Celebrating Kamal Haasan: How the actor became bigger than his medium
For an actor who has been in front of the camera for 54 of his 62-years, it would perhaps be logical that Kamal Haasan is only competing with himself
Few actors are blessed with greatness to influence cinema and fewer still manage to impact more than one kind of cinema. In Kamal Haasan’s case, he would be one of the handful artists who have left an indelible impression on not one but three kinds of cinema - Tamil, Hindi and Telugu films.
There was a time in the 1980s when following the success of Ek Duje Ke Liye (1981), Sanam Teri Kasam (1981), and Sadma (1983) Haasan was briefly being seen as the replacement for Amitabh Bachchan, who had decided to give up on film for a stint in politics. Had it not been for the manner in which Hassan’s subsequent releases Ek Nai Paheli (1984), Zara Si Zindagi (1983) and Yaadgar fell short of expectations, coupled with the timely successes of Meri Jung (1985), Karma (1986) Arjun (1985) and Naam (1986) Haasan would still be seen as the next numero uno in Hindi films.
Earlier this month Mr. Haasan turned 62 and it was perhaps the ideal time for his fans, this writer included, to break the tradition of revisiting some of the actor’s greatest performances by taking a re-look at some recent power-packed performances. In 2015, viewers got a rare chance to see Kamal Haasan in three varied roles in a single year. What was different this once was that with films such as Papanasam (2015), Uttama Villain (2015), and Cheekati Raajyam (2015) Haasan revisited yesteryears unlike ever before. It had been a long time since Haasan was not indulging in what could be termed, for the want of a better expression, ‘vanity’ projects.
The great George C. Scott, best known for his portrayal of the trigger happy American Army General ‘Buck’ Turgidson in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove once mused that actors often compete with themselves. For Kamal Haasan this couldn't be truer.
For an actor who has been in front of the camera for 54 of his 62-years, it would perhaps be logical that Kamal Haasan is only competing with himself for there are hardly any frontiers left to be conquered. Hassan has not only acted in several Indian languages, he has written, produced, directed, sung his own songs and even done his own make-up on more occasions than he would remember.
He has won every major film award in this country – Sridevi and Kamal Haasan would probably be the only actors to win have the Best Actor Award in Tamil, Telugu, and Hindi — and has come to be known as last word on his characters. In fact, Haasan has even played what is colloquially called character roles, at the peak of his career, such as Sathi Leelavathi (1995), which was remade in Hindi as Biwi No. 1 (1999) with Anil Kapoor reprising the role and later in Anbe Sivam (2003) where he was the ‘older’ lead opposite R. Madhavan.
Haasan has always managed to make his characters somewhat intriguing. These included playing the mentally challenged man in Gunna (1991), the simpleton villager whose daughter is trafficked in Mahanadi (1994), an octogenarian freedom fighter in Indian (1996), or a sixty-something governess in Avvai Shanmughi (1996) — the Tamil remake of Robin Williams’ Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) later Chachi 420 (1997) in Hindi — or a Sri Lankan Tamilian with PTSD in Thenali (2000).
It was only a matter of time before Haasan, the actor, ran the risk of becoming as big if not bigger than the medium itself. When that happened, Haasan was left with being a part of safe commercial ventures that had box office gold written all over them namely Vasool Raja MBBS (2004), a remake of Munnabhai MBBS (2003), and Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu (2006), the cop drama directed by Gautham Menon.
At the same time, Haasan could not help but make extremely self-indulgent films because, well, he could afford to and the sheer powerhouse of talent that he is, there was perhaps nothing left for him to prove. Sometimes it worked like in the case of Virumandi and at times it tanked – remember Mumbai Express (2005)?
Over the last few years, the one question that plagues a viewer's mind while watching a Kamal Haasan films is, 'What do you see when you see Kamal Haasan?' At times, especially with films such as Dasavathaaram (2008), watching Haasan in any role, irrespective of how convincing he might be, is almost akin to watching him play the same character — himself.
Perhaps much like his fans, Haasan, too, had to go through the emotional disaster called Dasavatharaam to break on through to the other side. His next Unnaipol Oruvan (2009) in Tamil and Eeenadu (2009) in Telugu, the remake of A Wednesday (2008) where he portrayed the role that was played by Naseeruddin Shah, saw him return to form. He then carried it over to Vishwaroopam (2013), a mega-budget spy thriller that was written, directed and produced by Haasan. Although the film saw him venture into the Virumandi- Dasavathaaram territory, unlike the latter this one wasn’t just about Kamal Haasan.
It is in this context that the year 2015 assumes great importance in Haasan’s filmography.
Here, he went back to playing a character as opposed to a person. Even in a film like Uttama Villian — where he plays Manoranjan, an immensely popular film star who one day decides to go back to his acting roots by walking out of a film produced by his father in law – Haasan managed to merge the ‘reel’ and the ‘real’ that is imagined to be associated with the actor.
In this day and age, when the media barely allows you to separate an actor on and off screen, Kamal Haasan continues to remain peerless. Many of his films have courted controversy and unlike those who believe in things up until it suits them, Haasan remains unfazed and sticks to his ground.
He is one of those who called the recent awards wapsi stance hypocritical and refused to return his awards. When told that this was perhaps a Gandhian way of protesting, Haasan said, “Gandhi ji did not return his barrister title because that was something he worked for. What he returned was the suit and coat that they gave him.”
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