The Grand Illusion Called Kamal – 2

A few years back, soon after the much-hyped Dasavatharam was released, I wrote a piece called The Grand Illusion Called Kamal. Despite my adverse review, the film turned out to be a a blockbuster. Thereafter Kamal went on to reprise the role of Naseerudin Shah in A Wednesday and then delivered a dud in Manmadhan Ambu. Now, not being content with the titles such as Oscar Hero, Universal Hero, etc., he decided to do the unthinkable: steal Nayagan from Mani Ratnam.

Mani Ratnam pulled the carpet from under Tamil industry with his Naayagan. On content, technology, narration, performance, and on every department it was a path breaker. It broke every known tradition and created such an onscreen magic that we still remember it. We are in still in so much awe of this film that we talk about it as if it was released only last week. We revere Mani like a saviour; a messiah who delivered his people from mediocre cinema.

Until Nayagan happened, Kamal was a mere actor trying to compete with Rajinikanth in mass entertainers and failing too often in that game that his own relevance was in serious question. In his own film-making attempts, he was and still remains a compulsive plagiariser. Without Richard Dreyfuss, Bill Murray and Dustin Hoffman, and occasionally Stallone, his career would not have been built. With such a shameful and dismal track record he decided to claim that Naayagan was his and only his. On the emotional occasion of the 25th anniversary of Naayagan, he wrote an article in The Hindu claiming that, only under his aegis, Mani Ratnam dared to dream the great dream and Sreeram and Thotta Darani received inspired creativity. In this scheme, the producer was just an inconvenient presence who had no business but to sign cheques (and expect nothing in return).

Not content with slinging mug at Mukhta Srinivasan, the producer, and stealing the thunder from Mani, he went to the extent of accusing Mukhta of damaging Mani’s health! If I were Mukhta, I would have had a heart attack myself just at this imputation alone.

Not surprisingly, Mukhta decided to go public with a rejoinder. On his part, he attributed plagiaristic tendencies to Kamal and blamed that he was indeed responsible for all the ‘Godfather’ inspired scenes in the film, including the much-ridiculed crying scene. He claimed that Mani had a different script which would have turned out spectacular had it not for Kamal’s expensive interventions.

We don’t know the truth, but we can make some informed conclusions. On plagiarism, I think Mukhta has been too gentle. He should have been more forceful. On interventions, we can only go by grapevine from Kamal’s working relationship other directors, by which we can safely believe that as well.

Did Kamal believe that producers should be charity-minded and ‘donate’ their money for the cause of Art? Did Kamal believe that awards are all that matter and not money? Then why did he charge 17.5 lakhs for the film? Why could he not have offered half of it towards shooting in Mumbai and remaining half for procuring the required stuntmen? Why did he act in Sagalakala Vallavan after his Raaja Paarvai flopped? Why did he do a Xerox-copied Thenali after his ‘original’ Hey Ram bombed? If betterment of Art was his sole aim in life, why didn’t he continue to attempt ‘original’ art films irrespective of commercial outcome and refuse to sign up trashy entertainers?

That’s what people like Govind Nihalani, Satyajit Ray, Balu Mahendra and Bala do. They make films that are close to their heart. They don’t care about their revenue potentials. And if their visions connect with people’s they become classics. If they don’t connect, they fail at the box office. People like Mani Ratnam, Shyam Benegal and Bharathiraaja are slightly more concerned about revenue potentials and often strive to draw a balance, although once in a while they too decide to listen only to their hearts.

Kamal has always been driven by circumstantial developments. When Sagalakala Vallavan turned out to be a blockbuster, he continued to do similar films. When Naayagan turned out to be a blockbuster, he continued to do similar films. When comedies worked he continued to do comedies.

Nothing wrong with that, and that was a very clever thing to do too. However, such a person has no right to claim the he was the sole proprietor of art cinema in Tamil and only he had been constantly striving to take Tamil cinema to world stage. Hence the title Ulaga Nayagan or Universal Hero.

If what Kamal claims has what happened with Nayagan, it would mean that Mani Ratnam and Kamal decided to make a different film to what they had agreed with the producer, who was shocked to see a totally different, commercially unviable, film after it was completed. That would be a gross breach of contract and would amount to cheating. Kamal’s response to the shocked producer that ‘it will win many awards’ is hypocritical at best and irresponsible at worst.

Personally, Nayagan is one of the greatest experiences of my teens. I went to see it on the third day of its release and still vividly remember the shock and awe I felt watching it. I went back to it again and again, taking every friend along who had not seen it. I couldn’t get enough of the film. I had never imagined I would see a film like that in Tamil. As one of my friends put it, it was a magical film. That film reaching 25 years is a great emotional moment for all of us. It is not being ‘remembered’, because we had never forgotten it. Nayagan is not Kamal’s or even Mani Ratnam’s. It is our film. Even my experience at the first viewing helped shape its history. Exploiting such a great emotional time to steal some cheap glory was the horrible thing to do. By doing it, Kamal not only has undermined his own image, but ruined that emotional moment for all of us.


P.S. Thanks to Ramana Siddharth and Srihari Bodi for providing active discussions that led to many ideas explored in this blog.