I've just realised it's tough to write a peg-less piece about Kamal Haasan. Well, there is a peg: his birthday. But it's not enough of a peg as, say, the announcement of Aanand L Rai's Shah Rukh Khan-starring Zero, in which case I could have dug back to Punnagai Mannan, where Kamal Haasan pretended to play a dwarf, and fast-forwarded to Apoorva Sagotharargal, where he did play a dwarf. Now, there's a peg: All the times Kamal Haasan did it first. The first hero to use a laptop (in Michael Madana Kamarajan), the first hero to play a ventriloquist (Avargal), so on, so forth. But what do you do when you're asked to write a birthday piece? He turns 64 this year, so shall we take his 64th film, 16 Vayathinile (according to the Wiki filmography), and talk about how remarkable that performance was, and still is?
The flopping of Vikram is one of the enduring mysteries of Tamil cinema. Okay, it didn't quite become the Bond movie it wanted to be. But it was miles ahead of so much at that time that was passing for action.
But then, so much has been written about that film. So much has been written about Kamal Haasan's performance in it. So much has been written about Kamal Haasan's performances in general. Moondram Pirai. Nayakan. Pushpak. Mahanadhi. So on. So forth. So I thought maybe I'd do an anti-performance piece, with a list of films in which the actor basically dialled it in and yet, was crazy-fun to watch. Top on that list would be Kakki Chattai, a bit of fluff whose writing, incredibly, is credited to a small army: the Sathya Movies' Story Team, Kumar, Livingston, Avinasimani, PL Sundararajan, Radha Veerannan and V Thamizhazhagan. Whoever's responsible for the Kamal-Ambika portions did a bang-up job. These portions could teach today's filmmakers a thing or two about writing banter.
But an anti-performance piece might also mean recalling Mangamma Sabadham and the song where Madhavi, in a swimsuit, declares she's Cola-Cola Coca-Cola Soda-Soda Whiskey-Soda. So, no. But then, what about a guilty-pleasures list? I don't like that term, as I believe no guilt should be felt over anything that gives pleasure, but it's come to stand for something like Vikram, something you're not supposed to enjoy (if you go by the word of tastemakers) but is quite enjoyable, nonetheless. The flopping of this film is one of the enduring mysteries of Tamil cinema. Okay, it didn't quite become the Bond movie it wanted to be. But it was miles ahead of so much at that time that was passing for action. Maybe a list of Kamal Haasan's films that look better in hindsight?
But that would encompass quite a bit of the actor's work, wouldn't it? How about a list of films, like Thoongadhe Thambi Thoongadhe, where Kamal Haasan does his Seattle-by-way-of-Saidapet accent? How about a list of all the hats he's worn in cinema (actor, dancer, director, screenwriter, producer, playback singer, lyricist, choreographer) and picking one film for each category? I know which one I'd pick for lyricist: Virumaandi. That 'Onna Vida' song, which is a masterclass on word-imagery from the get-go, from the o-sound alliterations in the opening: Onna vida… indha / olagathil / osandhadhu / onnum illa. The best line, for me, is the one that compares the union of the couple to the sari and dhoti on a clothesline, united by a benevolent wind. That's some imagination, that.
How about a list of Kamal Haasan's, erm, "unions"? I like the choreographed moment with the suitcase in Thevar Magan. I'd bet the choreography existed even in the writing, by Kamal Haasan. Unarchigal was another "union" movie, long before Kamal Haasan became the kind of star you'd be asked to write birthday pieces about. He plays a young lad from Paramakudi who's seduced by an older woman, who, the next morning, thrusts some money into his hand and commands him to buy lipstick. What about a list of Kamal Haasan's great dances? Again, been there, done that – though I would probably include 'Unakkenna Mele Nindraai', from Simla Special. It's not Great Art™ like the Salangai Oli numbers – it's just a young, lithe actor grooving to a beat, with the enthusiasm of an eighties' college kid performing in the culturals.
You could also make a list of Kamal Haasan's dance-like scenes, where he doesn't actually dance but uses his body to convey "dialogue". I'm thinking of the scene from Moondram Pirai, where the dinner that Kamal is preparing gets burnt and he vents his bile on poor Sridevi, and he needs to go out and buy food now, so he hurriedly pulls on a pant and a shirt, and he opens a drawer in this haste (to locate his wallet) and its contents crash to the floor (among them a bottle of ink, now reduced to a spreading stain of red), and Kamal skirts around the mess and tries to push the drawer back into its recess, but it won't go in, so he drops it in irritation and continues tucking his shirt into his pants, and locates the wallet in another shirt hanging on the wall, and tries to stuff it into the front pocket of his pants, and he tries again, and then discovers that these pants have no pockets, and so he places the wallet inside his shirt and strides out.
One day, I will find a peg and write a piece about that Kamal, where I will also include the scene from Kokila, where he's in a lungi and he switches on a record player and dances in a perfect imitation of the way we dance when we think no one's watching. Why not write that piece, now, you ask? I don't know. A 64th birthday seems too light a peg for that. I even spoke to a colleague about the possibility of a list of roles we wish Kamal Haasan would do – say, the creepy-pathetic luster of Nishabd, or the tragic lover from Mudhal Mariyadhai. Not these exact roles, of course – but something similar, something you'd describe as more the domain of a "character actor" than a "hero". Another option was a list of "eras" of this actor, which I was going to call The Many Phases of Kamal Haasan. That's the problem with someone who has so many phases, so many faces. Writing about him is like staring at a forest, axe in hand, wondering how to hack a path across that no one's hacked before.