To Kamal Haasan, on his birthday, with love, from Team Cinema Express
From Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu to Uttama Villain, we write about our favourite cinematic moments from the filmmaker-turned-politician's illustrious career
On the occasion of the 64th birthday of Kamal Haasan, the three-time National Award-winning actor, we, at Cinema Express recount our personal favourite moments from his 60-year cinematic journey.
Arunkumar Sekhar — Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu (1980)
People almost always recollect the famous interview scene whenever I say Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu where Kamal tears up his degree in front of the panel. While I later learned that the same scene was present in Satyajit Ray's Pratidwandi (1970), the treatment here by Kamal is more reflective of the angry young unemployed man of the times (both on screen as popularised by Amitabh Bachchan and off screen by the high unemployment rate in a corrupt country still reeling from the effects of Emergency). While the influence of his guru K Balachander cannot be understated in the film, it is tough to know where the actor Kamal ends and where the man Kamal we will grow to know begins.
VNS to me is where the whole delineation starts. The atheist (he constantly belittles SV Sekhar's Thambu), the leftist (communist na yen sir bayapadreenga) who equally mocks socialism (dustbin la konjam thedina socialism-eh kandupidichudalam), the anti-casteist (ungala maadhiri kenathu thavalaiya thirutha vandha naveena bharathi), the poet (enakku kavidha ilakanam theriyum), the patriot (endha bashaiyum sondham sollika mudiyadhu adhaan Indian nu sonniya). Be it his sensational acting skills in the famous mock-eating scene (you should really hear the scene once and then watch it once to understand that scene's power), or his fantastic diction (Bharathi, Hindi, that special Kamal English all roll off his tongue equally specially), what makes Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu and Kamal fresh even today, 38 years after the film's release, is that it probably is the first time we caught a glimpse of Kamal the man who asks us for his votes today. Unnal Mudiyum Thambi and Anbe Sivam would go on to build on to that solid base.
Mani Prabhu - Mahanadhi (1994)
After getting duped off all his savings and tricked into spending a decade in prison, the widowed Krishnasamy played by Kamal Haasan, finds himself wandering the labyrinthine corridors of Sonargachi, following an unconfirmed tip-off that his teenage daughter had been sold to pimps operating from Kolkata. Although a part of him is not ready to believe the ghastly odds, he ambles around through winding lanes, from one pimp to another, praying not to get a glimpse of his dear child. As the blatancy of teenage prostitution shatters every inch of his faith in humanity, the look on his face says it all. Horror. Guilt. Disgust. Sympathy. Revulsion. It's all too much to register at a time. Every room he maunders into, triggers a mini-explosion in his heart. How would it feel to go searching for your sixteen-year girl, and then forcibly be handed over another fifteen-year-old in your arms? You must see Kamal give the kid back, as he staggers away shivering in disbelief, to get what I am talking about!
And then, it happens. The moment he had been dreading all along. That very moment, rolling out in front of his eyes. His pencil sketch inside a half-closed room. His face numb with shock, he staggers into the dingy cabin. A scantily-clad teenage girl is lying on the bed. Their eyes meet. The impending terror is almost impossible to take in. On seeing her dad, the girl's face blooms for an instant. Almost like an instinctive reflex. She calls out ‘appa’. Her joy is palpable. But then, the next moment, reality hits. She crumbles in shame, covering her body with whatever she could get her hands on. How is the father supposed to react now? Kamal's performance here is a master-class in acting. He stands frozen for a few seconds. Guilt starts consuming him on a primal level, as he rushes to hug his daughter. No words are spoken. He frantically attempts to escape the caverns, carrying her in his arms, but the local pimps stop him. As more people gang up, they start attacking him from all ends. As the man lays slumped on the ground – face bruised and bleeding – hugging his daughter tightly, you can only see the person who has been cruelly battered by fate and made a cruel victim of circumstances. The actor, Kamal Haasan, had brilliantly receded to the background. As always.
Ashameera Aiyappan — Sathileelavathi (1995)
There are several films that are headlined by Kamal Haasan the actor or the director. I don't want to talk about the films where he exerts himself, as he is known to. Instead, I want to talk about a film which had 'less' of Kamal, where the Ulaganayagan ups the ante with his nonchalant yet vibrant performance. And what better choice than Sathileelavathi!
In Sathileelavathi, with his casual humour and organic performance, Kamal manages to steal the spotlight whenever he is in the frame. Also, who can forget the Kovai slang and his chemistry with Kovai Sarala? In an era, where comedians are shamed when they have a romantic track, Marugo Marugo was a trendsetter in terms of mixing romance with comedy and yet maintaining the dignity of the artists.
Sathileelavathi is one of the films where Kamal proves that he doesn't need much to show the actor he is. He doesn't have to be the lead or have a convoluted role. Give him anything and Kamal can make it memorable. He is also one of the rare actors who gets the balance right. He allows his co-artistes space (like he does with Kovai Sarala) and yet holds his own.
Gopinath Rajendran — Hey Ram (2000)
The night after a communal-riot in Bengal, Saket Ram (Kamal Haasan) would go on a killing rampage, shooting the lot who've raped and killed his wife, Aparna (Rani Mukherjee). After returning to his flats the following morning, he witnesses an elephant in his doorstep, next to a dead mahout who's got a stick in his hand. A crying Saket, moves away from the gory scene, only to bump into Shriram Abhyankar (Atul Kulkarni), a member of a Hindu nationalist group who pulls him to the doorway -- back to the same frame Saket wanted to walk away from.
With the elephant behind them, facing the same direction as Saket, the men exchange their histories and after knowing that Shriram can also speak Tamil and his sister had seen a much worse fate than Aparna, Saket believes Shriram. The latter seeds his ideology that it isn't the state's CM Suhrawardy or Mohammad Ali Jinnah but Gandhi himself who is the reason for this chaos. In the next scene, as Saket leaves the city to his hometown, he sees the elephant carrying the same stick that the mahout used to control it - a reference to how the incidents happened weren't in his control, and how that won't be the case hereafter with him deciding his own fate. A fate that will lead him straight to the Mahatma himself fueled by his post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.
Kamal Haasan frames the rest of the film with incidents that trigger these symptoms leading those around him to see him as a mentally unstable individual -- something that he establishes in the first scene itself as Saket, the 89-year-old, lies in his deathbed.
Navein Darshan — Aalavandhan (2001)
The first Kamal film to beautifully elucidate the Yin-Yang theory (the goodness in evil and the evilness in good) much ahead of Virumaandi and Vishwaroopam is Aalavandhan. The scene where Vijay introduces his fiancee Tejaswini to his schizophrenic brother, Nandhu, is easily one of the best scenes in the history of Indian cinema to depict duality. During the conversation, Nandu says, "Poo vizhama thala vilundhu irundha ne indha pakkam, naan andha pakkam. En thappu ellam un thappa aagi irukum..", this dialogue summarises the crux of the film. The destiny of Nandhu and Vijay would've been reversed if the coin (of fate) had been flipped.
Though Nandhu is shown as the mirugam in the film, his core intention, according to him, is a noble one -- to save his brother from his reincarnated evil step-mother and this makes him the kadavul (and hence, Kadavul paadhi mirugam paadhi). While Vijay's decision to kill his own brother for the safety of his wife makes him step down from his kadavul stature and become the mirugam
The film also introduced the brilliant idea of using cartoons to tone down the gruesomeness of the violent scenes and introduce the schizophrenic world of Nandhu to the audience. This technique got its due recognition a few years later when Hollywood director Quentin Tarantino credited Aalavandhan for the inspiring him to use cartoonised visuals in Kill Bill.
Avinash Ramachandran — Uttama Villain (2015)
The last few frames of Uttama Villain have a projector exporting a beaming Kamal Haasan (Manoranjan) on the 70mm screen, as audience and fans alike, cheer for a matinee idol, who breathed his last in front of the camera that first saw him as a 4-year-old. The words accompanying this visual, sung and written by the 64-year-old actor himself goes like, "Saagavaram pol sogam undo... Theera kadhayai kaetpaarundo..."
With Uttama Villain mainly dealing with immortality and the unexpected deals life hands you, the film seems to be one of those 'clairvoyant' Kamal things. Did he know about the impending political turmoil in the State? Did he chalk his political journey in 2015? As a 90s kid, I have never seen any of my matinee idols slip away into oblivion or into a different realm altogether. But Uttama Villain got me thinking about my reactions when I am faced with such a predicament. Considering we are counting down to his last few films, the last scene of Uttama Villain feels all the more surreal.
A friend of mine, once said, "Life is like an art film. You never know when the credits start rolling." And Kamal Haasan, Tamil cinema's greatest exponent of commercial cinema, has ensured we know when his cinematic journey is coming to a close. The Indian, Vishwaroopam and Thevar Magan sequels, Thoongavanam and Papanasam notwithstanding, Uttama Villain was clearly the last time Kamal worked in almost every department without having any agenda except to further his self-indulgence.
Writing about it now, especially when curtains seem to be falling down on his film career, the Saagavaram song's lyrics ring loud and true — Maalaadhadhu, kalaiyum kaviyum... Maayadhenum endrum arivum anbum.