I saw Kamal Haasan for the first time on the screen of Krishna Talkies in Kolar Gold Fields. My father, a cinema buff, would cart us all off to the theatre whenever a new Tamil film was released. And so it was that in 1960 I got to see the newly released romantic film Kalathur Kannamma (Kannamma of Kalathur), which was the talk of the town. The hero of the day Gemini Ganesh played a zamindar’s son separated from his wife, Savithri, a leading lady of the time. But the real star was Kamal Haasan, playing the cherubic little boy who sang Ammavum neeye, Appavum neeye (you are my mother and my father) to Lord Muruga, believing he was an orphan—until he was reunited his estranged parents so that they could all live happily ever after. Little Kamal’s performance in his debut film won him the President’s Gold Medal.
Kamal was all of six years old then. Thirty years later, in 1990, I met him at his office in Raaj Kamal Studios, the production house he’d set up about a decade earlier. I was interviewing him for Filmfare; I’d seen most of his films and was a huge fan. He had done many unforgettable films, and few forgettable ones too, but then, which actor hasn’t?
At 36, his career was at its peak. He had just received a Padmashri. He’d proved his versatility in his many films—he could star in melodramatic tear-jerkers, his comic timing was impeccable, he could play the villain, he could be a mimic, switch accents and languages with ease, dance like a professional, sing, play instruments, romance women, fight with a sword, a mace, a pole…. You name it and he could do it!
This year, Kamal Haasan completes 62 years in the film industry. At 66, he has 230 films to his credit, many of which were blockbusters, and is trying to carve a niche for himself in politics. He’s currently shooting for an action film, Vikram, which may be released later this year. Indian 2, a sequel to the 1996 vigilante film of the same name may go on the floors, after a delay of about two years due to a series of mishaps, lawsuits and financial problems.
When I met him in 1990, though, he was riding high. He had delivered hits in four languages and had won a clutch of Filmfare awards apart from two National awards. Two more National awards would follow in the next decade, and so many more Filmfare awards that after his statuette in Hey Ram in 2000, he actually wrote to the committee requesting them not to nominate him again.
“My father was a dreamer and a poet,” he told me then. “He gave all three of us romantic names—Charu Haasan, Chandra Haasan and Kamal Haasan,” he said referring to his older brothers. “In the eyes of his family, my father took a risky decision when he allowed me to skip a formal education and learn dancing and singing instead. When the famous T.K. Sundaram hesitated to take me into his troupe because it would affect my schooling, my father told him, ‘I already have a son who is a lawyer (Charuhaasan), one who is an engineer (Chandrahaasan), and a daughter (Nalini) who is doing B.Sc. Maths. I don’t have an artist in the family… And I always say it was that push which has brought me this far.”
After the interview, he spoke to me about his forthcoming film, Michael Madana Kama Rajan, a comedy in which he’d played four roles. I watched it with low expectations. Kamal loved to multiple roles, but four was a bit much, I thought. Little did I know what a hit it was going to be!
It turned out to be a rollicking entertainer. I had never laughed so much. Kamal was at his brilliant best in what has turned out to be another iconic film. Everything about it was beautifully crafted…the story, the comedy, the acting, the music, the dancing, the fights. He’d co-written the dialogue and had sung a song. Thirty years later, lines from the film are still quoted in conversation or to make a point.
Kamal had spoken to me at length about the need to project good triumphing over evil in his films, but his action films have a recurring theme of a non-violent young man turning killer to avenge injustice. His reasoning was that violence would not go unpunished and all killers, no matter their motive, go to prison or are killed. But as the years rolled by Kamal’s hero-turned-killers became increasingly bloodthirsty. As the plots became more stereotypical, they were less enthusiastically received by fans. Meanwhile, his comedy films like Thenali and Pammal K. Sambandam were super hits as were Avvai Shamnughi (a remake of Mrs. Doubtfire) and Kaathala Kaathala with Prabhu Deva.
Four years after he got a Padma Bhushan, he decided to enter the Tamil Nadu political scene. He launched his political party Makkal Needhi Maiam in 2018. In a state with five chief ministers with roots in the film industry, it seemed like a natural shift though he had often portrayed politicians as corrupt and had said in many interviews that he would stay away from politics. He projected his party as centrist. Although he campaigned vigorously and tied up alliances, all his candidates lost their deposits both in the 2019 and 2021 elections. He contested an MLA’s seat in Coimbatore and lost this year.
Very soon, he was planning his next films, and has been on the sets from July. His future seems uncertain in politics, and though his star isn’t as bright as it was some decades ago, 60 years on, the glitter of his films hasn’t faded.
Gita Aravamudan is an independent journalist and author based in Bengaluru. In this fortnightly column, she examines the links between current news and events and headlines of the past, drawing on her 50-plus years of experience in the field.