Kamal Haasan talks about his long-standing rapport with veteran director K. Balachander

The relationship between K. Balachander and Kamal Haasan defies categorisation. Director-actor, mentor-protégé, father-son… all those lines have been blurred in the decades that they've known each other, creating a bond that's unique and unconditional.

So, recently when the veteran filmmaker couldn't make it to Thiruvananthapuram to speak at the felicitation function of his protégé, due to ill health, he grew upset. But his lovingly-crafted speech reached Kamal Haasan nonetheless, one more in the series of touchingly genuine letters Balachander has sent to the actor over the years.

“Here are his earlier letters to me, that I've framed,” says Kamal, displaying the neatly preserved pieces of paper, when we meet in his office. “I call them ‘my degrees',” he says.

They span the four decades that the two have known each other for, beginning with the first one sent in 1977 after Balachander saw “16 Vayathinile”. “I receive them only when he thinks I deserve it — I have to work for them!” says Kamal with a smile.

This particular occasion was the Kerala Government's felicitation of Kamal Haasan for 50 remarkable years in cinema. In the letter, Balachander says, “From babyhood to childhood, from adolescence to youth, from manhood to middle age, I have been part of this magician's life… Kamal has evolved into everything that I have dreamt he would be. Indeed, I should never be surprised by anything he achieves, yet I am constantly amazed.”

Kamal himself was quite overwhelmed with all the appreciation. “I had to read it out to my sister, who was witness to my early dark days, when my mother was afraid what would happen to me,” he says. “But, I knew I couldn't read without choking up, so I asked Gautami to read it out for me.”

It is, he says, everything he always wanted to hear from Balachander, his guru, the man he thinks of as a father-figure. “I use the word ‘guru' for him in the mythological sense — all other educationists ask for payment for knowledge imparted; this gentleman paid me and taught me. What a journey it has been, after I met him at the age of 17-and-a-half.”

In the letter, Balachander describes this journey as one of mutual learning. “I did not teach him everything he knows. He just absorbed everything I knew. The rest he discovered himself by asking, probing, begging, watching, observing, reading, demanding, investigating, improvising, experimenting, experiencing, learning and not being afraid of stretching himself beyond his own limits,” he writes. “I only gave him the platform and the opportunity to discover himself. In the process, I was blessed enough to discover myself.”

For all their mutual regard, Kamal describes their relationship as having remained respectfully formal. “I prepare even for a conversation with him — I never want to say too little or too much. And, I never disturb him except when I feel I've done something worthwhile,” he says. “It's a rare relationship — unconditional and professional.”

The depth of the relationship is evident in Balachander's letter. “I have long since lost the taste, appetite and hunger for personal applause. All I wish for now is to hear the applause, the cheers, the trumpets and the music singing (praises of) Kamal Haasan's genius,” he writes. “No one has staked his reputation, repertoire and resources for the cause of cinema as much as he has. It is not mere pursuit of fame and fortune. In fact, he has lost more than he has gained. It goes beyond that.”

As this special relationship turns 40 next year, it seems certain to continue to mature like fine wine. “To have won a place in his heart among all those he has mentored and created, itself is a distinction,” says Kamal.