Between Reviews: Rebirth of the Cool?

Posted on August 22, 2009



Fifty years into an endlessly fascinating career, here’s a wish (no, make that a pipe dream) that Kamal Hassan would go back to having fun, being cool. AUG 23, 2009 – IN THE YEARS I WAS GROWING UP in a balmy nook of Madras – ensconced in an ethos that was part-Peter, part-Pattabhiraman – Kamal Hassan was, quite simply, one of the coolest people on the planet. (At the time, of course, the actor was adored by the mononym of Kamalahasan. The modification in the moniker occurred during the release of Vikram, his lavish Bond fantasia, perhaps owing to his attempts to simultaneously straddle the worlds of Tamil and Hindi cinema. He was trying, in other words, to be part-Pattabhiraman, part-Parminder.) Kamal was cool not because he could act well – as a kid or a young teen, it wasn’t exactly the Method-inflected thesping skills that reached out and grabbed me by the collar of my printed-polyester shirts. He was cool because he embodied an imported-from-the-West panache that few Tamil stars had before him, few Tamil stars possess even today. An older generation would swear by the devil-may-care swagger that a Sivaji Ganesan brought to his chain-smoking while crooning Yaar andha nilavu in Shanti, with the graceful shrug of the shoulders that drew the arms close to the torso, and with the attendant gesture of the upturned limp wrist, suggesting the futility of fighting fate – but the deliberations behind these mannerisms never held much appeal for me. When, years afterwards, I stumbled into these artifacts of yesteryear cool (primarily through the graces of Oliyum Oliyum), there was always a fourth-wall-shattering distance – the affectations weren’t organic. They needed to be viewed by squinting through a mist of nostalgia and indulgence. The great actor may well have been attempting to mimic an American college-goer from the mid-century, employing exclamations such as “swell” and “rad” and “golly gee” – it just wasn’t our times, it just wasn’t us. Kamal, on the other hand, wore his “Peter” credentials as if they were encoded in his DNA – and he reached out to the cool-craving parts of us the way the Hollywood heroes of the time did. The coolness came from the way he spoke English – with a where-did-that-accent-come-from question left lingering in the air (something he genially spoofed in Thoongathey Thambi Thoongathey, when the bumpkin brother launches into garbled guttural explosions in order to mimic the Westernised cadences of his sophisticated twin). It was in the way he swiveled towards the camera – towards us, with that check-me-out glint in the eye – in the one-one-two-two-three-three-four-four preface to the Kaamanukku Kaaman dance item from Uruvangal Maaralaam. It was in the ‘fro he wore while twisting his astoundingly flexible pelvis to the strains of Solla solla enna perumai in Ellaam Inba Mayam. It was in the way he made the camera a stylish accessory around the neck when he sobered up as a documentarian in Aval Appadithaan. It was in the silver headband and the Age-of-Aquarius medallion that dangled over an open-chested cardigan while an enraptured audience nodded to Engeyum eppodhum in Ninaithaale Inikkum. And it was in the ovoid sunglasses that framed his twinkling eyes – amused and self-aware as any Lothario’s – while he took an impossibly demure Sridevi out on dates in Sigappu Rojakkal. Has any earlier film depicted, with such anthropological acuity, the wooing-wining-dining mechanics of an honest-to-goodness date, with the candlelight dinners and the making-out-during-a-movie? (Never mind that the “making out” here was merely the grazing of his lips on her outstretched palm – the point is that this handsome devil in the red baseball cap was so exotically dude-ish that Sridevi, with that sari-pallu draped carefully over her shoulder, appears to stand in for all of conservative Tamil cinema up to that juncture.) That’s the Kamal I recall as I read fawning fan-boy tributes (of which, you’ve no doubt realised, this is unabashedly one) about his completing a half-century in the movies – the Kamal who was cool way before cool came to Tamil cinema. In some sense, he seems to have been around for much longer than fifty years, perhaps because every stage of his life has unfolded in front of the cameras, as if his existence were preserved for posterity in a time-lapse – the precocious (but never precious) child; the reed-thin, whiny-voiced adolescent; the bell-bottomed Kaadhal Ilavarasan (The Crown Prince of Romance, as he was nicknamed), and the adult (and increasingly, sometimes frustratingly, ambitious) actor-writer-filmmaker. And if I appear to have dwelt on a relatively frivolous aspect of the man who’s given us a Mahanadhi and a Hey Ram and a Virumaandi, it’s because it’s that Kamal, the cheerful cool-cat Kamal, that I miss the most. I miss the Kamal who didn’t try, the Kamal who just effortlessly was – the photographer from Tik Tik Tik who couldn’t believe his luck that these bikinied beauties were splayed out in front of him, the tenderhearted pickpocket from Savaal who blossomed under the maternal gaze of the Burmese Fagin played by Manorama, the tufted villager from Sakalakalavallavan who migrated to the city and bought himself a pair of shiny pants and drove his bike through a wall of glass during New Year celebrations. The goodness or the badness of these films is irrelevant – and besides, the test of a true star is how good he is in bad films. Kamal made these outings fun, intentionally or otherwise. Kamal’s films, those days, felt like the summer vacations – while today, they’ve come to feel like annual examinations. (We practically end up making a checklist before entering the theatre: paper, pencil, sharpener, thinking cap…) Before you brandish your pitchforks and come charging at me for overlooking the inevitability that an actor cannot play in his fifties what he did in his twenties and thirties, this isn’t a plea for Kamal to go back to making a Savaal or a Thoongathey Thambi Thoongathey or a Vikram. (And truth be told, I’m not making a plea for anything, actually.) This is simply an attempt to contrast the lighthearted Westernisation of his early years with the more solemn Westernisation I see in Kamal today, which is no longer in the surface details of his person, but has percolated down to his core, to his preference for prestige projects and the meticulousness of his Hollywood-model scripts and the elaborateness of his boundary-pushing conceits. And in the process, there are times I wonder if he hasn’t forgotten how to just go out there in front of the camera and have himself some fun (and radiate back to us some of the enjoyment he’s experiencing). It’s not that I mind sitting down for these examinations (though I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel an iota of dread as they approach) – it’s just that I miss the vacations. I wish Kamal would transform into a cheerful actor-for-hire like Amitabh Bachchan today, who’s having the time of his career playing ghosts and pedophiles and gangsters and cheeky bit-parts. I’d like to see Kamal size himself down to the amusingly earnest director he guest-starred as in Manakanakku. I’d like to see him surrender to younger filmmakers who’d surely salivate at the prospect of creating vehicles worthy of the cinema-lover whose shadow they’ve grown up worshipping. Rather than wait a couple of years and watch him in ten latex-lathered parts, I’d like to see him in ten different roles in ten different films during the course of a year. He’s done enough for Tamil cinema. I’d like to see him shrug off that responsibility. I’d like to see him back where he began – as, quite simply, one of the coolest people, if not on the planet, at least on the Tamil screen. Copyright ©2009 The New Sunday Express. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.