When I decided to write this piece in honour of his completing 60 years in films and look at Kamal’s career and achievements from a music point of view, a flurry of thoughts came flooding as to, what to pick and what not to. After all, we are talking about a multi-faceted pioneer who has, for most parts of his career, been ahead of the curve in terms of craft and content. A trained musician adept at ragas, with jaw-dropping command over languages and mastery over dialects, Kamal is possibly one of a kind. Yes, there have been many actors who were good singers (Dr.Rajkumar & Bhanumathi Ramakrishna come to mind right away) but the hats Kamal wore expertly and continues to do is unparalleled.
Kamal in many of his interviews has stated, how being born in a Brahmin household influenced and shaped his musical tastes and choices. His mother was a violin player and his sister, a dancer also played the Veena. But the 2 biggest influences that further shaped his musical acumen are the Tamil theatre legend ‘Avvai’ T.K.Shanmugam (TKS) and K.Balachander (KB). The former groomed him in theatre (where he discovered his talent to sing & dance – he had already acted in a few films as a child by the time he joined the theatre group) and the latter plotted and mentored his ascent in films. Kamal would go on to learn from Dr.M.Balamurali Krishna for a few years much later, when he was already a pan Indian star. KB made him learn the Mridangam for his role in Aboorva Raagangal (which eventually would go on to be known as the launch vehicle of his professional rival and good friend, Rajnikanth). The film co-starred Srividya (daughter of M.L.Vasanthakumari, one among the female trinity of Carnatic music), who was a trained singer herself. Old habits die hard. And that is possibly the reason, he would learn the basic techniques to add authenticity to a blink-and-you-miss scene in Hey Ram, where he is seen playing the Piano, a few decades later
Kamal’s filmography cannot be defined without the mention of another colossus, Ilaiyaraaja, with whom he would go on to work for over 100 films (out of the 200 plus films he has done). So it is only prudent to look at this as a split of Raaja and others.
With Raaja – Raaja made his debut in 1976, by which time Kamal was already a star both in Tamil and Malayalam. 16 Vayathinilae, the cult classic that dragged Tamil films out of the studios, was the 1st time the two would work together in a film.
This actor-composer combination went on to churn out some of the most memorable and creative soundtracks over the next 3 decades, with S.P. Balasubramanyam for company. SPB apart from singing most of the songs for Kamal also continues to be his voice in the Telugu dubbed versions of his films, to date. 16 Vayathinilae was a musical blockbuster. Ilamai Oonjalaadugiradhu, Sattam En Kaiyil, Aval Appadithan and Sigappu Rojakkal followed suit in the next couple of years and there was no looking back.
Both had an experimental bone and the ideas flowed unabated. Whether it was the apt usage of ‘Abhirami Anthathi’ in Guna or ‘Naachiyar Thirumozhi’ in Hey Ram or the highly underrated jazz score in Mumbai Xpress (the scene where Kamal climbs the tower crane still gives me gooseflesh) or the bioscope story ‘Kadha Kelu’ in Michael Madana Kama Rajan that packed an entire flashback in a song or the hilarious ‘Maarugo’ in Sathi Leelavathi made up of lines from other Kamal hits or the ‘Therukkoothu’ songs that established the myth of Virumaandi or the leitmotifs in general, it was an aural treat every time they came together.
The stories behind how some of the iconic songs (like ‘Inji Iduppazhaga’ and ‘Isayil Thodanguthamma’) were born are the stuff of a legend.
When Kamal (along with his brothers) started his production banner in 1981, he roped in Raaja to score the music for their 1st venture Raja Paarvai. Kalyanaraman, Ullaasa Paravaigal, Tik Tik Tik, Moonram Pirai (Sadma in Hindi), Sagara Sangamam, Swathi Muthyam, Unnaal Mudiyum Thambi, Vikram, Nayakan, Sathya, Aboorva Sagotharargal, Guna, Thevar Magan, Hey Ram, Virumaandi and the list is endless. Each of these soundtracks and were landmark hits and ‘Kamal-Raaja’ became a genre of sorts. The 2005 bilingual comedy Mumbai Xpress remains their last collaboration as on date, with Sabaash Naidu that went on the floors in 2016, being delayed indefinitely.
Maestro Ilaiyaraaja will be performing an exclusive concert of Kamal songs in Chennai on the 17th of November, 2019 as part of the ‘Kamal 60’ celebrations that are being kicked off on 7th November, the actor’s 65th birthday.
With Others – M.S.Rajeswari, was Kamal’s first playback singer in the iconic ‘Ammavum Neeye’ from his debut film as a child artiste, Kalathur Kannamma (1960), that had music by R.Sudarsanam. But Kamal’s first blockbuster hit track, as a leading man would come much later
in the form of ‘Athisaya Raagam’ (Aboorva Raagangal, 1975, M.S.Viswanathan) sung by Dr.K.J Yesudas.
Some of Kamal’s other early hits were under the MSV (Avargal, Manmadha Leelai, Moondru Mudichu, Nizhal Nijamagiradhu, Maro Charithra, Ninaithaale Inikkum, Varumayin Niram Sivappu, Simla Special etc.,) baton. Iru Manam Konda, Manaivi Amaivathellaam, Sippi Irukkudhu, Kamban Aemaandhaan, Unakkenna Mele Ninraai, Engeyum Eppothum, to name just a few, are evergreen compositions that have stood the test of time.
The longevity of his career also meant that he had a chance to work with the legends of yesteryear from Salil Chowdhury, V.Kumar, Vijayabhaskar, Lakshmikanth-Pyarelal, Pancham to the new-gen composers A.R.Rahman, Deva, Vidyasagar, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, Ghibran and Anirudh (Indian 2 – in the making). Even his one-off collaborations (Mahesh, Bharathwaj, Ramesh Vinayakam & Karthik Raaja) produced memorable hits.
‘Nyayiru Oli Mazhayil’ in Andharangam (1975, G.Devarajan) was Kamal’s debut as a playback singer. But it wasn’t until Raaja noticed him crooning an English number in a Cinema Express event, did he turn into a full-fledged playback singer. ‘Panneer Pushpangale’ (he credits the nasal twang in his rendition to the number of Malayalam films he was doing then) and ‘Ninaivo Oru Paravai’, 2 classics, recorded on the same day would establish him as a dependable singer. Raaja went on to explore many dimensions of this inherent talent in Kamal to add value to the films at large. ‘Narikathai’ from Moonram Pirai, ‘Kanmani’ from Guna, the title track of Vikram that has Kamal rapping, ‘Peigala’ from Mahanadhi, the Hey Ram title track, the soaring ‘Pottu Vaitha’ and fun ‘Sonnapadi Kelu’ from Singaravelan or the iconic ‘Thenpandi Cheemayile’ from Nayagan, he was adept at everything that was thrown at him.
Kamal has often mentioned that he considers Raaja as one of his gurus, who without making it sound like a lesson, imparted a whole lot and how that benefitted him while working with other composers. So we also got ‘Stranded on the streets’ – an English number from Nala Damayanthi (Ramesh Vinayakam), the brilliant ‘Iraniyan Naadagam’ and ‘Naanagiya Nadhimoolame’ from Utthama Villan & Vishwaroopam 2 respectively (both by Ghibran), ‘Rukku Rukku’ in a female voice from Avvai Shanmugi (‘Jaago Gori’ in Chachi 420), the brief rendition as part of ‘Mukunda’ track in for the old lady character he played in Dasavatharam, to sample a few. Kamal’s penchant for languages and dialects is well known. Sundari Neeyum (Palghat Brahmin), Kandhasaami/Kaasu Mela (Madras lingo), Injirungo (Srilankan Tamil), Sanyas Mantra (Sanskrit) and Kombula (Madurai dialect) are shining examples of how one facet of the actor adds to another.
Not many know that Kamal has in fact sung playback for actor Mohan in the film Oh Maane Maane (Ilaiyaraaja) way back in 1984. The song is ‘Pon Maanai Theduthe’. He has also sung for Ajith in Ullaasam (Muthe Muthamma – Karthik Raaja), Pudhu Pettai (Neruppu Vaayinil – Yuvan Shankar Raja), Avam (Kaarirulae – Sundaramurthy KS) & Muthuramalingam (Therkku Desa – Ilaiyaraaja). His song for the Hindi film Happi (Ilaiyaraaja), featuring Pankaj Kapoor in the lead, ‘Zindagi’ never saw the light of day, owing to production delays.
The Master Actor
When looking at his contribution to music one cannot discount the fact that his acting abilities ensured songs were tailor-made, to suit the myriad characters he played onscreen. He played a ventriloquist in Avargal and we got ‘Junior Junior’. He played the low IQ village simpleton in 16 Vayadhinilae and we got ‘Aattukkutti Muttayittu’. Unnaal Mudiyum Thambi featured an Oothukkadu Venkata Subbaiyer krithi, ‘Paal Vadiyum Mugam’ in Raga Naattai Kurinji sung by Kamal himself.
For the gruff-voiced antagonist he played in Indrudu Chandrudu (Telugu), Raaja composed ‘Nachina Foodu,’ that resulted in SPB losing his voice temporarily. The buck-toothed Kalyanaraman and ‘Chaplin’ Chellappa from Punnagai Mannan, got ‘Aaha Vanduruchu’ and ‘Mamavukku Kuduma’ respectively (Malaysia Vasudevan!). Sagara Sangamam (1983, K.Vishwanath) and its contribution to classical dance are well known. It is difficult to imagine any other actor playing Balu, the dancer. The scene featuring Manju Bhargavi, where he dances in the sidelines of a wedding hall, to Thyagaraja’s ‘Bala Kanaka Maya’ is a personal favourite. ‘Unnai Kaanadhu’ from the recent Vishwaroopam, which featured him as an effeminate Kathak dancer is proof of his continuing efforts at keeping up the high standards.
Yes, many of these could be brain-children of the director or the composer, but it can also be argued that if not for Kamal Haasan’s ability to transform and deliver, these ideas would never have been a reality or had the same impact.
For an industry that has songs as an integral part of its films, the role of lyrics is imperative. Having worked with many a stalwart like Kannadasan, Vaali & Vairamuthu over his career, Kamal on Raaja’s insistence, debuted as a lyricist in Virumaandi. While composing the song Raaja suggested that Kamal write the lyrics for the song, he hesitated and denied stating he doesn’t know where to start. Raaja gave him the line “Unna Vida Indha Ulagatthil Osandhadhu Onnum Illa” (there is no one more precious in this world than you) and asked him to complete the rest. And thus, Kamal the lyric writer emerged. ‘Neela Vaanam’ (Manmadhan Ambu), ‘Anu Vidaittha’ & ‘Unnai Kaanadhu’ (Vishwaroopam), ‘Naanagiya’ (Vishwaroopam 2), ‘Iraniyan Naadagam’ (Utthama Villan) are some of the songs that feature him as a lyricist.
His older daughter, actor Shruthi Haasan is a singer (Thevar Magan, Hey Ram, Vaaranam Aayiram, Shamitabh and many more) and composer (Unnaipol Oruvan) herself.
With his new avatar as a politician, we are possibly looking at the last leg of his acting career (2 films – Indian 2 & Thalaivan Irukkiraan – are in the works). Come next elections, it will be interesting to see if he will face the music or dance to the tunes (of the people). But as a movie and music buff and a selfish one at that, who has enjoyed his numerous contributions to the world of art, one wishes he is here to stay in films and continues to create and inspire.
Happy 65th Birthday, Kamal Haasan!