As Kamal Haasan makes his bow on the small screen with Star Vijay’s Bigg Boss series it is worth noting the different ways in which he has left his mark in cinema, as an actor and touchstone of quality.

BY SUJATHA NARAYANAN

It was 1985. The wheels of the generator van turned into a small lane called Arisikaran Street (rice vendor street), in the heart of Mylapore Agraharam, where we lived then. The Agraharam (a Brahmin settlement) exists even today, but multi-storeyed apartments have taken the place of what were called “mottai maadi veedu”, open-terraced individual homes. That day in 1985, these terraces saw a jump-on-jump-off “parkour” chase sequence for the first “Bond film” in Indian cinema, Vikram in Tamil. I later learnt that the hero was also the producer. When I first saw him he was jumping off terraces, running across a temple procession in the crowded street, heroine in tow while fighting the villain.

I had bunked my 8th standard maths class and come in uniform to watch during my lunch break. A movie-buff from when I was probably born, I didn’t know that the film-shoot would set the path for my career. The “hero” met me for a few seconds and told me how important it was to focus on what one was doing at the moment. It meant I had to go back to school, but he assured me he would be around when I returned.

True to his word, he was. Seldom did he fuss about the lack of star-facilities in a street-house like ours. He also seemed in command of what was going on. My impressionable mind saw him harness a bunch of men and machines towards a particular area where the action took place. For the first time, I saw a movie camera as the single tool that harnessed all talent under its lens. Kamal Haasan was not the director, but in my eyes he was the only one who knew more than just his job. Watching him that day changed the way I would come to view cinema.

***

I’m happiest on a movie set. This I learnt from Kamal Haasan. No set where he presides has room for dull, boring or “nothing” moments. From staging “mise-en-scenes”to deciding on costumes for artistes in the background, nothing escapes his trained eye. Working on three films with him showed me what it took to put a film together. Before I worked with him I saw him only as an actor, and by 2002 he was world-famous, with many awards.

Haasan began his career with a national award, for best child-actor in the 1960 runaway hit Kalathur Kannamma (Tamil) and his record of multiple awards from various states and his count of national (four, all for acting) and Filmfare awards (19 in all) is unmatched. The second time I met him was for an interview when just out of college. By then he was a full-fledged filmmaker with Hey Ram, which was facing censor issues. His production house Raajkamal Films International (RKFI) had churned out hits through the ’80s and ’90s including Apoorva Sagodrargal and Devar Magan and experimental films like Kadamai Ganniyam, Kattupaadu, Kurudhipunal (both without songs) and Magalir Mattum—experiments that became blockbusters nevertheless.

Some of the best comedies in Tamil have come from the Haasan desk. By 1996 he was more than just a bankable star. Kamal Haasan stood for tenacity, quality and purpose and still upholds them with every film outing. By the late 90s there were some familiar patterns to his output. A heavy film would be followed by a serious one or vice versa. He did Aalavandhaan (2001) after Thenali (2000), for instance. By then, Haasan was riding a wave of expectations with every film—a Kamal Haasan film meant good cinema, even the commercial templates. As an actor, he always stood out even if the film didn’t work. He also did away with the bourgeois coyness about the on-screen kiss. More often than not, it was he who choreographed the love scenes along with the stunts, first at the request of the director and later simply because he wrote a majority of his scripts.

Graduating from child actor to movie star was not easy. He dropped out of school though he educated himself in the arts. The first opportunities after the teen years came from theatre. He worked with Avvai Shanmugam Annachi’s troupe and many others as an amateur and haunted the wings of film studios, ready to lend a hand to a dance master or director, just so he could be around the arc-lights. It took a long time to get anywhere. But he kept at it and eventually his talent did the rest.

By the new millennium Kamal Haasan also had a reputation for interfering with directors. He was faulted for being a perfectionist. In an earlier interview he told me only directors who didn’t know their job would, maybe, feel scared. By this time, of course, if a director was looking for recognition as a serious filmmaker he had only to sign up Kamal Haasan. When he said yes to a script, he was considered to be lending his stamp to the whole film—of quality entertainment and good cinema. In the last decade, though, he has mostly written, directed, produced and acted in his ventures.

***

Here’s the bigger deal, though. When Kamal Haasan grew in box-office standing, an entire industry grew with him. With every venture he tried to do better in terms of film craft. He also has a habit of doing the unexpected. As an actor who has seen commercial success in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada and Hindi and who speaks each language in the films he does, Kamal Haasan’s 100th in 1981 was awaited with bated breath. It was the time of rock and roll and revenge sagas. But he chose the story of a blind musician who falls in love with a spirited girl. Raajapaarvai was not a commercial success but has some of the best visuals (Barun Mukherjee), art direction (Thotta Tharini) and music (Ilayaraja). The film is very much today in its depiction of romance and relations, the elderly grandfather played by veteran film-maker L.V. Prasad (showing an eye for casting) and the montages in songs (watch the film for how an actor must play a blind man) are moments coming-of-age films find rare to depict.

Born on Nov 7, 1954, Kamal Haasan was named after his father’s friend. The family has seen every one of them in the arts, some for an audience (the actors) and others because they wanted to, like his sister Nalini, a trained Bharatnatyam exponent. To Haasan goes the credit for working with, introducing and collaborating with young talent behind the camera. In the early ’80s, he was fresh from success with his 30-odd Malayalam films and the “acting roles” in K. Balachander’s heavy duty narratives, which honed his abilities. By his 100th film Kamal Haasan’s compound on Eldams Road in ’80s Madras was like a chat room for cinema, with young, educated minds talking about the movies. Even now he describes himself as a film-buff first on his Twitter handle.

This was the time when Haasan would exchange notes with new-wave filmmakers on the latest festival in Bombay or Kerala. One such filmmaker was Mani Ratnam. Among the others were K. Rudraiyah, Bharathiraja, Balu Mahendra and Singeetham Srinivasa Rao. Balachander who re-launched a gawky teenage Kamal Haasan in Arangetram (1973) and then cast him in some role, any role, and then only lead roles, had by the late 80s worked in 35 films with Kamal Haasan. Most rode on the success of his protégé whose name spelt box-office magic.

Several Tamil writers came to cinema because Kamal Haasan went looking for them. Sujatha, Balakumaran, Crazy Mohan and Madhan outgrew their world of prose and took up screenplay and dialogue-writing. Actors wanted to work with him. Departments of cinematography, sound, art and costumes were other highlights of films with Kamal Haasan. By the new millennium Kamal Haasan films had won national awards, his scripts were remade in Hindi and Telugu and, irrespective of box-office success, there was always recognition for the technicians. Haasan’s writing skills (he debuted with Unarchigal at 19) reached a peak with the 1992 mega hit Devar Magan. He wrote story, screenplay and dialogue (remade as Virasat with Anil Kapoor in Hindi) and acted alongside his idol Sivaji Ganesan in a riveting tale of feudal politics and caste violence which ends in a “Christ-carrying-the-cross” climax. It won Sivaji his first national award in 1992—a special jury award for acting, though other honours had come to him—ahead of the Dada Saheb Phalke in 1997.

Even today, some 40-odd years after their debuts, the Kamal Haasan-Rajinikanth battle at the box-office continues. While Rajinikanth is a different brand altogether, Kamal Haasan remains relevant because of his ability to carry a film on his own. His star status means he can experiment with roles, bring in new technology or introduce new forms of narrative or challenge to film making. He is a pioneer in the marketing of regional language films in the overseas market. Vettaiyaadu, Vilaiyaadu (2006) was the first to cross `30 crore on average the world over, a big number then. Written and directed by Gautham Menon, it opened to much scepticism as Kamal Haasan was fresh from a couple of flops. But his grim investigative officer hunting serial killers was spot on and he clawed back lost ground. Haasan was box-office gold again and ensured Dasavathaaram made double that number. It became the highest grosser in 2008.

At no point in his life will Kamal Haasan lack a story. His mind is brimming with ideas and he has the ability to write his own scripts and direct them, without compromising on his reputation as an actor, which is how most people know him. It is interesting that Kamal Haasan first took the director’s chair in a Hindi film, owing to creative differences with the original director half-way through production. Directing Chachi 420 (1997) and acting as the “Chachi” himself, (a class-drag act) gave Haasan a bigger market and the financial muscle to produce and direct Hey Raam (2000), perhaps India’s first multi-lingual film with dialogues retained in various languages and filmed in sync-sound with actors playing roles from the communities they belong to (like Shah Rukh Khan plays a Pathan).

The detailing showcased the precision with which Kamal Haasan likes to operate when he is the writer-director. Box-office failure, thanks to the big risk, multi-regional release (so easy today) and the saga of a hero who does not end as one, loaded RKFI and Kamal Haasan down with debt. It took about a decade to bounce back, and in the meantime he worked for other directors. But he was dreaming about Marudhanayagam, a venture every bit as ambitious as Hey Ram.

***

Kamal Haasan is a pan-India actor, a star in four states, where he is viewed as a legend. His choices, both professional and personal, are getting bolder with time. He says he chases excellence, not perfection, and constantly introduces new technology apart from acting talent. The first film to be edited on AVID was his Mahanadhi (1994) and the first to have Dolby digital sound was Kurudhipunal (1995). Way before anyone experimented with the RED camera Haasan shot his Mumbai Express (2005). Kamal Haasan also made a marked difference to Telugu cinema. Directors like K. Vishwanath found in his dancing and acting the perfect choice for films like Saagara Sangamam (1983) and Swathi Muthyam (1985). Balu in Saagara Sangamam is a character that probably no one else could have played because it required a skill his mother ensured he learned in his pre-teens: dance.

It took Kamal Haasan more than 20 years to shrug off the dancer-actor tag as well as that of the quintessential lover boy. The one film that changed the way Haasan wanted the world to look at him was Maniratnam’s Nayagan (1987), which won him his second national award for best actor. Velu Nayakar, in my opinion, belongs to the best director-actor combination Indian cinema will ever witness–Mani Ratnam and Kamal Haasan. It was a rare synchrony of talent and hard work. Each understood exactly what the other had to offer. It also showcased Haasan’s new skill in prosthetic make-up, which added weight to the character. He was only 32 when he played an elderly mafia don who loses his adult son and is estranged from his daughter. He meets her again as a married woman whose husband has sworn to put Velu behind bars. Nayagan is the only film from India in the Best 100 films of Time magazine.

***

Kamal Haasan was first the “Prince of Romance”, but by the 90s became the “Universal Hero”. Tamil filmdom loves to title every favourite son (superstar, king of actors, rebel star–you name it!) and to transcend that required a vision. Two decades ago he turned his fan clubs into welfare associations to change young people into “purpose-seeking minds”. The Haasan tag has an influence in the industry today and there is a certain kind of cinema he produces, an honesty whenever he looks into the camera.

As a filmmaker Kamal Haasan is unafraid of failure but maximises his chances with attention to detail. He’s also taken to Movies With a Purpose, whether it was Virumandi (2004), Uthama Villain (2015), or the underestimated when released but now classic Anbe Sivam (2003). As a director he doesn’t pander to the gallery but there is also a risk for any director who agrees to make a film written by the actor. They will be relegated to the shadows in the spotlight covering Kamal Haasan, if they’re not good enough.

Nowadays he is more focused on becoming a better filmmaker. He has come up with concepts as varied as Marmayogi (if produced it would’ve been India’s first period-fantasy film), Sabash Naidu (under production with his iconic Naidu from Dasavatharam playing the central role) and Vishwaroopam 1 & 2. The trailer of Marudhanayagam on YouTube serves as testimony to what we might have seen, had the film been made.

From actor to complete artiste, Haasan’s journey is one of immense risks but the benefits have been manifold and despite financial losses he chugs on, always counting on the star to provide for the indulgences of the actor-director. Kamal Haasan’s film-making shows a sensibility and awareness beyond the average. In five decades he has done theatre, small budget films, short-films, art-films, assisted on sets, co-written scripts, delivered blockbusters on the strength of his name and clawed his way into the rigid hierarchy of the movie world, creating a path which now leads to himself as the goal. An exemplar of his craft, he had, in the 80s, to strike a balance between what he wanted to do (Kokila, Moondraam Pirai, Sadma in Hindi) and mindless but successful films like Sakalakalavallavan (1982).

I yearn for a year like 1987 when, after Nayagan he came up with his own productions, Pushpak and Sathya (1987). He went one better with Apoorva Sagodrargal (1989, Appu Raja in Hindi) where he played a dwarf. With Shankar’s Indian (1996), where he won his fourth national award, Haasan could dictate terms to the box-office.

In his latest role as a game show host, Kamal Haasan sets a precedent for his peers, to take on the challenge of exposing himself to a daily audience and ensuring he gets the opening day crowds to his films. While he is open to exploring Netflix and Amazon, it remains to be seen if his production house will do films directed by another filmmaker as it used to, giving a chance to younger talent.

An evening with Kamal Haasan is replete with anecdotes from the cinema of yore, of which he was part of as a child-star. His fitness belies his 62 years, 58 of them spent either in front of the camera or behind it. Conversations are peppered with Indian history, etymology, good food and Gandhi, snippets from Marudhanayagam, the latest camera that has found its way into his living room, and moving images from his Tamil poems, of which the world has probably read just a few. Haasan’s biggest strength lies in his ability to be flexible to the changing times; in being relevant to the current world as he is to his craft.

2017. Kamal Haasan has kept his life as open as an actor can. He considers himself the “most judged actor” as every move is subject to public scrutiny. Yet he does only what he thinks or feels is right for him. His current marital status reads “single”, and he’s been-there-done-that with his relationships. But he does not allow any one emotion to overtake his responsibility or affinity to his first and truest love—cinema.

Sujatha Narayanan an entertainment entrepreneur, curates art and writes on cinema when she is not shooting, sometimes even when she is.

 

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3 Comments

Mirra, 2 months ago

Very interesting article…It clearly delineates about Mr.Kamal Haasan — one person whom I admire for his quintessential acting and his stout-heartedness…A LIFE UNDER THE LENS —– is the perfect title for this article…enjoyed reading this article..👍👍😍😍
Awesomeness:-)

Saroj, 2 months ago

Amazing article, a man of substance, ethics, morals and principles…..comes through very strongly.
He has had major success and some failures, but he has learned from both. Wish it was me who spent the day with him……..I have a million question.

G Rangarajan, 1 month ago

Brilliant article very well written makes it interesting reading. Thanks a million to Ms Sujatha Narayanan for taking me back to those shooting days in Arisikkaran Street where I too lived and witnessed the shooting bunking office.

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