Express News Service
Actor Kamal Kamaraju cannot be in a better place right now; he is enjoying the best of both worlds — acting and architecture. Ask which one’s his first love, and he won’t pick. But listen to him speak about buildings and design, you’ll get your answer. In this no-filters interview, Kamal opens his heart out to Express about his love for architecture, his student life at JNTU-H, the story he wants to tell through his designs and why he doesn’t believe in Vastu.
What triggered your interest in architecture?
Just the other day, my mother was telling my wife about how when I was a kid I used to walk around and stare at buildings. I used to say, ‘Why can’t people build good houses? All of these look like boxes.’ Hyderabad, when we were kids, used to be only two areas — the Abids-Koti area, which used to be the city, and the other side of the Musi river, which comprised LB Nagar and Vanasthalipuram where the working class lived. When I used to travel in the RTC buses from my home in Alkapuri to my school in Abids, I would see the change in elevation. That got me thinking, why certain areas of the city have a certain type of architecture? Later, in Class IX, my brother gifted me Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. Howard Roark (the protagonist) became my hero. For me, he was the ideal man, who was doing something that he believed in. I thank my brother for giving me that book. Architecture has changed the way people live and how cities are envisioned. But sadly, poor architecture has brought down the spirit of India. It hurts me a lot.
What do you mean when you say ‘poor architecture has brought down the spirit of India’?
It makes the people feel low, as though they cannot achieve. For example, when you think of architecture in India, Taj Mahal, Qutub Minar and other monuments, which were built 700-800 years ago, come to our mind. But in New York, you have the Freedom Tower and Manhattan Bridge, which are recent. This is not about culture and tradition versus modernity. The question is, what did India do for its people post-Independence when it comes to architecture? Look at Gandhi’s ashram — that should have been the understanding of Indian architecture.
Tell me about your days at JNTU-H.
Architecture became something that I wanted to pursue very badly. Once I got into it, I realised how expensive a profession it is. Every week, thousands of rupees would go in buying my pencils, pens, tables and model-making supplies. I don’t know how my parents managed these expenses, they both were government employees. I made up my mind not to let them or anyone down. Like any other college kid, I too was idealistic, and architecture made me even more. I had a good bunch of seniors, whom I learnt a lot from. They had good ideas, but everything boiled down to getting a job and paying the bills. I found this quite strange — I used to tell my peers that if you want to become an architect, you should not worry about paying the bills.
In my second year, I realised that the college was going easy on the students. They would give us 50 out of 50 for our designs; you can never score full marks in design. I knew that this would eventually make me a lazy and bad architect. This became all the more clear after I interned with some top architects in Delhi. I knew that I was going wrong somewhere. By third year, I was fed up and thought of quitting architecture. All my professors and even renowned architect Mr Yeshwant Ramamurthy, who is my mentor, sat me down and spoke to me. So, I decided to complete my degree, but not pursue the profession if things went this way.
What story did you want to tell as an architect?
Let me give you an example. Usually, thesis topics are ‘a college building’, ‘a hospice’, ‘a park’. You submit the drawings and you get 50 out of 50 (laughs). But, I am really proud of my thesis: Live Entertainment Architecture — Petlaburj as Theatre. What I meant by live entertainment architecture was, why can’t architecture be entertainment by itself for commuters and pedestrians? The professors did not agree to it, but my mentor found it interesting and he convinced them that it makes sense. I want people to understand architecture and what it can do to the city and State. Every building should have emotion. Look at the Burj Khalifa or the pyramids in Egypt; they were all first an emotion and later people worked on the design.
When did your journey into films start?
This was around 2004, when I was in my final year of college. I decided to explore art in general. I watched this movie, Aithe (2003), by Chandra Sekhar Yeleti, which won the National Award. The movie had only one song and a unique storyline. I was in awe of the director and wanted to meet him. When I went to meet him, I also met Hanu Raghavapudi, who was his assistant back then. We got talking and he asked me to join the film’s art unit. He introduced me to Chandra Sekhar Yeleti, who asked me to make a sketch of window. The architect in me started to ask questions — what’s the window for, how will it be shot, from which angle, etc. Back then, I didn’t know anything about filmmaking or cinematography.
The director said he wanted to reveal the heroine through a window. I came back next day with the sketch. I had divided the window in six parts, which means it had six shutters, and the director said he didn’t want anything like this. I explained the idea to him — how the shutters flap with the wind as the heroine struggles to shut it, but ultimately they all open and we see her face. He loved the dramatic build-up. That’s how I started working as a set assistant. My first job was in the art department for Anukokunda Oka Roju (2005).
Later, Chatrapathi (2005) happened with Rajamouli sir. Since I was anyway going to be there on the set, managing the art, and as I am as tall as Prabhas, he asked me if I would like to act. I played the friend’s role. While this was happening, I thought why not meet Sekhar Kammula too. My mom was his big fan. So I met him and that’s how I landed Godavari (2006). That got me recognition as an actor. While we were shooting in Papikondalu, I spoke a lot about architecture with Sekhar.
‘I’m picky about the roles I play’
On designing Sekhar Kammula’s house
Years after Godavari, Sekhar called me. This was in 2012, just before I got married. He wanted me to design his house in Padmarao Nagar. I told him that I had moved away from architecture and that it would not work out because you guys would insist on Vastu. He just asked me to build a house and not bother about all this riffraff. That’s how I got back into architecture. He was the best client I’ve ever had — he never questioned my decisions, he trusted me. The design of the house tells you a lot about Sekhar — he is grounded and old school, yet contemporary. I used a lot of straight lines, because Sekhar is a person who speaks to the point. I wanted the materials and components to speak for themselves — the gate, windows, bricks, railings — but at the same time, gel with the entire building. For me, these materials are like the characters of a movie. During this project, which was for about a year, I didn’t do films.
Now, how are you balancing acting and architecture?
In films, you reach the set on time, do your shot and go back home. You get paid on a daily basis. As I was already recognised, I knew that I could come back to films any time. This is not a conventional thing in the industry. It’s said, out of sight is out of mind. But I was never afraid of this. I was pretty cool about it. Movies have been very dear to me, I get a lot of love from my fans and the industry. So, I pick my roles very carefully. Today, I am in a very unique position, where I am enjoying the best of both worlds.
You come from a family of atheists. As an architect, how do you cater to a client’s Vastu or Feng shui demands?
Right at the beginning, I make it clear to them that I do not believe in these. Many of the young clients want to project themselves as these uber-cool people. They say that they do not believe in Vastu ‘that much’, but their parents do. I stop them right there — I tell them that there’s a problem in you. You are assuming that you believe in Vastu a little. What is little? My dialogue with my clients is at a very different level. I simply tell them that I should not do their building and it’s best for them to look for another architect. If your architect gives you a beautiful design and says that it is 100 per cent Vastu-compliant, do not believe him. It cannot be true. He would have made several blunders in the name of Vastu.
Buildings that inspire you
Charles Correa’s Kanchanjunga Apartments in Mumbai, Jawaharlal Nehru Institute for Development Banking in Gachibowli
Do you dream of building something iconic someday?
No. There comes ego when you want to do something iconic. Architecture is a process of understanding a person, his nature, society, culture and emotions, using which you come up with a design. That need not be iconic. ‘Iconic’ is the Western way of marketing something. Today, many architects are moving out of this bubble. More than all this, as a society, we need to sit down and talk about architecture. Students are passing out of college with half-baked knowledge, they are doing buildings without any insight or perspective and it’s all leading to a mess.
Are you picky about the places you hang out at? Do you look for well-designed spots?
I learn from bad buildings too. I like sitting in front poorly designed building as I know what I should not do. But at the same time, I look for something good.
When you look around, you see a template that everyone’s following. Do you think what you are doing is madness?
Definitely not. What Laurie Baker (Indian-British architect from Kerala) did was madness. He studied architecture in England, came to India and started designing bricks. That is next level madness. The Indian government had once asked him to help with an low-cost housing project. They asked him how much he would charge and Baker said a supply of pencils and erasers. We don’t have such people today. That is madness. We try to be a little idealistic but also pay our phone bills. That’s why I need another job, I need to act. So that people do not get a chance to force me to do something that I don’t like.