‘You can feel the fear in the song’

Kamal Haasan with Ilaiyaraja.

Kamal Haasan with Ilaiyaraja.

I had one last question about theatre when I met Kamal Haasan again in June, at his office in Chennai. Did he miss it? Doesn’t he feel like doing the odd play between films, the way Richard Burton did, the way Denzel Washington does? “Yes,” he said. “But even if I am performing on stage, I’d still like it to be televised. I want more people to see it. The bane of a theatre artist is that he can’t get his art across to a large audience. I have gotten used to technology, to that audience.” He compared this to running, and then suddenly slowing down to walk. “I am refusing to walk... unless it’s for health reasons.” He does this often. He’ll think up a metaphor on the spot, and then he’ll put a spin on it that sounds like a non sequitur but perhaps really isn’t.


We then began to talk about the movies, about his singing for them, beginning with the number ‘Gnayiru oli mazhayil’. The film was ‘Andharangam’, where Kamal played the manager of a “beauty clinic” that’s frequented exclusively by young women who want to get into shape and often find themselves entwined in the tape measure in his hands. Between takes, he would keep humming on the sets, and one day ‘Muktha’ Srinivasan, the director, caught him singing a keerthanai. A surprised Srinivasan decided to make Kamal sing a number for the film and took him to the music director G. Devarajan – or “Devarajan Master,” as he was called. Devarajan Master was very close to Thangappan Master, the choreographer under whom Kamal had worked for a while as an assistant, and he knew Kamal. During the recording, he stood near the new playback singer, moving his hands the way conductors do. “I was very scared of him,” Kamal Haasan said. “You can feel that fear in the song.”

Part 1: >His classical odyssey

The same year, 1975, Kamal spent seven months learning to play the mridangam when K. Balachander told him that his character in ‘Aboorva Raagangal’ was required to play the instrument. “That’s why I play so convincingly in the film,” he said. Music was all around him. He spoke of his co-stars – the Malayalam actress Srilalitha who was a student of the composer Dakshinamurthy, and Srividya, who, of course, was the daughter of ML Vasanthakumari. “We were all very close and I would keep asking them to sing.”

Sometimes, they would perform at music nights helmed by Gangai Amaran. “Film stars singing light music was a new thing then,” Kamal Haasan said. They used to sing Tamil songs, Hindi songs, and then, one day, they were invited to perform at a function organised by Cinema Express magazine. Kamal suggested that they sing ‘One, a song written by Harry Nilsson and later popularised by Three Dog Night. Someone asked him if the audience would understand. He said if they could “understand” a Sanskrit shloka then they could understand this. “It’s the same. It’s all music.”

This is not a new anecdote (and people familiar with the Kamal Haasan mythology will know where this is headed), but it was something to hear it in person. The Harry Nilsson original is a mid-range song, and the Three Dog Night cover touches a few higher notes, but when Kamal Haasan launched into the number, he leaped over an octave and hit a stunning falsetto note – it isn’t there in either of the earlier versions.

This is probably how he sang the song that night, at the function, and the audience applauded. Seated in the audience, and listening very carefully to the way Kamal caught that pitch, was Ilaiyaraja.

(This is the second part of a series of articles on Kamal Haasan’s tryst with the classical arts.)

(To be continued)

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Printable version | Jul 4, 2022 10:22:15 am |