Dilani Rabindran



The First Hero I Knew, kamal haasan, Moondram Pirai


I was born & raised in Canada, but never once felt removed from my heritage, thanks to the movies and my mother. My parents immigrated years before I was born & my mother vowed that her children would always be connected to their culture, and the best way she knew to ensure that was through the medium of cinema. So I was raised on the stories of Balu Mahendra, Bharathiraja, Mani Ratnam and Shankar, the music of Illaiyaraaja and Rahman, and the films of Padma Bhushan Dr. Kamal Haasan – my mother’s all time favorite actor. She had very little to console her in her homesickness, but a few cassette tapes and VHS copies of Kamal’s films got her by.


Kamal sir helped her to connect to her first home, and those she had left behind; he reminded her of the lighter moments of her adolescence when they had enough spending money to occasionally go to the theater. She watched him transition from a child artist to a leading man, developing new found pride in learning Bharathanatyam because he represented all dancers on the big screen. She first knew the likes of MGR & Sivaji, but Kamal was her generation’s hero – the symbol of her cinematic cohort. So she used his classic films of the ‘70s & ‘80s, the ones she grew up with, to teach me about my culture – the arts, scenery, values and history of my heritage – and, perhaps subconsciously, her life. With every film she had a personal anecdote to tell – where she was when she first saw it or how she went looking for a sari like in the songs. She loved Indian cinema & recognized the power it gave her to transport one land to another, and if she was going to show her child any films in particular – they would be the ones of her hero.


She introduced me to Kamal, the actor & singer with her favorites like Apoorva Raagangal, 16 Vayathinile, Raja Paarvai and Moondram Pirai. I learnt about Kamal the dancer through classics like Salangai Oli & Punnagai Mannan, and laughed uncontrollably watching Michael Madana Kama Rajan. I even suspect my irrational love of elephants is because I saw Ram Lakshman too many times as a child. And as I grew, we gradually switched roles. Once I was old enough to recognize quality cinema on my own I wanted to re-watch films like Nayakan, Sathya & Indian, starring Kamal the darker dramatic artist.  Soon after Hey Raam was released I was a young cinephile educating her mother on what a big deal it was for this man to write, produce & direct such an epic multilingual film, reporting to her all his national & international accolades. And then, soon enough, we were jointly crying & laughing while watching the likes of Thenali, Anbe Sivam and Vasool Raja together. My childhood is comprised largely of Kamal Haasan films, and I am proud to say I still know all the steps to ‘Telephone Manipol’.

My mother used movies to help teach me the Tamil language and recognize our customs at a time when the South Asian community was extremely limited in Toronto. She never forced an obsession with the medium of Indian cinema, though – that I steadily developed on my own. To me, it was a culmination of music, dance and rich storytelling, and at the centre of it all, according to my view, was this man who made all these stories come alive so vigorously. I became ravenous for Tamil movies of all kinds, because of the taste my mother had given me for the whole field through Kamal Haasan. His contribution to many industries led me to seek out other Indian language films, and because he tried every genre I felt I was given an education in world cinema as a whole. Kamal sir has made the kinds of movies I am proud to refer non-South Asian friends to – knowing that they will be entertained and enlightened by the best forms of critical and commercial Indian cinema, over the past 6 decades. And all the reasons my mom first began worshipping him, and why I first recognized his significance, still apply today.


He is now 60 & we still watch his current dance performances to better my own form. There is no arguing that his acting has bettered with age, as he tackles more challenging/unique roles with almost every film, like Dasavatharam & Vishwaroopam. He leads the industry with class as a producer, writer and director of grandiose cinema, and I have written before about how I admire his professionalism as a business man. He continues to act as a purveyor of groundbreaking Indian cinema that is celebrated internationally and thankfully for us Ulaganayagan fans he shows no sign of slowing down.


Almost 2 years ago my first column ran on Behindwoods – “Vishwaroopam: A first-hand account from across the Atlantic”. After months of paying my dues my chance had arrived because the Tamil Nadu ban meant I was the team’s go-to person for the film. The ban was an unfair occurrence, but I still marveled in my mother’s words at that time: “You complained about when your column would debut, and see…it was all fate. It was for a Kamal film.” I couldn't help but agree. My first column, that helped me officially begin proclaiming my love of Indian cinema to the world, was devoted to the man who undoubtedly helped instill in me my lifelong love of movies, inspiring my chosen career path today.


I’m often asked how I became so engrossed with Indian films while being born a Canadian; to those people I explain that I was raised on them for good reason, and if you were raised on the work of Kamal Haasan - how could you not fall in love with the genre and whole reel world?


So, in conclusion, “Happy 60th Birthday, Kamal sir”. My mother and I thank you very much for all the gifts.


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