As we begin our conversation, he traces his journey back to where it began. Kamal Haasan was born in a Brahmin family from Chennai, almost as an “afterthought”, as he puts it.

“I was a late child in the family. My eldest brother, Charuhasan, was twenty-four years older than me. After him came the late Chandra Hasan, who was eighteen years my senior, and then my sister, Nalini Raghuram, eight years older than me. I’d always joke that they should actually have called me ‘Oops Haasan’. I was not planned at all,” says Kamal Haasan with a laugh.

“But what happens when you come so late is that there is no sibling rivalry as such, instead there was a lot of fostering. Also because my father D Srinivasan was in the Independence movement, I was sort of stuck in the era as if I had lived during that time. My siblings were all born before Independence, my sister was born in 1947. We were so proud of the new, independent India. I rejoiced with my father and my brothers; their positive attitude, their dreams of India were contagious. Of course, my father then became disenchanted and didn’t get into active electoral politics. He moved away because he thought his job was done. So, the spirit of this child, was actually that of pre- Independence, and then of a new, independent India,” he says.

Kamal Haasan grew up cradled between the influences of a new India and the rise of the Dravidian movement against upper-caste Brahmin hegemony and to uphold a separate Dravidian identity and culture of the southern states. The movement was spearheaded by EV Ramasamy, popularly known as Periyar.

“Even though my father wasn’t politically active, he had close ties to the Congress party. State leaders like K Kamaraj [three-time Tamil Nadu chief minister and former Congress president] visited our home and we visited them. As a young boy, I listened to my father and his friends talk about politics; the rise of the DMK at that time was looked upon with both great chagrin and admiration at the same time. Later, when my elder brother Charuhasan became a DMK lawyer, my father and he stopped sitting together at dinner during the elections.”

“I thought politics should be avoided at the dinner table,” I say, laughing.

“Yes,” he smiles, “but in our case, it may have ended badly so they studiously avoided sitting together. However, I got to hear both sides of the conversation. My eldest brother was an atheist while my other brother, Chandra Hasan, was a strong believer. But even though I was a mantra-chanting Brahmin boy till I was twelve, my atheist brother never heckled me for it. He just looked the other way.

“So, I was influenced by all of them. When I was seven or eight years old, I was very religious. I would spend two hours in the puja room every day. If you walked on the road outside my house in Chennai early in the morning, you would hear my shrill voice reciting Sanskrit mantras. However, those were volatile times. The rise of the Dravidian movement affected everyone, including those who were opposed to it.”

“How did the movement influence you?” I ask, wondering what changed this little boy’s strong belief into staunch atheism.

“By the time I was twelve, what started off as doubt about religion totally swung to the other side of the spectrum, ably assisted by my elder brother. By sixteen, I was a borderline rabid atheist. Then, things cooled down, and I decided not to be angry. I finally settled down for a rational view of the world because for me it was not necessary to demolish god. However, the trigger point was the apathy I was seeing towards casteism around me.”

The young boy had been brought up completely differently.

“For me, as I grew up, caste was like a car model, that’s all,” he says. “There was no derision or untouchability involved with it. Our house was an open house where many people came – it was not a typical Brahmin house – and when I was a young boy I had secretly become a non-vegetarian. When my mother found out, it was like finding out your son smokes. It was considered equally bad. However, when she would throw a five-rupee note at me, I knew what she meant. It was her way of telling me to go get my meat fix but not to tell her about it.

“I had started visiting Kerala with friends when I was sixteen years old. The political climate there was very similar to the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu. But it was better because being a bhakt in Kerala is possible, while being a staunch atheist is also possible. Those trips had a strong influence on me. When I was around eighteen, I finally realised that I was clearly not right wing at all.”

Kamal Haasan’s early heroes were all individualistic mavericks. They appealed to him despite their iconic status. But he’d made it a point to question even those elevated to the status of idols – from Periyar to Mahatma Gandhi – in the Indian imagination.

“Periyar was one of the leaders who took on questions directly,” Kamal says. “People would call him all kinds of names, he would quietly take it and give them a fitting answer, very much like Gandhiji. When I was eighteen, I was in a circle of people which was prone to Gandhi-bashing. However, at twenty-four, I discovered Mr Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, with all his blemishes and pockmarks. Suddenly, his critics didn’t matter to me any longer. I accepted him with all my heart, and he became my hero. If I had continued being a believer, I would have been a Gandhi bhakt. Fortunately, I was able to enjoy what he probably meant people to enjoy of him, his tenacity of purpose.”

~~~

“You question all your heroes, you question every idol you’ve had. What were your questions about Gandhi?” I ask.

“The questions were not my own,” he replies. “They were questions I had heard about from other people, even from some of the politicians I met. A senior politician from West Bengal once told me, ‘I can understand why you like Gandhiji so much. It’s because he was also an actor like you.’ That’s their way of putting him down. Some of my communist friends say that the biggest street theatre was when Gandhi enacted the Dandi March. These observations made me laugh. They were not wrong. But so what if they were right? Did it tarnish Gandhiji’s character, did it take away from the message of his life? It didn’t. If you say the Dandi March was the biggest street theatre performed, I’d say okay, but what is politics if not a form of theatre? What is a symbolic act but theatre? The whole idea of ahimsa itself seems theatrical, till you’re ready for it. Not all are ready because it takes some time to truly be able to practise non-violence because the height of valour is ahimsa. How many people have that kind of valour, the bravery, to go that far? That’s why the greatest Jain saint was called Mahavir. It’s something to do with valour, to be so calm and so harmless towards everything. It’s beyond religion, it’s compassion and humanity in one word.”

Excerpted with permission from Defining India: Through Their Eyes, Sonia Singh, Penguin Viking.