January 10, 2002


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'Aamir offered me a role in Lagaan

Nasser Nasser might play the role of a villain in most of his films. In real life, however, he has shown the courage to make films he believes in despite his initial unsuccessful directorial attempts.

Few actors in Tamil cinema look at it as a serious artistic effort. Popcorn, Nasser's next film and a musical, has Malayalam superstar Mohanlal opposite Simran. It is Mohanlal's second Tamil film after Mani Ratnam's Iruvar.

Shobha Warrier spoke to Nasser about Popcorn and films in general:

There is a big difference in the films you make and the ones you act in...

Like every person has a distinct way of using a language, every filmmaker has his own style in expressing his ideas. I don't want to say I am different from the others. But I make films the way I like.

At the same time, I believe the idiom used in popular films is very badly defined here.

You mean the inclusion of songs and other ingredients or masala to sell a film?

Nasser There are debates about the necessity of songs in films. Songs have been a part of our culture from time immemorial.

If you look at the films of the 60s, you will find that songs were used to either convey emotions or as a transition point from one sequence to another. Today, you see songs for songs' sake, which I find very difficult to accept.

Why do you think filmmakers stuff their films with songs?

Songs are a big commercial ingredient in films. That is why there are huge audio release functions. And these songs prepare the audience on what to expect from the film. Filmmakers use songs as a publicity tool by airing them regularly on television channels.

After A R Rahman came on the music scene, it has become the most valuable selling point of a film. They are no longer used creatively in films.

Do you agree with the categorisation of films into commercial and art films?

Nasser Academically, these two terms do not exist at all. But they are widely used.

My point is when you make a film, you have to sell it and make money. So no film is an art film; every film is a commercial film. Unlike other art forms, more money and more people are involved in this medium.

This confusion over the words 'art' and 'commercial' prevails only in India. Unfortunately, the rule in India is that artistic interpretation need not be present in popular films.

You take a film like Titanic or any James Bond film; content-wise, they are popular films. James Bond doesn't have anything to do with a common man's life or his problems but if you look at the presentation of Bond films, you will see that the makers adhere strongly to art. Everything about the Bond films will be perfect and realistic.

Titanic is not an art film but you can also call it a great art film in the sense that the artistic measures are at the highest level. You won't see any loophole in the set design, characterisation, dialogues, costumes, colour scheme or technology. So, how can you say that it is not an 'art' film?

But if you take a popular film from India, particularly those from Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, you will see that it is very unreal. The way the characters dress and the way situations are developed are unrealistic. Can you imagine anybody walking on the streets of Mumbai or Chennai wearing the kind of costumes that these characters wear? No. We believe that a commercial film has to be gaudy and colourful.

Do you feel Indian filmgoers prefer fantasies and unreal films?

Nasser Why do you want to blame the audience? I strongly feel that filmmakers have to bring in the change. I also feel that we haven't taught the Indian audience how to enjoy a good film. The audience can only see what they are offered. Do they have a choice?

I feel a film like Sholay had all the artistic elements in it. Among the current crop of films, Lagaan is the greatest popular film of this era. They made a popular film without compromising on the artistic qualities.

I consider Lagaan as the greatest film of this era because all the problems an Indian faces are present in the film -- but very subtly. There is patriotism, hunger and untouchability. But nothing is loud. The filmmaker has dealt with all the problems without surrendering artistic quality.

When Ramesh Sippy can make an artistically good popular film like Sholay, when Aamir Khan can make an artistic popular film like Lagaan, why can't the others?

Do you feel frustrated while acting as unreal characters in meaningless films?

Earlier, I used to feel very frustrated but not anymore. When you are locked in a dark room where there are no doors, you should give up getting frustrated.

I am a trained actor, without choices. Each director has his own ideas about films. I totally submit to the filmmaker. I do not try to change the director as I consider myself a professional.

I was trained to become an actor and not a villain! But the problem is that most directors feel I can do only villainous roles. However, some directors like Bharatan gave me good roles, like the one I had in Thevar Magan.

In Malayalam films, actors play the role of a hero and villain. That kind of culture is not there in the Tamil film industry.

Do you act in such films because acting is your source of income? Nasser

Yes, of course. But whenever I get a good character to portray, I work really hard.

Did you start making films out of frustration of bad roles?

I do not know. All my films had popular plots. The theme of my first film, Avatharam, was not new but I used a different technique to tell the story. In my second film, Devathai, I made a king look like a rustic man, unlike the images that we have of kings with crowns, jewellery and glittering dresses.

When I researched, I found that we southerners never wore a shirt. Even the kings wore only a dhoti and an angavasthram. Except for a ceremony, they never wore a kireedam (crown).

How did people react to a king without all the paraphernalia?

Some liked it. Some took it as an experiment. The truth is, I did not experiment. I made a film as a film based on certain facts.

Nasser In the late Aravindan's Kaanchana Seetha, Aravindan had portrayed Rama and Lakshmana as people who lived in the jungle.

Yes, Aravindan did not portray Rama as a handsome person as had been done by others till then. What he did might be reality but we have created a fantasised version for ourselves to believe in. We are not able to differentiate between reality, history, myth or fantasy.

The cause for all these problems was that films did not evolve here. Films as a creative medium was thrust upon us. Before we could understand the tool, we started using it.

Your first two films were not commercial successes...

I will not say that the Tamil audience was not mature enough to understand my films. If my films are not successful, I take the blame for that. Good films without any stars have run here, like Kizhakku Seemayile or recently Sethu.

It was reported that Mohanlal is going to act in your new film. Is it true?

Yes, it is true. Popcorn is about music. After a very long time, Mohanlal is acting in a Tamil film. He is very reluctant to act in other language films.

How did you convince him?

Nasser When I narrated the story to him, he agreed. I was very excited when he said 'yes' to my project. I can only say that it will be a musical.

What I like about Mohanlal is his involvement in the profession. I feel he takes a lot of care about the artistic part of the profession. For example, he recently appeared in a Sanskrit play. And he is going to act in another play by Kavalam Narayana Panicker.

Of late, many film actors, especially those who are in Mumbai, take a lot of interest in theatre...

In Tamil Nadu, nothing of that sort happens. I can definitely say that in another ten years, you will not find good actors in Tamil. Where will the actors come from? Where are they going to get training? There is neither any training institute here nor any theatre culture.

The best actors come from a theatre background. I have also come from theatre.

Do you have any plans to start a theatre group?

I am seriously thinking about it. A couple of years ago, we did Kalki's Ponniyin Selvam.

When I complain there is no platform for good actors to come up, I should take the responsibility and do something. In fact, I want to start an acting school as well.

Do you watch the films you act in?

Mostly, no. I don't watch a film just because I have acted in it. But if I feel the film is good, I watch it. I enjoy watching well-made films.

I love James Bond films. I consider myself a student of cinema and enjoy classics. I have seen Lagaan seven times. I think Aamir Khan is a real hero. He had asked me to play the heroine's father's role in Lagaan.

Why didn't you?

I couldn't do it because they wanted four months. At that time, I had made my film Devathai. Since it did not do well, I had lost a lot of money. So, to repay the debts, I had signed all the films that came my way.

I don't narrate this incident because people may feel I am saying this because the film is a hit. But I feel sad when I think about the opportunity that I lost.

Photographs: Sanjay Ghosh

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