Kamal Haasan has been known to make films that pulse and enact roles that peel the skin of pretence and reveal to us our innermost desires. For over six decades, he has been unfailing in his commitment to cinema, making it his very life breath.
His latest action-thriller Vikram has the coffers ringing with an estimated collection of over Rs 172 crore in Tamil Nadu alone, while the global collection has crossed Rs 400 crore since its release a month ago. With Vikram, Kamal makes a comeback in the Tamil film industry. Those in his close circles say it’s also possible that the actor’s huge debt accumulated over the years, due to several disappointments in his film projects and venture into politics, may have been managed. Taking off from his 1986 eponymous film, Vikram has 67-year-old Kamal in the lead and tells the story of black ops who rally to eliminate a gang of masked murderers. It’s bolstered with power-packed performances by Fahadh Faasil and Vijay Sethupathi.
Kamal always had a movie to work for, and most of them have kept the coffers full. However, over the last two decades, he’s had an erratic run at the box office. Though his films were celebrated for content and startling experiments, his peers, Rajinikanth, Vijay and other superstars, won the popular vote in the Tamil film industry. Vikram, therefore, emerges undeniably as Kamal’s biggest hit in six decades, following previous films such as Nayakan (1987), Indian (1996), Dasavatharam (2008) and Vishwaroopam I (2013).
Ramesh Aravind, actor, director and screenwriter from the Kannada film industry, says, “Failure and success are not new to him. As far as the audience is concerned, his last few years have not been smooth, so this massive success of Vikram couldn’t have come at a better time.
One who began his acting career at the age of five, Kamal has appeared in over 250 films across languages, including Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Bengali and Hindi. It’s the late Malayalam director KS Sethumadhavan who noticed the hero in him and cast him in Kanyakumari (1974).
“Kamal sir is truly a man of many talents,” says actor R Madhavan. “He has excelled in every field be it singing, dancing, fighting, directing, or writing. He can do a Sagara Sangamam (1983) and Nayakan at the same time. He will do a Vikram and also Hey Ram (2000). He can do Michael Madana Kama Rajan (1990), a spoofy comedy, and also films like Sadma (1983) or Monodram Pirai (1982). His range and ability to convincingly play every character are incredible. I don’t think any other actor in the world has that ability, that makes me a devout fan of Kamal Haasan,” he says, a day before the release of his directorial debut, Rocketry: The Nambi Effect.
Bengaluru-based film historian S Theodore Bhaskaran says, “Forget about his big movies and experiments, his first role as a child actor was in Kalathur Kannamma (1960). Even today, I watch it because he was so natural in it; he acted as natural as the children in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955).”
It’s his willingness to try new things that sets him apart from other actors in the industry. Be it his 10 roles in Dasavatharam, a dancer in Sagara Sangamam, the triple role in Apoorva Sagodharargal (1989), including that of the dwarf character Appu, a don in Nayakan, a mentally-disturbed man in Guna (1991) or wearing a bun and a bindi as the nanny in the Tamil Avvai Shanmugi (1996) or its Hindi remake, Chachi 420 (1997).
Many of Kamal’s friends and colleagues, across generations, speak of his unwavering commitment that has kept him focused on the industry. One of south India’s best-known actors, Khushbu calls Kamal an encyclopaedia of cinema. “We didn’t believe him when he said that television would be the next big thing. Everyone thought the prosthetic make-up he planned for Indian would be a waste of money, but he was right on every prediction. Unlike the rest of us, he didn’t make any investments outside of the film industry. I don’t think anyone else is deserving of this level of success right now,” she says.
Kamal was the first to do a digital film in Tamil with Mumbai Xpress (2005). His Mahanadhi (1994) was the first Indian film edited in Avid Editing software, with its numerous in-built special effects. He was successful in persuading several theatres in Chennai to convert into Auro 3D sound technology, touted as one to bring in the 3D sound experience, which made headlines during the release of Vishwaroopam.
He was also the first Tamil superstar to lead in Bollywood with Ek Duuje Ke Liye (1981), a path that many others such as Rajinikanth and others followed later.
Bhaskaran sees Kamal as someone who has a critical understanding of cinema, its possibilities, its strengths, and what cinema is. “In the 1970s, there was a United States Information Service centre in Madras. They used to show American classics. He was a young man then, and would be there at all the screenings. He was raised on those classics. He is sensitive to the art of film. He knows the possibilities of cinema, is well-informed and well-read. I don’t agree with the ideology, but the way he made Hey Ram and its period setting was very good. So was his role as a middle-class father in Papanasam (2015), another example of his innate talent,” he says.
Kamal brings this level of commitment to his personal relationships as well.“He used to be my mentor, teacher and philosopher. He would flatten my long, curly hair, make dosa for me, carry stones and chase away boys who teased me,” says senior Tamil-Malayalam actor Suhasini Maniratnam, his niece. She recalls the days when they would drive to Madurai from their village near Paramakudi, about 60 km away, just to whistle and clap for movies in which he had brief appearances as a dancer. “After the song, we would leave the theatre and do the same thing the next day,” she says. She lived with Kamal and her grandmother in Chennai from the age of 12 to 27, when she married director-producer Mani Ratnam.
Suhasini has seen Kamal grow as a child artiste, a dance assistant, a budding actor to a villain and a superhero. “I have been there with him all along, his entire life, through his success and failures, through his marriages, and everything,” she says.
Kamal married Vani Ganapathy in 1978. After their separation, he married Sarika in 1988, a relationship that ended in 2002. He then lived-in with Gautami, a partnership that lasted 13 years. His two daughters, Shruti and Akshara, have also found a career in cinema.
Cinema is not the only thing that makes Kamal a superstar. His talent for ventriloquism makes it to his films, as well. He knows morse code and can recall yappu ilakkanam, a separate grammar for poetry in Tamil, similar to mathematics.
Sanu John Varughese, who shot Kamal’s Vishwaroopam, says Kamal is the most educated school dropout he has ever met. “What happens to a computer with the installation of a new operating system is what happened to me after working with him, I was able to see things in a new light,” he says.
Chennai-based producer-writer Sujatha Narayanan, who’s worked in a few of Kamal’s projects, including Anbe Sivam (2003), says he’s one of those disciplined scriptwriters, “like one who goes to the gym to burn calories on a daily basis. He writes at least one page a day and churns out at least one poem a week. He is one of the best screenwriters and dialogue writers we have.”
She adds that during shoot days, Kamal is diligent about maintaining a routine for himself and as a director, he doesn’t hold back. “To work with Kamal, one has to have a genuine love for cinema or an inborn talent. As for surprising him with any new film or technical trivia, it’s impossible, he’s always ahead of us, be it watching films or in the latest technology,” she says.
Kamal is a film school for Mahesh Narayanan, the Malayalam director and film editor of Vishwaroopam. He believes that Kamal is more than just an actor or director; he is also an efficient technician. “Almost 90 per cent of Vishwaroopam’s Afghanistan scenes were shot in Chennai. We had no idea how to shoot those scenes here, like the chopper scene in an airstrike, for instance. Kamal set up a fan with huge propellers with stunning effects, that brought the chopper and the ground together in the correct number of frames,” he says.
Melancholy has been a common theme in Kamal’s many works, but he is also a hero with a dark side. In his silent film Pushpaka Vimana (1987) or Aalavandhan (2001), he played out one of the most favourite themes, of good vs evil. In Kuruthipunal (1995), he explored the deep layers and psychology of terrorism, while stills of his dream project Marudhanayagam (announced in 1997) show a half-naked Kamal riding a buffalo.
Outsiders regard Tamil Nadu as a unique case study where people vote for any film star who enters politics. The fact remains that the state has only favoured those with strong ideologies over the years, not celebrities.
So, when Kamal formed a political party in early 2018, the question was whether he would follow in the footsteps of MG Ramachandran, Tamil superstar and the former chief minister, or even a Captain Vijayakanth, who sustained for about a decade in electoral politics and power. However, after nearly five years of his Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM) party formation, it is clear that he is neither.
“Perhaps because he lacked the street-smart talent of a politician? But what made him a dictator in the party then? Could it be the need to mobilise resources? All we could manage were a few events, which was easy because people wanted to see the actor. Then why didn’t they vote for his party?” asked a leader, who left Kamal’s team shortly after the 2021 assembly elections. “In terms of contributions to cinema, he is far ahead of MGR and Rajinikanth. In politics, I do not question his motives, but I believe he was unable to take that political leap in style for a variety of reasons, including a lack of understanding of people and politics itself,” he adds.
Many party leaders were either unhappy or refused to discuss Kamal as a political leader. His political endeavours were seen as sluggish, his ideas without logic, and his causes appeared half-baked.
But when it comes to his films, nobody can fault him his passion. “Like Clint Eastwood, I see him as an artiste with no expiration date. He’s got more than 50 broken bones due to his passion for acting. Even before he begins filming, he has a finished movie in his head. If cinema is a bug, he is someone who has taken the most bites,” says Mahesh, who will direct Thevar Magan II, for which Kamal has written the screenplay.