Kamal Haasan talks about how music came into his life. And dance. And everything else. Baradwaj Rangan listens.
Forget the actor. That was the brief. After fifty years of acting, that’s the only facet of Kamal Haasan people think about. Sometimes, maybe, they think of Kamal Haasan the writer or Kamal Haasan the director. But it’s almost always the actor. So one evening this April, in Bangalore, I asked him about the other things: the singing, the poetry, the photography, and the dancing, especially the dancing. He was in the city filming Uthama Villain, but it was the day of the elections, so there was no shooting across the state. Dressed in a white linen ensemble and looking extremely relaxed, he told me, “This kind of exposure to the arts you can get only in two places – either a Brahmin household or a community dedicated to art. I didn’t have a choice. I was born into this Brahmin atmosphere.”
He spoke about a house in Paramakudi filled with music. His mother played the violin. Elder brothers Charuhasan and Chandrahasan were singers. “So it was an environment of music,” he said. “Like others hum cinema songs, classical music would be running through my mind.” But as far as the others in the family were concerned, he was about as talented as his father, who couldn’t sing at all and, therefore, had decided to become a patron of the arts. The house was on a two-acre tract of land, and half of it became a sort of open-air auditorium where artists would be invited to perform. MLV. Madurai Somu. A young Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan.
Kamal Haasan spoke about his sister, the family’s only daughter, who was sent off to train in classical dance in a gurukulam in Tanjore when she was five. “When she was eight, she returned to find a surprise, a very late-born brother. That was me. I was not planned. Everything else in the family was planned. The eldest son would be a lawyer. The second son would also be a lawyer. The daughter was going to be a classical dancer.” They even named her Mrinalini, because his father was a great fan of Mrinalini Sarabhai.
Listening to Kamal Haasan speak is like sitting down for a screenplay narration. The tone is steady. The tale is dramatic. Then, when you least expect it, there’s a splash of comic relief. He narrated the stretch where he – we should probably name this character in the flashback; let’s call him by the diminutive Kamal – was cut off from art for a while when his mother was diagnosed as a chronic diabetic and had to be sent to Chennai, where her elder brother lived. Kamal accompanied her. “I was about three. They enrolled me in Holy Angels. I had this uncanny knack of running away. I’d pick up a taxi and come back home.”
Kamal turned five. He became an actor. And music and dance returned to his life when his sister came to Chennai. He used to escort her on the bus for veena classes, and there, to keep him out of mischief, he’d be given a small veena to play. “In a way,” Kamal Haasan said, “I could say that music is my sister’s strong influence.” He said that he was not a keen learner of the arts. He just picked things up by ear, karna parampara, rather than actual practice. But he used to talk like he was going to perform at Music Academy the next day. “All that was leaning towards acting, not playing the veena,” he laughed.
The story Kamal Haasan told that evening kept going back and forth in time, a jumble of memories – like this one from when Kamal was seven or eight. One of his friends from Hindu High School was Palghat Mani Iyer’s son, Rajaram – they formed a mutual admiration society. Kamal thought that Rajaram was a brilliant violinist. Rajaram regarded Kamal as a budding veena genius. “He took me around saying that this guy is a genius, he knows everything. But I couldn’t play. I could only talk about it. I didn’t know how to get out of it.” So Kamal had this fear. There was disdain too. “What you cannot do, you tend to dislike. It was too much hard work.”
When I spoke to Rajaram, he recalled an incident from when they were eleven and asked to perform for the District Educational Officer. Rajaram played the violin. Kamal performed mimicry, imitating the sound of a frog and other creatures, like he would do one day in Aval Oru Thodarkadhai. Rajaram also remembered Kamal’s fascination for a Hollywood actor whose name eluded him. Kamal used to pretend to be the actor who, on screen, went about catching a butterfly. “He would perform so beautifully, it was like there was really a butterfly in the room.”
Then, this anecdote, from when Kamal was ten or twelve. He joined TK Shanmugam’s theatre troupe – Kamal Haasan respectfully called him “Annachi” – where he was trained in swordfight and stunts and even dance. “That’s where I suddenly thought: Maybe I can shake a leg.” This is possibly the understatement of the century.
“I think I discovered myself as a singer in TKS Nataka Sabha,” Kamal Haasan said. But it was an arduous, and somewhat accidental, discovery. The troupe was staging a play named Appavin Aasai. There were songs in it, but because no one knew if Kamal could sing they played these songs on a Grundig spool-type tape recorder and asked him to lip-sync them on stage. Then, one evening, the tape snapped. This was the scene on stage: the mother is dying, and she wants her son (played by Kamal) to sing one last song for her. Shanmugam Annachi, never one to let the show not go on, urged Kamal from the wings: “Go on! You know the words. Sing!” And Kamal sang Uzhaithu pizhaikka vendum, which seems a rather odd song to sing in this situation. Anyway, as scripted, the mother died. The unscripted coda to the scene: a singer was born.
“That’s when I realised I could boldly sing before an audience,” Kamal Haasan said. “And it’s not like playback singing, where the mike is in front of you. The mike is at a distance.” In a play named Avvaiyaar, Kamal played the young Murugan, singing folk songs while perched on a tree.
A number of names, famous and otherwise, popped up as supporting characters in Kamal Haasan’s flashback. SG Kasi Iyer, SG Kittappa’s brother who composed the music for a dance drama on Lord Muruga’s Arupadai Veedu; he would compose perfect swarams for sound effects, to mimic, say, the opening of a door. Madurai Venkatesan, who taught Kamal the basics of Carnatic music. KB Sundarambal, who lived in the house behind Kamal’s and would make aappams and sing songs for him when he jumped over the wall to visit his classmate Ganapathy Subramaniam, her adopted son. (“In my naiveté, I used to sing Pazham nee appa to her. And she tolerated my singing.”) And Mylapore Gowri Ammal. “I had the great honour of lying on her lap, in the Ranganatha pose, as I watched my sister learn dance. She would sometimes play the thaalam on my shoulder or cheek.”
Another famous name played a bigger part in Kamal’s musical education, and for that story, we must cut to the early 1980s. Kamal is a very busy actor. It’s been some ten years since he sat in Madurai Venkatesan’s class. It’s been ten years since he learnt any new music. He’s shooting in Bombay for Karishma, the Hindi remake of Tik Tik Tik. He has an accident. He breaks a leg. He has to buy two tickets to fly to Chennai, the extra one for the seat in front that has to be folded down so he can stretch that broken leg. The man in the adjacent seat observes his plight and asks him: “What are you going to do in the months it’s going to take for this to heal?”
That was M. Balamuralikrishna. Kamal said he didn’t know. Balamuralikrishna asked Kamal if he liked music. Kamal nodded. Balamuralikrishna said, “Instead of wasting time, why don’t you learn something from me?” Kamal thought he was joking – until Balamuralikrishna landed up at Kamal’s house the next day. Classes began with the shishya’s foot in the air. “My guru found me,” Kamal Haasan said.
Balamuralikrishna asked Kamal what he’d learnt. Kamal said he knew some 30-odd keerthanais. Balamuralikrishna asked him to sing. Kamal sang. Balamuralikrishna said, gently, “Let’s start at the beginning, with a geetham.” Kamal Haasan laughed at the memory. “So I knew what he thought of me. He wanted me to be good enough to give a public performance, but I wasn’t there yet. He still keeps asking me when I am going to sing on stage.”
When Kamal’s leg got better, Balamuralikrishna said, “We can shift the classes to my house.” Kamal began to hobble over to his guru’s house, where he’d sit on a sofa and learn music. Eventually, Balamuralikrishna asked him, “Is your leg okay? Can you walk?” Kamal said yes. Balamuralikrishna said, “Then you can sit on the floor and continue.”
Classes went on for about one-and-a-half years. I asked Kamal Haasan to name something he learnt. He thought for a minute and then launched into the Karnataka Kapi geetham, Shree Raghurama samara bheema. I thought he’d stop there, with this opening line of the pallavi, but he continued… Sasi mouli vinuta seeta ramana… mukendu lalitha hasa pariyathi… And then he sang the swarams… pa dha ni pa ma ri ri ga ma ri sa / pa dha pa sa ni pa dha ni pa ma ri ga ma… He stopped dramatically, after negotiating the sharp, colourful turn at ramana… ri ga ma.
Kamal Haasan said he still remembered the song because he learnt it when he was going to New Delhi to receive the National Award for Best Actor for Moondram Pirai. “My guru asked me to learn a new geetham for the occasion.” When the leg healed and Kamal resumed shooting, he continued with classes whenever he found the time. He’d call Balamuralikrishna and go over. Then, during a shooting, Kamal misplaced a notebook filled with song notations. “I think he was a little upset about this. Then I got busy, and we gradually lost touch – otherwise, I would have been his student for 22 years now.” I asked him about his guru’s dream, that Kamal Haasan should sing on stage. He laughed. “Balamuralikrishna saying that I can do this is like ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan saying, “Nadippu romba easy pa.’ You shouldn’t take it seriously.”
I had one last question about theatre when I met Kamal Haasan again in June, at his office in Chennai. Did he miss it? Doesn’t he feel like doing the odd play between films, the way Richard Burton did, the way Denzel Washington does? “Yes,” he said. “But even if I am performing on stage, I’d still like it to be televised. I want more people to see it. The bane of a theatre artist is that he can’t get his art across to a large audience. I have gotten used to technology, to that audience.” He compared this to running, and then suddenly slowing down to walk. “I am refusing to walk… unless it’s for health reasons.” He does this often. He’ll think up a metaphor on the spot, and then he’ll put a spin on it that sounds like a non sequitur but perhaps really isn’t.
We then began to talk about the movies, about his singing for them, beginning with the number Gnayiru oli mazhayil. The film was Andharangam, where Kamal played the manager of a “beauty clinic” that’s frequented exclusively by young women who want to get into shape and often find themselves entwined in the tape measure in his hands. Between takes, he would keep humming on the sets, and one day ‘Muktha’ Srinivasan, the director, caught him singing a keerthanai. A surprised Srinivasan decided to make Kamal sing a number for the film and took him to the music director G Devarajan – or “Devarajan Master,” as he was called. Devarajan Master was very close to Thangappan Master, the choreographer under whom Kamal had worked for a while as an assistant, and he knew Kamal. During the recording, he stood near the new playback singer, moving his hands the way conductors do. “I was very scared of him,” Kamal Haasan said. “You can feel that fear in the song.”
The same year, 1975, Kamal spent seven months learning to play the mridangam when K Balachander told him that his character in Aboorva Raagangal was required to play the instrument. “That’s why I play so convincingly in the film,” he said. Music was all around him. He spoke of his co-stars – the Malayalam actress Srilalitha who was a student of the composer Dakshinamurthy, and Srividya, who, of course, was the daughter of ML Vasanthakumari. “We were all very close and I would keep asking them to sing.”
Sometimes, they would perform at music nights helmed by Gangai Amaran. “Film stars singing light music was a new thing then,” Kamal Haasan said. They used to sing Tamil songs, Hindi songs, and then, one day, they were invited to perform at a function organized by Cinema Express magazine. Kamal suggested that they sing One, a song written by Harry Nilsson and later popularised by Three Dog Night. Someone asked him if the audience would understand. He said if they could “understand” a Sanskrit shloka then they could understand this. “It’s the same. It’s all music.”
This is not a new anecdote (and people familiar with the Kamal Haasan mythology will know where this is headed), but it was something to hear it in person. The Harry Nilsson original is a mid-range song, and the Three Dog Night cover touches a few higher notes, but when Kamal Haasan launched into the number, he leaped over an octave and hit a stunning falsetto note – it isn’t there in either of the earlier versions. This is probably how he sang the song that night, at the function, and the audience applauded. Seated in the audience, and listening very carefully to the way Kamal caught that pitch, was Ilayaraja.
And that’s how Kamal Haasan got to sing Ninaivo oru paravai, in Sigappu Rojakkal. Ilayaraja said he liked the way Kamal handled those high notes, and he asked Kamal to sing the song again. Kamal went, One is the loneliest number… Ilayaraja was mentally translating this to pa pa pa pa pa pa pa…, the humming that oozes through the interstices of the pallavi of Ninaivo oru paravai. “He used what I could give him,” Kamal Haasan told me, gently altering the sometimes-held image of the Isaignani as an iron-fisted dictator whose only inputs come from inside his head.
He narrated how Ilayaraja, during a recording rehearsal, heard a nadaswaram player prepare for playing by blowing on the seevali, the reed mouthpiece at the top of the tube. This was incorporated into a musical stretch in Hey Ram, as the Vasundhara Das character’s rendition of Vaishnava janato segues into Vaaranam aayiram. “I doubt the sound of the seevali being blown has been heard in cinema music,” Kamal Haasan said. “He’ll take what people can give him and produce these uncanny moments.”
Anyway, back to the recording session of Ninaivo oru paravai. Afterwards, Ilayaraja told Kamal, “Hey, nalla irukku ya. Madhyanam paattayum neengale paadidunga.” [Hey, that’s great. Why don’t you sing the song we’re recording in the afternoon too?”] And that song turned out to be Panneer pushpangale, from Aval Appadithaan, a revelation that left me slightly weak-kneed. Considering Ilayaraja’s prolificity, logic dictates that this was something that happened all the time, that several songs would be recorded during the course of a day. But to imagine two… (there’s no other word for it) classics like these casually being tossed off without a huge amount of pre-planning… After all, the singer himself seems to have been roped in only after he sang the morning’s song…
I asked Kamal Haasan about the small gamakam, the melisma rather, in the first line of Panneer pushpangale, at raagam paadu. I was curious whether it was the result of his improvising (based on his classical training) or whether it was how Ilayaraja had composed it. He said, “Raja knows how much will work. He’ll say, ‘Avvalavu vendam, konjam koraichukkunga.’ [That’s too much. Tone it down a bit.] And that makes it different from the usual gamakam. Sundari neeyum, he left it to me.” Kamal Haasan hummed, perfectly, the downward slide of akaras that leads back to the pallavi. Ilayaraja told Kamal, “Ahn, sari, sari. Jamaai.” [Okay. Have fun.]
Kamal Haasan said that he considered Ilayaraja one of his gurus. “As with acting, there can be posturing in singing. He doesn’t like that. He’ll say, ‘Do what suits your voice. Don’t try to sing like others.’ Above all, he taught me how to sing with abandon. ‘Just relax,’ he’ll say. He taught me how to relax over the about 50 recordings I’ve done for him.” Kamal Haasan pointed to Sanyasa mantram in Hey Ram where his voice is, as he put it, held back. “It’s not about performing to an audience,” he said. “It’s a very personal thing.” Because of the camaraderie and the casualness with which these lessons were imparted, he didn’t realise then that they were lessons. “And that was a lesson as well,” he said, “the way it was taught in a very pedestrian manner, without major technical terms, very simply.”
“After ’77 or so, I cannot recall going to another music director,” Kamal Haasan told me. The “I” threw me off, because he wasn’t exactly making movies then, merely acting in them – and the task of “going to a music director,” one assumes, falls on the person making the movie: the director. But he’s probably talking of a time when one could get as involved with the filmmaking process as one wished, when even an actor who’s only required to show up on the sets would show up at music sittings, with the director and the composer. Kamal was present at a lot of music sittings with K Balachander, in whose films he’d come to resemble a stock company actor. These sessions, Kamal Haasan said, helped him when he began directing films and began to tell the music director that this wasn’t quite what he was looking for, or that he wanted a tweak there. “My sessions with KB and Raja gave me that confidence.”
So when he’s talking about not going to another music director after ’77 or so, he’s probably referring to 16 Vayadhinile, which was the first film that had Kamal as the leading man and Ilayaraja as the composer. It’s an association that flourished up to the mid-1990s, roughly — till which point the non-Ilayaraja films were relatively rare.* The high points are too numerous to recount. Aattu kutti muttayittu in ’77, Orey naal unai naan in ’78, Ninaithaal inikkum in ’79, Azhagu aayiram in ’80, Andhi mazhai pozhigiradhu in ’81… Kamal Haasan spoke about the composing session for the latter, from Rajapaarvai, which he produced and which Singeetham Srinivasa Rao directed. “Singeetham kept asking Raja for more tunes. Those days, Raja would come up with many options. He made nine tunes, but I knew that the first one was the best and we eventually came back to it.”
And then he began to talk about what seems to have become his favourite anecdote to illustrate his working relationship with Ilayaraja. “The way Inji iduppazhaga came about is itself an exercise in knowing how an artist’s mind works,” he said. Ilayaraja kept asking Kamal what he wanted… exactly. Kamal said he couldn’t say… exactly. “I said, ‘You have to be the paediatrician. The child does not know how to say what’s happening. You have to find out.’ ” Kamal explained that it had to be a monotonous tune, a simple melody that kept looping back, like something that would air on Pappa Malar, the All India Radio show conducted by “Vanoli Anna” where children sang, often breathlessly. Ilayaraja said, “That’s a good idea, but how do you make a populist song out of it? It will be a funny song, but how do you make a populist song?” And Kamal began to sing Yeh dil deewana hai, the SD Burman number from Ishq Par Zor Nahin.
And, in front of me, Kamal Haasan launched into the Hindi song. This, I’m beginning to realise, was the best part of these interviews, his impromptu launches into song – and he sounds exactly like how he does in the recordings, exactly. After he finished, he said, “If it had been any other music director, Raja might not have listened. But he has a special respect for SD.” Ilayaraja began to tap out a thaalam on the harmonium, and within ten minutes, he had a variation on the SD Burman tune, and the composing was done. Kamal Haasan told me, “It’s not like he was taking from the tune. He was taking from my need.”
For Michael Madana Kamarajan, Kamal wanted a song like Maargazhi thingal, a verse from the Thirupaavai. “And he came up with Sundari neeyum. Again, it became his own composition because of the changes he made.” Yesudas was supposed to sing the song. Kamal used to “sing track” a lot those days, the equivalent of a temp track which would then be dubbed over by a Yesudas or an SPB – and because Kamal couldn’t always wait for their dates in order to have the finished song available during the shooting, he’d sing track and take the song along. So Kamal told Ilayaraja that he’d sing track for Sundari neeyum, but Ilayaraja insisted that he sing the final song.
Then there was this time they were watching the Oscars, and a group (or maybe an individual; Kamal Haasan didn’t seem too sure about this) gave this performance where they beat their chests and sang. Kamal said he wanted something like that for Aboorva Sagotharargal. He got it. Bababa… Bababari… Pudhu maapillaikku…
I asked him if he could single out a song he had to sing that was tough, more challenging than the others. But he refused to bite. He simply said, “The truth is that they all gave me easy songs. All my music directors have been kind to me. Raja especially saw to it that his songs were crafted around my capability.”
When I asked Kamal Haasan what kind of music he listened to, outside of work, he said, “Pretty much anything that comes my way – even dubstep, which [Gautami’s daughter] Subbulakshmi introduced me to.” He said he was most fond of neoclassical music, and he named the composer Alex North, who veered away from the traditional orchestral approach prevalent in Hollywood and incorporated other elements – jazz, for instance, in his score for A Streetcar Named Desire. (North went on to compose for well-regarded films like Spartacus and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) “You can see those influences in my films,” Kamal Haasan said, “right from Rajapaarvai.” He then spoke about an “extraordinary neoclassical score,” a Hiranya Vadham kind of piece, which Ghibran has composed for the soon-to-be-released Uthama Villain.
“I am not a great fan of songs being part of the film, unless it’s a musical,” he said. “I think it’s high time for a bifurcation between music and cinema. It’s such a nuisance when we bring in songs. We have trained the audience like that. It takes a long time to make the audience understand that too much fried food is bad for you. They listen only if the doctor tells them. But now that the portion sizes have become small, they’ve begun to understand.”
We then spoke about his writing, and Kamal Haasan went into a flashback to when he must have been around sixteen. He and his brothers were waiting for their mother to serve them dosais, and Charuhasan, on the spot, composed and sang this pastiche based on the tune of Vettri meedhu vettri vandhu ennai serum, the popular MGR song from the 1970 film Thedi Vandha Maappillai.
Dosai meedhu dosai vandhu ennai serum
Adhai vaarthu thandha perumai ellam unnai serum
Idli-oda chutney thandha annai allavo
Idhu oosugindra dosai enbadhu unmai allavo.
This is impossible to translate with its flavour intact, but the point Kamal Haasan was making was that, as with music, writing too was all around him in that household. “Charu anna would be composing these funny lines and singing them to the tunes of the latest Tamil film songs. Much later, RC Sakthi made me write. My friend Puviarasu made me write. Great poets like Gnanakoothan encouraged me to write.” Even Raghu Rai could be added to that list, for Kamal Haasan said that poetry and photography are very important hobbies that a screenwriter should have, because they make you think of succinct ways of saying what you have to say. “I’m a great fan of Raghu Rai. Each photograph of his tells you a whole story. A little higher up, a different angle, and it’s a whole new story.”
RC Sakthi, who would go on to direct films like Dharma Yudhdham and Sirai, told Kamal, very early in their association, “You are a screenwriter.” He thrust a 40-page notebook in Kamal’s hand and told his friend to start writing his screenplay. This was around 1970-71. Kamal started writing something called Ninaivugal, for a short film. Sakthi liked it and asked Kamal to join him as co-writer on Unarchigal, a film he was planning about the sexual misadventures of a teenager. Kamal, who would play this protagonist, came up with the title. The film was supposed to be a quickie, released in 1972. But it got embroiled with the censor board over its content, which was fairly explicit for the time. The 1972 roster of the Tamil film industry included Agathiyar, Dheivam, Annai Abirami and Sakthi Leelai. The story of a teenager who contracts a sexually transmitted disease must have been a bit of a stretch. Unarchigal, finally, made it to the screens in 1976.
Kamal and RC Sakthi wrote a lot of screenplays. None of them were made into films. “We fumbled,” Kamal Haasan told me. “I think I became better due to my close association with Ananthu.” Ananthu was a screenwriter, rapacious world cinema buff, and a close associate of K Balachander, and his contribution to Kamal’s career is well-known. Hey Ram, in fact, opens with the dedication: “Dear Ananthu Saab, thank you for directing me towards this direction.” Ananthu was the one who began to tell Kamal about the rules of screenwriting. Kamal discovered the French film critic André Bazin, the blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. “I became a great fan of Trumbo without knowing who he was.”
Kamal, with similar-minded friends, used to watch every foreign film that came his way, mostly through film festivals. He liked Bergman’s The Touch very much. And The Voyeur, with Marcello Mastroianni and Virni Lisi. And Antonioni’s The Passenger. And Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy. And Arthur Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant. “All these films affected us,” Kamal Haasan said. “We started picking up stuff.” They would keep talking about these films, and they began to be regarded as “Anglo-Indian” by the local industry. Among the many people to whom Kamal told the stories he had in his head was Balu Mahendra. “Those guys were working in the European format.”
I asked Kamal Haasan to point out some of the “stuff” he’d picked up from these films. He thought for a while and mentioned the tracking shots in the early portions of Guna. He said he was a great fan of Max Ophüls, the legendary German filmmaker who made The Earrings of Madame de… and who was known for complex tracking shots. Then he smiled and said, “We can use these ideas, at most, in a scene or two. Our films can’t take much more. If you bring these ideas in wholesale, then you’ll become like John Abraham, who was ostracised and kept outside the commercial sector.” He was referring to the Malayalam filmmaker known for avant-garde works like Agraharathil Kazhuthai and Amma Ariyan. “That’s a good thing actually, that’s a great state to be in. But it’s a rather lonely and dire state for a filmmaker.”
The story of Kamal Haasan as a dancer begins when Kamal was twelve, a time his mother thought that he would be thrown out of school, the third one he was admitted in. One evening, she took him to a Kuchipudi recital in Museum Theatre. The boy, who’d grown up with Bharatanatyam, was fascinated. Kamal Haasan told me, “I think it was the exotic form of somebody dancing on a plate.” After the performance, while waiting for the bus at the stop on Pantheon Road, Kamal’s mother asked him if he’d liked the performance. He asked her why there was no alarippu. She explained to him the difference between the dance forms. Suddenly he told her he wanted to learn dance. She said they’d talk about it in the morning.
The next morning, Kamal woke up, brushed his teeth, wiped his face on her pallu, and told her again that he wanted to learn dance. She asked him if he was sure. He was. She thought about it. She didn’t want to send him to classes where he’d have to stand in a queue. She wanted private tuitions from someone she could afford. This turned out to be MS Natarajan. He was into theatre, an actor and a fan of ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan, but he had also trained in the same school as Kamal’s sister, the Pandanallur bani. “He was not a teacher in the strict sense,” Kamal Haasan said, “but he had a repertoire that could help young children get acquainted with dance.” Classes began. But they were at Ashok Nagar, and Kamal’s mother felt that the boy was travelling too far from their Eldams Road home. The first solution was to shift the classes to the large hall at home. Then Natarajan told Kamal’s mother, “Your son is learning very well. If I could get a small place to stay in your house with my wife, I could be on attendance at any time.” Kamal Haasan smiled at the memory. “He was right, because I was totally neglecting school. I was always in the dance class. And it had nothing to do with all the girls in the class.”
One day, when Kamal was about 14, Natarajan said he’d run out of things to teach. He said it was time for an arangetram. The event occurred at Rasika Ranjani Sabha, and it was attended by the poet and writer Soundara Kailasam, Tamil Arasu Kazhagam founder Ma Po Sivagnanam and TK Shanmugam. Given Kamal Haasan’s religious views today (rather, the lack of them), I asked him if he offered the customary prayer to the stage. He said he did. He wasn’t a rationalist then. He used to pray for two hours daily, from the time he was seven. He was one of the few kids who could recite the Manisha Panchakam, a set of shlokas composed by Adi Shankara. In the late 1960s, if you walked by Eldams Road at 6:30 in the morning, you could have heard his voice.
After the arangetram, Kamal wanted to learn more, and as Natarajan knew of Kamal’s earlier interest in Kuchipudi, he brought in Guru Nataraja Ramakrishna, who later served as Chairman of the Andhra Pradesh Sangeet Natak Akademi. Then, when these teachers and their students were invited by the Maharashtra police to perform in a series of shows across the state, they decided that some Kathak was needed in the mix – a Kathak instructor named Kulkarni was brought in from Kolhapur. So, at one point, there were three teachers in that Eldams Road home – much to the consternation of Kamal’s sister, who worried that this mix of styles would amount to Oriental Dancing – training dancers from 7 am to 7 pm, every day. Kamal would dance for some six to seven hours, every day. Kamal Haasan said, “This was a vibrant school. It was not classy like Kalakshetra. I wish we could have had all that, but this is what we could afford.”
The troupe completed rehearsals and went to Maharashtra. They performed about 30 shows, staying in police colonies and touring in a police bus. During the show at Sholapur, there was an accident. An oil lamp was removed from the stage, and a little slick of oil was left behind. Kamal had to do “this slightly acrobatic peacock dance,” which involved splits. Kamal Haasan said wryly, “It was about a hunter and a peacock and the peacock died that day.” It was a trabecular fracture of the left patella, and it left him limping. But according to the contract he had to be on stage, so the last few days, he played the chenda.
When he returned home, he was told he couldn’t dance anymore. He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t have much of an education. Just to tease his mother , who was complaining about his not doing anything, he worked as a barber for a week in Ambuli Saloon, in front of his house. (This part doesn’t just sound like a screenplay. Many years later, this is what his character would end up doing in Varumayin Niram Sivappu.) They wouldn’t let him cut hair, but shaving was okay. Kamal Haasan said, “All my moustaches, including the one for Virumaandi, were shaped by me.”
Eventually, Kamal landed a small assignment. The Christian Arts and Communications Centre, just across his house, wanted someone to help with the choreography for a dance drama that would disperse the word of Christ through Bharatanatyam. There, Kamal met K Thangappan, a student of Jaishankar Master, the choreographer of Chandralekha. His assistant – Sundaram, Prabhu Dheva’s father – had left to pursue an independent career, so he was looking for a replacement. “I thought I’d made it,” Kamal Haasan said. “I was in films.” But he wasn’t interested in acting – only dancing. And as Thangappan had trained under Guru Gopinath, the famous Kathakali exponent, another style found its way into Kamal’s repertoire. (It was a small world. Kamal, as a child actor, had worked with Guru Gopinath’s daughter in the Malayalam film Kannum Karalum.) Kamal Haasan spoke of the dance sequence in Nizhal Nijamaagiradhu [clip below; 00:30 onwards], where his character slips into the heroine’s class (she’s a dance teacher) and proceeds to give an impromptu performance that leaves her stunned. “The reason that dance was so masculine was because of Thangappan master’s training, because of the Kathakali style.”
The same year, 1978, Kamal was seen in a more famous dance sequence – in the Ennadi Meenatchi number in Ilamai Oonjaladugiradhu. Looking like a scrawny Elvis in all-white clothes bisected by a belt buckle the size of an infant’s head, he was a wiry stage presence, flailing his arms and kicking the air. That was after he picked up a bit of karate under a teacher named Kuppuswamy. Kamal Haasan said, “When I was 16, I felt I might be left with some effeminacy because of all the dancing. I was so full of classical dance that I wanted to get away and do something else.” His friend Shekhar was a karate champ, working with Kuppuswamy. Just like Kamal was learning dance in his house, Shekhar was learning karate in his – on the terrace. “We’d practice karate for six-seven hours every day, and that changed my dancing style too. The stance of karate came into my dance. If you see Ennadi Meenatchi, you can make out that I have leant karate as well as dance.” Meanwhile, Anglo-Indian friends in Egmore taught him the fox trot.
This is why Kamal Haasan likes to say, despite what viewers of Sagara Sangamam/Salangai Oli may think, that he is not trained in the traditional classical format. He said, “I’m like a vaudeville artist rather than a Kalakshetra or a Trinity College kind of person. At first, I was very diffident about the kind of groups I interacted with, because it was not the way my sister trained. It was not ‘pure.’ But my experience was very rich and later on I found that what I did was not something to be ashamed of.” I asked him what drove him to all these different forms of dance. He said he was looking for something, a more versatile medium, and he found it in cinema. “I had all this creativity, but I was looking for a way to express it, and cinema became the fulcrum with which I could lift all this weight. When classical singers or dancers look at cinema with derision, I have half a heart to tell them that they’re wrong. They’re losing a platform.”
He spoke some more about Sagara Sangamam. He recalled the response of dance teachers who told him that this film had done to dance what they had done through their lives. “It was very touching,” he said. “But that has more to do with the medium. You should also give credit to Vyjayanthimala and Kumari Kamala. In their time, dance was seen as a feminine domain. I brought it to the masculine domain. Unfortunately, I was the only ambassador at the time.” I asked him why films have stopped showcasing the classical arts. He said, “I think it’s simply an attitude, because it has to be sponsored. The sponsors – be it a king or a producer or the Britannia biscuit company – are either not interested or ill-informed. They all focus on their product. They have no social or aesthetic commitment.”
He spoke a lot about Thangappan Master. “I’ve never seen someone so large-hearted. Even when he was choreographing, he’d give the camera to [RC] Sakthi and me and say, ‘We’re running out of time, we’re waiting for artists, I have to be here, you guys take the camera, go shoot the rest of the song and bring it back.’ It was all very touching and very exhilarating for us.” I asked him if he remembered the first song he choreographed. He spoke about choreographing a song for Akinneni Nageswara Rao in Sreemanthudu, which was released in 1971. “I met him on his 90th birthday. He remembered me as his dance assistant. We were both rationalists. He saw me not bowing to the arati. He asked me, ‘Are you a Muslim?’ I said no. He said, ‘Then why are you not praying?’ I said I don’t believe in it. I’m an atheist. He said, ‘Well, you’ve got a friend in me.’” Kamal Haasan also spoke about the comedian Raj Babu, whom he called the counterpart of Nagesh in Telugu. “He was very fond of me. He said you’re wasting time here. You’re going to become an actor. I have composed songs for him too. But I don’t really remember the first song.”
After Kamal became a dance assistant, the late dance master Raghuram became an acquaintance. Raghuram was related to Padma Subrahmanyam – whom Kamal had fallen for when he saw her dance on stage; “I fell in love with a lady I didn’t even know” is how he put it – and when Kamal found out about this, he knelt in front of Raghuram and said, with a wink in his eye (or maybe without one), “I want to marry your aunt.” He settled for learning her style of dance instead. Kamal Haasan said, “I don’t know if he was bluffing or if he really learnt from her, but he used to teach me. We were from different styles, and so it was sort of an exchange of ideas.”
K Balachander did not care for dancing in films. He did not care for choreographers. Thangappan Master was hired for Sollathaan Ninaikkiren, but Balachander did not like what Kamal Haasan called “the traditional cinema dance master.” He wanted someone young, and so Kamal Haasan brought in Raghuram. Balachander asked them to partner up for the choreography. They became co-choreographers for films like K Balachander’s Avargal, whose title cards mention that the mock-cricket match was “staged by Kamalahasan and Raghuraman.” Kamal Haasan said, “Raghu was really talented. He was working with Chopra Master. His training was a superior to mine because he had a great teacher. When we got together, we formed a new style, a bit of Padma Subrahmanyam, a bit of Kolhapuri Kathak, all my influences. So our compositions looked very different.”
They worked together on many films, including Hindi films like Ek Duuje Ke Liye. Kamal Haasan said that he had a hand in choreographing most of his dances onscreen, even if he wasn’t credited. After the release of Avargal, Raghuram got married. Kamal and he were still choreographing dances together, but around the time of [the 1978 Malayalam film] Madanolsavam, Kamal said he didn’t need this title. “It was more useful for him, as I had already made it. I was a star in Kerala.”
We spoke about his dances in the films of the late seventies and the early eighties, when it was practically signed into his contract that a film that featured him would also feature a dance by him. Unakenna mele ninraai in Simla Special. Kaamanukku Kaaman in Uruvangal Maaralaam. Even the bastardisation of Yadhuvamsa Sudhambudhi Chandra in Sanam Teri Kasam. “That’s not classical,” Kamal Haasan said. “That’s a sell-out, he said. “That’s what people like my sister didn’t like.” Then came Sagara Sangamam. Kamal and RC Sakthi wanted to make a film on a similar subject, about a dancer who was an alcoholic. They even had a name for it: Anupallavi. But when K Viswanath came calling, Kamal felt he had to do the film, especially as it was from the creator of Shankarabharanam.
On the sets of Sagara Sangamam, Kamal’s training restarted. Gopi Krishna was one of the choreographers, and he insisted that Kamal train for at least a month. Kamal was one of the top stars of the time, doing multiple shifts, but he had to find the time. “It was actually a great sacrifice from my side,” Kamal Haasan said, but it was worth it. The dance sequence that resulted, for the song Naadha Vinodhamu, became one of the film’s highlights. The other dances, including the “dance of rage” that predated the ones in Yash Chopra’s films, were composed by Kamal and Raghuram. I asked him if he considered the dances in this film “pure dances.” He said, “But even in the film it is called Bhaarat Natyam. That was my constant defence against the question: ‘What style is your dance’? It’s better than calling it Oriental Dance, which is a very derogatory term coined by the British.”
Over the years, Kamal Haasan’s cinema has featured not just dance but other arts as well. There was street theatre in Anbe Sivam, leather puppetry in Dasavatharam, and now Uthama Villain will showcase theyyam and villu pattu and kalari and koothu (“not theru koothu, as it has been brought down to, but the traditional form”) and even Bharatanatyam (“where the teacher used to dance with the disciple; it’s only after Rukmani Devi Arundale that the nattuvangam person sat down”). Kamal Haasan said the film wasn’t so much dance-based as folk-art based, and added, “A purist will not accept this form, even in folk arts.” He’s done an attakalari performance for the film, and he’s written the lyrics for this piece. “It’s difficult because you have to maintain grace with that huge headgear. It’s like dancing kathakali with a kavadi.”
He took out his phone and showed me picture of him in the theyyam makeup of the Narasimha avatar. I asked him if this was his way of enriching cinema. “Absolutely,” he said. “I am at this opportune position. I am trying to bring a lot of great talented people into this cinema, which is very versatile and accommodating. I want to give everything I have to this medium.”
* Correction: This sentence has been amended. Earlier, it read: “It’s an association that lasted up to the mid-1990s, roughly, till which point the non-Ilayaraja films were relatively rare.”
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