Versatile actor and director Kamal Haasan has added another feather to his cap with the French Government conferring him with the prestigious Chevalier de L’Ordre Arts et Lettres, a part of the French Legion of Honour. The award puts him in the august company of an earlier recipient, thespian Sivaji Ganesan, a legendary actor whom Kamal has always considered his alter ego.
Earlier in the year, Kamal had won the Henri Langiois Award from France for his contribution to Indian cinema. The pug-nosed, cabbage-eared kid who first faced the arc lights in 1960 as a child star in AVM’s “Kalathur Kannamma”, for which he won a National Award, has indeed come a long way and has earned the sobriquet “Ulaganayagan” for his efforts.
Kamal, who at a very young age, developed a flair for dancing, had turned into an assistant choreographer after slipping into adolescence, but was brought back to acting by K Balachander. KB gave him small roles in a few films and then cast him as a rebellious young man in the path-breaking venture “Apoorva Ragangal”, a story that dealt with a youth’s infatuation with an aging classical singer. The singer’s role was essayed with aplomb by the late Srividya.
Balachander, who had taken the actor under his wing, continued to offer him pivotal roles. Most of these films, shot on shoestring budgets, never failed to hit the bull’s eye at the box-office. There were several exceptionally good films from KB’s stable that featured the actor and significant among them were “Avargal”, “Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu”, the Telugu hit ‘Maro Charitra’ (later made in Hindi by KB with Kamal and Rati Agnihotri in the lead) and “Unnaal Mudiyum Thambi”. Ironically, however, Kamal never won a National Award for Best Actor for any of KB’s films though he touched great heights as a performer in almost every one of them.
The films that really catapulted the gifted actor to great heights were the ones directed by Bharathiraaja, Balu Mahendra, K Viswanath, Mani Ratnam and Shankar.
Bharathiraaja, in his debut film “Pathinaru Vayadhinile” presented a wholly de-glamourised Kamal, turning the handsome actor into a village bumpkin, ill-clad with unkempt hair, an ungainly gait, and with saliva drooling down his lips. There was even a scene where he discards his clothes and strips down just to a loin cloth. Kamal performed the role with great panache and though a few critics felt that he was upstaged by a suave Rajanikant who had very few frames in the movie to himself and a few punchlines, it was Kamal who dominated the film in the company of a co-star who was to be his leading lady in several films - Sridevi, who played the role of a village beauty.
As if to compensate, the director turned him into a suited and booted Don Juan, a psychopathic killer in “Sigappu Rojakkal” and the film turned out to be a smash hit, with Bharathiraaja proving that he could handle not just rural themes but urban subjects as well.
Balu Mahendra’s “Moondram Pirai” for which Kamal won his second National Award for Best Actor portrayed him as a lecturer who takes an amnesia-struck woman (Sridevi) under his care and nurses her back to health only to lose her forever as she has no memories of her saviour. There were several melodramatic, over the top scenes in the film, especially in the climax, but Kamal shot to greater fame for the sheer poignancy in the portrayal.
Telugu director K Viswanath, the man who gave the industry all-time hits like “Shankarabharanam” and “Siri Siri Muvva”, directed Kamal in “Sagara Sangamam” and “Swathi Muthyam” (both in Telugu), which afforded the actor full rein to reveal his histrionic talent. In “Sagara Sangamam”, he played an aging, alcoholic, classical dancer and in the latter film, a mentally disturbed young man. Both were author-backed roles and with a reputed director like Viswanath wielding the megaphone, Kamal could score with ease.
A film that made to Time magazine’s ‘Top 100 films ever made’ was the Mani Ratnam directed “Nayakan”, loosely based on the life and times of a Mumbai don, Varadaraja Mudaliar. The film dealt with the transformation of an honest man of little means into a formidable gangster, a do-gooder like Robin Hood who brooked no opposition.
There were a number of scenes in the film where Kamal could prove his acting chops and he rose to the occasion admirably, leaving an indelible imprint in the minds of the audience. The film, released in 1987, won three National Awards, including the Best Actor Award for Kamal. Nearly three decades have passed but there seems to be no sign of Mani and Kamal getting together for another project and that is really unfortunate as their collaboration could give many good films to the industry.
Incidentally, Mani is married to Kamal’s niece, Suhasini, a National Award winning actress and director in her own right. Nine years after “Nayakan”, director Shankar, fresh from the success of his earlier films like “Gentleman” and “Kadhalan”, zeroed in on Kamal for “Indian”, a film that narrates the story of a veteran freedom fighter and Gandhian who abhors corruption, and in the end even murders his own son who strays from the straight and narrow path. Kamal was cast as both father and son but it was the father’s role that was captivating enough to net a National Award for the actor. Shankar and Kamal, too, are yet to come together again.
Among successful films that have boosted his career graph over the years have been “Pushpak”, a silent film, “Raja Parvai”, “Apoorva Sagotharargal” (a dual role, one as a dwarf), “Devar Magan” (Bharathan), ‘Guna’ (Santhanabharathi), “Aalavandan” (dual role), “Anbe Sivam’ (Sundar C ), “Kuruthi Punal” (Santhanabharathi), and “Vettayadu Vilayadu” (Gautam Vasudev Menon).
Sivaji Ganesan essayed nine roles in the AP Nagarajan directed “Navarathri” and Kamal went one better by performing as many as ten roles in the KS Ravikumar directed “Dasavatharam”, including a characterization of former US President George Bush.
The Ravikumar-Kamal combination has been an enduring one and several comedy films which fared well at the box office like “Thenali”, “Panchathanthiram” and “Avvai Shanmughi” (where Kamal played a woman for a major part of the film) all turned out to be rib-ticklers largely because Kamal, who had earlier even donned the role of Charlie Chaplin in the Balachander film “Punnagai Mannan”, has a flair for comedy.
The actor’s directorial abilities came to the fore in a number of films like “Hey Ram”, “Virumaandi”, “Viswaroopam” and the Hindi film “Chachi 420”, a remake of the laugh riot “Avvai Shanmughi”. He has also directed the sequel to “Viswaroopam” but the film has remained in the cans and is yet to see the light of day. Kamal, who has been rendered hors de combat, after suffering a leg injury at his house is presently directing “Saabash Naidu” based on one of the characters in “Dasavatharam” and will be teaming up with ace Telugu comedian Brahmanandam. He will be re-starting his shoot in a month’s time.
Kamal has also ventured into Bollywood with hits like “Ek Du Je Keliye”, “Sadma” and “Sagar” and a few other nondescript films. Although he has always been averse to remaking films from other languages, Kamal has made exceptions by acting in “Unnaipol Oruvan”, a remake of the Naseeruddin Shah starrer “A Wednesday” and “Papanasam”, a remake of the Mohanlal hit in Malayalam “Drishyam”.
As an actor, Kamal has flirted with almost all genres and has never failed to turn up trumps with his performances. He has also carved his niche as a producer, director, choreographer, lyricist, and playback singer. In his sixties, he continues to be full of beans, raring to perform in diverse roles and reach new milestones in his career. And this international award could well come as another shot in the arm for Kamal Haasan who has not just mastered the nuances of acting but has unmatched knowledge of almost all aspects of film-making.