If genius can be associated with acting then Kamal is one. No other Indian actor has audiences waiting with bated breath for the sheer diversity of roles he plays. The delineation of characters when he played two or more roles in a film is fascinating

A family friend, a doctor, took a four-year-old kid to a party. He was the cynosure with his saucer eyes and ready repartee. A producer who probably didn’t get Daisy Irani’s dates asked him if he’d act. "Sure, but I want a Plymouth," said the kid. A spanking new Plymouth picked him up the next day but only to take him to the studio.

Kamal Hassan was literally taken for a ride, but that was to be his baptism with grease paint in Kalathoor Kanamma, five decades ago. A few films, a National award and the loss of his front teeth later, Kamal spent his growing up years learning Bharatanatyam and karate.

Kamal’s ascent to stardom coincided with the twilight years of the veterans MGR and Sivaji Ganesan. He was like a breath of fresh air. At a time when acting meant exaggeration, Kamal ushered in an era of subtlety. “In the beginning directors sneered, ‘Don’t give us this Malayalam stuff. Give us some real Tamil acting.’ However, when someone gave a decent performance and it was compared to mine I felt proud,” says Kamal.

Just when people were branding him lover-boy, came 16 Vayadhinile. As the drooling village idiot, Chappani Kamal’s performance was a tour de force. “I like an image simply so that I can break it,” says Kamal. He followed it up as the suave psychopath played to perfection in Sigappu Rojakkal and the buck-toothed imbecile in Kalyana Raman.

It’s only when other actors try to fill his shoes in remakes that you realise his greatness — be it Amol Palekar in Solva Saal, Rajesh Khanna in Red Rose or Dharmendra in Ghazab. The consummate trapeze artiste walking the tightrope between class and crass, Kamal seemed to falter in the late Seventies. Co-incidentally, a bus conductor from Bangalore, Rajnikant, stormed the Tamil screen. Kamal had a string of flops, while Rajnikant ascended the throne. Kamal produced his 100th film, Raja Parvai. The sensitive tale about a blind violinist won critical acclaim, but failed. “My favourite possession is a letter from a fan written in blood after Raja Parvai. It said I was a good actor and ink would not suffice. I wonder if I would do that for anyone,” sighs Kamal.

If genius can be associated with acting then Kamal is one. It’s not as if he’s incapable of indifferent performances but the great ones outnumber the bad ones. No other Indian actor has audiences waiting with bated breath for the sheer diversity of roles he plays. The delineation of characters when he played two or more roles in a film is fascinating. The hallmark of a great actor is comic timing and Kamal is sheer magic. Even Nagesh agreed.

Applause is an actor’s aphrodisiac and Kamal seeks it unabashedly. ‘I’m a limelight moth,” is his refrain. The only period when creativity was a casualty was his tryst with Hindi cinema. His southern hits were photocopied and the original were banal. Today he’s come a long way. He’s traversed the length and breadth of the country breaking linguistic barriers and leaving audiences incredulous with his inexhaustible repertoire. Unnaipol Oruvan (remake of A Wednesday) is definitely not a film or role that befits his talent but you allow him his indulgences. What’s exciting is that he’s signed Mysskin, the most promising young talent in Tamil cinema to direct him.

The first five decades have been fascinating. We can’t wait for the second.

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