Many of his films were not understood when they released, but Kamal has always done his best to get the audience to grow with him, to see the future before it is there.

Kamal Haasan at 65 How the legend has influenced young gen filmmakersYouTube screenshot from 'Dasavathaaram'
Flix Cinema Thursday, November 07, 2019 - 14:20

Kamal Haasan the actor, Kamal the star, Kamal the creator and, finally Andavar – these are phases that almost everyone born in the 70s and 80s would have seen. Sometimes, they might even want to smirk at those who rediscovered Kamal post the millennium. They might not call him Andavar, but smile benevolently at those who want to. After all, they’ve been there, done that.

They’ve seen him in the black-and-white era, in techni-colour, and later when films began looking realistic too. Through all, one thing never changed – Kamal never allowed the performer in him to lie idle. He might have, at a later stage, not allowed the actor in him to be reined in by the director, but you can never accuse him of not trying. He also never stopped experimenting.

Taut cop thrillers. Check. Relationship tangles. Check. Mental health and the divine feminine. Check. Fluff movies that were perfectly suited for some popcorn. Check. Experimental films. Check. Remakes with a heart. Check. And then, there’s Dasavathaaram too. All those who ridiculed the film then for tacky special effects had a reality check recently when a video emerged of the actor acting out all those parts with just his voice. It was then you realised that the make-up was redundant; the 10 avatars were in his head and heart all along.

Trying to slot Kamal Haasan is always a painful task; as painful for the person doing it and possibly for the man himself. Oh, but how hard they try. Someone was trying to put out a list of ‘emotional’ scenes of Kamal the other day. What do you do to someone who managed to ace such scenes even in a laugh riot like Michael Madana Kama Rajan? Or, laugh in a film as intense as Mahanadi? Thinking of a Kamal dance listicle? What would you add? What would you leave out? There’s such range even in the classical format, and even more in the film dance genre?

Yes, we all made fun of certain things usually found in a Kamal film – there was invariably a scene of him zipping up. But Kamal was also the one who normalised kissing and passion on screen; ‘Valaiosai’ is prime proof of how much a man can be irrevocably in love with a woman. And, ‘Sippi irukkudhu’ of how two people can stand at a distance but allow their minds to make love.

And then there’s Gunaa. The film that released with Rajinikanth’s Thalapathy for the Deepavali of 1991. Self-confessed Kamal devotee director RS Prasanna watched it when he was in Class 1.

“It was completely age-inappropriate, but my father took me to watch it. Till then, I was the typical kid who’d want to know if a film had fight scenes if I had to watch it. Watching Gunaa felt like what I experienced when I first read Fountainhead in Class 11. It was hearing and observing a world so new. Today, as a director, I can break down the film into layers, but then all I knew was that this was not what I knew of Tamil cinema till then. Like Kamal’s character says in the movie that his father’s face is seared onto him, the film is seared onto my mind. I knew then that there was Tamil cinema and there’s Kamal cinema, and they are worlds apart,” Prasanna recalls. A train of thought many young filmmakers agree with wholeheartedly.

Many remember the round trolley shot in the film and today rave about what a masterclass in performance it is. In 1991, it was not understood. But then Kamal has always done his best to get the audience to grow with him, to see the future before it is there. It’s a tragedy that many of his experiments did not get their due until much later. An Anbe Sivam or Virumaandi would have been celebrated at the box-office today, unlike the ‘commercial failure but cult classic’ genre they became the stars of.

Kamal gave back to the industry that he earned from in more ways than one. By introducing talent, by encouraging youngsters in the industry to explore dimensions of their craft (think composer Ghibran), and by telling audiences that they should not settle for less. That last lesson is highly underrated, but so important.

The next time you have a filmmaker citing Kamal as inspiration, you know the star lit a spark in some youngster’s mind in some tier 2 city, telling him it was possible to think out of the box on the big screen, that it was possible to make it work, and that dedication to craft matters.

Kamal might have completed 60 years in the industry, might still be turning up for shoots, and might still surprise us in Indian 2. But what the audience should remember him most for, celebrate him most for, is his ability to take risks, even if it meant commercial ruin.

“Today, when a Fahadh does Kumbalangi Nights, it is considered a risk. When Ayushmann takes up the films he does, he is called a risk-taker. Imagine Kamal did it all those years ago, over and over again, without worrying about what people or the critics would say. There is a reason why most of his fans rush in to defend him when anyone anoints a new actor as ‘the new Kamal’,” says Prasanna.

So, who might dislodge Kamal from the pedestal that Tamil audiences have placed him on? Or even share space with him? Knowing the man, it could well be Kamal himself, with another breakout character that’s still taking shape in his mind.

Subha J Rao is a Mangaluru-based writer and editor who specialises in cinema.

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