Make-up can disguise you, but can it make you invisible?

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.


12 thoughts on “Make-up can disguise you, but can it make you invisible?

  1. Shankar says:

    Ramsu, I do see your view but think about this too especially when you point out Surya’s performance. Kamal has been around for so long that we’ve practically seen almost everything he has to offer. For instance, the only scene I really liked in “Tenali” (it was otherwise too slapstick for me) was when Kamal does a single take in front of the camera talking about his childhood and his face morphs from being supremely happy to extremely sad. I loved it…however I have seen it before in “Guna” and so many of his films. Similarly with AB and Rajni, for a long time they kept doing what they have been doing for a long time…and successfully at that. So, anytime you walked into a Rajni film, your expectations were that Rajni would put on a dashing show complete with style and tricks, and he delivered. Kamal, in comparison, has always done varied roles.

    Kamal right now is at crossroads…he is trying to be different from the past (not necessarily better) and at the same time trying to capitalize on the exploding market for commercial cinema today. So, he indulges in efforts like “Dasa” and if rumors are true, “Marmayogi” which is reportedly a bigger film. So, if we as fans are hankering for his subtle performances as in the past, I don’t think that’s gonna happen for a while. Kamal the star has surpassed Kamal the actor today.

    Coming back to the Surya counterpoint, I do agree that it was a good performance (though I think he was faithful to the blue print from Dilip’s even better performance in the Malayalam original) but it has to be seen in the right perspective. I do admire him for the roles he is choosing and his performances, however Surya is just a few years old in the industry and his performances will not have the déjà-vu effect that Kamal’s do now. I feel that also subconsciously plays on our minds when we watch their movies.

  2. Menaka Baskaran says:

    Hi Ramsu,
    This is the first time that I have read your blog and I am glad I did. Interesting article on Kamal Hassan. I hope you have seen Dasavatharam where in some of his roles even the make-up does not make him invisible. Dasavathram is an ok film but the way the self-glorifying song at the end of the film (Ulaga Nayagane) talks about how the Oscars will come looking for him is so damn laughable! If anyone in Tamil Nadu thinks this movie is Oscar material, they must be in la-la-land.

    Watching Dasavatharam was watching a self-glorification of Kamal (something that Tamil films heros seem to suffer from…just look at the their self-grandiose titles: Ulaga Nayagan, Superstar, Ultimate Star, Supreme Star while the Bollywood actors like SRK, AB, Amir Khan — his movie was actually nominated for Oscars for God sake! — etc have no such titles before them and they have a much wider world-wide audience, which also includes non-Indians compared to Tamil film starts. I only speak of Tamil film because that is the only film industry that I am familiar with).

    Actually, the movie would have been so much better if there were no 10 characters at all and if the part of Christian Flethcher was played by an actual Caucasian actor. Kamal as a white man just did not work at all. What was the need for Kalifullah, Avatar Singh, the Japanese guy (which also looked laughably fake) and even Nambi who appears in the first scene. How did these characters push the story forward?(As the films stands, the connection is by the filmiest reasons. One suspects it is just for another reason for Kamal to change his disguise and tell the audience, “See, I can do this role too!”) The film could have easily gone on without any of these characters appearing in the film and then the movie would have been tighter and would have flowed better.

    But you know what’s the saddest thing? Comments such as yours only appear on the net and not in the print in Tamil Nadu where it should be read by many others. Looking at the way the media and even the internet sites such as Sify, Behindwoods, Galatta etc go on and on, there is a serious lack of intelligent comments on movies and the state of Tamil films on the media where it really matters.

    Keep up your good job and I look forward to many more interesting topics from your side.


  3. Folks,

    You may be right. The better an actor does initially in terms of surprising people, the tougher it becomes for him/her to keep doing it. Completely reinventing oneself cannot be easy. Even with Surya, when you see movies like Aaru and Vel, it is pretty disappointing because he is clearly capable of so much more. What I wonder is not whether Kamal can do it, but whether he will. Like Shankar said, has the star eaten up the actor?

    The problem with doing ten roles in a movie is, if it of reasonable length, it is going to be very tough to do justice to all of them. I read all these articles about how each role was a direct/oblique reference to one of Vishnu’s avatarams, so maybe he did them to make that point. Or maybe, like Menaka said, he just wanted to show off 🙂


    ps: Menaka: Thank you. Glad you liked the content 🙂 Do visit Baradwaj Rangan’s blog — he also appears in print, and is among the more sensible critics I’ve read.

    pps: Srihari, Thank you for your suggestion. Will do it once the rains let up in Mumbai 🙂

  4. Amitabh and Kamal,Both r g8 in their respective fields but if u asked me 2 choose the name that who is the best?then i prefer Amitabh a little bit ahead of Kamal.I think Amit creates the angry and pass way scenes so good that those scenes drags u on reality.

  5. I think it has to do with superstardom. At a certain point in each mega star’s career, I think it’s impossible for them to not turn into a caricature of what they used to be. The drive to bigger and better than before comes to a point where nothing remotely real and human could possibly be bigger and better and then what?

    With Hrithik Roshan, for instance, he was lucky to find a super hero franchise, crummy as it is, because that’s a place where he can be as unrealistic and as supermanish as he likes and his audience likes and still have a reason for it.

    Jack Nicholson on the other hand isn’t playing supermen. He’s playing fucked up men. And AB, poor thing, right before he retired in the 90s he was far worse off than Kamal is today. But since he’s come back, it looks like he would like to go the Nicholson way but can’t always do it because he has the superman tag to carry and nobody wants to know that superman got all fucked up in his old age. That’s why gets the patriarch roles in spades – Superman in the Retirement Home.

    Of course, they are all really good actors. But Kamal, Rajni, and AB all live under different expectations than JN. And that’s a tragedy of the Indian hero.

    I’d say Kamal’s prosthetics are his version of Hrithik’s mask. Of course, I’m interested to see what Hrithik is going to do in the future since he’s already succumbed to this kind of pressure.

  6. Well put, Amrita. How did I miss reading this comment until now?

    Apropos Hrithik, the superman thing is all he has been doing recently even without the cape and mask — D2 and Jodhaa Akbar are simply variants on that theme. The last time he went out of his comfort zone was in KMG.

    You’re mostly right about AB being stuck as superman in a retirement home – lovely analogy, by the way 🙂 He does manage to break free every once in a while, but he’s kind of like an elephant in the room, so giving him a minor role and asking him to fade into the background is unlikely.

    The trouble with that sort of baggage is, even when you play something completely different, it’s difficult to make people forget it’s you. Jack faces that problem as well, even though he’s traversed a very different path. The same with Al Pacino. Either he has to really try hard to tone it down (like in About Schmidt) or he has to be eclipsed by an incandescent performance by someone else (like Diane Keaton in the otherwise ordinary Something’s Gotta Give). For either of these things to happen, you need to be able to put your ego aside. Not so simple.


  7. All I can say is I hate Kamal Hassan! Rajni is so much better! Kamal Hassan overacts and is so huge! Even though Rajni is really old, he can still act and is awesome at his style!

  8. Well I lurve Kamal and Rajni Saar both 😀 They rock. And I cannot think of anyone who could have done Nayakan! He was amazing. Looking forward to Rajni’s ‘Endhiran’ 🙂 I need to learn Tamil one of these days, subtitles really annoy me :_(

  9. They both rocked, for sure. I could rhapsodize about Kamal’s old classics for hours.

    Do they still rock? Sometimes they do, but sometimes it seems like their larger-than-life image has warped the fabric of space-time around them.


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