If there is one man in the history of Indian cinema who deserves to be called Sakalakala Vallavan, it’s Kamal Haasan. Ever since his debut performance on the big screen as a child artiste in Kalathur Kannamma (1960) won him the President’s gold medal, the multitalented showman never had to look back. As the man turns 65 and prepares to release his next biggie, Indian-2, this edition of Dress Circle looks back at his memorable works as an actor, screenwriter, director and producer in the past six decades.
1. Thevar Magan (1992)
Though Kamal Haasan had written screenplays for many films before Thevar Magan, the Bharathan directorial can be called his first screenplay with a layered narrative with depth. It was rumoured that the script took him less than two weeks to write. The film is often compared to Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather due to the father-son relationship in the backdrop of gang wars, but the caste dynamics that form the foundation of the violent conflicts, which in turn expose the deep fault lines of caste prevalent in rural Tamil Nadu, is deeply integral to its narrative. Kamal’s gripping screenplay for the village drama cleverly pits tradition against modernity, superstition against pragmatism and love against marriage. The film brings out stellar performances from thespian Sivaji Ganesan, Gautami, Revathi and Nasar through some well-written sequences that depict the relationships that the protagonist Saktivel shares with his father Periya Thevar (Sivaji Ganesan), girlfriend Bhanu (Gauthami) and wife Pachavarnam (Revathi). Kamal famously quipped recently that his brother knew that he will end up in politics the moment he watched Thevar Magan. The film’s Hindi remake Viraasat too was a blockbuster.
2. Mahanadi (1994)
This is perhaps Kamal’s most poignant and emotionally catastrophic film that will leave you in pain. In Mahanadi, the rural widower played by Kamal who is content with his family life in a village migrates to the city is lured by the dreams of big money and his life and family are ruined through a systematic series of assaults. I have not watched another work that deals with child trafficking and flesh trade with such an emotional impact. Mahanadi is one film that you will still emotionally invest in even if you have watched it many times in the past.
3. Nayakan (1985)
This Mani Ratnam cult film turned out to be the favourite action movie template for the directors in the south much like Godfather. Every gangster film would invariably remind you of Nayakan in one way or the other as much as it would remind of Godfather. A large part of the credit for the film’s timelessness and gritty nature goes to Kamal Haasan’s nuanced performance in the role inspired by the real-life South Indian gangster of Mumbai underworld, Varadaraja Mudaliar. The role earned him critical acclaim and the national award for the best actor. Ilayaraja’s score for the film is still considered to be his best till date. The melody Thenpandi Seemayile became a signature for Ilayaraja.
4. Virumandi (2004)
This ‘Rashomon effect’ film scrutinises death penalty through the prism of rural caste-based conflicts is a shining example of Kamal’s vision and scale as a scriptwriter and director. This is one of the Kamal Haasan essentials that you wouldn’t want to miss. The film was mired in controversy right from the day its earlier title, Sandiyar—which is also the name of a caste—was announced. Kamal had to change the title to Virumandi after protests from a caste group. The dark revenge thriller was a runaway success even though the violence and the language pushed the boundaries of mainstream cinema.
5. Hey Ram (2000)
Hey Ram is a daring attempt at a fictional retelling of the history of partition and communal riots that remains unappreciated even during the worst communal tensions that ensued in the past two decades after it was released. The story of Saket Ram who plots to kill Mahatma Gandhi after losing his loved one to the Hindu-Muslim riots following the India-Pakistan partition was India’s official entry to the Oscars, was screened at the prestigious Locarno and Toronto film festivals, and bagged three national awards. The protagonist’s journey from radicalism to non-violence through life experiences was wonderfully penned and executed by Kamal. Ilayaraja had famously composed fresh tunes using Hungary’s Budapest Orchestra for the sequences that were originally shot for L Subramaniam’s music, after the latter backed off just before re-recording of the songs demanding higher remuneration.
6. Anbe Sivam (2003)
Anbe Sivam that roughly translates to love is god is a conversational drama between two distinct personalities who have different worldviews. In hindsight, their debate about god and love is not a typical commercial movie material, but Kamal’s writing and his onscreen chemistry with the energetic Madhavan sucks you in to that conversation and the result is a different movie experience that stays with you. The film gave a glimpse of the sworn atheist’s perspective about God and his political views. Sundar C who is known for his crass masala films has never done such heavy lifting of content before and after Anbe Sivam. The film gives credence to the industry grapevine that Kamal directs most of his films himself though he selectively credits himself as the director.
7. Vikram (1986)
Many of Kamal films display the inspiration he draws from the movies from the west. Vikram is inspired by the spy thrillers that the audiences had seen only in Hollwood films then. The elaborate screenplay based on writer Sujatha’s novel gives an elaborate account of high-tech warfare and sabotage through the protagonist Vikram, a ruthless RAW agent known for his strange ways. Vikram is ambitious James Bond type spy thriller material convincingly executed with scale with a budget of over Rs.10 million, which was a first for Tamil cinema. It was also the first India film to record songs using computers. Kamal had mentioned that he wanted to make Mani Ratnam direct the film, but in the end Rajasekhar was picked because Mani was considered as a newbie for a project of this magnitude.
8. Moonram Pirai (1982)
This musical love story written and directed by Balu Mahendra is a landmark film in Kamal’s career. The film mopped up many top awards that year and had a theatre run for a year. Imagine a film that is A-rated running to packed houses with family audiences for a year. The song Kannai Kalaimane and the climax that brought the audience to tears still worth looping nonstop.
9. Rajapaarvai (1981)
This romantic musical is another indispensable entry in any Kamal Haasan watchlist. The melody Anthi Mazhai Pozhigirathu penned by Vairamuthu and composed by Ilayaraja is an evergreen romantic song that defined romances for decades. Kamal played a blind musician in his 100th film as actor and first film as a producer and turned it in to a trendsetter for love stories for years to come, thanks to its romance and its climax.
10. Kuruthipunal (1995)
This official remake of Govind Nihalani’s Drohkaal was a taut, no-frills action thriller that used minimalist tropes to great effect. It was India’s official entry to Oscars for the Best Foreign Language film but was not nominated. Kamal’s screenplay gives you an edge-of-the-seat experience purely through performances in well-written scenes and without employing grand action set pieces or props.
Disclaimer: There are many Kamal Haasan films that are not part of the list. Each one of us who has grown up watching the actor should have our own list, and rightly so because the phenomenon of over 200 films and six decades cannot be summed up in a list of 10!
(Dress Circle is a weekly columm on films. The author is a communication professional and a film enthusiast. Read his past works here.)