Kamal Haasan And Lokesh Kanagaraj: Once Upon A Time There Lived A Ghost... (Cue Theme Music By Anirudh)!
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For a while now, there has been some speculation that Kamal Haasan and Lokesh Kanagaraj would be coming together for a movie. I even got first-hand news that the young filmmaker was often seen in the Raaj Kamal premises in Alwarpet — but something told me to keep my hopes down. Yes, even after Twitter exploded with endless discussions after Lokesh announced that he would be revealing details about his new film on September 16. Indiaglitz went as far as disclosing the title: “The hot buzz is that this biggie has been titled ‘Evan Endru Ninaithaai’ which is the starting line of the popular song in Vishwaroopam that played during that unforgettable character transformation of Kamal from effeminate [dancer] to precision killer.” Others, meanwhile, were saying that this announcement has nothing to do with Kamal. It’s actually about the Telugu film Lokesh has committed to make.

This news cycle isn’t exactly a new phenomena. Every once in a while, we hear that Kamal Haasan is going to work with a new-gen director from outside his inner circle. My heart rate leapt up the most when Mysskin’s name came up, for a project about the Buddha’s tooth. The premise is mouth-watering enough, but to imagine the union of this magnificently idiosyncratic filmmaker with Kamal, who’s himself no slouch in the “magnificent idiosyncrasy” department — Ooh! But the film was shelved. The story repeated itself with Bharat Bala (the project was titled 19 Steps) and a few other new-gen directors. The last time Kamal appeared in a “non-Kamal universe” was in Gautham Vasudev Menon’s Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu, and apparently, even that film happened only because the producers’ council forced Kamal’s hand after he’d taken an advance. So the general thinking among film buffs became something along these lines: Kamal will only work with “yes men” directors, not with new-gen filmmakers who have a very clear vision and very clear ideas and want to go off and do their own thing, with Kamal contributing only in the capacity of the protagonist.

Once upon a time, no one said this about Kamal Haasan. He was the movie-crazy movie brat who wore a loincloth for a role in the first film of a director named Bharathiraja: 16 Vayathinile. He did a low-key, black-and-white Kannada drama that was the first film of a director named Balu Mahendra: Kokila. He lived and breathed cinema, and he’d do anything for anyone if they lived and breathed cinema, too. When did this attitude change (if, indeed, it did)? Perhaps around the time Kamal committed to act in Rudraiah’s Raja Ennai Mannithuvidu, in the 1982 timeframe. S Arunmozhi, beloved mentor to many cinema aspirants and one of Rudraiah’s associates on Aval Appadithan and Gramathu Athiyayam, spoke to me about the film — a Tamil-Telugu bilingual — after Rudraiah passed away.

Kamal (paired opposite Sumalatha) was supposed to play younger brother to Chandra Haasan (paired opposite Sujatha). The story dealt with the conflict between the peacenik older brother and the Naxal leanings of the Kamal character. (Rudraiah’s elder brother Gurulingam considered himself a ‘Marxist Leninist’. This sibling-dynamic was reversed in Raja Ennai Mannithuvidu.) Shooting went on for about 15 days, and the film was about 40 per cent complete when things ground to a halt. K Hariharan, the Ezhavadhu Manithan director and a close friend of Rudraiah, told me the probable reason. Kamal, at the time, was advised by SP Muthuraman to change track, to make more mainstream movies and not keep making films like Moondram Pirai (released in February 1982). Muthuraman had always been a sounding board for Kamal since the days of Kalathur Kannamma, on which SPM worked as an assistant director.

The result of this advice, of course, can be seen in Sakalakalavallavan, released in August 1982). A perspective of this film’s success can be seen in an Anandha Vikatan article from this April, where Murali Kannan lists Tamil cinema’s biggest blockbusters. The biggest hit for a while was MGR’s Ulagam Suttrum Valiban (1973), whose record was broken by Sivaji Ganesan’s Thirisoolam (1979). Sakalakalavallavan broke Thirisoolam’s record and wore the box-office crown until it was dethroned by Apoorva Sagotharargal (1989). Understandably, this changed Kamal for a while. (Remember, he was also trying to establish himself in Hindi.)

There were the odd landmark films, of course, like K Viswanath’s Sagara Sangamam and Swathi Muthyam but in Tamil, there’s very little “experimentation” in this period, till Pushpak/Nayakan in 1987 jolted something in the actor and restored him to the movie-crazy movie brat he used to be in the late 70s and very early 80s. The directors he worked with in this interim period — apart from the likes of K Viswanath (in Telugu) and K Balachander (in Hindi) — were more “commercial”: SP Muthuraman, K Vijayan, Rajasekhar. Even Oru Kaithiyin Diary, directed by Bharathiraja, was a super-“commercial” movie.

So perhaps there is some truth in the theory that Kamal, at this stage, was solidifying his box-office credentials in order to begin his remarkable run of films in the post-Pushpak/Nayakan phase. These great films of Kamal the Actor would certainly not have been possible without Kamal the Star. And around 1987, you did find Kamal the star-actor submitting himself to new-gen directors of the time. Mani Ratnam had a solid outing with Mouna Raagam, but it was Nayakan that really put him on the map. Then came Sathya, which was Suresh Krissna’s first film. Then we got Daisy, directed by Prathap Pothen, who was known for off-mainstream fare like Meendum Oru Kadhal Kadhai and Rithubhedam. Even the ultra-mainstream Soora Samharam and Kalaignan were the directorial debuts of Chitra Lakshmanan and GB Vijay.

Kamal Haasan And Lokesh Kanagaraj: Once Upon A Time There Lived A Ghost... (Cue Theme Music By Anirudh)!

So even at this point (i.e. after that ultra-mainstream stretch in the mid-1980s), you certainly cannot say Kamal was confining himself to a “safe zone” of “yes men”. He was still experimenting with his directors, whether within the mainstream or in the fringes. But after a few years — say, around the release of Indian in 1996 — you found the actor returning repeatedly to a set of “favourites”. KS Ravikumar. Suresh Krishna. Singeetham Srinivasa Rao. The one big WTF moment in this phase was Sundar C being hired for Anbe Sivam, but later as the director often hinted, he appears to have been more of an overseer, controlling the traffic on the sets. Rumours began to fly that it was really Kamal who was directing these films, and not Chakri Toleti (Unnaipol Oruvan) or Ramesh Aravind (Uttama Villain) or Rajesh Selva (Thoongaa Vanam). Only Jeethu Joseph managed to distinguish himself during this phase, with a near-exact remake of Drishyam in Papanasam.

So what explains Kamal Haasan’s reluctance to work with visionary, individualistic new-gen filmmakers after the mid-1990s? He’s a superb filmmaker himself (refer Hey Ram!, and especially Virumaandi) and a great writer, so maybe he is unable to — or does not want to — get on board someone else’s vision entirely, however visionary this vision is. Maybe he feels their scripts are not “Kamal-worthy”. Maybe these directors — who perhaps were in LKG when Kamal was making films like Moondram Pirai, Pushpak and Nayakan — want him to play roles that are less “heroic”, more character-driven. As a Kamal fan, it’s downright heartbreaking, but after six decades in show business, who can deny the man the right to do what he damn well pleases?

And now, the “Are Kamal Haasan and Lokesh Kanagaraj coming together?” question has been answered. It’s a… yes, yes, yes, oh God, yes! The poster design suggests action. Against a red background whose texture appears like denim, Kamal’s outline is made up of guns and more guns and even more guns. That’s the route Lokesh took in his Karthi-starrer, Kaithi, too, but in this film, dare we hope for something less straightforward and obvious, something with perhaps a dash of existentialism? Something about the line “Once upon a time there lived a ghost…” is making me think it’s a Kamal-ism. Or maybe Lokesh, a self-confessed fan, has imbibed so many Kamal-isms that the line is really a Lokesh-ism that just happens to sound like a Kamal-ism. Never mind. All that matters now is this: a great actor joins hand with a terrific new-age talent. The script appears locked. There’s even a release date: Summer 2021. But what about the pandemic? There’s no choice now. COVID has to cooperate…

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