All you kids doing the Ajith-versus-Vijay wars on Twitter, let me take you back to the time we used to do Kamal-versus-Rajini wars. Well, not wars, exactly. I think India was too docile a place back then. And Madras was even more docile. So a "war" really meant sitting around at lunchtime, when dabbas of sambar rice were opened and the air was instantly filled with the gastronomic equivalent of a fart in an elevator, and saying things like "Kaaki Sattai is really awesome". And the Rajini fan would say something like "Rajini's leather jacket in Nallavanukku Nallavan is very cool." And afterwards, we'd all go and have a "Pepsi Cola", which was basically a tube of frozen, coloured water.
Maybe you need the Internet to really have a war. Maybe you need Twitter. Maybe you need an FDFS. Back then, there was no concept of an FDFS. (Friday meant school.) There were no early-morning special shows. In fact, I am trying to remember the number of Kamal films I've actually seen in a theatre in the pre-Pushpak and Nayakan days. I think Mangamma Sabadham was one of them. It had a song that went 'Cola Cola Coca-Cola / Soda Soda Whiskey Soda'. Madhavi dances by the swimming pool of a five-star hotel and Kamal is on the drums, making his best "the pay cheque better be worth it" face.
I'm wondering if it's better to have been a fan of an actor in the pre-Internet age, when you couldn't instantly look things up, and so a song like this one played more pleasantly in your head. Now, I'm Googling this song up and sighing. Was this what that Kamal was like? No, there was Moondram Pirai, too. I wasn't allowed to go to the film, though, as it was A-rated. I'd look longingly at 'Kanne Kalaimaane' as it played on Oliyum Oliyum on TV and wonder what could be so ADULT about this! Little did I know, despite the fact that the muscles of my right arm were beginning to attain far more definition than the ones of my left.
The 1980s remain the most interestingly undocumented phase of Kamal's career. He had a pretty good bunch of films in the Seventies, and they have been written about quite a bit — especially the K Balachander movies. Varumayin Niram Sivappu, which came in 1980, was Kamal's last Balachander collaboration (in Tamil) until Punnagai Mannan in 1986. In the meantime, the two were busy remaking their hits in Hindi. But he also had the epochal 16 Vayathinile with Bharathirajaa, there was Aval Appadithan with Rudraiah, and even the "silly films" — say, Moham Muppathu Varusham, where the conservative Sumithra won't easily go to bed with husband Kamal (you can allow yourself a small giggle here, imagining a time when an actress wouldn't get intimate with this actor on screen) — aren't as aggressively hollow as the Tamil films post the twin AVM successes of Murattu Kaalai and Sakalakalavallavan, in the early 1980s.
Suddenly, there was glitter everywhere, especially around Silk Smitha's navel, without which no film was apparently complete. And during this stretch, the quality of Kamal's films was all over the place. There were as many misses as hits. Probably the misses were more. Bunched around a bona fide Great Movie like Moondram Pirai, you have Tik Tik Tik, in which the smuggler-villain embeds jewels in Indian models who go abroad and cuts the poor women up when they come back home. And you have Ellam Inba Mayam, in which Kamal appears disguised as Dracula. With a moustache!
How did he endure this phase, I wonder today! Obviously, every molecule of his being said "I want to do Moondram Pirai". Yes, I get it. One has to make a name, make a living, make those distributors line up for your next movie. One cannot keep waiting for Moondram Pirai-s and Salangai Oli-s and Kokila-s and Raajapaarvai-s forever. But still. I'm thinking of that scene in Thoongathey Thambi Thoongathey, where Kamal strips off his underwear and begins to bathe and the bathroom has no latch and Sulakshana runs in and he is mortified and covers his face when he should actually be covering his junk…
Or how about that other bathroom scene in Andha Oru Nimidam, where Urvashi is wearing a shirt and a pant and a painted moustache and pretending to be a man, and ends up in the same hotel room as Kamal, but he knows it is her, so he ushers her into the bathroom and says "Go on, take a bath" while he is brushing his teeth, and then she turns on the shower and the water makes her clothes cling to her, and Kamal laughs his Kamal laugh and says he was on to her all along… Just imagining Kamal's headspace as he enacted these scenes seems like something that would make a great Charlie Kaufman movie!
So when did I finally watch Moondram Pirai? Who knows! But I do remember there were huge functions when Kamal won the National Award for the film. Video cassettes used to have little newsreel-type programmes, and one of them was about one such function. Some man I didn't even know had won an award for a film I hadn't even seen, and for some reason it was making me feel all warm inside. I guess that's when you know you are a fan.
I recall watching Sippikkul Muthu, dubbed from Swathi Muthyam, which was released in Sathyam when there were just two other theatres in the complex, Santham and Subam. Some crazy fan decided it was a good idea to burst crackers in the theatre. One of them went off behind my grandmother, in the seat next to mine, and she literally leapt in the air. I remember watching Avargal on TV. I remember watching Varumayin Niram Sivappu in its second or third run. As a boy, I was very impressed by the scene where the mute painter makes a splotch of red on a canvas and asks Kamal what it is. (It refers to poverty.) I wonder how I'd react to such a scene if it came in a movie today.
Oh, yes, Salangai Oli! The film was basically a three-hour meditation on who was more beautiful, Kamal or Jayapradha. Let's face it, Kamal in the eighties was one bloody good-looking hero. Sigappu Rojakkal was another of those A-rated movies that I never saw in a theatre, but when I did watch it, at some point in the 1980s, I was struck by Kamal's style, his apparently effortless coolth. I didn't know the name for those sunglasses but even if I knew the name, I wouldn't have wanted them, because they'd look good only on him.
Imagine another Tamil film actor of the time who could carry off those sunglasses. That beret. That English accent. Oh, and Guru. I remember watching it in Chidambaram. There was a spy who called herself Cleopatra and she was speaking to Nambiar through a spinning golden ball (it was meant to be a microphone, I think) and it all seemed unbelievably exotic. I remember Kamal dismissing this film later. He called it "crap". Imagine another Tamil film actor of the time who could carry off the word "crap".
I have a special space in my heart for Vikram, and not just for Ilaiyaraaja's songs. There you go. That's the reason Kamal did all those films in that period he was waiting for the next Moondram Pirai. So we'd get five more great Ilaiyaraaja numbers per movie! Vikram isn't a so-bad-it's-good movie. It's a why-couldn't-it-have-been-better movie. Today, I guess you kids from the Ajith/Vijay generation will call it "dated", though I've never really understood that word. Everything is of its time, and for the time, given what passed for action-adventure, Vikram was pretty… not bad.
The following year, of course, Pushpak and Nayakan happened, and Kamal became the Kamal we know and celebrate today. But there's something to be said about 1980s Kamal. My soft spot for this Kamal is purely generational and rose-tinted, I admit, but I wonder how he managed to keep his core skills uncorrupted despite doing so much… "crap". I'm reminded of a scene in Uruvangal Maaralaam, where he plays aandavar, god, and stuffs a long ribbon of toothpaste back into its tube. Kamal's career is something like that. Post 1987, he got his career on the track it should have been on after the 1970s. But Tamil cinema would be a less colourful place without the guilty pleasures this great actor gave us during that decidedly un-great phase.