How Kamal Haasan became a National Award winner at the age of 3

An actor par excellence with medals and awards galore, Kamal Haasan was always a prodigal talent. As the actor-director-writer-producer enters his 61st year, his first film, Kalathur Kanamma, offers an explanation into why the actor continues to reign over the Tamil film industry. 

Shriram Iyengar

In 1959, Rajalakshmi Srinivasan from Paramakudi had arrived in Madras, now Chennai, for a medical procedure. She brought along her youngest child, hoping to enroll him in a prestigious school in the city. Precocious, talented, and even competitive at that age, Kamal Haasan would end up in a film, much against his parents' wishes. The actor-producer-writer director has since gone on to win 4 National Awards, 2 Filmfare Awards, along with the Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and is a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres. Strangely, it all began with a dialogue from the veteran Sivaji Ganesan. 

Kalathur Kanamma is a highly dramatic film. Not technically brilliant, its magic lay in the complex human emotions and the tragic story that envelops the viewer. An adaptation of Thomas Hardy's infamous Tess of D'Urbervilles, it is the story of a woman abandoned by her lover and society and whose son becomes her redemption. The son played by a 3 1/2 year old Kamal Haasan. As the actor confessed in an interview with Karan Thapar to the BBC, the entire event was an accident. Kamal says,"I was brought along with my mother in the hopes of being enrolled in a convent school. However, it so happened that the lady doctor who was treating my mother decided I could use some diversion and took me along to a film party. As luck would have it, they were looking for a child actor for Kalathur Kannamma. I ended up acting in a film." 

At the instigation of the patronising elders at the party, Haasan decided to narrate a dialogue of the actor Sivaji Ganesan from the movie, Parasakthi. Incidentally, the movie had won Ganesan acclaim as one of the finest actors of the Tamil film industry. It had also launched the writer K Karunanidhi into the echelons of deified film personalities. Haasan's diction and composure won over Meiyappan, who decided to cast him in the film. Alongside stalwarts like Savitri, Gemini Ganesan and TS Balaiah, the little Haasan proved a spark plug. His innocent face and natural expressions enhanced the tragic tale of an innocent caught in the storm of societal discrimination. 

Directed by Bhimsingh, Kalathur Kannamma was as emotional as Tamil dramas came. It also carried within itself the socialist call against orthodoxy. Yet, it was a natural progression for the young actor. As he admits himself, "My brother was actually working as an assistant director, while he was supposed to be studying for law. So, in some ways, he pushed me into it." As a competitive child, he definitely took to the screen like fish to water. The film remains an iconic piece of work and an example of Haasan's natural attributes. The film critic, Randor Guy, wrote in the The Hindu that the film will be remembered for "The little boy’s remarkable performance and the song filmed on him." Throughout the film, it is the child's composure in front of the camera that stands out. Undaunted by the presence of great actors, probably innocent of that knowledge too, his performance comes across more effectively. The importance of Haasan's performance in the film can be surmised by the failure of its Hindi remake. Named Main Chup Rahungi(1962), the film had Sunil Dutt and Meena Kumari in the lead roles, but lacked a child actor to form the pivot for the movie. Though nominated for two Filmfare awards for Sunil Dutt and Meena Kumari, it failed to draw the crowds as its Tamil counterpart did. 

But it was the song that launched the young actor into a different dimension. Written by the poet-lyricist Vaali, 'Ammavum neeye' went on to become one of those landmark children songs that feature on annual children's day programmes on television. Surrounded by kids of his own age, the actor displays the kind of composure that would set him apart from his peers. It was no surprise then that the child walked away with the President's Gold Medal, the National Award as it was called then, for his performance in the film. 

If the film was a sign of the talent he possessed, his dedication to the craft arrived at a later age. By 10, the young actor had already joined TK Shanmugam's theatre troupe and started learning classical dance. A bad student, by his own admission, Haasan found his love for films early. As he says about another incident, "I remember once Shammi Kapoor saab was at AVM, and shooting. He was kicking a football around for a song on the stage. I was standing beside the camera, and he gave it a hefty kick. It hit me in the solar plexus. I was winded. That's how I first met Shammi Kapoor." These interactions would stand him in good stead, as Haasan would find his big break at the age of 19 in K Balachander's hard hitting drama, Arangetram(1973). It would begin one of the greatest creative collaborations in the Tamil film industry. One that continued as long as the director made films. Yet, acting was not on his mind. As Haasan admits in the interview, "As a matter of fact, I did not want to become an actor at all. I came in to be a technician, a director, behind the camera. I wanted to become a writer, wanted to direct. There was this belief that the director was the auteur. It was yet another happy, painless accident that I was chosen to be an actor."

Kamal Haasan in Chachi 420(1997)

Since making his debut as a child, Haasan has gone on to become one of the iconic names in Indian cinema. His filmography exceeds the count of 200 films in multiple languages. He is one of the few actors who has managed a fairly successful transition to the Hindi film industry with hits like Ek Duuje Ke Liye(1981), Sadma(1983), and Saagar(1985), a task even the great Rajinikanth failed at. The actor's ability to metamorphose into characters, with the generous help of make up, and willingly undergo physical transformations has set an example to many younger actors. Yet, his greatest ability continues to be the gentle curiousity about stories, and the natural expression to tell them with ease.