Short Takes Movies

Kamal Haasan, the master of masquerade

It is 60 years since the actor entered the world of cinema. He is the original superstar simply because he achieved success on his terms

The popular version is that a family friend, a lady doctor took this tiny tot to a party. He was the cynosure, with his mischievous eyes and enviable energy. A producer with a keen eye asked if he would act in a film. “Sure, but I want a Plymouth car,” said the five year old. A spanking new car took him to the studio on the first day of shooting. Kamal Haasan had been taken for a ride not for the first time, but that was his baptism with grease paint. A few films, a National award and the loss of a few teeth, is when producers stopped knocking on his door. Kamal started learning classical dance, karate and trained in theatre under the eagle eyes of the legendary T.K. Shanmugam. A childhood pastime turned into a lifelong passion.

I started watching Tamil films thanks to a Telugu speaking neighbour who knew I had sworn off Tamil fare, after watching a couple of Sivaji Ganesan (in his twilight years) starrers. He insisted I watch ‘16 Vayadhinile’ and I was simply bowled over by Kamal’s performance. I hungrily lapped up his older films while eagerly awaiting his next. It’s sixty years since he made his debut, and forty since I first sauntered into his Alwarpet residence on a whim during Dasara holidays on a visit to Madras. It was the eve of the release of ‘Varumayin Niram Sivappu’ and the office was buzzing with activity. I returned the next evening at a time fixed by the affable Charuhasan. Kamal breezed in, bounced around greeting people, and after confabulating with Charuhasan, ushered me into a room for the interview. I’ve interviewed him several times and written about him in various publications from ‘Frontline’ to ‘Take 2’ a trade paper, edited by Sharmila Tagore that folded up in a few months. He’s never asked me when or in which publication the interview will appear but has been appreciative if he liked a piece. I’ve never had to edit his answers because he’s forthright and doesn’t meander. He’s polite and to the point. He’s not the kind to put his hands over your shoulder and address you with unnecessary endearments. The first time I interviewed him, I carried a recorder the size of a briefcase and the last time used my mobile. The air of arrogance he exudes is a wall to ward off sycophants. I’ve visited the ‘sets’ of any number of his films from ‘Khaki Sattai’, ‘Puspaka Vimana’, ‘Vikram’ to ‘Zara Si Zindagi’ and ‘Apoorva Sahodarargal’ and it’s a pleasure to watch him work. In a brief shot for ‘Zara Si Zindagi’, he had to open a door, react to a visitor and close it. He did it in ten different ways before Balachander clapped in joy and shouted ‘Cut’. The felicity of face is remarkable, not to speak of the eloquent eyes.

For me, Kamal has always been the original superstar simply because he achieved success on his terms. He was never a puppet pandering to what is perceived as popular taste. He never treated the paying public like intellectual inferiors. He held a mirror at them and made them question themselves instead of doling out social placebos or moral lessons. ‘Sakala Kala Vallavan’ may have been his biggest hit but that was to prove he could traipse the oft trodden path blindfolded. The box-office was a barometer for earnings not achievements. He had a bagful of tricks and a seemingly inexhaustible repertoire. Kamal’s the only actor who was as popular as the respective superstars in the four South Indian language films before stars in Bombay broke into cold sweat after the release of ‘Ek Duuje Ke Liye’.

Kamal Haasan, the master of masquerade

Kamal has inadvertently crept into most of my interviews and articles probably by design. The unique quality about his acting was that a Mrinal Sen liked him as much as a Manmohan Desai and both wanted to work with him. Mrinalda felt Kamal’s performance in ‘Kokila’ was world class while Manmohan Desai stood and applauded after the premiere of ‘Ek Duuje Ke Liye’. He did offer a film but Kamal asked for a script. When Manji laughed and said, “Even Amitabh doesn’t ask me,” Kamal retorted, “Well I’m not Amitabh.” The batting genius GR Vishwanath who knew I write about films told me, “When you meet Kamal next tell him I’m a big fan.” He’d just watched ‘Swathi Muthyam’. “What a talent. It’ll be a challenge writing a script for him,” said Gulzar in Madras while writing the lyrics for the songs in ‘Sadma’. Om saw a poster of ‘Sagara Sangamam’ and said, “This boy holds tremendous promise.” The bus which transported us from Hubli to Kundgol during the making of “Gidh” was playing, ‘Ye Tho Kamaal Ho Gaya’. Smita Patil was telling Vijay Singh who was visiting from Paris where he worked for Le Monde about Kamal being a rare talent. Amol Palekar who reprised Kamal’s role in ’16 Vyaydhinile’ confessed he was frightened when he was approached. “Why try when he’s already done it so well is what I told the producers but they were insistent and Kamal himself sent a message. He’s one of the finest actors we have,” said Amol. It’s when you watch others reprise his roles that you realize his greatness be it Dharmendra in ‘Ghazab’ (Kalyana Raman), Rajesh Khanna in ‘Red Rose’ (Sigappu Rojakkal) or Anil Kapoor in ‘Eeshwar’ (Swathi Muthyam) to name a few. On the flipside when you watch an interesting performance you wonder how Kamal would have interpreted the role.

In Tamil it’s every director’s dream to direct Kamal. Few have achieved it like Mani Ratnam and Gautam Menon. Mani confessed it was tough to edit certain scenes in ‘Nayakan’ for the sheer brilliance in Kamal’s performance. “He’s an institution. For example, in a scene in ‘Vetaiyadu Vilayadu’ he did something that was not on paper, you didn’t expect and can’t write,” says fan boy Gautam. “The ease with which he performs is astounding. He can play a village idiot as effortlessly as a sophisticated psychopath,” said Dr. Raj Kumar who adored Kamal. He would insist on a special show of a Kamal starrer before release. PC Sreeram told me Kamal refused to sit and stood beside the thespian throughout the screening of ‘Thevar Magan’. Raj was profuse in his praise after the show. “I will not be able to sit in front of Kamal sir,” said Suriya after watching ‘Dashavatharam’ “He’s better than De Niro and Pacino put together,” said Shahrukh Khan during the shooting of ‘Dil Se’ who asked Kamal if he could touch him when they first met.

Kamal always says there are two periods in Tamil cinema, before and after Sivaji Ganesan. For me, it’s before and after Kamal. I’m hoping rumours that he’s doing a film with Lokesh Kanakaraj are true. Rajini can rule Tamil Nadu but cinema lovers world over want Kamal to don make-up and do what he does best. He’s growing old, but his talent is timeless.

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Printable version | Jul 1, 2020 10:05:39 AM |

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