An excerpt from Diptakirti Chaudhuri's The Bollywood Pocketbook Series, published by Hachette India
What do you call a debutant who has been in films for more than two decades, starting as a child actor and going on to become a star? What if the debutant has been in more than 110 films previously? This was Kamal Haasan's stature when he debuted in Bollywood with Ek Duuje Ke Liye, after a thriving career in all four South Indian film industries.
Kamal was the first South Indian male star to make it big in Hindi cinema – since the only imports from the South were heroines before this. South Indian actors often have a thick accent, which was turned into an advantage by making it a plot point of Ek Duuje Ke Liye. A Tamil boy and a North Indian girl fall in love, despite stiff parental opposition and major cultural differences. It was the remake of a Telugu film starring Kamal, which promptly became the second-biggest hit of the year, after the Amitabh Bachchan–starrer Laawaris.
[It was an unlikely success. The film's distributor in Bombay, Gulshan Rai, was not very confident himself, because he had distributed Bengali superstar Uttam Kumar's Hindi debut Chhoti Si Mulaqat in the past, and that had flopped despite great music and good performances.]
The Hindi film audience took an instant liking for the slightly bewildered 'Madrasi' trying to romance a North Indian girl with his stilted Hindi. His unconventional looks – totally unlike the Hindi film he-man until then – didn't matter, thanks to his understated but very effective acting. Kamal also turned out to be a fantastic dancer, having trained in Bharatanatyam in his teens. All this led to him being offered a massive roster of 'big' films at fees that made him second only to Amitabh Bachchan. He was nominated for Filmfare's Best Actor award for Ek Duuje Ke Liye and Sadma, before winning it for Saagar. In a record of sorts, he was nominated as both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for Saagar, stealing the thunder from the lead pair – Dimple Kapadia and Rishi Kapoor (who were reuniting after Bobby). And it wasn't only his acting prowess that had audiences eating out of his hand. Kamal's second Hindi film was Sanam Teri Kasam, a musical extravaganza with a killer soundtrack. He also acted in multi-starrers like Raj Tilak and Geraftaar in meaty roles.
Kamal Haasan's Hindi debut also paved the way for another major star in another major hit – Rajinikanth in Andhaa Kaanoon. (Ek Duuje Ke Liye also saw playback singer S.P. Balasubrahmanyam debuting in Hindi, and he remained popular for a very long time in Bollywood.)
Despite very solid starts, neither Kamal Haasan nor Rajinikanth created a major body of work in Bollywood. The majority of their films didn't even come close to their larger-than-life image in the South, relegating them to clichéd roles or insignificant parts. Delays in Bollywood productions meant they couldn't split time efficiently between Bombay and Madras, getting stuck in a few projects. There were also rumours that the big guns of Bombay kept them out of some big productions, fearing a Southern takeover of the industry ('Why the Bombay heroes hate Kamal's guts' ran one film magazine headline).
Eventually, Kamal and Rajini went back to their megastardom in the South, and made occasional sorties through guest appearances, remakes and dubbed versions. And Bollywood remained poorer for that.
[Kamal Haasan was active in Hindi cinema for only four years in the 1980s. His last film in that stint was Dekha Pyar Tumhara (also opposite Rati Agnihotri), before he returned, many years later, with his bilingual directorial ventures in the late 1990s.]