Kamal Haasan turns 67: Meet the actor as a dancer, one of his dasavatharam

Focusing on a lesser-known aspect of his legacy today, we look at Kamal Haasan's dancing genius and how it has illuminated many of his great roles, most spectacularly Sagara Sangamam.

As far as celebrated Tamil megastars go, Kamal Haasan, who has just turned 67, is easily the most multi-talented power force at work today. ‘Experimentation’ is his middle name, and the auteur from Chennai has proved time and again that cinema can be an obsessive pursuit for him, to the point of madness. Kamal Haasan’s an actor, playback singer, producer, director, lyricist, screenwriter, politician, poet, father (to Shruti and Akshara Haasan, both actresses) and a neo-polityculturist (reach for your thesaurus), as per his own Twitter bio. But of this Dasavathaaram — quite literally — the one role that looks like being closest to Haasan’s heart is that of a dancer. Yes, he’s a classically trained dancer! How many more facets there are to the beloved Ulaganayagan, as the Tamil audiences have affectionately dubbed him, that we don’t know as yet?

Even before Haasan’s brush with acting as a grown-up he worked in Tamil films as an assistant choreographer, mostly under the tutelage of the legendary Thangappan Master. The Nayagan star’s interest in dance goes back even further. Only 12 when he accompanied his mother to see a Kuchipudi performance, he walked out having made up his mind to become a dancer. The young Haasan was quickly enrolled in dance tuitions. A fast learner, he got off to a good start but there was a slight problem. As he told film critic Baradwaj Rangan, “I was totally neglecting school. I was always in the dance class.” The early training in Kuchipudi, Bharatnatyam and Kathak helped the National Award-winning actor prepare for some of the important and influential roles he’d go on to essay in his golden career, particularly his famous dance moments in hits such as Sagara Sangamam, Ilamai Oonjal Aadukirathu, Enakkul Oruvan, Punnagai Mannan and several others.

His Magical Moves

Kamal Haasan in Sagara Sangamam


K. Viswanath’s Telugu masterpiece Sagara Sangamam, released in 1983, has become particularly and inextricably tied up with Kamal Haasan‘s trajectory as a dancer. Arguably one of the greatest films about dance, it’s a telltale of an alcoholic dancer (Haasan) who’s now just another lost potential. The ending of this classic is probably as achingly tragic (if not more) as Haasan’s other key work, Sadma/Moondram Pirai. More than any other film, Sagara Sangamam (later successfully dubbed in Tamil and Malayalam) reflects Haasan’s passion for dance and how the art form has followed him closely from childhood, like a creative shadow. We admire Haasan’s Renaissance man-like metaverse so much that his hoofer legacy has become a slightly underrated one. But thinking of the master of masquerade today as a dancer, many moments from his oeuvre spring to mind. Teaching Revathi the art of dance and romance in Punnagai Mannan, matching steps with the one and only Prabhu Deva in Kaathala Kaathala, his magical moves in the rain dance in Enakkul Oruvan (a remake of Karz, which itself was refashioned from The Reincarnation of Peter Proud) and his Kathak dance teacher performing an exquisite Unnai Kaanadhu Naan in Vishwaroopam. He even gave this most revered of classical dances a comic twist in Avvai Shanmugi, a.k.a chhupdi chachi (Haasan in drag) as the Hindi audiences know him from Chachi 420. Although nothing more than a Mrs. Doubtfire rip-off Chachi 420 (Haasan) remains one of his most well-loved roles thanks to this chameleon-like shape-shifter’s ability to make you laugh. And when Chachi breaks into a dance, she leaves her admirers entranced (especially a certain Durgaprasad Bhardwaj who can’t stop drooling).

Kamal Haasan in Punnagai Mannan


Kamal Haasan matching steps with Prabhu Deva


Kamal Haasan’s performance in Vishwaroopam


Over the last four decades (even longer if you consider his child artiste years), Haasan has acquired the reputation of a versatile stalwart for whom nothing on screen, it seems, is impossible. He leaves no stone unturned in achieving the best — sometimes, though the all-round megalomania backfires. This man lives for cinema. He lives for the smaller details that other actors might overlook. For example, he apparently learnt the mridangam for his guru K Balachander’s Apoorva Raagangal, a radical film about the complexity of human relationships that first brought him (as well as lifelong friend and screen rival Rajinikanth) into public notice in 1975 as a gawky youngster in love with an older woman. He acts like a dream. He speaks like a pro (hence, a political career is in the works). He sings, a talent that once again he has honed through his early training. Yet, dancing is one aspect of his life that doesn’t get much attention. Perhaps, now’s the time for audiences beyond Kollywood to look at his work anew.


And with that, may we request the godfather of acting to come on the floor and show us some killer moves?

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