Readers Write In #402: Kamal Haasan’s inconsistencies

Posted on August 29, 2021

15


(by G Waugh)

You follow an artist for his style. The way he bites his cigarette at the corner of his mouth. The way his eyebrows arch when a vamp from the villain’s camp touches his shoulder to seduce him. The way he mouths even dramatic dialogue in a matter-of-fact, calm manner and handles difficult situations with breathtaking ease. All of this you know, is mostly on a surface-level. It is like falling in love. There is nothing to engage your brain here. Needless to say, I have explained here how I was drawn to Rajnikanth in the aforementioned lines.

And then there is another kind of attraction. An artist says something that was always in your mind all the time. Or he says something which you haven’t thought much about before. In almost every film he appears, he finds new ways of saying the same thing and much of what he says in fact keeps giving you a ‘big picture’ about the society as a whole. In some years, the artist’s views on society and his outlook on politics has grown considerably into what can be defined as his ‘brand’. And after a point, you start guessing his real-life actions and opinions as well and the artist cements his place in your mind with mind-blowing consistency.

Despite a variety of roles he has played, Kamal Haasan both through his off-screen and on-screen persona has always managed to create a ‘Kamal Haasan’ character similar to what Woody Allen did in his peak. Just like how you can define easily the famous Tramp character played by Charlie Chaplin, Kamal Haasan kept playing the typical Kamal Haasan character in a lot of films with of course a lot of variations. But there was an amazing consistency in all of them and the commonest traits of this character was – a strong left-wing orientation (right from his work in K Balachander’s films), a natural resentment towards religion and casteism and consequently a tendency to engage in radical political arguments that were much ahead of its time.

To give some minor examples, Kamal played a closet communist in Varumayin Niram Sivappu, more or less a similar character in Rudrayya’s Aval Appadithaan and this fascination with communism had its glorious peak in his now-famous Anbe Sivam. Even if radical communism was eschewed, he played a non-political atheist in films as different as Aalavandhan (Captain Vijayakumar role), Dasavatharam, Kuruthi Punal,etc. Right from childhood from what I have seen, no single artist post the era of MGR has consistently spoken so much politics in his films both as an actor and a film-maker as much as Kamal Haasan has done. And what gloriously differentiates him with another political film-maker like Mani Ratnam is his audacity in picking a side and justifying it through and through his explicit polemic.

You must remember that Kamal Haasan could have been the first film-maker in Tamil Cinema to openly discuss a very controversial subject such as Naxalism in Kuruthi Punal, to openly speak against neo-liberalism in Anbe Sivam and to top it all, expose Hindutva politics for what it is in a still largely misunderstood film as Hey Ram. 

What I am trying to say here is, Kamal Haasan through his films has in my opinion, consciously constructed a set of political principles to form some kind of a ‘canon’ and like me a lot of his followers were bound to be fascinated by it. As I have mentioned earlier, the Kamal Haasan character in his films has always stuck to the fundamental principles of this ‘canon’ with remarkable consistency for a large period of his career and I am sure many of those who have followed his films would completely agree with it. But for a film-maker who in my opinion, is one of the rarest and finest intellectuals in any field of art, there are two specific points of deviation I would like to discuss in this essay, which seems all the more glaring considering the level of ‘ideological’ consistency he had managed to achieve in his body of work in the past.

***

Virumandi that released in 2004 not only sent shudders across Tamil cinema for its phenomenal screenplay and making but also for its strong propaganda against the subject of capital punishment. I don’t know how many people even today agree with the view point that whoever takes another man’s life is a murderer even if the murderer is none but the judiciary or the State. It is a very radical point of view in my opinion and I don’t think any film from the Tamil industry whose fascination for vigilante justice is world-famous, had the guts to voice such a thought. In a lot of ways, this opinion is justifiable from the common philosophical idea that ‘no man is infallible’ and that there is no guarantee that people dispensing justice on behalf of the State can escape their inclinations to be ‘subjective or partial’. From a Marxist point of view, the State in a bourgeois society is the weapon of the possessing classes and the judgement of such a pro-capitalist apparatus can only be biased against the workers and the poor. In the opening sections of the film, it was none but Justice V R Krishna Iyer the former Law Minister in Kerala’s erstwhile Communist Government who appeared in the film to voice his ideas against capital punishment.

The Marxist sympathizer in me while watching Virumandi, needless to say was floored at Kamal’s audacity.

The year was 2009 and Kamal’s Unnaipol Oruvan released. It was a fantastic remake I have to admit and for the whole duration of the movie, I was fully with the Kamal Haasan character who kept throwing embarrassing questions at the state’s representative Mohanlal’s IGR Maarar. I have to admit that, since the film-making was quite robust I could not see anything wrong when Kamal Haasan mouths the following lines,

‘If terrorism is instant, why can’t justice be so?’

Apparently this was a dig at the terrible pace with which our justice system moves along, that in turn encourages wrong-doers into committing even more terrible crimes. But the question to be asked is when does Kamal say these lines? He detonates a bomb planted inside the car which kills instantly all the terrorists seated inside it and then justifies his action by mouthing these lines.

So what is the Kamal Haasan character trying to tell his ‘followers’ like me? Isn’t he trying to say that the State is usually very slow in dispensing justice and that killing off these dangerous terrorists must have been done instantly? Alright, I don’t have a problem with that as a normal guy but I am after all, a follower of the Kamal Haasan canon and how can I accept ‘instant’ justice that wants to chop the heads of criminals immediately after seeing an overnight screening of Virumandi which vehemently spoke against the very same act?

In my opinion, A Wednesday, the original of Unnaipol Oruvan was out and out a middle-class movie that fully subscribes to the intelligentsia’s ‘usually tunnel-visioned’ view of the society. Whenever a rape happens in the outskirts of the city, the instant reaction from a middle-class person is as everyone knows ‘Hang him, I say!’ 

If a film wants to subscribe to a section of the society’s viewpoint and sticks to it sincerely, as a film-buff I am perfectly fine with it even if it runs against my so-called political ‘line’. And in my opinion, Unnaipol Oruvan is still a neatly packaged thriller that I would gleefully choose to see whenever I am bored. The fact that Unnaipol Oruvan indirectly endorses instant ‘execution’ of terrorists doesn’t take anything away from the merits of the film. The issue with it becomes apparent only when I study the film through the filter of my ‘venerable’ Kamal Haasan canon. In other words, had Virumandi not been made, an Unnaipol Oruvan can certainly not be called out for its violation of the canon’s statutes.

***

When Kamal Haasan mouthed the following lines in Anbe Sivam,

“You guys are like Pharaohs of Egypt. You advertisers are like dogs that jump at whatever multinational companies throw at you!”

When I heard these lines for the first time, my Marxist heart was leaping with joy at how boldly my hero was standing up against my class enemies!

But it must have been 2015 when I heard the same mouth utter the following lines on television,

“People’s Pothys!”

Kamal in real-life did what his alter-ego in Anbe Sivam spoke vehemently against.

See, I completely understand the fact that it was not Kamal Haasan himself who spoke against advertisers in Anbe Sivam but the character Nalla Sivam who was a full-blooded communist. But has Kamal Haasan always been contented to remain a mere character in all of his films? When he tells the line “Can we forget Hitler only because he is dead?” in Vishwaroopam, didn’t we guys know that it was not Wizam Ahmad Kashmiri speaking but the writer Kamal Haasan himself who entered and exited the character’s body for an instant? Hasn’t Kamal always played this game with his fans in almost every film he has acted and directed? Going by the logic that Rajnikanth’s ‘None knows when and how I will come. I will come exactly when the situation demands’ line was an open allusion to the political ambitions of real-life Rajnikanth, how can I be faulted for assuming that Kamal’s line against the advertising industry was in fact his own, personal idea? How can I not bury my face into my hands when the same, usually anti-capitalist, radical Kamal Haasan turns into an endorsing model for a large-scale Textile dealer?

***

As a follower of Jeyamohan only recently I understood that an artist’s political viewpoint is never to be trusted by any follower of him. An artist is more often a very emotional person and it is only his readiness to remain victim to the vicissitudes of his emotional ups and downs that single-handedly wrings the finest art out of him. An artist if he wants to remain true to his art will not be able to match up to the levels of dogmatic adherence that a politician’s job seriously demands. This is one big reason why artists around the world have rarely fared well in their political journeys. 

Kamal Haasan in one of his interviews on Vijay TV in 2009 indirectly conceded that a person like him cannot enter politics. I still remember his powerful words, “If I enter politics, I would really need a gun”. I still don’t know why he is doing what he started doing post 2017. The much-vaunted Kamal Haasan canon much to the disgruntlement of many of his followers, has already been torn to shreds.