Kamal Haasan is known for making films that pulse and play roles that peel the skin of pretext and reveal to us our deepest desires. For over six decades, he has been unerring in his dedication to cinema, making it his life breath.
His latest action thriller Vikram has the treasury ringing with an estimated collection of over Rs 172 crore in Tamil Nadu alone while the global collection has exceeded Rs 400 crore since its release a month ago. Of Vikram, Kamal is making a comeback in the Tamil film industry. Those in his close circles say that it is also possible that the enormous debt that the actor has accumulated over the years, as a result of various disappointments in his film projects and in politics, may have been managed. Taking off from his 1986 film of the same name, Vikram has 67-year-old Kamal starring and telling the story of black ops who gather to take out a band of masked killers. It is supported with powerful performances by Fahadh Faasil and Vijay Sethupathi.
Kamal always had a movie to work for, and most of them filled the treasury. Over the past two decades, however, he has had an erratic run at the box office. Though his films were praised for content and surprising experimentation, his colleagues Rajinikanth, Vijay and other superstars won the popular vote in the Tamil film industry. Vikramtherefore unmistakably emerges as Kamal’s biggest hit in six decades, following previous films such as Nayakan (1987), Indonesian (1996), dasavatharam (2008) and Vishwaroopam me (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 public is concerned, the last few years have not gone smoothly, so this huge success of Vikram couldn’t come at a better time.
Kamal started his acting career at the age of five and appeared in over 250 films in various languages including Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Bengali and Hindi. It is late Malayalam director KS Sethumadhavan who noticed the hero in him and threw him in Kanyakumaric (1974).
“Kamal sir is really a man of many talents”, says actor R Madhavan. “He excelled in every field, whether it was singing, dancing, fighting, directing or writing. He can a Sagara Sangamam (1983) and Nayakan at the same time. He will be a Vikram and also hey ram (2000). He can do it Michael Madana Kama Rajan (1990), a fake comedy, as well as movies like sadma (1983) or Monodrama Pirai (1982). His range and ability to convincingly play each character is 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 his great films and experiments, his first role as a child actor was in Kalathur Kannamma (1960). Even today I look at it because it was so natural in it; he behaved as naturally as the children in Satyajit Ray‘s Pather Panchalic (1955).”
It is his willingness to try new things that sets him apart from other players in the industry. Whether its 10 roles are in dasavatharama dancer in Sagara Sangamamthe triple role in Apoorva Sagodharargal (1989), including that of the dwarf character Appu, a don in Nayakana mentally disturbed man in guna (1991) or wearing a bun and a bindi as a nanny in the Tamil Avvai Shanmugic (1996) or its Hindi remake, March 420 (1997).
Many of Kamal’s friends and colleagues, from generation to generation, speak of his unwavering dedication that has kept him focused on the industry. One of South India’s most famous actors, Khushbu mentions Kamal an encyclopedia of the movie. “We didn’t believe him when he said television was going to be the next big thing. Everyone thought the prosthetic makeup he planned for Indian would be a waste of money, but he was right in every prediction. Unlike the rest of us, he made no investments outside the film industry. I don’t think anyone else deserves this level of success right now,” she says.
Kamal was the first to make a digital film in Tamil with Mumbai Express (2005). To be Mahanadhi (1994) was the first Indian film to be edited in Avid Editing software, with its numerous built-in special effects. He was successful in convincing several theaters in Chennai to convert to 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 many others such as Rajinikanth and others followed later.
Bhaskaran sees Kamal as someone who has a critical understanding of cinema, its capabilities, its strengths and what cinema is. “In the 1970s, there was a United States Information Service center in madras† They used to show American classics. He was a young man at the time and would attend all screenings. He grew up with those classics. He is sensitive to cinema. 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 the period setting was very good. Such was his role as a middle-class father in papanasam (2015), another example of his innate talent,” he says.
Kamal brings this level of dedication to his personal relationships as well. “He was my mentor, teacher and philosopher. He would flatten my long, curly hair, make me dosa, carry stones, and chase away guys who teased me,” says senior tamil-Malayalam actor Suhasini Maniratnam, his niece. She remembers the days when they drove to Madurai from their village near Paramakudi, about 60 km away, to whistle and clap for films where he briefly performed as a dancer. “After the song, we would leave the theater and do the same thing the next day,” she says. She lived with Kamal and her grandmother in Chennai from 12 to 27 years when she got married director-producer Mani Ratnam†
Suhasini has seen Kamal grow as a child performer, a dance assistant, a budding actor into a villain and a superhero. “I’ve always been with him, all through his life, through his successes and failures, through his marriages and everything,” she says.
Kamal married Vani Ganapathy in 1978. After their divorce, he married Sarika in 1988, a relationship that ended in 2002. He then lived with Gautami, a partnership that lasted 13 years. His two daughters, Shruti and Akshara, have also found careers in cinema.
Cinema isn’t the only thing that makes Kamal a superstar. His talent for ventriloquism also makes it into his films. He knows Morse code and can remember yappu ilakkanam, a separate grammar for poetry in Tamil, similar to mathematics.
Sanu John Varughese, who shot Kamal’s Vishwaroopam, says Kamal is the best-educated school leaver he’s ever met. “What happens to a computer after installing a new operating system is what happened to me after I worked with it. I was able to see things in a new light,” he says.
Chennai-based producer-writer Sujatha Narayanan, who has worked on a few of Kamal’s projects, including Anbe Sivam (2003), says he is one of those disciplined screenwriters, “like someone who goes to the gym daily to burn calories. He writes at least one page a day and publishes at least one poem a week. He is one of the best screenwriters and dialogue writers we have.”
She adds that during the shooting days, Kamal is diligent about keeping a routine for himself and as a director, he doesn’t hold back. “To work with Kamal you have to have a real love for cinema or an innate talent. As for surprising him with a new movie or technical trivia, it’s impossible, he’s always ahead of us whether it’s watching movies or the latest technology,” she says.
Kamal is a film school for Mahesh Narayanan, the director and film editor of Malayalam Vishwaroopam† He believes that Kamal is more than just an actor or director; he is also an efficient technician. “Nearly 90 percent of Vishwaroopam’s Afghan scenes were shot in Chennai. We had no idea how to shoot those scenes here, like the helicopter scene in an air raid, for example. Kamal set up a fan with huge propellers with amazing effects, bringing the helicopter and the ground together in the right number of frames,” he says.
Melancholy is a common theme in Kamal’s many works, but he is also a hero with a dark side. In his silent movie Pushpaka Vimana (1987) or Aalavandhan (2001), played out one of the most favorite themes of good versus evil. In Kuruthipunal (1995), he explored the deep layers and psychology of terrorism while taking pictures of his dream project Marudhanayagam (announced in 1997) show a half-naked Kamal riding a buffalo.
Outsiders view Tamil Nadu as a unique case study in which people vote for every movie star who enters politics. The fact remains that over the years, the state has only favored those with strong ideologies, not celebrities.
So when Kamal started a political party in early 2018, the question was whether he would follow in the footsteps of MG Ramachandran, the Tamil superstar and former prime minister, or even a Captain Vijayakanth, who held his own in electoral politics for about ten years and current. However, after nearly five years of his party formation in Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM), it is clear that he is neither.
“Maybe because he lacked the street-smart talent of a politician? But what made him a dictator in the party then? Would it be the need to mobilize resources? We could only arrange a few events, which was easy because people wanted to see the actor. Then why didn’t they vote for his party?” asked one leader, who left Kamal’s team shortly after the 2021 municipal elections. “In terms of contributions to cinema, he is way ahead of MGR and Rajinikanth. In politics, I don’t doubt his motives, but I believe he was unable to make that political leap in style for several 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 efforts were considered sluggish, his ideas devoid of logic, and his goals seemed half-baked.
But when it comes to his movies, no one can blame him for his passion. “Like Clint Eastwood, I see him as an artist with no expiration date. He has over 50 broken bones because of his passion for acting. Even before he starts filming, he has a finished movie in his head. If cinema is a bug, he’s someone who has taken the most bites,” said Mahesh, who will direct Thevar Magan II, for which Kamal wrote the screenplay.