Versatile actor and director Kamal Haasan has added another feather to his cap with the French Government conferring him with the prestigious Chevalier de LâOrdre 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 AVMâs âKalathur Kannammaâ, for which he won a National Award, has indeed come a long way and has earned the sobriquet âUlaganayaganâ 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 âApoorva Ragangalâ, a story that dealt with a youthâs infatuation with an aging classical singer. The singerâs 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 bullâs eye at the box-office. There were several exceptionally good films from KBâs stable that featured the actor and significant among them were âAvargalâ, âVarumaiyin Niram Sivappuâ, the Telugu hit âMaro Charitraâ (later made in Hindi by KB with Kamal and Rati Agnihotri in the lead) and âUnnaal Mudiyum Thambiâ. Ironically, however, Kamal never won a National Award for Best Actor for any of KBâs 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 âPathinaru Vayadhinileâ 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 âSigappu Rojakkalâ 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 Mahendraâs âMoondram Piraiâ 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 âShankarabharanamâ and âSiri Siri Muvvaâ, directed Kamal in âSagara Sangamamâ and âSwathi Muthyamâ (both in Telugu), which afforded the actor full rein to reveal his histrionic talent. In âSagara Sangamamâ, 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 magazineâs âTop 100 films ever madeâ was the Mani Ratnam directed âNayakanâ, 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 Kamalâs niece, Suhasini, a National Award winning actress and director in her own right. Nine years after âNayakanâ, director Shankar, fresh from the success of his earlier films like âGentlemanâ and âKadhalanâ, zeroed in on Kamal for âIndianâ, 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 fatherâs 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 âPushpakâ, a silent film, âRaja Parvaiâ, âApoorva Sagotharargalâ (a dual role, one as a dwarf), âDevar Maganâ (Bharathan), âGunaâ (Santhanabharathi), âAalavandanâ (dual role), âAnbe Sivamâ (Sundar C ), âKuruthi Punalâ (Santhanabharathi), and âVettayadu Vilayaduâ (Gautam Vasudev Menon).
Sivaji Ganesan essayed nine roles in the AP Nagarajan directed âNavarathriâ and Kamal went one better by performing as many as ten roles in the KS Ravikumar directed âDasavatharamâ, 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 âThenaliâ, âPanchathanthiramâ and âAvvai Shanmughiâ (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 âPunnagai Mannanâ, has a flair for comedy.
The actorâs directorial abilities came to the fore in a number of films like âHey Ramâ, âVirumaandiâ, âViswaroopamâ and the Hindi film âChachi 420â, a remake of the laugh riot âAvvai Shanmughiâ. He has also directed the sequel to âViswaroopamâ 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 âSaabash Naiduâ based on one of the characters in âDasavatharamâ and will be teaming up with ace Telugu comedian Brahmanandam. He will be re-starting his shoot in a monthâs time.
Kamal has also ventured into Bollywood with hits like âEk Du Je Keliyeâ, âSadmaâ and âSagarâ 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 âUnnaipol Oruvanâ, a remake of the Naseeruddin Shah starrer âA Wednesdayâ and âPapanasamâ, a remake of the Mohanlal hit in Malayalam âDrishyamâ.
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.