In 'Dasavatharam', a movie that spans 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 hardly dealt with in the world’s largest cinema producing country. Such is the inquisitive spirit of Kamal, who has been in the movie business for over 55 years.
The actors' actor turns 63 today.
Many actors we adore idolise Kamal. And many tried to imitate him. Born on Nov 7, 1954, to criminal lawyer D. Srinivasan and wife Rajalekshmi in Parmakudi in Ramanathapuram district of Tamil Nadu, Kamal was the youngest of three siblings, the others being Charu Haasan, who is twenty years his elder, and Chandra Haasan. Their sister Nalini 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 19 Filmfare Awards, various state awards and international honors. Seven of the films he acted entered the Oscar race.
At the age of five, Kamal was cast in the Tamil film Kalathur Kannamma made by A. V. Meiyappa Chettiar as an orphan raised by Gemini Ganesan. He walked away with the President’s Gold medal for best child actor. Soon, he played thespian Satyan’s son in the Malayalam film Kannum Karalum.
Rigorous training in classical dance was his education which was complemented by a strict fitness training regimen. K. Vishwanath found a perfect hero in Kamal for his dance-oriented films like Sagara Sangamam (Salangai Oli 1983). 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 Arangetram. His first Malayalam film as hero opposite Rita Bhaduri was Kanyakumari (1974), written by M.T. and directed by K. S. Sethumadhavan. Rajanikanth’s first movie Apoorva Ragangal (1975) had Kamal as the young protagonist who falls for the older woman (Srividya).
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–cum–gifted actor combo grew such that by the late seventies, he had become a rage. Girls swooned for him, adolescent boys idolized him and rebellious youth identified with the actor who gave vent to their dreams, aspirations and agonies. 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 they acted in 38 movies together, with their best being Balu Mahendra’s Moondram Pirai.
Kamal married danseuse Vani Ganapathy when he was twenty four. They split after seven years. By then Sarika, the quiet and light-eyed actress of Hindi cinema had entered Kamal’s life. 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 is an actor-composer-director while Akshara has also started her film career.
Wealth of talent
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. But the credit for thoroughly exploiting the actor in Kamal belongs 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, their fruitful partnership 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 goon. 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 Bharathi Raja’s Sigappu Rojakkal is notable. With Ek Duuje Ke Liye (1982) the tale of the doomed love of a Tamil boy and a Hindi 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 uncle character, Chaplin Chellappa, played by Kamal was his obeisance to the maestro of silent and talkie cinema.
An astute businessman, Kamal's relationship with the Mumbai movie moguls was strained. Apart from Ek Duuje Ke Liye, he had Hindi hits to his name like Giraftar and Sagar and commanded a fee second only to Amitabh when he quit Bollywood. Many of his films have been remade in Hindi though. With the novel experiment of Singeetam Srinivasa Rao’s Pushpak Vimanam (Pesum Padam 1988) Kamal appeared first time on screen sans his moustache. The poignant tale of an unemployed youth’s daily struggles had the dazzling Amala in female lead. They were to pair again in Sathya and Vettri Vizha. Kamal put on weight in studious preparation for the role of Velu Naickar, a character inspired by the underworld don Varadaraja Mudaliar, for Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan.
Kamal always had a fondness for Kerala. 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 in a title role came a quarter century ago. In débutante Rajeev Kumar’s Chanakyan, Kamal played the avenging violinist Johnson who sabre-rattles Thilakan’s villain Chief Minister, with consummate aplomb.
Apoorva Sahodarargal had Kamal playing a circus dwarf. 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’s young ad-man Anbarasu is in ideological debate with Kamal’s communist relic Nallasivam. Hey Ram’s hero Saket Ram sets out to kill Gandhi, accusing the latter as causing his personal tragedy. The work, which also features Shah Rukh Khan is a serious examination of what the Father of our Nation stood for. In Aalavandhan (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 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 an 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 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. Al Pacino should come closest to him among Hollywood stars, in versatility if not looks.
The reluctant actor
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 and has sung in his movies, for instance Thevar Magan.
FICCI bestowed on him the title of ‘Living Legend’. The first person to convert his fans’ associations into a welfare organisation 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. However, after watching the Tamil Nadu politics which is drifting along direction-less, Kamal is expected to plunge into the current to pull it back on track. With more than 200 films under his belt, Kamal Haasan perhaps has lot more to offer to Indian cinema that anyone else.