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HIS father Srinivasan, Kamal once told me, was a martinet.
He wanted his sons (Chandrahasan, Charuhasan, Kamalahaasan) to study, to do well. The two elder brothers followed their fatherís example, and studied law.
Kamal spent his childhood studying everything but what he was supposed to be studying.
Early on, he conceived of a passion to study dance. Not a subject an orthodox Brahmin father was likely to encourage.
Kamal spoke of how he would pester his mother for the money to indulge his passion (this, at an age when children his age were similarly pestering their mothers for money to buy chocolates and toys). His mother (Rajalakshmi) would occasionally Ďloseí items of her jewellery to finance her youngest sonís passion.
That set a pattern that was to hold through his life. During his early years on stage, with the troupe Avvai Shanmugham (he was later to pay homage to the origin of his art by titling his Mrs Doubtfire take off Avvai Shanmughi), he learnt acting from the veteran T K Shanmugham.
Once, Kamal described the skillsets of his earliest mentor. Shanmugham, he said, was a master of makeup (hence Kamalís own passion, to the point of obsession, with makeup especially in his more recent years and films) and of mime.
He could convey the Nava Rasas without a line of dialogue. To underline his point, Kamal spoke of how Shanmugham once played the poet-saint Avvaiyyar. How, in that role, he mimed the toothless lady eating gooseberries. How, by watching him, you could almost taste the sourness of the berries on your own palate.
Before going on stage, Kamal had appeared as a child star in Kalathur Kannamma (1960) and in the K S Sethumadhavan-helmed 1962 Malayalam hit Kannum Karalum.
Satyan, the legendary Malayalam actor (and the first from the South to win the National Award, for Chemeen), who played Kamalís father in the second film, was reportedly wowed by the youngsterís potential. Another director of the time dubbed the lad a male Shirley Temple.
The bug that bit then, bit deep.
Going on stage, in the interim between his debut as child star, and his appearance for the first time in an adult role in the 1973 K Balachander film Arangetram, was for him natural progression.
Natural, too, that by the time he left the stage and fronted the camera, he had worked not only as actor, but also as dancer, dance choreographer, story writer, assistant director.
For his role in Apoorva Ragangal, he learnt the mridangam. For Avargal, ventriloquism. He learnt mime, then used it to aid a brilliant take off on Charlie Chaplin in Punnagai Mannan.
Driven by that quenchless thirst, he went to Hollywood to learn makeup; then used that knowledge in Nayakan, and many of his subsequent films. To play an army major in Alavandaan (Abhay, in Hindi), he went to the NDA for a crash course.
Old timers in the journalistic fraternity will tell you that their most dreaded assignment, in the early 1970s, was to interview Kamal. Because, they say, he did not know how to talk, how to express himself.
Today, he is eloquent. Because he taught himself to be.
He didnít know how to dress, how to deport himself. His first wife Vani Ganapathy taught him that (Kamal didnít tell me this, others did).
He didnít know cinema; he set out to redress that by reading every book and watching every classic film he could scrounge, steal or otherwise acquire.
Do you, I once asked him only half in jest, think it is necessary, when playing an anarchist, to actually learn how to make a bomb?
I learnt, then, that for all his skill in comedy, Kamal fails to see the joke when it is about his craft.
He was at the time doing Vetri Vizha. The question was all the provocation he needed to launch into an explanation of the right way, and the wrong way, to hold a gun. Of what could happen if you held it this way as opposed to that way...