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THIS is not a note from a wide-eyed fan, nor a critic’s appraisal of a body of work spanning three decades and, if my count is right, somewhere between 170 and 180 films.
It is, rather, an attempt to cull, from personal observation, some clue to what makes Kamal Haasan the actor he is. It is an attempt undertaken with the foreknowledge of failure.
Where Kamal’s family, wives, and close friends have not managed to fully understand him, what chance is there for an outside observer?
Some two years ago, in the course of an interview for rediff.com’s US publication India Abroad, ace composer A R Rahman told me something I felt was equally applicable to Kamal.
"I am bored, Rahman said. From age 11, I have been first playing, then composing, film music. The situations are so limited –- one romantic song by the male, one by the female; a duet; a sad song; a dance number, that is it."
After a point, he said, you run out of different ways of doing the same thing.
To alleviate that boredom, he plays with his compositions. It takes him 15 minutes to come up with the base tune, he said. He then starts layering tracks on top of it, experimenting with sounds. Sometimes, he says, these are sounds so subtle, it may not even register on your ear the first few times you hear the final song.
Once, he said, he composed a simple romantic ditty and ended up with 118 overlaid tracks on top of the base melody. He then reversed the process, whittling them down, tinkering, till he ended up with just 8.
Why? Just to see what I could do and like I said, to keep boredom at bay, was his answer.
To see what I can do, to avoid doing the same damn thing in the same old way, seems at times to define Kamal as well.
Take his penchant for double roles. Off the top, you can count at least 20 till date. I asked him about that during the shooting of Apoorva Sahodarargal, in which he plays the father, and the two sons.
I love doing double or multiple roles in the same film, he said then. It is simple, he explained. In one film, you get to conceive and etch one character. In your lifetime, there is just so many films you can act in, so many characters you get to play.
Doing multiple roles, he said, was a way to stretch yourself within that finite creative life span. This way, in the space of a dozen films, you may end up doing 24 characters or more, and the task of making each different pushes you beyond your comfort zone.
Or take languages. In all his roles, he takes pains to get the relevant dialect down pat, complete with nuance and intonation. Which, when he is portraying say a Thevar in Thevar Magan, to cite one example, is only what you would expect from a consummate professional.
But why go to all the extra effort to make his character in Thenali (the remake of What About Bob?) a Sri Lankan, just so he could get to speak that brand of Tamil?
The film would have worked just as well had the character been a guy from Chennai, and spoken ordinary, everyday Tamil. So why the Sri Lankan accent, with all the additional effort it entailed?
Or take Hey Ram! -- in my book, one of the more intelligent films he has done in his career.
He cast Shah Rukh Khan. Fine, no harm in keeping an eye on the Hindi audience (as it turned out, Tamil audiences rejected that character, but that is a tangential aside).
But then, he went out of his way to make it hard for himself. He insisted that even for the Tamil version, the dialogues had to be delivered by Shah Rukh himself, in his own voice, as opposed to the far simpler method of dubbing. This meant that besides acting his part, Khan had to learn to mouth those lines with inflection and nuance intact.
On top of that, Kamal decided to go live sound for the film -– as in, the dialogues were recorded during the shooting of the scenes, as opposed to the conventional method of dubbing them later.
As one of the technicians on that film subsequently told me, the result was a nightmare. A scene would be shot, and the acting would be just right – but it would need to be reshot because of some inadvertent extraneous noise on the set that interfered with the soundtrack. Then there would be times when the acting was right, no one made unnecessary noises – but Khan got his intonation wrong for the Tamil version, and so, on to Take 21.
Or take Abhay (Alavandaan, in Tamil), a film that pushed experimentation to the limits and beyond, to the detriment of the film, and of its producer’s financial health.
You watched that elaborate -– and extremely expensive -- hallucination scene, to cite just one example out of a dozen, and you asked yourself, why? Why go to all that time, trouble and expense to do something that doesn’t add value to the story being told?
The producer of that film was one of those watching, heart wholly in mouth, as Kamal experimented with this, that and the other -– in the process, extending the film’s production time way beyond schedule, running up humongous bills, and in sum ensuring that there was no way the film would ever recover cost.
Why? Rahman’s experimentation is relatively inexpensive – he owns his recording studio, and it costs no one anything if he plays around to his heart’s content. But Kamal’s experiments cost – and some of the costlier ones have pushed himself, and others, to the edge of financial ruin.
Perhaps the real answer is, because he must. Because it is not in him to repeat himself. Because he is on this constant search for ways to reinvent himself.
Perhaps the underlying reason behind some of his astonishing successes, and as spectacular flops, is simply that desire to reach beyond himself, for something he suspects, but doesn’t know for sure, exists. And that ‘reach’, in turn, leads to the occasional over-reach, resulting in the sort of storied flubs that provide ammo for Kamal-baiters.
Someone I know once spoke of what happens when extraordinary ability is allied with an incredibly low boredom threshold. The vast majority of us, he said, are content to find through trial and error the easiest way of doing whatever it is we do for a livelihood, and to do it that way for the rest of our lives.
Then again, he said, there are those supremely gifted people, who are easily bored even by the results of their own abilities. People who wish each hour to be as different from the next as they can possibly make it.
He used four words to describe that condition. Four words that, I have always thought, fit Kamal Haasan to a ‘T’.
He called it ‘the curse of talent’.