Kamal Haasan – A Living Legend

In Dasavatharam, a movie whose story spans a period from the 12th to the 21st centuries, Kamal Haasan, actor nonpareil of Indian cinema, appeared in ten roles, a feat hitherto untried anywhere in the world. The movie reflected on Karmic retribution, Chaos Theory and The Butterfly Effect, themes one hardly encounters in the usual movies churned out by world’s largest cinema producing country. But such is the inquisitive spirit of Kamal, who has completed a mind-boggling 55 years in the business even as he himself hits the magical milestone of 60th birthday today.

Kamal Haasan is the actors’ actor. Many actors we adulate in our land have this great for their idol while many have tried to imitate him, with partial success. Kamal Haasan was born on 7th November 1954 to a criminal lawyer named D. Srinivasan and his devout wife Rajalekshmi in the village of Parmakudi in Ramanathapuram district of Tamil Nadu. Kamal was the youngest of three brothers, the others being Charu Haasan who is twenty years his senior and Chandra Haasan. They have a sister Nalini who is a classical dancer. Charu’s daughter is Suhasini Mani Ratnam. Kamal was thrice decorated with the National Best Actor Award – for Moondram Pirai (1982), Nayakan (1988) and Indian (1996). Complementing these are his unprecedented nineteen Filmfare Awards and various States’ awards and international honors. Seven of the films he acted in entered the Oscar race.

Like many of his peers like Sridevi and Sachin, Kamal was blooded early as a child in movies. When only five he was cast in the Tamil film Kalathur Kannamma made by A. V. Meiyappa Chettiar in which he played an orphan raised by Gemini Ganesan. He walked away with the President’s Gold medal for best child actor. Soon after that he played the thespian Satyan’s son in the Malayalam film Kannum Karalum. His education was mostly a rigorous training in classical dance. He set himself a strict fitness training regimen. The doyen director of dance films K. Viswanath found a perfect hero in Kamal for his ventures like Sagara Sangamam (Salangai Oli), Swathi Muthyam (Chippikkull Muthu) and Shubha Sankalkpam (Pasa Valai). But his guru and mentor in films was to be Kailasam Balachander.

KB gave the 19 year old newcomer his first big break by casting him in his Arangetram. His first Malayalam film as hero opposite Rita Bhaduri was Kanyakumari (1974) which was written by M.T and directed by K. S. Sethumadhavan. Rajanikanth’s entry movie Apoorva Ragangal (1975) had Kamal as the young protagonist who falls for Srividya’s older woman. Kamal’s first production Raja Parvai where he played a blind musician was also his 100th movie. The popularity of Kamal as a lethal sex symbol – gifted actor combo was now growing. By the late seventies, the name had become a rage with South Indian audiences. Girls swooned for him, adolescent boys idolized him and rebellious youth identified with the actor who gave vent to their dreams, aspirations and agonies on celluloid. Film after film after masala film, he was made to dance, fight, romance and also tear off his shirt in song sequences for apparently no reason. Kamal and Sridevi proved a terrific pair that came together in no fewer than 38 movies, their best being Balu Mahendra’s Moondram Pirai.

Kamal married danseuse Vani Ganapathy when he was twenty four and they split after seven years. By then Sarika, the quiet and light-eyed actress of Hindi cinema had entered Kamal’s life. Coincident with the birth of their daughter Sruthi, the couple wed. Another daughter Akshara followed. After seventeen years the curtains came down on that marriage as well. Kamal today lives with former actress Gowthami Thadimalla, along with her daughter from an annulled marriage, Subhalakshmi. As for his children, Shruthi who graduated from the Musician’s Institute in California is an actor-composer-director while Akshara is in to professional dance.

Even when Kamal starred in the stereotype formula films of the late seventies and early eighties, which seldom warranted histrionic merit, his abundant talent would surface in them, earning him plaudits from the critics of mainstream cinema. But the credit for thoroughly exploiting the actor in Kamal should belong to K. Balachander. Right from his early B/W films like Apoorva Ragangal and Avarkal to later ones like Punnagai Mannan and Ek Duuje Ke Liye, the duo’s was a highly fruitful partnership which saw 25 projects taking wings. In village balladeer Bharathi Raja’s path-breaking debut film Pathinaru Vayathinile (1977), Kamal plays a village simpleton to Rajani’s rowdy. In Balu Mahendra’s Moondram Pirai Kamal is a Ooty school teacher who rescues and nurses the amnesia-stricken Sridevi only to be painfully deserted by her once she regains her memory, or takes her ‘third birth’ as the title says. Kannadasan/ Ilayaraja’s song ‘Kanney Kala Maane’ rendered by Yesudas added luster to it. The anti-hero part of the psychopath in Raja’s Sigappu Rojakkal is notable. With Ek Duuje Ke Liye (1982) the tale of the doomed love of a Tamilian boy and a Hindiwala girl set in Goa, singer S. P. Balasubramaniam, like KB, made his Hindi debut. Culture clash again figures in KB’s Punnagai Mannan where the impish Revathi played a Sri Lankan girl in a wholesome movie with all the right ingredients like song, dance, romance, humor, comedy, tragedy, fight, paternal love, friendship, kindness and cruelty in the right mix. The Athirappilly Falls is as good as a character with a soul of its own. The uncle character Chaplin Chellappa played by Kamal was his obeisance to the maestro of silent and talkie cinema.

Kamal is an astute businessman. His relationship with the Mumbai movie moguls, the enormity of whose arrogance is matched only by the extent of their ignorance, was never smooth. Apart from Ek Duuje Ke Liye, he had Hindi hits to his name like Giraftar and Sagar and was commanding a fee second only to Amitabh Bachchan when he quit Bombay tinseldom. Many of his films have been remade in Hindi though. With the novel experiment of a silent Pushpak Vimanam (a.k.a Pesum Padam) directed by Singeetam Srinivasa Rao in 1988, Kamal appeared first time on screen sans his famous moustache. The poignant tale of an unemployed youth’s daily struggles struck a chord in the public’s hearts. Arousing pathos and comic laughter at the same time, it had the dazzling Amala opposite Kamal. They were to pair again in Sathya and Vettri Vizha. Kamal put on weight in studious preparation for the role of Velusamy Naickar, a character inspired by the underworld don Varadaraja Mudaliar, for Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan. The performance was arguably his best but the movie also paved the way for differences with Ratnam.

Kamal has always loved Kerala, especially its fish cuisine. Nedumudi Venu is among his favorite Indian actors, the others include Shivaji Ganesan (Nadikar Thilakam was a father-figure to him), Dilip Kumar and Naseeruddin Shah. His last Malayalam movie, and this is proof of his incorrigible business eye, came a quarter century ago. Debutante Rajeev Kumar’s Chanakyan was an early Jayaram film in which a serious faced Kamal played the avenging violinist Johnson who sabre-rattles Thilakan’s villain Chief Minister, with consummate aplomb.

Post-Nayakan, Kamal streamlined his choice of films.  The immediate offshoot of that strategy was a well-crafted Apoorva Sahodarargal with which Kamal playing a circus dwarf reached the pinnacle of his acting career. The film was to him what Mera Naam Joker was to Raj Kapoor, a soul-searching exercise. Indran Chandran where he was a diabolical Mayor Rajendran and a simpleton Chandran was followed by the quadruple act of Michael Madan Kama Rajan, a slapstick comedy.  In Anbe Sivam, Madhavan as the young ad-man Anbarasu ridicules the communist relic Nallasivam played by Kamal saying communism is extinct since the Soviet Union has collapsed. Retorts Sivam, ’If Taj Mahal falls down, will you guys stop loving as well?’ Hey Ram’s hero Saket Ram sets out to kill Gandhi, accusing the latter as causing his personal tragedy. The work which also features Hindi sensation Shah Rukh Khan is a serious examination of what the Father of our Nation stood for. In Alavandan (Abhay) Kamal played a cop and his lunatic twin brother. Virumandi is a work that employed the Kurosawan technique of revisiting a scene later from different perspectives. Tenali, Panchathantram and many racy wares that followed hardly did justice to his talent. Cop flick Vettayadu Vilayadu had the saving grace of Gautam Menon’s directorial artistry.

It is true that Kamal is a ‘great imitator’. He has liberally copied from the riches of Hollywood cinema apart from drawing from his own vast reading. But in an industry which refuses to grow out of song and dance musicals like a obdurate kid, he is one artist who has raised the bar every now and then and stretched the realms of the cinematically possible. He started a production company Raaj Kamal International in 1985. Kamal has choreographed songs and runs a film distribution office. A downslide in quality has gripped his films since Singaravelan. Mahanadi portrayed the most needlessly sickening violence seen on screen. Kuruthi Punal, a film without songs, was restrained, but the credit should go to Govind Nihalani, maker of the Hindi original Drohkal.

Kamal the perfectionist takes pains to hone his professional skills. He learnt ventriloquism for Avarkal and mridangam for Apoorva Ragangal. For Avvai Shanmugi inspired by Robin Williams’s Mrs. Doubtfire, he had the original film’s make-up man Michael Westmore working for him, an association that continued in Dasavatharam. When quizzed as to why he takes all that trouble Kamal cited the bravura of Kathakali artists who take up to four hours to don their greasepaint and compared to whom his efforts paled. Al Pacino should come closest to him among Hollywood stars, in versatility if not looks.

Kamal’s home in Alwarpet, Chennai is a veritable haven of the best collection of world cinema and literature. It is surprising that he considers himself a reluctant actor whose first passion is writing. His script writing started when only 19, with a treatment on prostitution called Unarchigal. His other screenplays include Thevar Magan, Apoorva Sahodarargal, Anbe Sivam, Hey Ram and Viswaroopam. Before entering films big time, he briefly worked with the drama troupe of T. K. Shanmugham, a stage producer who also was popular for his role of Avvaiyar, the poetess. In 1996, Kamal dedicated his film Avvai Shanmughi to his guru TKS. He has even brought out a collection of poems called Thedi Theerpom Va (Come, Let’s Solve Together). He penned the lyrics of Hey Ram. He has sung many songs in his movies, for instance Thevar Magan.

The victory march of Kamal Haasan continues. He is, to borrow the title of one of his early films, a ‘Sakala Kala Vallabhan’ (All round Artist). FICCI bestowed on him the title of ‘Living Legend’. The first person to convert his fans’ associations into a welfare organization called Narpani Iyakkam, Kamal is ‘Ulaka Nayakan’ (Universal Hero) to his admirers. Kamal also published a magazine called Mayyam to convey his messages across to followers of his cinema. His birthday every year is marked by eye and blood donation camps as well as distribution of free clothes and educational material. The Kalaignani has not pawned his conscience to any religion or political party. With more than 200 films under his belt, Padmabhushan Kamal Haasan’s is a name that is sure to be printed in pure gold in the annals of Indian Cinema history.

(7th November 2014)

Read my Manorama article here

3 thoughts on “Kamal Haasan – A Living Legend”

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