The relationship between K. Balachander and Kamal Haasan defies categorisation. Director –actor, mentor – protégé, father – son… all those lines have been blurred in the 40 years that they’ve known each other, creating a bond that’s unique and unconditional.
So when the veteran filmmaker couldn’t make it to Trivandrum to speak at the felicitation function of his protégé due to ill health recently, he grew upset. But his lovingly crafted speech reached Kamal Haasan nonetheless, one more in the series of touchingly genuine letters Balachander has sent to the actor over the years.
“Here are his earlier letters to me, that I’ve framed,” says Kamal when we meet in his office, displaying the neatly preserved pieces of paper. “I call them ‘my degrees’.”
They span the four decades that the two have known each other, beginning with the first one sent in 1977 after Balachander saw 16 Vayathinile. “I receive them only when he thinks I deserve it – I have to work for them!” says Kamal with a smile.
This particular occasion was Kerala state government’s felicitation of Kamal Haasan for 50 remarkable years in cinema. In the letter, Balachander says, “From babyhood to childhood, from adolescence to youth, from manhood to middle age, I have been part of this magician’s life… Kamal has evolved into everything that I have dreamt he would be. Indeed, I should never be surprised by anything he achieves, yet I am constantly amazed.”
It is high praise, so much so that Kamal himself was quite overwhelmed. “I had to read it out to my sister, who was witness to my early dark days, when my mother was afraid would happen to me,” he says. “But I knew I couldn’t without choking up, so I asked Gautami to read it out for me.”
It is, he says, everything he always wanted to hear from Balachander, his guru, the man he thinks of as a father figure. “I use the word ‘guru’ for him in the mythological sense – all other educationists ask for payment for knowledge imparted; this gentleman paid me and taught me. What a journey it was for me, after I met him at the age of 17 and a half.”
In the letter, Balachander describes this journey as one of mutual learning. “I did not teach him everything he knows. He just absorbed everything I knew. The rest he discovered himself by asking, probing, begging, watching, observing, reading, demanding, investigating, improvising, experimenting, experiencing, learning and not being afraid of stretching himself beyond his own limits,” he writes. “I only gave him the platform and the opportunity to discover himself. In the process, I was blessed enough to discover myself.”
For all their mutual regard, however, Kamal describes their relationship as having remained respectfully formal. “I prepare even for a conversation with him – I never want to say too little or too much. And I never disturb him except when I feel I’ve done something worthwhile,” he says. “It’s a rare relationship – unconditional and professional.”
The depth of the relationship is evident in Balachander’s letter. “I have long since lost the taste, appetite and hunger for personal applause. All I wish for now is to hear the applause, the cheers, the trumpets and the music singing [praises of] Kamal Haasan’s genius,” he writes. “No one has staked his reputation, repertoire and resources for the cause of cinema as much as he has. It is not mere pursuit of fame and fortune. In fact, he has lost more than he has gained. It goes beyond that.”
As this special relationship turns 40 next year, it seems certain to continue to mature like fine wine. “To have won a place in his heart among all those he has mentored and created itself is a distinction,” says Kamal.