K Hariharan’s biography Kamal Haasan – A Cinematic Journey (HarperCollins India) includes essays on the renowned actor’s key films. This excerpt is from the chapter on Ek Duuje Ke Liye (1981), K Balachander’s Hindi remake of his Telugu-language Maro Charitra (1978). Ek Duuje Ke Liye starred Haasan (who had played the same role in Maro Charitra) and Rati Agnihotri. The film a tragedy about lovers who pay with their lives for the linguistic divide between Tamil and Hindi. In this extract, Hariharan writes about how Ek Duuje Ke Liye was initially perceived by Hindi film distributors before going on to be a blockbuster.

‘A washout’

While Balachander wrapped-up the high-strung melodrama within four weeks, Kamal was also in shreds. He had exhausted himself doing everything to make the film worth watching. From pushing trollies to setting up lights to make it look like a high-value Hindi film, he had drained himself to please both his mentor and the great movie mogul of Prasad Productions who had trusted his capabilities.

All post-production work was done in Madras, but when L.V. Prasad screened the first print for some of his select Bombay distribution buddies, it was a disaster. They said that the film was a washout. There was no way that they were going to release it or even promote it. Octogenarian Prasad, with his long years of experience, was not going to give up. He called Kamal over to Bombay so that he could acquaint himself with the Hindi filmdom.

‘In Bombay, Kamal was put up in a small hotel. Later that evening, he put on a smart blazer and went over to Prasad’s office, expecting it to be grand. Instead it turned out to be a modest flat on the third floor of a building. It was decorated with the most spartan of furniture – some chairs and a steel table with a black telephone.

After a cup of tea, Prasad got up and said, ‘I will need your help now!’

Kamal wondered what he needed until Prasad pointed to a big ugly metal-strapped film box containing the fourteen reels of his magnum opus. He said, ‘Can you help me carry that box into the elevator?’

Strangely this great movie mogul had no office boy or servants that day. Kamal immediately said, ‘Of course, sir, I will carry it for you. You are not going to lug that heavy and slightly rusty box. It might hurt you!’ Kamal carried the 30-kg box into the elevator and yet again from the elevator into the boot of the ordinary Ambassador car waiting below.

The car took them to a special screening at a preview theatre for a Delhi distributor. Prasad introduced Kamal to the gentleman. After the first reel commenced, Prasad excused himself and left, telling Kamal to get their guest some sandwiches and coffee during the intermission. Kamal sat embarrassed next to this pot-bellied distributor, trying to make small talk. But by the fifth reel even that was not required, as the distributor had fallen asleep.

Tere Mere Beech Mein, Ek Duuje Ke Liye (1981).

After a few more such screenings, a dejected Kamal flew back to Madras. How could Romeo and Juliet, the most famous of all tragedies ever written, fail to win attention in this accursed city of Bombay? Nevertheless, putting on a brave face, Prasad met with his dear friend Gulshan Rai, a prominent Hindi film distributor, and requested him to lend his banner for the first release. The North–South divide was not going allow for a risky film to be launched on a South Indian banner. Gulshan Rai agreed and the film was released in just one theatre called Roxy with minimal publicity.

Prasad sat through each screening that weekend to study reactions. He saw audiences come out with tears in their eyes. Some people would tell him, ‘How could the world be so cruel to such a lovely pair? This is so unfair!’

Prasad realized that everybody had seen a wholesome tragedy after a long time on the Hindi screen and there was no difference in feelings between the Tamil audience he had been close to and their Hindi counterparts. Now sure that he was on the right track, he immediately called his son Ramesh Prasad in Madras to order for another forty prints to be released all over India the following Friday.

The film went on to celebrate fifty weeks. Kamal flew down to Bombay yet again for a special function to celebrate the film’s success at the Novelty Theatre. This time he was a superstar, while his mentors Prasad and K. Balachander were still the same down-to-earth film veterans. They reached the theatre early and while inspecting the lobby, Prasad remarked, ‘The floor is really spanking clean and shining, isn’t it?’

Intrigued by this remark Kamal replied, ‘Yes, it’s clean but what is so special about that?’

Prasad replied, smiling, ‘Do you know, when I was twenty-six years old, as old as you are now, I used to be an usher here and between screenings I had to mop this very floor clean every day? I am happy such traditions are still being followed by the workers here.’

Kamal was deeply humbled, not merely by knowing this fact, but more by the casual way in which this great man had mentioned it to him.

The film also got S.P. Balasubrahmanyam the National Award for the Best Playback Singer. This foray by a Southern artiste into the Hindi heartland was very significant, for it soon opened the doors for Yesudas, Chitra and others.

The Hindi belt had found the Southern accent agreeable to its ears. This cross-cultural influx would continue – youngsters such as Chennai-based A.R. Rahman went on to make huge inroads into Bollywood even as Hindi playback singers like Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle and Udit Narayan entered recording studios in Chennai and Hyderabad to record Tamil and Telugu songs.

A few years and many more films later, Kamal met the legendary L.V. Prasad at the Prasad Studios in Chennai, which now had in its compound a brand new massive 70-mm recording and mixing studio, the first of its kind in Asia. Prasad stroked the side of the big building and told Kamal, ‘This big baby you see is thanks to you and all those who worked on Ek Duuje Ke Liye. I put all the profits that I earned from it back to serve the same film industry that had briefly lost trust in my capabilities to make a successful film!’

Excerpted with permission from Kamal Haasan – A Cinematic Journey, K Hariharan, HarperCollins India.

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