Kamal Haasan is easily one of the greatest and most versatile actors that Indian cinema has seen. He has played all sorts of varied roles in several films in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada and Hindi and has won numerous awards, National and Filmfare for his outstanding performances. What’s more, Kamal’s interests have always gone beyond mere acting. In addition to acting, he is a screenwriter, lyricist, playback singer, choreographer and director.
He was born on November 7, 1954 in Paramakudi in Ramnad district in Tamil Nadu, the youngest child of a freedom fighter and a successful lawyer. His father, Srinivas, deliberately named him half Hindu and half Muslim, being a great believer in Hindu-Muslim unity. A wannabe actor who couldn’t made it, Srinivas wanted at least one of his three sons to become an actor. He put the young Kamal in Dr Sarah Ramachandran’s hands. Sarah was his wife’s close friend and also AV Meiyyapan’s wife, Rajeshwari’s personal physician. One day when Sarah was attending to her, disturbed by the noise downstairs, where Meiyyapan was having a story session, the young Kamal chided them for making so much noise when there was a sick woman upstairs. Meiyyapan immediately took to this young boy and looking for a young boy in a forthcoming film found Kamal suitable for the role!
Kamal Haasan debuted as a child actor with well-known director A Bhimsingh’s Kalathur Kannamma (1960), a hugely successful film at the box-office. This led to more films like Thayilla Pillai (1961), Parthal Pasi Theerum (1962), where he acted with the great Sivaji Ganesan, Patha Kannikkai (1962). Ananda Jyothi (1963) and Vanambadi (1963).
Following the end of his career as a child artist 1963, Kamal did not do another film till 1972. These growing years were awkward for him but his father convinced him to continue his acting career. Kamal quit school in the ninth standard to pursue acting full time, something unthinkable in a Tamil Iyengar family where education was regarded as extremely important. At his father’s advice, he also built his body and joined a dance troup touring India as he honed his dancing skills. He even did a stint with dance master Thangappan, assisting him in choreography in films.
Kamal struggled for a break as an adult. He was dropped from at least two films he had signed as hero in 1972 and director CV Sridhar even advised him, he might be better off working behind the camera. At this point he came into contact with K Balachander. Balachander became Kamal’s mentor and offered him a role in Arangetram (1973). Kamal played a small but pivotal role of the heroine’s brother. Seeing a spark in him, Balachander also cast him as a villain in Sollathan Ninaikiran (1973). Balachander then followed up by casting him as a ventriloquist who falls in love with a widow in Aval Oru Thodarkathai(1974) and helped him get his first major breakthrough as an actor with Apoorva Ragangal (1975). In the film, Kamal plays a rebel who falls in love with an older woman.
Kamal Haasan, Sridevi, Rajinikanth, Bharathiraja and music maestro Ilayaraja all became stars with 16 Vayathinile (1977), also Bharathiraja’s directorial debut. The film saw Kamal play a village simpleton who marries Sridevi and rescues her from the local bully, played by Rajinikanth. He kills the bully and goes to jail with Sridevi waiting for him. The film is considered a landmark Tamil film in not only being a little more realistic than the melodramas of the 1950s and 60s but also for taking Tamil cinema out of the studio and on location.
Thereafter Kamal always tried to balance films showcasing him as an actor with those having an objective or focus on obvious commercial success. Among some big commercial hits he had include Maro Charithra (1978) in Telugu, Sigappu Rojakkal (1978), Tick Tick Tick andSakalaka Vallavan (1982), one of his biggest hits and really the film that got Kamal huge acceptance from the masses as well. The film directed by SP Muthuraman, also known as ‘Masala’ Muthuraman and co-starring Ambika, made sure all the commercial ingredients were balanced perfectly and no effort was spared in making sure the film was a hit.
Films like Moondram Pirai (1982), its Hindi counterpart, Sadma (1983) and his films with K Vishvanath, Sagara Sangamam (1983) and Swathi Muthayam (1985) boast of landmark performances by Kamal. Moondram Pirai, where he played a kind-hearted school teacher who rescues Sridevi from a brothel and cares for her as following head injuries, she has lost her memory and has regressed mentally to the state of a young child. The climax where he tries to make her recollect her memories with him once she recovers and forgets him is heartbreaking. The film won Kamal Haasan his first National Award for Best Actor as well as the National Award for Best Cinematographer for cameraman-director Balu Mahendra. Sagara Sangamamam, in Telugu, sees Kamal in amazing form as a drunken classical dancer. His dancing skills are brilliantly brought out and he is simply astounding as he displays the various forms of Indian dance to the young and proud dancer whose performance he has shot down in his review. Swathi Muthayam sees him score heavily playing a slow dimwitted man perfectly.
Perhaps Kamal’s greatest performance and one which brought him his second National Award for Best Actor came in Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan (1987). The film is loosely based on the life of the Bombay based ganglord Varadarajan but Ratnam infuses his tale with a Godfather like feel, making for a rivetting cinematic experience. Kamal Haasan as Velu Naicker is the life and soul of Nayakan. The film is simply unimaginable without him and he shows us in Nayakan why he is rated as one of the finest actors ever in India. His performance ranks as one of the greatest ever in the history of Indian cinema as he expertly captures every nuance, every shade of Velu Naicker, be it the ruthless don, the benevelant protector of the opressed or the loving and caring family man.
Meanwhile, in 1981, Kamal made his debut as a hero in Hindi cinema with Ek Duje ke Liye (1981), a re-make of Maro Charithra. The original film was a Tamil -Telugu love story but director K Balachander wisely transposed it to a Tamil – Punjabi terrain for a national audience with the humour and situations preserved from the original. Kamal Haasan dazzled Hindi audiences with his histrionic abilities and dancing skills and the film became the top grossing Hindi film of 1981 ahead of even the Amitabh Bachchan starrer Naseeb! It certainly looked like the first major acceptance of a Southern hero in Hindi cinema.
But thereafter, Kamal’s stint with Bollywood wasn’t really memorable as one by one his films failed at the box office. Even his brilliant performances in Sadma (1983), the Hindi re-make of Moondram Pirai, Zara si Zindagi (1983) and Saagar (1985) didn’t help though he won the Filmfare Award for best Actor for the last named. And when he did have a hit in Giraftaar (1985), Amitabh Bachchan in an extended guest appearance got all the credit for the film’s success! Then, post Saagar, Kamal began concentraing on his own productions in the South, not really looking at Hindi cinema full time.
Kamal built up his reputation as one of Indian cinema’s finest actor in this period as he began experimenting more and more with his roles. If he acted in the enjoyable silent film, Pushpak (1987), or played 4 roles in the comic Michael Madana Kamarajan (1990), he also played a dwarf to perfection in Apoorva Sagodarargal (1989). Why, he even expertly played an old woman in the remake of Mrs Doubtfire, Avvai Shanmughi (1996) and ten characters in Dasavatharm (2008), the latter winning him the Tamil Nadu State Film Award for Best Actor. He also began getting involved with other facets of filmmaking and began writing and producing as well. But among the films he got involved in more than just being an actor, many were too different or off-beat to score at the box office. A notable exception was Thevar Magan (1992).
Described by Kamal as a ‘Sicilain drama’, he wrote and produced this Godfather style film set against the backdrop of Madurai’s feudal landlords starring him and the legendary Sivaji Ganesan. Kamal, who says the film was based on his childhood experiences, plays Shakthivel, the modern son of Periathevar (Sivaji Ganesan) who returns to his ancestral village to introduce his girlfriend (Gauthami) to the family. Once she goes back, he gets involved in the bloody fued between different members of his clan and is forced to take over when his father is killed. Thevar Magan sees one of Kamal Haasan’s finest performances, ably supported by Sivaji, Gauthami, Nasser and Revathi who won the National Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Kamal would win his third National Award for S Shankar’s Indian (1996), also a huge success at the box office. In the film exploring corruption, Kamal expertly plays a double role of an old Indian freedom fighter, Senapathy, who kills corrupt Governament officials and and the like to weed out corruption and his son, Chandru, who lives by todays rules. Chandru takes a bribe and certifies a bus with faulty brakes as roadworthy. But the bus meets with an accidentKilling young innocent school children. Senapathy, then in an action filled climax, kills his own son at the airport. The film was also India’s official entry to the Oscars.
Kamal made his directorial debut with Chachi 420 (1998), the Hindi remake of Avvai Shanmughi. The film did quite well at the box office. His next directorial venture, Hey Ram (2000) was, however, both a critical and commercial failure while Virumaandi (2004) explored the pros and cons of the death penalty.
On the personal front, Kamal was involved with actress Srividya in the 1970s, the subect recently of a Malayalam film, Thirakkatha (2008). He then married dancer Vani Ganapathy who went on to design his costumes in his films. However, the marriage broke up after 10 years also causing a rift with his elder brother as the latter supported Vani in the break-up. He then got involved with co-star Sarika with whom he had two daughters, Shruti and Akshara. The couple got married only to split in 1998. Thereafter, Kamal was involved with actress Gauthami for quite some time, but they too have parted ways.
Such is Kamal’s popularity that he has well over 15,000 fan clubs all over Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. It is at his insistence that the fan clubs also do social service helping the poor and downtrodden.
Kamal continued to make films like Unnaipol Oruvan (2009) and Eenaadu (2009), both re-makes of A Wednesday (2008), in Tamil and Telugu and co-starring Mohanlal and Venkatesh respectively and Manmadan Ambu (2010), written by him as well. Vishwaroopam (2012), ran into trouble that led to a ban before its release. When it finally released, helped by the controversy, the film went on to be huge success. After a few lukewarm films, Haasan made a grand comeback as an actor with, Papanasam (2015), the remake of Mohanlal’s Malayalam hit, Drishyam (2013), perfectly playing a man who will do anything to protect his family.
Meanwhile, his elder daughter, Shruti, has already lent her vocals in films like Vaaranam Aayiram (2008) and made her debut as composer with Unnaipol Oruvam and Eenaadu. She also made her acting debut in Luck (2009) and has acted in various Tamil, Telugu and Hindi films since. Younger daughter, Akshara, too has made her debut in the Hindi film, Shamitabh (2015).