[I was recently asked to write the 200th post on All Things Kamal; I enclose the link below -- Qalandar]
I am ostensibly an odd choice to write a commemorative post on a site dedicated to Kamal Haasan: not only have I not grown up on Nayakan, Thevar Magan or Guna, but I’ve come to Kamal’s films — indeed, Tamil films in general — only relatively recently (and even now am limited to the ones I can find with English subtitles), and indeed often wish he would stop playing the hero (including in one of my favorite Kamal films, Virumaandi).
All of the above might, however, make me especially well-positioned to begin a discussion on Kamal’s place in Indian cinema, a discussion, that is, that does not focus on his acting achievements so much as on what he means, the position he occupies, and the difference he has made. That “difference” is not merely a question of saying that Kamal stands for “quality” cinema, or that Kamal goes against the grain of Tamil masala cinema. Rather, a proper appreciation of this difference would also have to engage with the wider context of a Tamil cinema that is simultaneously a “regional” cinema, and one confronted with the hard fact of a dominant “national” industry with far greater resources at hand. For it is this terrain that Kamal’s career has had to negotiate, certainly over the last two decades.
Confronted with that brute fact, the tendency is for India’s “regional” industries to go aggressively “local”, with cinema being viewed as a repository (or even as embattled citadel) of a culture and way of life that is under threat, besieged not necessarily due to any overt political hostility so much as by the dominance of a discourse — in this case Hindi cinema — with nationwide ambitions. At its best, this phenomenon results in films far more attuned to the rhythm of the “little”; to “marginal” voices that are not very likely to register on canvases where images are painted in very broad brushes; to moments as opposed to grand projects; to stories and not mere spectacles. At its worst, however, the “regional” film finds it hard to shed its mantle of insularity, and runs the risk of imagining the “local” past and culture as hermetically sealed and set in stone, and even of falling into the trap of xenophobia. Confronted with a “national” hegemony that would potentially sacrifice the “regional” at the altar of homogeneity, the temptation (not often resisted) is to construct a narrative of the “regional” that itself becomes a countervailing homogenizing hegemony: certain films or subjects are deemed more or less “authentically” Tamil, while others might be criticized for not hewing closely to a “standard” or “authorized” Tamil idiom. The construction of a countervailing sub-national hegemony, in short, risks compromising the very attention to the “local” that animated the “regional” in the first place.
Ever since the man started assuming greater film-making control over his projects, the arc of Kamal’s career has done more to destabilize the above polarity than any other, Mani Ratnam’s excluded (fittingly enough, if one were hardpressed for an inaugural “moment” for the difference I am referring to, one need look no further than the coming together of Ratnam and Kamal in Nayakan). For Kamal and Ratnam have sought to evade the hegemonic “national” by resorting to a global paradigm, one that seeks to tap into the best of “world” cinema in an ambitious attempt to distinguish their Tamil films not merely on account of their Tamil essence but on account of their excellence — where “excellence” is defined not in terms of what would or would not pass muster in mainstream Hindi cinema, but what would make the grade where the world’s cinephiles are concerned. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that of the two, Kamal’s concern for the health — and even more so for the sophistication — of Tamil cinema exceeds that of Ratnam’s. And if the prescription comes at a price — the casting of Kamal himself in the role of messiah — in a historical sense the price is well worth paying.
Kamal’s approach is not simply a question of distinguishing Tamil films by virtue of quality: the films he has directed make clear that he sees the appeal to the trans-national as a way not only to evade the national, but to enable the “regional” to interrogate the national, thereby carving out a cinematic space that is not simply a function of linguistic difference, even as it depends upon and perhaps even acts in the name of that linguistic difference. It is worth stressing that this is in no way an “anti-national” viewpoint, but instead one that resists the dominance of an “official” paradigm. My point is best illustrated by means of Hey Ram and Virumaandi, two of the finest Indian films I have seen this decade, and both directed by Kamal himself.
Hey Ram is ostensibly itself a “national” film, planned and executed as a bi-lingual, and populated with Bollywood stars, to such a degree that non-Tamilians might not even think of it as a Tamil film at all. Yet this is no instance of cultural effacement in the quest for a wider audience. Rather, Kamal uses Hey Ram to literally enact the drama of the “regional” difference (not to mention communal difference) vis-a-vis the symbolic heart of India, Mahatma Gandhi himself. This is about more than just the fact that the film’s protagonist is Tamil Brahmin Saket Ram, out to avenge himself on the nation’s father; rather, one realizes very soon that almost every memorable character in the film is testimony to the “regional”, be it a Pathan Muslim, Saket Ram’s Bengali wife, or his Sindhi friend. In fact, the film’s casting of culturally “authentic” Hema Malini as a Tamilian is itself slyly subversive, inasmuch as it takes a “national” icon and “regionalizes” her in a very direct way. The extremist Abhayankar and the wicked Altaf are far more “mainstream”, of course — not coincidentally, if the film has villains, they undoubtedly fit the bill. Towards the film’s end it is in fact the Pathan’s knowledge of Tamil that enables him and Saket to escape the mob at their heels, a literal staging of the hope that acknowledgment of political difference — here the sub-national — might enable us to sidestep the overarching manias of national projects (problematic not so much because they are manias but because they are overarching projects), including projects like Abhayankar’s.
Perhaps most wondrous of all is the fact that not a trace of anti-Indian sentiment animates Hey Ram, though this isn’t surprising to those who have followed Kamal’s interviews. The film is not embarrassed to embrace India, but equally, is consistent with a view that does not see patriotism as involving any sub-national compromise, and certainly no compromise of a humanity that is shared across communal and other boundaries. Perhaps as a result of its enactment of this conviction on a nationwide scale, Hey Ram might be the grandest “regional” film of them all, free not only to examine the national margins but also liberated from the stultifying restrictions of “mainstream” discourse within which it would be difficult to think the things Hey Ram thinks of. The result is a political film that is bolder than most, and a “regional” film that meditates on issues that resonate nationally, even globally.
Virumaandi illustrates another aspect of the “difference” I started out with. On the face of it, the tale of a violent inter-village conflict in Madurai district sounds like the sort of “local” film any number of directors mindful of making “authentic” Tamil films could have made. Once again (and more clearly here than in Hey Ram) it is Kamal’s recourse to broader aesthetic and political concerns that distinguishes the film, which touches upon Kurosawa’s Rashomon, capital punishment, and the injustice of the justice system. Simultaneously, Virumaandi strives to be a rip-roaring “massy” action film as well as the sort of rural study Bharathiraja was once known for — in short, about as recognizably Tamil a film as one could ask for. The melange is not always seamless, but the parry (of the status quo, here represented by a hopelessly inadequate legal order) and thrust (of the “regional”, in the form of the ultra-Tamil feel of the film) clearly strikes a chord. Virumaandi is consistent with Kamal’s resistance to the homogenizing potential of the “regional” itself, and displays an ear for Tamil voices not often heard in mainstream cinema.
Nor was Virumaandi the first time Kamal had explored the representation of voices that one might characterize as “marginal” to the Tamil cinematic mainstream, as films like Thenali, Nala Damayanti , and Anbe Sivam attest — indeed the first two quite literally focus on characters who speak a Tamil that is lived on the border as it were, between Sinhalese and Tamil in Thenali; and between Tamil and Malayalam in Nala Damayanti. (The third film explores a character beholden to an ideology — communism — that is as marginalized today as it has ever been.) With Kamal, it is clear, the hegemony of the national may not be replaced with the hegemony of an “authorized” regional voice, one which purports to stand for the authentic to the exclusion of others. Moreover, Nala Damayanti is especially relevant in the contemporary “globalized” world, given its doubly disorienting move: not only does the film’s protagonist speak the Palakkad Tamil of the Tamil Nadu-Kerala borderlands, but he is also an illegal immigrant in a strange land, adrift in a sea of English he cannot understand. Nala Damayanti, that is, illustrates yet again the ability of the “regional” film to explore global issues that the “mainstream”, almost by design, finds difficult to engage.
If this essay is about anything, it is about more than the achievements of a single actor/filmmaker (and I have deliberately stressed the “filmmaker” Kamal here, leaving to others better qualified than I the task of thinking about Kamal’s performances and other contributions in light of this piece). Because the likes of Kamal have inspired others in Tamil cinema, not only at the purely superficial (albeit very welcome) level of technical proficiency, but visually and thematically as well. Rather than cite particular examples of filmmakers and actors who have followed Kamal, I will end by paraphrasing a critic I greatly respect, who had once said that prior to the mid-1980s there was no non-culturally specific reason to watch any Tamil films. The “difference” to which Kamal Haasan has helped give concrete form means this is simply not true anymore. How untrue it is in the grand scheme of things is an open question, and will turn (as it must) on those who follow. Kamal has done his part — and, fittingly enough, not just “locally”: while the Kamal “difference” is a different animal from the (overly optimistic) crossover concerns that seem to occupy far too many in the Hindi film industry these days, it has nevertheless left its mark even there, principally by way of the manner in which the likes of Aamir Khan have begun to approach their films — with seriousness, ambition, and the desire to rescue popular cinema from both global blandness and “native” cliche. It is not a question of creative influence so much as it is one of mindset. A mindset that is best situated to result in global critical recognition for India’s popular cinemas, and in a manner such that they do not cease to be voices of our many Indias.