Thamizh Talkies: Sixty years of Kamal Haasan
The writer is a former journalist who has worked in the film industry for several years and is passionate about movies, music and everything related to entertainment
August 12, 2019, marks a special 60th anniversary, a Shashtiabdhapurthi of a different kind. One that has made Indian cinema look up from its quagmire of mediocrity towards a horizon of excellence. The date marks the completion of 60 years of Kamal Haasan onscreen. It is a landmark matched by only a few talents from across the globe (mostly actors who have faced the camera from their childhood maybe), and this milestone can be celebrated in myriad ways. Sixty of his best roles, sixty of his best movies (roles and movies may vary for a lot of us because even in an average or bad film, Kamal Haasan usually emerges as a good actor), or perhaps sixty of his best quotes (of the many he has given in his iconoclastic life).
But I don’t wish to contain his illustrious career to mere numbers. Kamal Haasan’s success lies in the sheer variety, versatility, and verve that he brings to his films, which defines his brand of cinema. For a kid born in 2010, he might be the Bigg Boss uncle, but what is he to billions of us across the world, who have grown up on his movies? He’s even done a Bengali film in his twenties, and has worked in 30-plus Malayalam films before he set foot again as a hero in Tamil in the late 70s. It is a career that has touched many an Indian state, and this doesn’t happen by chance alone. It happens because there is a passion for what one does, which goes beyond the call of duty, a quest for enhancing one’s own skill and knowledge. This made him search out for gurus in acting, writing and technical areas of filmmaking, and then, of course, there is his own disciplined approach to working hard unmindful of rewards, especially when they don’t match the effort he had put in. In the West, if an actor puts in his time and effort to get under the skin of a role, the monetary and publicity payoffs are multifold. In India, one has to just hit the ground running. And that’s what Kamal Haasan has been doing ever since he faced the camera for Kalathur Kannamma in 1958 (the movie released in 1959, and hence the 60 year anniversary this year).
A film for every genre, a role for every emotion, Kamal Haasan’s filmography sets the standard even for his own career graph, with each role bettering the previous one, and each film different from the one before. It’s what’s called ‘upping the ante’. I am among the fortunate few who have worked with him and can attest that you become better at what you do when you work with him. Irrespective of the fate of the film you are working on with him, what happens during the process of making that movie, is this: You become a more informed, skilled and better-equipped technician/actor. He shares his knowledge and insights and benchmarks freely and willingly with his team, and when that happens, you learn to set your own benchmarks. Many a time, Kamal Haasan is appreciated for tangible talents like dancing, acting, ability to play musical instruments, or learning a skill for a film, like, say makeup. My observation is this: He takes days to master what would take someone else months to learn. He is truly gifted in that sense. He learnt to play the Thavil for Anbe Sivam in less than three days and would practise only for two hours in the evening. The same goes for his stunts — he would choreograph every bit of the action sequence before lunch break, and by afternoon, the scene is canned without injury to anyone on the set. When it comes to dance, oh boy, there was this evening when my friends and I started picking out the best dance sequences from Kamal Haasan films. It began with Vishwaroopam and ended with Ilamai Oonjalaadugiradhu with films like Saagar, Salangai Oli and Punnagai Mannan getting thrown in. It is the same with his comedy and emotional scenes.
These aspects are all any cinephile will agree to; it’s a filmography every good actor in the world would love to showcase. The talent I hold as pure gold in Kamal Haasan is his ability to write. And write, he does, every single day. It can be a story, a passage, a screenplay, dialogues, or his yet-to-be-published bunch of poems, of which there are many gems hidden in the notebooks in his office. Give him any genre, any setting, and any character, and just watch him weave a scene out of nowhere, with exact staging for the camera, the movements, the dialogues of all actors and the finish for editing purpose. The Tamil which flows with world philosophy is a delight to hear. The writer in Kamal Haasan far supersedes his other talents. For it is the writer who imagines, creates, and brings to life a world when there was none before.
It is with joy I await his next, Thalaivan Irukkinraan, and anticipate a lot of sharp lines that go hand in hand with his political journey now. This 60 is indeed special for a man who has raised the bar and remains the gold standard in cinematic excellence, a standard which is yet to be crossed by anyone else. It is because the talent in Kamal Haasan is matched with consistency in delivery. It is a tough combination to match.