National Geographic’s latest show, Mega Icons, premiered in September this year and the second personality to be featured on this show is actor turned politician Kamal Haasan. This five-part series will also feature episodes on former Indian President APJ Abdul Kalam, skipper of the Indian cricket team Virat Kohli, Nobel laureate the Dalai Lama and the first woman in the Indian Police Service officer, Kiran Bedi.
The 40-minute episode on Kamal Haasan starts from his childhood days, tracing his journey as a child actor to a singer, dancer, popular film star and now to a politician. The show scientifically analyses his brain, with the help of experts from the field to understand the making of a polymath.
Is it in his genes or is it his exceptional childhood that helped nurtured so many talents in him? “Was creativity then hardcoded in Kamal Haasan’s DNA? It was certainly present in the bricks of the walls he grew up within. His art may just be an end result of nature and nurture. A delicate balance between genes and environment.”
With cinematic reenactments and opinions from Lera Boroditsky, cognitive scientist, Dr Santosh K Chaturvedi, behavioural scientist, and Dr Alok Mishra, brain behaviour analyst, the show dissects the different facets of Kamal Haasan’s personality.
Talking about his childhood, Kamal shares his mother wielded a powerful influence on him. He goes on to talk about the creative ambience in his house that nurtured the artiste in him. “I remember the cackle of my sister’s laughter, stone-faced rendering of a humorous anecdote either by my father or my brother, and then the big laughter. Corners of my house would echo with duets sung by my sister and brother, across the house, they’ll catch a film song midway and somebody else will pick it up and continue. Sometimes, even classical songs. all the time I could hear mridangam, violin, harmonium and the ghungroo. It was the ambient noise for me and some of it I picked up,” he muses.
Kamal shares an unexpected episode that pushed him to impulsively perform in front of an audience. “It was an important day that made a singer out of me, whether I deserved it or not,” he smiles. When the audio spool broke, Kamal, who had prepared to only lip sync for the song at a stage play, ended up singing it to save the show.
Kamal also discusses his gurus (teachers) on this show. “I think if you stop learning, you are standing in one place. The ascent of man is because of his curiosity,” he shares.
His mother, we learn, had been his first and foremost guru. “She had discreetly sold her golden bangles and got my dance class going. She was my partner in whatever I wanted to do. That’s the reason I wanted to call my company Raaj Kamal films. A part of her name is in it, Rajalakshmi. She did invest in my business,” he says.
Kamal Haasan has fond memories of meeting his second guru, TK Shanmugam, introduced to him by his father. His third, and most important, guru was screenwriter, director and artist K Balachander. “There’s a big black-and-white portrait of him outside my office. He changed my life again. It was like meeting another Charu Haasan, RC Shakti, TK Shanmugam all rolled into one. I was 18 or 18 and a half when I first met him,” he recalls.
The show also has film critic Sudhish Kamath, Kamal’s daughters - actors Shruti Haasan and Akshara Haasan - talking about him and his films. Kamal’s ability to consistently keep pushing beyond his boundaries, the fact he is always learning, always expanding his horizon comes through in this feature documentary.
For a method actor, singer, dancer, and writer learning how to do one’s make-up may not be on their list. But for Kamal, learning make-up felt natural and he learnt it from an Academy Award-winning makeup artiste, no less.
“I started dabbling in makeup because I wanted to do various get-ups. I was creating different characters and it was becoming difficult. Suddenly I decided that somebody has to go and learn. I went there, took a holiday and started training with Michael Westmore, who was kind enough to teach me,” says Kamal adding that he spent many hours on the sets of Star Trek.
From being an artist who revelled in the crowds' adulation, Kamal shares that he went on to question the very act. “I give you entertainment. You’ve paid me for it. Why this extra adulation? If you’re going to insist on it, then turn and divert it towards social work. Then I’ll be very happy. Because I’ve used you for a purpose … Instead of making them tools for my progress I thought I should make them useful for the society,” he says.
We are also shown a taste of his Vishwaroopam debacle, of how it cost him dearly and how it went on to inspire the politician in him. From here on, there’s an inkling of the reason behind Kamal’s recent plunge into the state’s political scene. Kamal shares that an artiste can never be just an artiste and not worry about politics. “Some of the great writers, they’ve all contributed greatly as citizens, as artistes and that is a primary duty when you want to be a part of the commune called humanity,” he smiles.
He further adds that his entry has not been sudden and that since 2003 he began “making noises” that he would indeed head towards this direction. We’re left with Kamal musing that while he was not sure of electoral politics at first, he can’t seem to find another way. “Without power, there cannot be any reform,” he says.
Hosted by actor R Madhavan, Mega Icons is available for streaming on Hotstar.