Kamal Haasan at 65: Celebrating the musician within the actor

Kamal managed to learn Carnatic music for more than a year amidst his tight acting schedule and this manifested itself in the musical output of his films.
Kamal Haasan at 65: Celebrating the musician within the actor
Kamal Haasan at 65: Celebrating the musician within the actor
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This week, on the 65th birthday of actor Kamal Haasan, we are also celebrating his 60 years in cinema. It is well-documented that Kamal started out as a child actor and has then gone on to become one of the most accomplished actors this country has ever seen. But we all know that Kamal is not just an actor. He is a walking, talking ‘Filmipedia’, with all-round knowledge on various aspects of film making from the rudimentary to the sophisticated.

Right from the beginning of his career as an adult actor, Kamal didn’t see himself as just an actor. He always wanted to be a technician and eventually a filmmaker. The initial years of fame and the ensuing busy schedule as an actor though did not allow Kamal to pursue his interests outside of acting. Perhaps from the film Raja Paarvai, which happened to be his 100th film, is when he gradually unshackled himself and started looking beyond just acting.

While India has produced many legendary actors, I believe Kamal is the only one who can claim to be a master of many aspects of filmmaking. Directors, producers, actors and other technicians who have worked with him have been unanimously in awe of his wide knowledge in different aspects of filmmaking – from cinematography to editing, action choreography, art direction, costume design and even make-up. Along with all these, another facet of Kamal is his abundant insight into music. And today, it’s time to celebrate that Kamal – the musician.

In the second phase of his career, post Nayagan, Kamal started putting a premium on his time and talent, which is when he started to cherry-pick scripts, writers, roles and directors with whom he will work with. That was also the phase in which Kamal started making films under his own banner as a producer. In Kamal’s films in that phase, music was clearly a hallmark, irrespective of the composer he worked with. With his involvement and nuanced insights, he could get the best out of the composers in almost every film. This was only because in addition to having a good ear for music he also possessed a deep knowledge and varied exposure to different types of world music and composers.

In a detailed interview with ace film critic Baradwaj Rangan, Kamal admitted that as a child, in his native Paramakkudi, he never trained himself on classical music. But he grew up in an environment filled with classical music and learnt the basics of Carnatic music when he moved to Chennai. This perhaps sowed the seeds for developing his ‘musical’ side. This led to him not just singing in films quite regularly and credibly, but also collaborating with composers actively to produce music of the highest order in his films.

While he was a budding actor, he got an opportunity to do playback singing, purely by chance. His first song was ‘Nyayiru Oli Mazhayil’ in his own film Antharangam for music director Devarajan. Director Mukta Srinivasan who happened to listen to Kamal humming on the set nudged Devarajan to get him do the playback for a song. But from what started out as a one-off effort, his discography today is close to 100 songs strong. This is not just in his own films or for himself but even for films in which he didn’t star. Also, not just in Tamil but in multiple languages. And not just for one or two but for composers of different hues, right from Maestro Ilaiyaraaja to newcomer Ghibran, not to mention other popular composers like AR Rahman, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, Himesh Reshamaiyya and Vidyasagar.

When he was young, Kamal didn’t pursue his classical music learning for long. But his passion for music preordained him to learn Carnatic music, that too after becoming a busy actor. In the couple of months’ break he had due to the leg injury he sustained during a film shoot, Kamal got the opportunity to learn Carnatic music, that too from the renowned vocalist Dr Balamuralikrishna, again by chance. This was not known to many, till Kamal himself revealed in interviews much later. That Kamal managed to learn Carnatic music for more than a year amidst his tight acting schedule reveals his deep interest in music. And this manifested itself in the musical output of his films.

As a filmmaker, while Kamal has worked with many music directors, his association with Ilaiyaraaja stands out as legendary. It is well-known that there are only a few people whom Ilaiyaraaja admires and appreciates vocally in public. Kamal is one among them. In the case of Kamal and Ilaiyaraaja, it is mutual respect for each other.

Among Ilaiyaraaja’s top works, his songs and background score for Kamal’s films feature prominently. This is not by chance. Kamal himself has said that he tried to be present for the song composing and re-recording sessions of all his later films. Just by being an observer of Ilaiyaraaja’s work, he has been able to sharpen his musical skills which helped immensely while working with other composers.

In the same vein, Ilaiyaraaja also has said that apart from being a good singer, Kamal is talented enough to be a music director himself and is quite knowledgeable about ragas and compositions. So, it is not a surprise that most of Kamal’s singing has been for Ilaiyaraaja. So impressed was the music director with Kamal’s rendition of ‘Ninaivo Oru Paravai’ for the film Sigappu Rojakkal that he asked him to sing a second song the same day. This was planned for another singer originally.

It has also happened that Ilaiyaraaja in a few instances has preferred the ‘track’ version sung by Kamal over the version sung by regular playback singers. The song ‘Raja Kaiya Vacha’ in the film Apoorva Sagotharargal is an example. One can find the SPB version of this song in the cassette but in the movie, it is the Kamal version that finds a place. Similarly the famous ‘Sundari Neeyum Sundaran Nyannum’ song from the film Michael Madana Kama Rajan was intended to be sung by Yesudas initially. But Ilaiyaraaja preferred to keep the track version of Kamal itself in the film. More recently, in 2017, that too for a yet-to-be released Hindi film titled Zindagi Dish, for which Ilaiyaraaja was composing, he sought out Kamal specifically to sing a song when he couldn’t get it right with a regular singer.

Kamal’s singing talent aside, one can get a feel of his musical pulse from a few composing sessions which are now in the public domain. In this audio clip of such a session during the composing for Gunaa, we can see how Kamal is able to lead Ilaiyaraaja into the making of the ‘Kanmani Anbodu’ song. The song turned about to be in a unique letter narration style which became a super hit.

Similarly, Kamal himself has shared in many forums the story behind the making of the ‘Inji Indupalagaa’ song for Thevar Magan. For the situation, Kamal wanted a song which could be sung by anybody who didn’t have musical knowledge and cited the example of the ‘Yeh dil deewana hai’ song from the Hindi film Ishq Par Zor Nahin composed by SD Burman. Within a few minutes, Ilaiyaraaja came up with the tune for what would become a memorable Raja composition – ‘Inji Idupalagaa’. Incidentally the song again goes back to Bollywood for Thevar Magan’s remake in the form of ‘Payalay chunmun’ song, composed by Anu Malik.

Even after knowing very well that Ilaiyaraaja hates being given references of songs of other composers, Kamal with his chemistry and knowledge would package his references subtly to the music director. Eventually, the songs that came out from Ilaiyaraaja’s harmonium from such cross-references turned out to be better than even the originals.

The film Hey Ram is another film which is a hallmark of the Kamal-Ilaiyaraaja pair. Since Kamal understood the criticality of the background score for the period film, he didn’t bat an eyelid for meeting Ilaiyaraaja’s request for recording the score with the Budapest Philharmonic troupe.

Not just Ilaiyaraaja, similarly Kamal could stretch the imagination of other composers too. It’s often said that any creative output can only be as good as the brief. Whether it was Deva in films like Avvai Shanmugi or Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy in Vishwaroopam, they have all acknowledged that it was a tremendous experience working with Kamal in the composing for these films. Because of his inputs, the final output turned out to be great hits.

In India, there are many great actors who have been feted with several awards for their acting. But it is only Kamal who, apart from being lauded for acting, has been awarded for his contributions to music. Looking back, on the occasion of #Kamal60, celebrating Kamal the musician is unique. For if normal people have two ears, Kamal probably has 60 ears. For music.

Anand Kumar RS is a management professional by week and an avid blogger by weekend. He writes on politics, business, and films.

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