Where does a Hero go from Here?

Posted on December 1, 2003


Picture courtesy: rollingstone-indiatogether.org


Why 2003 is an important year for Kamal Haasan. And why Anbe Sivam could well be the film that defines his future.

DEC 2003 – AN ARTICLE ABOUT KAMAL HAASAN IS AN EASY ASSIGNMENT FOR A WRITER. He’s prolific, having starred in some 200 films, including the cinema of several regions. He’s popular – even an eventual debacle like Aalavandhan manages an impressive initial. He’s prodigiously talented, with three National Awards and the highest number of Filmfare Awards for an actor. And he’s provided enough spice through his private life to keep gossip rags going for years. Simply put, there’s enough about the man and enough that’s been written about him to make an assessment of his achievements an absurdly easy affair, which is why it’s interesting to look not at the past, but at the present and the future – Kamal Haasan, 2003 and beyond.

2003 has turned out a year to remember for Kamal Haasan for reasons he’d sooner forget. It’s the year that saw his cerebral Pongal release Anbe Sivam – his best film in quite a while – get bulldozed at the box-office by Vikram’s feel-good masala fest Dhool. It’s the year he launched his home production Sandiyar, only to have the title’s casteist connotations – it means rogue – come under attack from Dr S Krishnaswamy, leader of the dalit party Pudhiya Thamizhagam, which has left the movie bereft of a moniker as of this writing. And as if the audience indifference and the artistic infringement weren’t enough, this is also the year the actor completed forty-nine, stepped into the threshold of his fifties – a factor that’s sure to affect the parts he plays in future films.

That’s a lot of professional and personal baggage for one man in one year, but Kamal Haasan has always been something of a survivor. In the seventies, he survived getting typecast in supporting roles by hitching his wagon to the Balachanders and the Bharatirajas, by positioning himself as mud to be moulded by the sculptors who were reshaping Tamil cinema. In the eighties, he survived the Rajinikanth onslaught by sliding ever-so-slowly into his now-patented brand of art-commerce ventures, by positioning himself as the Super Actor who would take the creative risks the Super Star wouldn’t or couldn’t. And in the nineties, he survived the wave of young heroes, the Vijays and the Ajiths, by writing actor-showcase parts for himself no one else could dream of conceiving, by positioning himself as the cartographer who kept redrawing the boundaries of Tamil cinema to accommodate his artistic ambitions.

So, yes, one disastrous year isn’t going to destroy Kamal Haasan, but it certainly raises some questions. How is he going to survive the new millennium? How does he plan to position himself to an audience that treated Anbe Sivam like that tall glass of milk mother made them drink every morning in comparison to the sundae-with-every-imaginable-topping that was Dhool, an audience that increasingly seeks entertainment not edification from their cinema?

Kamal is certainly aware of the widening gap between what he wants and what the viewers want. Some years ago, in a Rediff.com interview, the actor confessed, “I am mediocre because that is my audience. It is not that I am generalising. The daily collection report says that my general audience is mediocre. The minorities who talk as cleverly as I do don’t matter because they can have a private conversation with me.” This awareness, however, doesn’t seem to have translated to action – at least not all the way, as Anbe Sivam, part pandering and part private conversation, demonstrates.

For all its merits – and there are many – Anbe Sivam isn’t a movie as much as a magnifying glass trained at the crossroads Kamal Haasan finds himself at today. In a sense, the dramatic crux of the film isn’t the story – spoilt yuppie Anbarasu (Madhavan) is plagued by well-meaning leech Nallasivam (Kamal) during a journey, but learns valuable life lessons along the way – but the three-way tug of war between writer Kamal Haasan, star Kamal Haasan and actor Kamal Haasan, a clash of personalities and sensibilities infinitely more interesting than the Kamal-versus-Kamal showdown we saw in Aalavandhan/Abhay.

We’ve seen Kamal Haasan act for so long now that everything in his arsenal – his laughter, his cries, the softening of his face in the romantic passages – is familiar, but Anbe Sivam contains one of his obsessive makeup-makeovers that results in a persona that’s different, yet familiar. With thick glasses and facial scars, a dislocated jaw and paralysed limbs (you even see a toe sticking out when he’s lying down), Kamal appears a grotesque version of his Mayor in Indrudu Chandrudu. It’s an amazing transformation, a superb performance – yet ticket-buyers, the same masses that descended in droves to see similar efforts in Indian/Hindustani and Apoorva Sagotharargal/Appu Raja, stayed away. And one of the reasons they stayed away from Kamal the Actor is surely Kamal the Writer, surely the excess that’s increasingly crept into his screenwriting.

When Kamal’s writing is in top gear – Thevar Magan, Mahanadhi – you are so drawn into the film that it’s only later you discover the density of ideas within. In Anbe Sivam, time just seems to stand still (especially with silence ruling the soundtrack) when trademark Kamal musings – about globalisation, MNCs, pharaohs, the nature of divinity, Adobe software – come to fore, because every single idea that crossed his head appears to have found its way into the writing, with sometimes scant regard for fitting in with the rest of the film. And Kamal the Writer being in service of Kamal the Star, there’s a gratuitously indulgent flashback (much to the detriment of Madhavan’s character arc) detailing the not-yet-disfigured Nallasivam’s romance (featuring a duet, naturally, with a half-his-age Kiran) and involvement in communism (featuring a fight, naturally, with Kamal using an umbrella the way he used a stool in the dishoom-dishoom in Thoongaathey Thambi Thoongaathey some twenty years ago).

The failure of Anbe Sivam has elicited mournful discourses about the future of meaningful Tamil cinema, but it also brings us to our original question – what does it mean to the future of Kamal Haasan? Is this art-commerce mix he’s been adhering to on its way out, or does his brand of cinema simply need an infusion of fresh blood?

No one doubts his talent or his tenacity. He is, after all, the actor who experimented with his image – portraying the village idiot in 16 Vayadhinile and the psycho-killer in Sigappu Rojakkal at a time he was the leading Lothario of Kodambakkam – long before experimentation became fashionable. You only have to look around to see how much his characterisations and his choices have impacted the current crop of leading men – a darkened and deranged Vikram in the Diwali smash Pithamagan channels similar tics adopted by Kamal in Guna, while Dhanush in his blockbuster Kaadhal Kondain is literally a teen version of Kamal’s character in Guna.

But talent and tenacity cannot flourish in a vacuum, and Kamal Haasan – in his efforts to bend, twist, shape-shift Tamil cinema into forms never-before seen – has shut himself in a cocoon of his own creative juices for far too long now. He needs stronger collaborators – to disabuse him of his fancies of catering to fans, to suggest that his admirers would only be too happy to see their idol age on screen in ways that do not involve fights and duets. He needs directors and writing partners who can outshout his tendencies towards overembellishment, who would have seen that Anbe Sivam, while leagues ahead of the average Tamil – why, even Indian – film, would leave the casual cinemagoer unimpressed by its cerebral concerns and the serious moviegoer struggling with other issues. And he needs capable costars to play off his own performance – Madhavan in Anbe Sivam is certainly a good start – and provide healthy competition even as they help draw in younger viewers.

There’s something else Kamal Haasan needs – something not dependent on outside factors or other people, something he could do himself – and that’s to get rid of gimmickry and get back to the simplicity that’s symbolised his best performances. It’s not unusual for great actors – and Kamal certainly is one – to rely on externals to hone a performance, but when overused or overdone the makeup and the mannerisms threaten to become the performance. When you see a Moondram Pirai or a Saagara Sangamam or a Mahanadhi, you see an actor delivering emotion without exhibition. Perhaps it’s time to get back to the basics, and perhaps the Kamal Haasan of the less-is-more past is the key to the survival of the Kamal Haasan of the future.

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Posted in: Cinema: Tamil