Subhash K Jha

48, what 48?" laughed India's most versatile actor on the morning of his birthday. "Seriously, I feel as though I've just started."

The past year has been a whirlwind of backbreaking activity for Kamal Haasan. "Quite literally," laughs Kamal Haasan. "During Abhay, while performing the stunts for one of the two characters that I play, my back gave way. I was out of circulation for a month. Then my wife had a nasty fall that rendered her bedridden for months. The doctors said it would be a miracle if she could walk properly again. Now just a few months after the fall she's on her feet, she even goes shopping and takes our daughters to school."

The two lovely daughters Shruti and Akshara also had their share of misfortune. Last month, Shruti stepped on glass and had to have her foot surgically stitched up while little Akshara was in hospital with a nasty bout of viral fever.

"Abhay is an appropriate title for my latest film. We are a fearless family," said Kamal Haasan, as he prepared to meet, greet and treat thousands of fans on his birthday. The phones ring incessantly at his home in Madras early morning. The fans were expected to start arriving at any moment. In their presence the doyen of Tamil cinema garlanded his parent's photograph.

Then there was the annual debate and prize-distributing ceremony at the Kamarajan auditorium and cash awards of 5-10,000 rupees to 40-50 fans who did productive social service during the year. This year, Kamal Haasan's elder daughter Shruti held forth on terrorism as a gift to her proud Papa. The Haasan's elder offspring's maiden speech was received with rousing applause.

"That rounded off the birthday celebrations," laughs the maverick movie actor. In the evening friends and family got together for a private celebration.

This year the actor's fans have a very special birthday gift from the actor. Abhay and its Tamil version, Aalavandhan, are the most talked-about films in the preview circuit. Special guests who saw the film at a preview in Bombay evening are bowled over.

"Yes," admits Kamal Haasan, "the film is being talked about very positively. In terms of energy, time, labour, concentration and sheer man power Abhay has been one of the toughest films to complete."

Though the actor isn't the film's official producer his participation did not end on the sets. "I wish it did. It would save me a lot of trouble. We've spent nearly 25 crores on a two-version film which according to me, isn't exorbitant. We have used a lot of modern technique like Motion Control and 2-D animation. Unfortunately it is very difficult to sell novel themes and path breaking ideas to distributors in the Hindi belt. They have rigid notions on what every actor's film including Kamal Haasan deserves. To them it doesn't matter whether my film cost 10 or 25 crores. In Bombay I am just a traveller passing by. Each time I pop up with a film they say. "Ah, phir se aa gaya!"

Abhay has now been bought over in Maharashtra by the reputed Shringar Films who are very excited about its release on 15 November.

In Tamil Nadu the excitement for Aalavandhan is sky high. Though there are several Diwali releases lined up this year, including new Madhavan and Vijaykant starrers, it is likely that all the competition would have to take the backseat in favour of Aalavandhan. For this film the number of prints in Tamil Nadu has been increased by almost five times the normal number of prints. Also on the anvil is a rise in the ticket rates especially for Aalavandhan.

"You can say taariff karoon kya usski jissne yeh film banaya," the quick-witted actor pays a tongue-in-cheek compliment to his director Suresh Krissna. The two have worked together in a number of earlier projects including Mayor Sahib where again Kamal Haasan played a double role.

Incidentally Kamal Haasan makes a guest appearance in the other Tamil film scheduled for release during Diwali - K Balachander's Paarthale Paravasam. "When the guru summons, the shishya simply obeys," Kamal Haasan says emotionally.

13 November is the big day in Chennai. The premiere of the Tamil version of Abhay is expected to be the most well attended event of the year.

Is Abhay going to be yet another path breaking film in Kamal Haasan's career? He shrugs. "Canít say. But the audiences' expectations are certainly phenomenal this time. Abhay is a film that I shall never forget. It broke my back. Literally. Let's hope it breaks other things as well. Like box office records!"  

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