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Why Vikram is an important film in Kamal Haasan’s career

The 1986-Vikram was about one man. The 2022-film is still about the same one man—Kamal Haasan. Here's why

  • S Subhakeerthana

Last Updated: 11.25 PM, Jun 02, 2022

Why Vikram is an important film in Kamal Haasan’s career
A collage of the new and old Vikram posters/Twitter

Social media went berserk last year when director Lokesh Kanagaraj of Master-fame had announced he was collaborating with Kamal Haasan on a film. (The makers hadn’t revealed it wasn’t going to be named, Vikram then.) In fact, no one saw it coming. Although, once in a while, there would be a buzz that Kamal Haasan would be teaming up with a new-gen filmmaker. (not from his assistants, say, like Rajesh Selva, who made Thoongavanam with Ulaganayagan.) Also, I vaguely remember there were a couple of rumours that were doing the rounds that Mysskin and Bharat Bala were going to direct Kamal Haasan. But, nothing quite materialised.

The last time we saw Kamal Haasan in a proper action film was Gautham Menon's Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu. (The Vishwaroopam franchise doesn't count, as Kamal himself was the director). Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu doesn't belong to the Kamal universe. It was evident that the actor had stepped out of his comfort zone. Even today, we talk about his cop role, Raghavan, because it was so authentic. The detailing was pretty elaborate—be it the premise, characters or locations. There's so much to write about Kamal's restrained acting, as an instinctive cop. As an audience, it was easy to connect the dots in our heads, which makes the film rich in ways we don't expect.

Kamal Haasan chose to walk the lone path in an era when films for mass entertainment were known for dumb-witted narratives, tomfoolery and stereotypical representations. He chose to work with critically-acclaimed filmmakers, including K Balachander, Balumahendra, Bharathiraja, Rudraiah and K Viswanath, as much as he worked with commercial directors like SP Muthuraman and Singeetam Srinivasa Rao. Kamal Haasan’s choice of filmmakers has always intrigued me. Precisely, why I was thrilled when I got to know Lokesh Kanagaraj would be directing Vikram. Having seen the trailer, and watched a few of Lokesh's interviews, I'm confident that the film would work. I’m not saying this because I am a Kamal Haasan fan. (I have despised some of his films like Singaravelan, for obvious reasons.)

Though the 2022-Vikram isn't a sequel to the 1986-action film (directed by Rajashekar), Kamal Haasan had said that Lokesh's film is about a man, who's very similar to Arun Kumar Vikram, a ruthless and intelligent RAW agent. Both the characters of Kamal Haasan reminisce about their deeds. In honour of his first production, perhaps, the title works as a homage to that old film.

The late 70s and 80s, undisputedly, remain the golden phase of the actor's career, with him doing a mix of art-driven cinema and commercial ones—Varumayin Niram Sivappu, Raja Paarvai, Sadma, Pushpaka Vimana, Sagara Sangamam, Punnagai Mannan, Sakalakalavallavan and Nayagan. There were hits, there were misses. But, all of these were gems. You could watch them every day, and still not get tired of them. That was Kamal Haasan's strength—he balanced all kinds of cinema. He takes creative risks that other actors, usually, don't.

Raja Paarvai, for instance, wasn't a commercial success. But, that never stopped him from experimenting more. He followed it up with the brilliant Pushpaka Vimana, eventually. While it might not belong in the niche of silent experimental films, this, indeed, has charmed audiences through its outstanding performance by Kamal Haasan. With a tone of social satire, the film suggests that a materialistic life is transient, but love is the only thing that can bind us together.

Kamal was ridiculously good-looking in the 80s; he still is. Who would have the guts to try an anti-hero subject like Sigappu Rojakkal, especially, when he's at the top of his game? Because it was considered a huge risk then; to move away from the conventional storylines. Kamal Haasan became Kamal Haasan without influencers, and 'trending' hashtags. Let's get this straight! He's a prodigy. He's a phenomenon. Naturally, when a star of his stature, has a release in this era, it just means, he's willing to push himself, say, on par with someone like Vijay Sethupathi or Fahadh Faasil; or even better. Accept or not, Kamal Haasan is the G.O.A.T (Greatest Of All Time).

In the 90s, he was still a risk-taker. Aalavandhaan wasn't a commercial success. Yet, he continued to do Anbe Sivam and Mumbai Express. It is the biggest grouse that I have to date... Everyone talks about how Anbe Sivam is a classic (now), but where were they when the film got released in theatres? Sometimes, I feel that Tamil cinema isn't deserving of the genius that Kamal Haasan is. If a film succeeds, we call it a superb Kamal Haasan film. If it fails, we still call it a Kamal Haasan film. I think that's his success. Despite the ups and downs, he’s the constant. He made sure he was ‘there’ somehow.

Vikram, which is hitting the screens tomorrow, is the 232nd film of Ulaganayagan. I'm not sure how many of you are aware that the story of Vikram was published, episodically, in a popular Tamil magazine. When the film was released, it was neither recognised as a great piece of cinema nor won awards. But the film saw the union of three big names; Kamal Haasan, writer Sujatha and music director Ilaiyaraaja.

My dad, who caught the screening of Vikram in 1986, loved it for the backdrop and Kamal Haasan's swag. Though the film had its share of problems, in terms of the making, he often says, "it's an ideal masala cinema, but slightly ambitious." It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say Vikram was Kamal's own KGF then. After all, he pulled off a casting coup, roping in Bollywood actor Amjad Khan, Dimple Kapadia, Malayalam actor Lissy, and of course, Sathyaraj (who, at times, seemed more terrific than Kamal, on screen.) Furthermore, Vikram was the first film in Indian cinema to apply digital de-ageing technology.

If you sit back and analyse why 1986-Vikram didn't make it to the list of "most-liked Kamal Haasan films", you don't get a definitive answer. Maybe, the ‘Bond’ film genre didn't appeal to the audience; maybe, there was a lesser emotional connection; maybe, there was an overload of action; maybe, it wasn't too Indian; maybe, Salamiya didn't interest them; maybe, they didn't understand missile hijacks; maybe, they didn't expect Kamal Haasan in such a film! The maybe(s) are endless. After watching the 1986-Vikram, I'd say, it's not a bad film at all. Again, who can forget those foot-tapping numbers, set to tunes by Ilaiyaraaja? Not that I’m being dismissive of Anirudh’s music in the new Vikram, but I’m one of those who swear by Ilaiyaraaja. He’s the best. People like Anirudh come and go, but Ilaiyaraaja is forever. Sigh.

It was Lokesh’s idea to call this one, Vikram, Kamal Haasan said, in a recent press meet, adding that he had too thought of a one-liner, after having been inspired by the old Vikram, which Sujatha (co-writer) felt was way ahead of time. Lokesh turned that idea into a film, which Kamal couldn't. There's a thought that Kamal Haasan isn't an easy man to work with. I have had people say he "interferes too much", which I think is, rather, "involvement".

Lokesh Kanagaraj, in multiple interviews, had said Kamal completely gave him a free hand. The man, still, experiments (even) in 2022, despite being in the cinema, for 60 plus years! I imagine how Lokesh must have felt, initially, having Kamal on board. He has got to direct his 'idol'; a filmmaker himself, who he's a huge fan of. And, the man is the producer of the very film, too! Ah, talk about the pressure. It's real! 

Lokesh Kanagaraj, tells OTTplay, about the experience of directing his 'mentor' Kamal Haasan in Vikram. “Everyone, on the sets, was below 35. This was the first time Kamal sir worked with a young crew. Every technician was responsible and had respect for him. Further, he says how Kamal was extremely cooperative and complemented his vision of making an action film.

“As a fan, films like Kaaki Sattai have blown my mind. It's unimaginable how he could climb a 20 ft pipe without a body-double, or a rope. With Vikram, my idea was to tap the action hero that Kamal sir was. I like to write action scenes. It comes organically to me," Lokesh says.

Lokesh reiterates that he was doubly careful that he should not disappoint Kamal Haasan in any way. “I was expecting him to make some changes here and there, but he never suggested any. Everything happened the way I wanted. Kamal sir surrendered himself completely to me. I simply was true to my work. I'm glad Kamal sir understood my intentions, both as a filmmaker and an actor.”

Sujatha Narayanan, producer-writer-columnist, recalls her firsthand experience of watching the Vikram shooting in 1985 on the quiet lanes of Mylapore. “I was nine, and I remember interacting with Kamal sir and Vikram Dharma (the most sought-after action choreographer in the 80s and 90s) at my home. Those memories are still vivid,” she smiles. The old Vikram, Sujatha says, was more James Bond-ish, in the characterisation and staging.

“Sample Kamal Haasan breaking into, 'naan dhaan vetri petravan; imayam thottu vittavan' and quelling enemies. The film had a larger-than-life problem to deal with; whereas the action in the 2022-Vikram is in a realistic zone,” she points out. Sujatha, who worked with Kamal Haasan in Anbe Sivam, says he’s the reason why she is into films. “Such is the man's impact. Witnessing the Vikram shoot was my first introduction to watching Kamal sir on film sets,” she notes.

Sujatha recalls how Kamal Haasan insisted that she doesn't bunk school. “He promised me that he'd be shooting till evening. He kept his words; he was there when I came back. I saw Kamal sir perform risky stunts effortlessly. Dharma would do everything, after which Kamal sir would execute them. I saw him climb, chase, run, fight and do stunts like a superhero. It wasn't easy on uneven terraces and inclined roofs. But he aced everything perfectly, and everyone cheered for him. It took three days to shoot everything, sans ropes and CG work. For people to call someone a hero, they must do heroic things. Kamal sir is a true hero,” she says.

I concur.

A decade ago, Kamal Haasan had written in the Hindu, that he should have asked Mani Ratnam to direct Vikram. “It was Mani's cup of tea. Mani asked me what had happened because the story was so different from what I had told him,” Kamal Haasan added.

So, will Vikram be a Lokesh Kanagaraj film, or a Kamal Haasan film? (considering that the former is a fanboy.) Fingers crossed! But, as a fan of cinema, I am excited to see KAMAL HAASAN (I know; the letters are screaming to your face), on the big screen; after four years, that too, in a film; directed by someone, who’s as passionate as Kamal Haasan is, about cinema. That’s enough!