There are very few people who draw people not only towards themselves but also towards what they do. A Sachin Tendulkar can make everyone from a maid servant to a millionaire talk of the cricket World Cup win as a personal achievement. Similarly, Kamal Hassan is an actor who has made me not only enjoy and admire his work but also made me appreciate cinema as an art form. And, thanks to his stellar work in so many movies that form a part of his illustrious oeuvre, he has shown me the power of cinema to lift people from their worlds, transport them to another and make them laugh, cry, think…basically, every emotion that he wants them to experience. In a way, I am a willing puppet in his hands when I watch a movie of his.
The Initial Years (1973-1982) - Two Inspirations, Four Great Roles
It is common knowledge that it was K. Balachander's "moadhara kai" that gave Kamal the "kottu." What is not that well-known except for hardcore fans is that it was the late Anathu (an associate and confidante of KB) that kept pushing Kamal in his early years and made sure that his raw energy and abundant, innate talent was channelized through strong, varied and well-written roles. Encouraging Kamal to be a thinking actor, Ananthu made Kamal watch international movies and got him interested in the making of movies right from scripting to production. The respect that Kamal and Rajnikanth had for Ananthu was evident in how they acted in a truly experimental film like "Avall Appadithaan," an underrated classic, at Ananthu's behest.
To me, there were four movies that were released even before Kamal turned 30 that I checked out years later (since I wasn’t even born at the time of their release!) that give us initial glimpses of the fantastic actor that he is now.
The first of which is the well-known "16 Vayathinile" were he played a village simpleton with unfettered energy and scant regard for his image as a good-looking hero. His great performance as Chappani boasts of several unforgettable scenes, the most memorable of which are the "Aatha Aadu Valathuchu…" scene and the sequence where he (wearing a piece of loin cloth and nothing else!) vents his anger against the Doctor that Sridevi is attracted to.
The second is "Avargall" where he acted as Janardhanan (more well-known as Johnny), a do-gooder who helps Sujatha recover from a bad first marriage. He learned ventriloquism for this KB drama, an early example of his desire to bring something extra to his roles. But his best moment in this movie had nothing to do with this skill. Watch him in the scene where he says to Sujatha, "KaadhalNiraivu Kodukara Sandhoshatha Vida Kaadhal Ninaivu Kodukara Sandhosham Adhigam." Sheer genius at work!
Two of my other favorites from his initial years are "Raja Paarvai" and "Moondram Pirai." The former was a landmark movie…only for ardent fans of cinema. Consider this. It was a flop at the box office and won no major awards at the time of its release. Yet, like "Avall Appadithaan" and many more of his movies to come, it was a case of Kamal daring to venture into completely virgin territory with no fear whatsoever. His first home production, "Raja Paarvai" was an attempt at a romance that was so far away from the trends of that day that it won him the hearts of a small but loyal audience. To me, it is the sweetest romance of Thamizh cinema, a movie that is content with letting us spend time with two lovers, hopelessly in love with each other. The entire sequence which takes place on his birthday is one for the Gods! His feelings of hurt at being insulted by Madhavi's parents, his tenderness with the little girl at the Blind School, his anger at Madhavi for trying to console him and his subsequent reactions to her genuine expression of love all are enacted with a kind of subtlety and minimalism that was way ahead of Tamil Cinema's acting grammar of that day. The power of this subtlety was exploited to the hilt by Balu Mahendra in his "Moondraam Pirai" for which Kamal won the National Award. His fabulous performance in the climax is known to have fetched him the award but other small scenes such as the one where he goes in search for Sridevi and kneels down in front of a roadside Pillaiyaar and his expressions in the "Kanney Kalaimaaney" song are all small gems in their own right.
The Uncertain Phase (1982-1987)…and the Comeback
There was a period following the stupendous success of "Ek Duje Ke Liye" when Kamal shifted his focus to Hindi cinema. But a combination of long shooting schedules, underperforming movies and poorly written roles (except maybe "Saagar") all made his association with Hindi cinema a short-lived one. Though he did appear in hits like "Kaaki Chattai," "Oru Kaidhiyin Diary" and "Punnagai Mannan," these years in the mid-eighties were what Kamal considers his stagnation phase. "Saagara Sangamam" (dubbed in Thamizh as "Salangai Oli") was an exception- an exceptional movie that combined his Bharatanatyam skills and acting talent in a terrific way. Go no further than the scene where Kamal shows SP Shailaja (and us!) what graceful dancing is all about.
After the years of discontent and frustration, Kamal made a magnificent comeback with "Nayagan," a performance that left people stunned, speechless and made him hit a peak as an actor that some think that even he hasn’t scaled again (something that I humbly disagree with!). His performance as Velu Nayakar has to be seen and experienced to be believed. In humanizing the character of the Don, he and Mani Ratnam combined forces to make one of the most riveting character dramas of all time. Kamal, with his acting prowess, grabs us from his first scene and we stay with him right up to the climax. There are too many fantastic scenes to list but if I were to pick one, it would be the "Avana Nirutha Sol…Naan Nirutharen" scene. The way he goes into a fit of rage seeing his daughter slap his Man Friday (played superbly by Janakaraj) and his attempts to explain himself are moments when the dialogues, acting, cinematography and direction are all in perfect harmony. Of course, no mention of "Nayagan" is complete without the scene of Kamal's reaction to Nizhalgal Ravi's death. A picture's worth a 1000 words, they say. This video is worth a lot more! Watch. Admire. Salute (3:30 min point)
For the Love of Cinema (1987-Present)
Post "Nayagan," Kamal grew in confidence to such an extent that he would go on to make movies with a kind of headlong momentum, frequently taking on multiple responsibilities such as writer, singer and lyricist and experimenting obsessively with make-up. Sometimes, he would win awards and box-office success. Sometimes, he would crash, burn and then rise like a phoenix. This complete unpredictability has made him a fascinating actor to follow.
He has made, through a hugely successful collaboration with playwright "Crazy" Mohan, commercially successful entertainers like "Aboorva Sahodharargall," where he played a dwarf with effortless ease and the zany, comedy classic "Michael Madhana Kamarajan," where the four roles, especially the Palghat cook Kameshwaran, and the smartness of the screenplay give us belly laughs even now. But at the end of the day, Kamal makes films to try and satiate his insatiable creative urges. The commercial movies and comedies are to keep the cash registers ringing so that he can go back to making the kinds of movies he wants to make. The following are two good examples:
In 1992, he acted in "Singaravelan," a light, mindless and harmless comedy. A few months later, he followed it up with "Devar Magan," one of the best movies ever made. People call "Nayagan" an adaptation of "The Godfather," which it is. "Devar Magan" was his homage, as a writer, to his idol, Mario Puzo. The movie takes the structure of "The Godfather" and takes the father-son relationship to a memorable level, thanks to the powerhouse performances of him and Sivaji Ganesan. Kamal, a huge fan of Ganesan, made only this one movie with the latter but it's amazing to think how much the duo achieved in such limited screen time together. This scene, with the two greats, is probably the best possible demonstration of controlled histrionics:
The other example is from 2002-03. Following the commercial disaster of "Hey! Ram" Kamal ventured into movies that were meant to earn him some box-office success. To this extent, he made some middling comedies like "Thenali," "PKS" and "Panchathanthiram." But after the last two mentioned movies were made in 2002, he was desperate to make a movie that required his acting chops more than comic sense. And, the result was "Anbe Sivam." Featuring one of his greatest performances as an actor, the film, with his understated, casual acting and a slew of quotable lines by Cartoonist Madan, will go down as yet another instance of the viewing public giving a raw deal to Kamal (the movie was a colossal failure at the box office). But Kamal has bounced back from too many movies of this kind to be bogged down.
I've written about several memorable roles essayed by Kamal. But if I were asked to list one movie where I laughed when Kamal laughed and cried and when he cried, it has to be "Mahanadhi." The thing that made "Mahanadhi" even more hard hitting on a personal level than "Nayagan" or "Devar Magan" was how down to earth Kamal's role was. The acting, the situations and the dialogues were all extraordinary yet touching a chord with their complete believability. Kamal's performance in the scene below is one instance of what I meant by my "puppet" comment in the first paragraph (4:15 min point)
Great as an actor. As a creator?
I must mention that I admire Kamal, the actor a lot more than Kamal, the writer. Inspired by his close friend RC Sakthi, Kamal took writing seriously even in his early days and has written some magnificent scripts such as the aforementioned "Devar Magan" and "Anbe Sivam." But some of his stories and screenplays are either heavily derived from English movies or are lacking in tautness. While "Aboorva Sahodarargall" and "MMKR" had fantastic, intelligent screenplays, his work in "Aalavandhan" and "Manmadhan Ambu" left a lot to be desired.
As a dialogue writer, Kamal can range from brilliant to bizarre, from incisive to trite. His dialogues in "Devar Magan" are the stuff of legends. But his overuse of English in movies like "Hey! Ram" have definitely made him appeal to niche audiences and alienate the rest. But as a Director, Kamal dazzled us with "Hey! Ram" and "Virumaandi," exhibiting complete command over the medium and coming up with sparkling touches that would have made KB proud. A case in point is the flash forward in "Hey! Ram" from the wild elephant on the streets of Calcutta to the scene in Srirangam with the "Padham Kondu Nadathum…" verse in the background which also talks about a wild one without a mahout.
It was in the 90s, in my late teens, when I watched "Nayagan" once and I stopped being just a fan of movies and became an admirer of him, his work and as I said earlier, began to appreciate cinema as an art form. That was when I started not only watching movies but also analyzing them, writing reviews and doing things like reaching out to Director Vasanth (through my Aunt) because I thought "Rhythm" was a great film and that the creator should know that I thought so! To this day, I strongly feel that a serious movie watcher does not get nearly as much respect as an avid reader but being a fan of Kamal, I am of the belief that I should do what I believe in and am passionate about and not worry too much about what people think.
That is Kamal for you – a tremendously gifted actor who follows his convictions and expects us to come along. The gains from this "journey" with Kamal have been plenty. Thank you, Kamal, for making me love cinema the way you do!
PS: In 2007, my dream of meeting Kamal was realized, thanks to "Crazy" Mohan (my wife's Uncle), who took me to AVM Studios to meet him. My friend Balaji has a nice write-up on the meeting: http://bbthots.blogspot.com/2007/08/hey-ram-extended-version.html