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Kamal on an Express trail

Kamal Hassan's new bi-lingual film, "Mumbai Express," has begun to take off in full throttle. The actor discusses the project in detail, with MALATHI RANGARAJAN ...



"Mumbai Express" on the move ...

CONVERSING WITH Kamal Hassan is always a rewarding experience, what with the interesting anecdotes that he casually touches upon, the witty rebuttals and pertinent observations of men and matters. Returning after a hectic day of shoot, he snatches time to talk about his latest venture, "Mumbai Express," a light-hearted bi-lingual (Hindi and Tamil). His responses have you in splits most of the time, but you also catch the point beneath the humour. Generally Kamal and comedy prove a heady, paying combination. And the Titan is at it again as always with gusto!

How "Mumbai ... " came about

In a television interview on an English channel a couple of days ago, the anchor referred to "Mumbai Express" as Kamal's comeback vehicle! It baffled the viewer and you could make out that it also irked the actor. Probably she meant that he's seen less often in Hindi films. But Hindi or Tamil, the hero does only one film at a time. "I've always been around ... only that I don't live in Mumbai," he told the channel interviewer. Ask him about it now and he laughs. "I just responded to the comment," he says. "Mumbai ... " will be Kamal's offering to the Hindi screen after "Abhay" ("Aalavandhan" in Tamil). Of course, "Chachi 420," was the comic offering. But the hiatus has been inevitable. "My other projects in the South didn't lend themselves to a bi-lingual. You can't possibly make `Virumaandi' in Hindi, can you?" he guffaws.

"The story of `Mumbai Express' originated just like that. Director Singeetham Srinivasa Rao and I were having a chat. Along the way, a plot evolved and soon things fell perfectly in place... " begins Kamal. He noticed Singeetham laughing aloud and instantly knew he had the story he wanted.

"Some stories are like babies. They take time to gain shape, while others happen like an explosion, sudden and forceful. `Mumbai' belongs to the latter league," quips Kamal. Even the story of "Devar Magan" that showcased the prowess of Sivaji Ganesan and Kamal in a totally different dimension, happened the same way, he tells you. Kamal believes in going to the sets with a near-perfect screenplay. The job of each department is earmarked and very minor changes are effected on the sets. The actor and the crew have left for Mumbai, where Kamal plans to stay put till "Mumbai ... " is ready to roll out for viewing (on April 14). Incidentally, if you think a train and a railway related ambience form the scenes of action, you're wrong. Kamal doesn't believe in the predictable. The swift and racy hero is the "... Express" here.

The Kamal-Singeetham-comedy combo ...

Many of Kamal's comic capers have had Singeetham Srinivasa Rao wielding the baton. "Mumbai ... " is the next. "Comedy is very serious business. It is important that we are on the same wavelength ... Singeetham and I understand each other very well ... Creators of light fare have to work with people who have an innate comic streak in them. Only then will the result be worthwhile," he avers. So the two have come together again.

The heroine ...

Speculation was rife that Madhuri Dixit would play the female lead opposite Kamal. Then you heard it would be Kajol. Finally it is Manisha whom the makers have settled for. "We had decided on a serious story and approached Madhuri Dixit for the role. But she's expecting a baby ... and we had to drop the idea. The "Mumbai ... " plot came up later. This time for the comedy, we approached Kajol. She had family commitments till February next, she told us, and we couldn't wait that long ... "

Why he chose Manisha ...

"Manisha is very easy to work with," is Kamal's spontaneous response. "She's a nice, simple girl. And I'm convinced she'll deliver the goods." Even while working with her in "Abhay" Kamal had advised her to go in for a crash course in acting, in the U. S. and not get stuck in the rut of the usual, glam ma'am roles. "I was happy when she did just that. `Remember I had suggested it to you' I asked her. `I went there only because you told me to,' she replied." From what Kamal says you will see a very different, much-streamlined Manisha in "Mumbai ... " Yet you are unable to forget the slightly jaded visage of the heroine that you had seen in "Mudhalvan" and later in "Baba" ... "Just see the stills of `Mumbai Express' and you'll know for yourself," assures Kamal.

Others in the cast

The Hindi flick has Om Puri, Sourabh Shukla, Vijay Raaz and Sharad Saxena, while the Tamil is supported by Nasser, Ramesh Arvind, Pasupathi and `Kovai' Sarala. Ramesh Arvind, like Nasser, is a Kamal film constant and has a place in both versions. In fact Ramesh makes his debut in Hindi with "Mumbai ... " "Vijay Raaz is also very impressive," certifies the veteran. Pasupathy (the hardcore villain of "Virumaandi") plays the role in Tamil. Pasupathy in a light film? "He's excellent ... just wait and see," says a smiling Kamal. And the comedienne `Kovai' Sarala, who is rarely seen on the Tamil screen these days? "She's such a talented actor ... if I find another story like `Sathi Leelavathi' (the two had been paired in the Kamal production a few years ago) I would love to work with her again," he commends.

The writer and the composer...

Besides Singeetham, Kamal heads the "Mumbai ... " crew with his story and screenplay. The Tamil dialogue is his, while Sourabh Shukla writes the Hindi part. Dialogue writer `Crazy' Mohan who has been with Kamal in all his comedy projects beginning with "Apoorva Sagodarargal" ("Appu Raja" in Hindi) has not joined the bandwagon this time. "He's away in the U.S. for the next few months ... I miss him as he would miss me," Kamal observes.

Although Kamal is writing humour dialogue officially for the first time, he has always been part of the process. "Comedy is present in every one of us ... Gandhiji himself had a great sense of humour. When he and Chaplin met, it is said that the Mahatma's witticisms kept the comedian constantly chuckling ... "

Ilaiyaraja scores the music in Hindi and Tamil and is recording the numbers in the U.S. "No Rajkamal production is complete without Ilaiyaraja's compositions. Only once did we make an exception ... for `Nala Damayanti.' The awe in his voice amply reveals his esteem for the composer.

Difference in audience' taste

"North or South every one enjoys humour. Sadly theatre in Chennai is only on the flip side. You hardly come across serious themes on stage. But in the North theatre is strong. You have serious and light plays and you find an audience for all. And again you have various levels in comedy — the slapstick, smutty, decent and classy. If those that play to the gallery are received well by some, the ones handled with finesse appeal to others. So it is with cinema. If the South gives a rousing reception to well made comedies, the reaction is similar in the North. When a joke is both intelligent and funny naturally you enjoy it. This SMS stuff for instance ... " Kamal continues.

"If Adam and Eve had been Chinese we'll all be in Paradise ... " He pauses for a second before he adds, "... because they would have ignored the apple and eaten the snake ... " You burst out laughing. "Every one enjoys such wisecracks, don't you think?"

The sparkling humour seems to augur well for Kamal's "Mumbai Express."

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