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September 19, 1998


Clinic All Clear-Rahul Dravid

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Making of an epic

V S Srinivasan

Kamal Hasan in Marudanaayagam. Click for bigger pic!
When some people learn that there was a person from their district who was part of the freedom movement and who wrought havoc on the English, they think it's wonderful and leave it at that.

Not Kamal Haasan of Ramanathapuram though. He puts together a big budget costume drama and gets the Queen of England itself to open proceedings to honour the hero, Yusuf Khan.

Marudanaayagam comes soon after Kamal Haasan had two big hits, Hindustani and later, Chachi 420. And this film is expected to be India's costliest film, finally costing Rs 200 million. Shankar's Jeans, made last year, cost Rs 170 million. Marudanaayagam however is being mounted on a much bigger canvas.

The earlier two films delayed the work on Marudanaayagam.

Ask Kamal about Chachi 420and he grins from ear to ear. He is pretty happy he understood the pulse of the Hindi masses again. And that, in his first foray into direction. He stepped in after Shantanu Shorey stepped out.

"When it was made in Tamil, it became a super-success. And we thought that it would do well in Hindi, too. I had my apprehensions though. You can't take them (the audiences) for granted.

"There are so many constraints involved with Hindi audience. So I wanted a new guy to direct it. Unfortunately it didn't work... To avoid controversies, I decided to direct the film myself. While that was a wonderful experience, it put my work on Marudanaayagam a few months behind," he says.

Click for bigger pic!
Marudanaayagam was already postponed once by another idea Kamal Hasan had, the one for Hindustani.

"While I was researching on Marudanaayagam, I found some interesting details and decided to make another film in the meantime.

Marudanaayagam would have anyway taken me a long time. It's not an easy job, doing the film on such a scale and in such a hurry. Since I'm not one who wants to waste time, I decided to do other films in the meantime."

But now, he's working full time on the magnum opus. And, more confident now, Kamal has decided to direct it himself.

"I'm being assisted by one of Richard Attenborough's assistants, and another person who has experience with international mega-ventures. I'll name them when the time comes... Putting together so many elements, bringing together so many talented people, and the sheer enormity of the various aspects is certainly an arduous task."

A still from Chachi 420. Click for bigger pic!
Particularly hard was the issue of make-up. Kamal keeps going to the US for workshops in make-up techniques every year. He also trained as a make-up man under Michael Westmore, the famed make-up artiste involved in the making of Star Trek.

He has constantly updated his knowledge on the art so that he is aware of everything on the subject. This prosthetic make up - as an experiment started in right earnest with Indian aka Hindustani - where Kamal was transformed to an old man. "In fact my tryst with make-up started with Oru Qaidin Dairy (remade in Hindi as Aakhree Rasta) and went on right up to Indian. On many occasions, I've done the make-up and after Indian I was very confident I could handle another project with such complicated make-up," says Kamal.

Kamal has the backing of his wife Sarika, who is in charge of clothes, accessories and the sets. Sarika is pretty happy with the help she's received from historians. Every scrap of paper relevant to the subject, she says, is being preserved in perfect order.

"I've even seen a letter by Lord Warren Hastings, written 200 years back. Maybe one day somebody will go through the Marudanaayagam papers too," she says. But was such authenticity called for, considering what that could do to the budget?

Queen Elizabeth on the sets of Marudanaayagam. Click for bigger pic!
"One cannot work in the hope of attention or appreciation. For all you know, they might never come. My job is to deliver what the director wants -- to the smallest detail. If anyone challenges the authenticity of the depiction can be shown what was done.

Also how often do you get a producer/director who spends so much money and sends the technicians abroad just for research? Obviously he is looking for the best," she says. Pat on the back for hubby, that.

Supporting Sarika is a staff of 19, who work round the clock, particularly when they have to prepare for the test shoots.

"I have a great unit. I know how important the film is to Kamalji and me... I've total confidence in him, not just because I am his wife... But as an individual, a technician. I admire him as a professional and have tremendous faith in the kind of visuals he is creating..."

But why a film on someone as unknown as Yusuf Khan? Kamal replies:

"After Guna I wanted to do a different film, quite different from the existing genres. I settled on history, and went back in time to discover a person immortalised in a Tamil ballad -- simply written but lucidly told -- of a man who was a great warrior, a folk legend who, towards the end, was almost deified.

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"Going back almost 275 years, the lovely ballad was full of euphemisms, of speeches like that of Mark Anthony. Researching further, we confirmed there was a kind of a ban on this fiery character and that the ruling Nawab and the British must have been hostile to him. What was more intriguing was that the gentleman was from the same district as me -- Ramanathapuram."

Yusuf Khan was born a Hindu, converted to Islam and married a half-French half-Portuguese woman named Masha. He was betrayed by his own, for a Hindu, a Muslim and a French commander were keen to destroy him. He was hung like a common thief, unsung and unfeted.

"He was ostracised from his community because of his liberal views. Though he adopted various religions, ultimately the religion of war stuck to him. He was a rare combination of a great fighter and an administrator.

He was the first commander of the sepoys for the East India Company and the first warrior who attempted European style warfare on Indian soil. He started out by helping the British against the French but eventually turned against them. But while he was still helping the British, he was the commander in arms with Clive and was the blue eyed boy of Stringer Lawrence, who described him in glowing terms for his valour and courage."

Om Puri in Marudanaayagam. Click for bigger pic!
Khan undertook the lease of the three districts of Madurai, Ramanathapuram and Tirunelveli and made a profit of Rs 400,000, thanks to his administrative abilities. In recognition of his abilities, the British made him the governor of Madurai. But somewhere along the way he felt he shouldn't be taking money from the people and he decided to turn against the British.

Kamal Haasan had initially planned to present the story in a novel, even appealing to writer Sujatha. But somehow it finally ended up as a film.

It became an obsession for Kamal Haasan, and the budget kept increasing. "We decided to go all the way, nationally and, perhaps, internationally," Kamal Haasan said.

According to him, the cost of the mammoth production will easily touch Rs 200 million now.

"I didn't want to compromise on anything. For the test shoot we spent close to a crore (Rs 10 million) and we had made shields, guns, armours, cannons that even fired -- all in metal and fibreglass. Having done the test shoot we have realised where we needed to cut down, and where we needed to pull our socks up.

Technically we have excellence in the usage of imported fly cameras, remote helicopter-mode cameras, motion control cameras, follow cameras..."

While the cast is expected to be an international one, Kamal Haasan denies rumours that it would Kate Winslett.

Kamal has prepared extensively for the role. And the strain is so high, he's been asked to knock back 15 eggs a day, to give him enough stamina.

But the demon is in him, and the actor in him won't be satisfied till it is complete.

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