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Print edition : Jul 06, 2022 T+T-
J. Mahendran.

J. Mahendran.

Rajinikanth and ‘Phataphat’ Jayalakshmi in “Mullum Malarum”.

Rajinikanth and ‘Phataphat’ Jayalakshmi in “Mullum Malarum”.

Rajinikanth and Sriidevi in "Johnny".

Rajinikanth and Sriidevi in "Johnny".

Sivaji Ganesan and K.R. Vijaya in "Thangapathakam".

Sivaji Ganesan and K.R. Vijaya in "Thangapathakam".

Prathap Pothan, Mohan and Suhashini in “Nenjathai Killathe”.

Prathap Pothan, Mohan and Suhashini in “Nenjathai Killathe”.

Directing Rajinikanth in "Johnny".

Directing Rajinikanth in "Johnny".

Mahendran  on the sets of “Uthiri Pookkal”.

Mahendran on the sets of “Uthiri Pookkal”.

Mahendran (1939-2019) set a new path in Tamil cinema with his deglamorised films.

WITH the passing of Mahendran on April 2, an epoch comes to an end in Tamil cinema. In the late 1970s when Rudriah’s Aval Appadithaan  (She is Like That, 1978), Mahendran’s Mullum Malarum  (Thorn & Flower/aka A Thorn will Bloom, 1978), and Balu Mahendra’s Azhiyatha Kolangal  (Indelible Impressions, 1979) emerged one after the other, they created great expectations. Cinephiles saw them as something that would consolidate into a movement towards an alternative film culture, a movement that would contribute films of greater significance from the region to the overall oeuvre of the new Indian cinema aka parallel cinema. Instances of valuable films of that kind had emerged since Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome  (1969) not just in Bengal or Bombay but also in Kerala and Karnataka. The absence of similar films in Tamil Nadu was seen as a major lacuna. For more than one reason, the kind of expectations the Tamil films mentioned above created were never really fulfilled. 

In Kerala and Karnataka, a kind of symbiosis existed between literature, cinema, art and theatre and other performing arts. This was peculiarly absent in Tamil Nadu despite the fact that the Madras Presidency had provided a cosmopolitan base for the literati cutting across linguistic lines of southern India. By the 1970s, the literary avant-garde  of Tamil Nadu toiled in its own little islands associated with its different factions. Life was not easy for the Tamil artistic avant-garde  either despite the creation of an artists’ commune such as Cholamandal. In theatre, Na. Muthusamy’s Koothu Pattarai and other fringe avant-garde  groups had to struggle without state support. In the performing arts, but for the lone and daring experiments of Chandralekha, there was nothing much to talk about. 

Notwithstanding the advent of five Chief Ministers closely associated with Tamil cinema since 1967, save for the state-funded MGR Government Film and Television Training Institute established in 1965, no local film development corporation was started to promote and foster an alternative film culture. Nor were there public institutional frameworks for the promotion of art, literature or theatre. To this day, no State university in Tamil Nadu has a theatre department or, for that matter, a film studies department. Add to this the fact that the regional intelligentsia was split across two lines, anglicised versus non-anglicised and Brahmin versus non-Brahmin. In that context, anything new would have to encounter the same audience of about 400 in a city like Madras (Chennai) and considerably half that number in cities such as Tiruchi, Madurai and Coimbatore, with absolutely no chance of a peek whatsoever in a semi-urban district or a rural town. The consensus that serious works of art matter was largely restricted to a minority, which in itself did not see eye to eye on many issues that railed the polity. It is understandable then that even films made with Films Finance Corporation (FFC) funding such as Babu Nanthankode’s Dhaagam  (Thirst, 1974) desired to reach a larger audience than this minority and consequently could not break away from time-honoured modes of representation. 

John Abraham’s Agraharathil Kazhuthai  (1977) remains, therefore, the one and only contribution of Tamil cinema to the new Indian cinema of that era. In stark contrast, post-liberalisation and the unprecedented expansion of Chennai, which now boasts a population of approximately eight million, corporate sponsorships and platforms are available for theatre as never before. Serious theatre now is not only thriving but has become a paying proposition for those who engage in it. Thanks to digital technology and multiplexes across the region and the rest of the world, access to the widest possible Tamil audience has become easier than ever before. At the same time, the advent of information technology has done away with the film-maker’s dependence on an intermediary officialdom to seek other audiences across the world by entering a film into a range of international festival circuits. It is with these kind of changes that serious films such as Leena Manimekelai’s Sengadal  (Red Sea, 2011), Arun Karthick’s Sivapuranam  (The Strange Case of Siva, 2015), Amshan Kumar’s Manusangada  (Cry Humanity, 2017), Ra. Chezhian’s To Let   (2017) and Lenin Bharathi’s Merku Thodarchi Malai  (Western Ghats, 2018) have become possible in contemporary Tamil Nadu.

Middle cinema

 In comparison, things were far more difficult in the 1970s and 1980s. Therefore, the kind of adulation film buffs of that era had for Rudriah, Balu Mahendra and Mahendran was evident, among other things, in the large quantum of social media posts celebrating their works when Rudriah and Balu Mahendra passed away in 2014 and Mahendran on April 2. Unless, the reader is a Tamil, it may be difficult to understand why these three film-makers are held as icons of cinematic change in the region without knowing the context in which they built their body of work. Theirs was a kind of a middle cinema that aspired to go further unlike the Hindi middle cinema of the 1970s and 1980s. The latter was a creation from above to co-opt the idioms of new Indian cinema in order to defuse whatever threats it held to the mainstream, as the film theorist Madhava Prasad would have it. That kind of intervention to create a middle cinema from above did not occur in the Tamil cinema as the big studios had begun to collapse by the mid 1970s bringing down their hegemony. 

The threat to mainstream Tamil cinema did not exist as was the case with Hindi cinema, as alternative films of the kind made in Hindi did not emerge in a big way in the Tamil region. The situation was entirely different as Tamil cinema as a whole was diving headlong into a major crisis as film studios began to collapse for more than one reason. The whole range of stars the industry relied upon such as M.G. Ramachandran (MGR), Sivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganesan, Muthuraman, Jaishankar, AVM Rajan and Ravichandran began to wither away making star-centric productions too much of a risk as one film after another began to flop. If this weakening of the stars led to a big hunt for new faces among lesser but daring producers, the strong impact made by Malayalam films such as Chemmeen  (1968), which were shot on location, provoked a hunger for ever new locations, dealing a decisive blow to many a studio as film-makers abandoned them for location shooting. Gradually, these studios were reduced to godowns. 

Nevertheless, the cracks that appeared in the industry made space for unprecedented experiments, which were not possible before, and for whatever little time it took to create the next batch of stars.

It is against this background that the films of Mahendran and his contribution to Tamil cinema need to be looked at as it would have been impossible for those like him to have emerged in the 1950s or the 1960s. As the industry was caught in a transitory crisis, like Rudriah and Balu Mahendra, Mahendran could make two kinds of films, films that attempted to be clearly different from the mainstream and films that were a part of the mainstream and yet attempted to push the boundaries. The significance of Mahendran’s body of work cannot be, therefore, reduced to just films such as Mullum Malarum  (1978), Uthiri Pookal  (Scattered Flowers, 1979), Nandu  (Cancer/Crab, 1981) and Metti  (Toe Ring, 1982) that tried to break away from the mainstream mode. If we consider all the 12 films he directed, mainstream and non-mainstream, what unifies them is his consistent effort to deglamorise their eventual form on the screen.

This deglamorisation was not merely restricted to areas of setting, costumes and make-up. Whether he worked with big stars or lesser celebrities, the effort to equally deglamorise their presence on the screen is all too evident as these films attempted to shift the focus to the character they played from their cinematic persona. For instance, after the phenomenal success of S.P. Muthuraman’s Murattu Kalai  (Raging Bull, 1981), which laid the foundation for Rajinikanth’s superstardom, Mahendran happened to make his third Rajinikanth film, Kai Kodukkum Kai  (The Helping Hand, 1984) walking a tightrope on mainstream idioms. Nevertheless, Rajinikanth’s introductory scene in this film is not addressed to his increasing fan base unlike Rajinikanth’s other films. All fanfare is reduced unlike the mise en scene  of films such as Murattu Kalai  where Rajanikanth is introduced as the hero of the film. In Kai Kodukkum Kai , Rajinikanth quietly slides into the narrative amid some everyday activity as a character rather than with a big bang. 

The question then is how did Mahendran acquire this kind of sensitivity in the treatment of his films although he emerged as a film-maker after having written stories, dialogues and screenplays for over a decade in mainstream Tamil cinema for stars such as Sivaji Ganesan, Jaishankar and Ravichandran. This is all the more intriguing as he did not enter the industry with a film institute background as was the case with Rudriah and Balu Mahendra.

Formative years

Mahendran (J. Alexander) was born in a Tamil Christian family at Illyaangudi, a town in Sivaganga district in southern Tamil Nadu, in 1939. He took the name Mahendran for two reasons—one, there was a much-admired decathlon athlete by that name in his college, and two, the Pallava king Mahendravarman, who was well-known for his plays Mattavilasa Prahasana  and Bhagavadajjuka . Talking about his formative years in his book Cinemavum Naanum  (Cinema and I, 2003), Mahendran notes that he may have ended up managing his family’s grocery store but things took him to unanticipated places. 

After his intermediate course at American College, Madurai, he joined Alagappa College, Karaikudi, for his undergraduate studies. During this time, he was a voracious reader of avant-garde  Tamil fiction and poetry and as a speaker on many occasions, he was quite popular on the college campus. One day, MGR visited the college with the proviso that he would listen to the students speak rather than deliver a speech. Mahendran was one of the three students selected to speak. With the kind of sensibilities he had developed through reading, Mahendran launched a frontal and humorous attack on Tamil cinema and its modes of incredulous representations. MGR, who was on the dais, liked Mahendran’s speech and invited him to meet him at his office in Madras (now Chennai) after his graduation. 

Mahendran came to Madras after his graduation, not to meet MGR but to enroll himself in the law college. He, however, discontinued the law course as financial difficulties increased at home. He briefly went back to his home town to do his bit to put things in order and returned to work in a newspaper stall. This is where he met fellow travellers like him who had common interests in Tamil literature. These fellow travellers were also associated with the tinsel world in some way, and it is during those days that Mahendran watched the films of Satyajit Ray, which made a deep impact on him.

One day, he happened to meet MGR again. This time MGR invited Mahendran to his office and asked him to adapt “Kalki” Krishnamurthy’s magnum opus Ponniyin Selvan  (Son of Ponni) for the screen. The proposed film did not materialise despite the work Mahendran had done. In the interim, MGR ensured that Mahendran was made assistant director of his film, Kanchi Thalaivan  (King of Kanchi, 1963). Mahendran, on the contrary, envisioned himself more as a writer than as a director. 

Soon, he found a job as a film reviewer in Cho Ramaswamy’s magazine Tuglaq . This gave him ample time to hone his skills in writing and also provided a good opportunity to see a lot of films and mingle with people in the industry. His writing came into prominence first with Naam Moovar  (We Three, 1966), a comedy drama. Following the success of Naam Moovar , Mahendran wrote the story line for five more films, including Niraikudam  (Brimming Pot, 1969) featuring Sivaji Ganesan, before the big turn came. 

In the early 1970s, he wrote the play Irandil Ondru  (One in Two) for S.A. Kannan and Sentharamai’s drama troupe, depicting the conflict between an elderly police officer and his gangster-turned-son, with actor Senthamarai playing the role of the elderly officer. Impressed with the play, Sivaji Ganesan expressed his desire to play the role on stage and Senthamarai willingly agreed to let him don the role as he thought it would boost the prospects of the drama company. With Sivaji donning the role, the play attracted bigger audiences. 

When the show crossed its hundredth day, further performances were stopped as Sivaji decided to turn it into a feature film under his own banner. For the film version with the title Thangapathakam  (Gold Medal, 1974), Mahendran wrote the story and the dialogues and P. Madhavan took the credit for the screenplay and direction. This assignment ended Mahendran’s job at Tuglaq  as his presence was required at the shooting spot on a daily basis. The film turned out to be one of the biggest hits for Sivaji Ganesan, leading to its successful remake in Telugu and Kannada. Eight years later, it was turned into a mega hit Hindi film Shakti  (1982), with Dilip Kumar as the father and Amitabh Bachchan as the son. Salim-Javed took the credit for script and screenplay and Ramesh Sippy for direction. 

Offers started pouring in from every direction after the success of Thangapathakam  and for the next three and a half years, Mahendran was busy writing the story and dialogues and at times, screenplays for 20-odd films, including a few in Telugu and Kannada. Aadu Puli Aatam  (1977), a Kamal Hassan-Rajinikanth starrer, which drew its title from a popular subaltern game of checkers known as the Lamb and Tiger Game, is one of the successful films for which he wrote the story and the dialogues during this period.

By the time this film was completed, Mahendran began to experience symptoms of burnout. He was equally assailed by guilt as he was well aware that he was promoting the kind of cinema that was contrary to his spirit and against which he wrote many a scathing review. He decided to stop writing, but his fascination for the potential of the medium nonetheless remained. So when producers put pressure on him to come up with more stories he told them point-blank that he had exhausted all his ideas and all that he could do was perhaps adapt a literary work. That was how Uma Chandran’s novel Mullum Malarum  (1966) landed on his lap. Abandoning any faithful rendition of the novel, he followed his own instincts and transformed it into a screenplay. Quickly realising, though, that the kind of treatment he had arrived at would have no takers in the industry, he quietly filed it away. He was certain that producers would reject it as it had no scope for routine melodrama, excessive dialogues, overacting, duets and a typical climax, all of which he was always highly critical about since he made that speech in front of MGR during his college days. 

The making of ‘Mullum Malarum’

One day, a long-standing colleague in the industry, the producer Venu Chettiar of Anandhi films, came with a different offer to Mahendran. He said he would like Mahendran to not just write a film but also direct it. Without becoming excited, Mahendran pitched the story of Mullum Malarum  in one line, describing it as a poignant relationship between a brother and sister. The producer immediately stood up, patted Mahendran and said that there was no need for him to hear the whole story as he was certain that Mahendran would do a great job. Obviously, Venu Chettiar imagined that Mahendran would deliver another intense melodrama like Pasamalar  (1961), the Sivaji Ganesan-Savitri starrer. As he went about organising the production, Mahendran was blissfully unaware that he was in for a big shock. When they reached the casting stage, Mahendran insisted that Rajinikanth was his choice for the main role. Instantly, the producer blew his fuse as Rajinikanth had until then done only negative villainous roles. After a long argument, Mahendran managed to convince the producer of Rajinikanth’s potential as an actor and how he fitted the role like a glove. The production commenced at a suitable location in Sringeri, Karnataka, with Balu Mahendra wielding the camera and Illayaraja doing the music. When the film was almost complete, the producer, without informing Mahendran, took a peek at its rough cut. 

By the time Mahendran reached the spot, the projection was over and when Venu Chettiar met him outside, he fretted and fumed as he could not find the usual kind of melodrama or the required lengthy dialogues. In their place, he found nothing but sustained close-ups of the characters with no word uttered, and instead of duets, only solo songs. He had no idea that in those lengthy close-ups Mahendran was planning to evoke the subtexts and inner feelings of his characters by using music and sound effects. Mahendran tried to make these intentions clear to the producer, but that man had no patience to hear him out. Instead, he cursed him for letting him down and refused to fund an important scene that had to be shot. 

Mahendran sought the help of Kamal Hassan, who intervened on his behalf with the producer. The latter adamantly held his ground. In the end, Kamal Hassan agreed to organise the necessary resources for the shooting of that scene and the film was completed successfully. When it was eventually released in theatres, for the first three days there was not much of an audience to talk about. The producer felt that his judgment had been vindicated. On the fourth day, large crowds began to gather to see the film, clearing the path for Mahendran to make more films and for Rajinikanth to adorn lead roles.

It was nothing short of a miracle that Mullum Malarum  got made and reached a wider audience, failing which the film-maker in Mahendran would have never been discovered. We can go on from there to describe the nuances in the 12 films he directed. For the moment, though, a few pointers should suffice. In Mullum Malarum,  unlike Pasamalar , the sister is allowed to register her rebellion against her brother. The story ends with him relenting to her desire to marry the man she wishes but not before he tells the man that he still does not like him, which makes the film open-ended with a feel that life goes on. The way the entire film is rendered on the screen is in a minimalist manner at a restrained and leisurely pace. This allowed the audience to engage with the characters and their surroundings without becoming emotionally too involved, contrary to how the spectator would often be made to relate to a typical Tamil film.

By making such formal choices, Mahendran in his very first film rejected outright the kind of manipulation the Tamil film audience was subjected to for a long time and he adhered to this style in all his films. 

In his second film, Uthiri Pookkal  (1979), which was a massive hit, he turned Panthulu’s much-venerated Kannada film, School Master  (1958), and its Tamil remake upside down. The protagonist, who is both the village school master and the head of the panchayat, is an absolute anti-hero who gradually drives the village to subject him to a cruel punishment. At that penultimate moment, the empty streets of the village echo the violence that is going on elsewhere instead of directly representing the event. When he is eventually ordered by the villagers to drown himself as they know he cannot swim, he quietly takes leave of his children and before he steps into the river he tells the villagers that of all the bad things he did, his worst crime was to turn every one of them into someone like him. This suddenly transfers the guilt, in a Hitchcockian manner in the last moment, to the villagers and thereby to the audience. The film turned out to be a veritable masterpiece. Even if all his other films were lost, Mahendran would be remembered forever for this one.

Following this, except his Rajinikanth-Sridevi starrer Johnny  (1980), Suhasini, Mohan and Pratap Pothen feature Nenjathai Killathe  (1980) and the Rajinikanth-Revathi feature Kai Kodukum Kai , his other films such as Nandu , Metti , Azhagiya Kanne  (1982), Kannuku Mai Ezhuthu  (1986) and Oor Panchayathu  (1992) did not get the publicity they deserved.

Nandu  explores the relationship between a north Indian man and a south Indian woman, daring to be some kind of a bilingual, with Hindi songs thrown in. The metaphor of the crab is used as a double-edged weapon in the film. On one hand, it signifies the cancer that eventually kills the north Indian male partner. On the other hand, as the film ends on a note that even in a married relationship a husband is like a fellow passenger who has to go when his time comes, the female partner is situated as a solid rock that cannot be penetrated by crabs even after such a tragedy. The film refuses to glorify her suffering or dwell on it for long. In this way, Mahendran managed to provide greater agency to his female characters, among other things, when it came to openly expressing their desire as in Johnny , which made him a favourite among the women in the audience. 

On the influences that marked his style, Mahendran often cited Satyajit Ray from the realm of cinema and the writer T. Janakiraman from the realm of modern Tamil literature, who is well known for his novels such as Mogha Mul, Amma Vanthal  and Mara Pasu . If Ray’s influence is visible in the realistic approach and pace of Mahendran’s film, the influence of Janakiraman is evidenced in the choice of characters and situations particularly in his films such as Metti, Azhagiya Kanne  and Saasanam .

With the advent of the 1990s, the whole industry changed as it began to move from one spectacle to another. In 2006, Mahendran made his swansong Saasanam,  which was set in the Nagarathar background in Karaikudi. Despite highlighting the nuances of the Nagarathar form of life, it appears that Mahendran had by then tragically lost his touch.

Be that as it may, he inspired and influenced not only his contemporaries such as Balu Mahendra but a whole generation that entered the industry after him, such as Mani Ratnam and ever so many others. 

His sojourn in the industry, as many have described it, was like the kurinji (S trobilanthes kunthianus ) flower that blooms once in 12 years on the slopes of the Western Ghats. Tamil cinema and its audience are more than thankful that he was around when it really mattered.

Venkatesh Chakravarthy is Dean Academics, Ramanaidu Film School, Hyderabad.