challenge because there were car chase scenes and bombs going off, all these different choreographed things.


Image: Pooja Kumar


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'I've had quite a lot of people walk up to me'

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What about the car chase scenes and that experience?

It was my first time doing an action movie. It was quite extraordinary to see all the behind-the-scene details and to take in everything.

It's fantastic to see how the technicians and crew do so much research and work on the details. And Kamal Sir's innovative style of choreographing the stunts was incredible.

This is a film that you have to see on the big screen. It has action, suspense, drama, and a little bit of romance.

Have people started recognising you? Obviously they haven't seen the film yet.

I've had quite a lot of people walk up to me. Some people have asked me for autographs at the airport or I have heard some of them say "Oh, there's Pooja Kumar."


Image: Pooja Kumar on the sets of Vishwaroopam

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