It is probably too early to speak about Kamal Haasan’s legacy as he hasn’t started playing a grandfather on screen. He would most likely rock that! But I think he already has enough content that ranks up there in the top percentile of cinema that we can speak about his legacy. Personally I am not very qualified to speak about it as I am not one of those die-hard fans who has watched every one of his movies a dozen times or even seen some of his movies (like Hey Ram, A Wednesday, Sigappu Rojakkal). But may be that’s what it takes to write about someone’s legacy. An interested outsider who enjoys the good and is disappointed with the bad. Right now there is a Tamil TV channel running a great selection of Kamal Haasan movies and that’s what inspired this post.
There are many things that are truly great. A powerfully understated realism when required like the protagonists acting in Nayagan and Papanasam. A brashness that comes naturally like in Virumandi or PKS. Impeccable comic timing you can see in Michael Madan Kama Rajan – henceforth to be referred to as MMKR – and Panchathantiram. A meticulous attention to detail that comes through in several movies. For example, the NRI in MMKR who wears loose sweatshirts and speaks a funny pretentious English and the differences in dialects and accents in Virumandi or Thenali. He displays a boldness of the kind you will never see in any other mainstream actor/director. The exploration of mental illness and jealousy in Aalavandhan/Abhay, the touching story of his daughter in Mahanadi, the burden of inheritance in Thevar Magan, a silent masterpiece in Pushpak, marrying an exploited prostitute in Nayagan are some typical markers of this. He adds layers on to the story which you learn more about each time you re-watch the movie or learn more about the context. In Virumandi you have the folk stories and historical references, the typical rural property inheritance issues, the tragedies faced by eloping rural couples, the difficult questions around caste issues and death penalty all in one coherent movie which you can read about in this blog. His make-up artist training has also helped add dimensions to several movies – Indian, Nayagan, Avvai Shanmugi and more. An actor or director is celebrated today for displaying even a single one of these characteristics, so Kamal ranks very high indeed.
The not so good follows. He does have a tendency to burden his protagonist with an improbable number of unfortunate events and make you feel awed at his ability to not feel self-pity in the face of them (Manmadhan Ambu, Anbe Sivam). I don’t mind that in a movie you can have one individual face a succession of tragedies but I would really like for them to let loose once in a while and rage at everyone and everything which would make them more human. There are also several movies where he tries to do too many things and fill too many frames himself (Apoorva Sagotharargal and MMKR were just about tolerable in this respect but in Nayagan it starts to hurt a bit when unlike in The Godfather where the Don Corleone is succeeded by his son, Kamal is there from beginning to end, and Dasavatharam took it to extremes). Many of these movies are good (even great like Nayagan) but all of them would have benefited from letting other characters develop and occupy some space. There are also several movies which are forgettable and which you would expect someone of the calibre of Kamal would instantly reject. But this price has to be paid because no producers are willing to finance his bolder fantasies that have come to define him.
He is an inspiring figure for not only being a great creative but also a tenacious fighter. He has fought against the tide of an insipid industry for decades and got his masterpieces financed. He has then fought the very typical reactionary attitude of political parties to anything they feel is negative to Tamils and a Government that goes weak on its knees when asked to protect freedom of expression. All this to get his films screened in the very state that should be proud of such a prodigal son.