Acting is more than skin deep - doesn’t Kamal Haasan know? (Commentary)

July 7th, 2008 - 12:56 pm ICT by IANS  

By Chitra Padmanabhan
What must have been the mental make-up of Kamal Haasan when he took on 10 roles in “Dasavatharam” - apart from feeling a great deal of love for himself, of course? For, the actor who has earlier demonstrated a wonderfully supple range of acting, from a “Nayakan” to a “Pushpak” and many others seems to have abandoned the basic rule of acting: you have to become the role.

He now seems to be saying that acting means donning disguises, sans any connotations of the transformative experience that performance is all about.

In a story that takes off in 12th century south India and lands in the 21st century armed with a destructive biological weapon, Kamal gets his ‘Dus ka Dum’ - scientist, Caucasian villain, Japanese martial arts trainer, George Bush, a grandma and a cop, among them.

Several reviews have spotted the Kamal contradiction. In theory, he wants 10 roles but uses them as special effects vehicles to extol his inalienable, larger-than-life presence. That’s how Bush, a Japanese martial artiste and Indian grandma bear an incredible resemblance to one another - that is, Kamal Haasan.

From a non-actor, the mechanics of make-up masquerading as performance would be laughable. Coming from an actor accomplished in slipping into roles, it seems criminal. Earlier, Haasan’s body displayed tentativeness — it was open to experience; no longer.

Anyone who has watched an artiste prepare for her/his role - before the camera or on stage - is bound to remember that experience.

The tuning of body and mind, the concentration of energies, the leap into space discarding the rigidity of a familiar, fixed identity, and the creation of a fluid universe which draws the viewer into its magnetic field - this is the beginning of every journey by a good performer. And, for the viewer, the beginning of the experience of ‘rasa’, allowing her a moment of flight as well.

Every step is a way of tuning in, as one saw earlier this year when Kathakali artistes from Kalamandalam, Kerala, prepared for an all-night performance in an event marking one year of the passing on of dancer-choreographer Chandralekha.

At breakfast, helping himself to idlis, the wiry bodied Kathakali maestro Kalamandalam Nandakumar, clad in trousers and shirt, seemed like anyone else.

Two hours later, wearing a veshti, his torso bare, and demonstrating the ‘nava rasas’ by performing vignettes from the classical repertoire of Kathakali dance-dramas, Nandakumar was a changed man.

In an instant, the slight figure was transformed into monumental forms - sheer energy dancing on breath control. Tuned in, mind and body became a fluid manifestation of a different rasa, a different character, as if it was the natural order of things.

It was impossible to see the body separately as a toned specimen that gyms enshrine. The body was the mind and vice versa; a single channel of energy creating intense form after form.

Later, we witnessed the make-up process of the artistes, which put in place the final layer of transformation.

The make-up of Kathakali artistes, with elaborate costumes, takes hours. Performers use natural colours, coaxing ‘paccha’ (green of nobility); red (ambition); black (evil) and white (spirituality). We watched a young man playing Sita put on layer after layer painstakingly.

Finally, when the young man rubbed oil on his hands, it was a completely feminine gesture. The make-up process had been akin to a meditative experience of getting into the skin of the character of Sita.

One of the female role specialists wanted to know where I had bought the big-sized ‘bindi’ I was wearing.

No impersonations, these, a la Haasan. Their transformation into the character was complete.

Years ago, at Delhi’s Sahitya Akademi, celebrated scholar Paula Richman, whose work highlights the live tradition of multiple tellings of the Ramayana from many perspectives in India, narrated a fascinating incident from Karnataka. An understudy artiste was asked to fill in for the main actor playing Ravana the following evening.

Something happened, the actor told Richman — he started feeling Ravana’s strength in himself. Next morning instead of the usual four idlis, he wolfed about 20 for breakfast!

Haasan has experienced this miracle of transformation often. As many point out, he played many roles in “Nayakan”, evolving from one stage to the other.

When such a miracle is within reach, why would an artiste choose to make his body-mind a shell?

Be it a Kamal Haasan, a Nandakumar or the understudy, what sets them apart is that moment when the artiste leaves his contours to soar in the skin of another.

Why deny the viewer a glimpse of the churn of creation?

(The author is a Delhi-based journalist. She can be contacted at

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