I was talking to a friend yesterday about Kamalhassan. Mostly, I was trying to express why the man doesn’t do it for me anymore.
Aside: This is a pre-Dasavatharam post. I figure I’ll see the movie someday, but this analysis does not account for this latest data point. Then again, I do statistics for a living, so I don’t let data get in the way of my conclusions.
For a number of movies now, I have found myself unmoved by his performances. His comedies still work wonderfully (I bust a gut watching Panchatantram), but the “serious” performances mostly leave me cold. Hey Ram, for instance, simply did not work. I thought Rani Mukherjee was luminous and breathtakingly sexy in her brief performance as his Bengali housewife. I thought Atul Kulkarni was scarily intense as a Hindu fundamentalist. But the rest of it was just… what is that term a lot of bloggers (women, especially) seem to use to good effect? Meh.
Anbe Sivam was another example. A lot of people seem to love that movie. Me, I didn’t get bored, but that’s the best I can say for it. Meh again.
Don’t get me wrong: there are movies of his that still work for me. I am still moved to tears by the ending of Salangai Oli. I am still affected by the power of Nayakan. I still smile even when I think about Michael Madana Kama Rajan.
Part of the problem is that Kamal seems to have his own corollary of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity — he bends spacetime around him. His roles seem to be subtly and not-so-subtly designed to help him project the whole Alpha Male vibe. Even when he is beaten and helpless, he has to be spectacularly beaten and helpless. And that is a problem for me. Somehow I get the feeling that he isn’t trying to engage or entertain us with his performance, but patronizing us.
The other part of the problem is familiarity. We have seen this guy on screen and admired him for so long that nothing he does seems to surprise us anymore. Kamal is, like many others, a mannered actor. So, whatever role he does, it isn’t easy to forget that this is Kamalhassan playing that role. And this is where the title of my post comes in. The man sometimes drowns himself in whatever costume he’s using in a movie, but somehow, he never lets you forget that you’re watching him.
If you want a counterpoint, here is one: Surya in Perazhagan. Why? Because no matter how conscious I am of the fact that Surya is playing Chinna, I forget all of that when I see the performance. There is nothing, nothing of the Surya we have seen in other movies in that performance. Which is why it ranks among the great performances of Tamil cinema.
Kamal used to be able to do that. But somehow, not so much anymore, even when he is disguised.
A long time ago, when Sivaji got released, I wrote a little post about Amitabh and Rajni, and how one man has reinvented himself in ways the other hasn’t. The same holds, in some sense, for Kamal as well. He experiments with the roles he does and how he looks, but he never really lets you forget that it is him doing those experiments.
This is true of AB as well today — he has reinvented himself as a character actor, but it is not easy to forget that it is him playing whatever role he’s playing.The only movie in recent times where he has managed to do that for me is Nishabd. The movie’s theme is provocative, but there is nothing one can fault about the performances. AB especially is phenomenal here, and he does this by achieving an economy of performance that is rare. There isn’t a single muscle that seems to move unnecessarily, nor a single word that is spoken when silence will do. You see an actor who is not Acting.
The only immediate parallel I can think of is Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt, a performance where most of his energy would have been devoted to displaying no energy at all on screen. For an actor with phenomenal screen presence, it takes extraordinary skill and courage to become invisible.
Can Kamal become invisible? Sure, he’s got the talent to do it. But will he do it? That, I’m not so sure of.
ps: This has been a long rant, so thanks for reading this far. Now go read Baradwaj Rangan’s piece on Being Kamal Hassan. As always, he says it better than I ever could.