Man behind the 1970s wave

Print edition : October 18, 2013


100 years of Indian Cinema

IT was when Tamil cinema was in dire need of a powerful shot of adrenalin that the young and energetic “Team Bharathiraja” arrived on the scene in the 1970s, with a dash of innovation in direction, screenplay and music. It took Tamil movies from the suffocating confines of paint-smelling indoor sets to a refreshingly rural environment.

“Yes, I infused life [into Tamil cinema]. My characters were not from an alien world. They were just you and me portraying life’s agonies and ecstasies,” says Bharathiraja, alias P. Chinnasamy, who hails from Allinagaram village in Theni district, Tamil Nadu.

Bharathiraja’s forte was the portrayal of the predicaments of simple people in idyllic, rural environments and it turned the established traditions of Tamil cinema upside down. His camera was equally adept at capturing the superficial sophistication of the elite.

This versatility enriched Tamil movies like never before. “With M.G. Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan sharing all the Tamil fans between themselves, we were left with very little space and it almost choked us. In fact, it prompted us to experiment creatively to get us noticed in the industry,” Bharathiraja says.

Bharathiraja survived by striking a chord in the rural audience. For the first time in Tamil cinema history, the man-behind-the-camera emerged as hero though a few others, including K. Balachander, had made a name for themselves.

On the appearance of the title card in which Bharathiraja addresses the audience, calling them in his booming voice “En Iniya Thamizh Makkale” (My sweet Tamil people), the audience would erupt in roaring applause. “The audience had started looking for the names of directors, choreographers, cinematographers and editors in title cards,” he says with a smile.

The success of his maiden venture 16 Vayathinile made him the toast of Kollywood overnight. The film was to be made in black and white by the National Film Development Corporation. “But it backed out at the last minute without giving a reason,” he says.

Undeterred, Bharathiraja went ahead with the film, shooting for the first time in natural light and in the pristine environment of mist-clad mountains and sparkling streams, taking the viewers closer to their rural roots. He did not hesitate to tackle serious social issues such as female infanticide ( Karuthamma), casteism ( Vedam Puthithu) or unemployment ( Nizhalgal).

But Nizhalgal had a few flaws too, he concedes. “I had described failure in detail instead of [showing] optimism. The raw tragedy that unfolded at the end was too scary. The audience had to leave the theatre disturbed as it was a painful rendition of death and decay. I should have handled it sensitively and maturely,” he says. Comparing it to veteran Balachander’s Varumaiyin Niram Sigappu, he says it was a mature treatment of a sensitive subject which conveyed a sense of optimism.

But, according to critics, it was Bharathiraja’s achievements that jolted Balachander and a host of other directors then to give their best. And, to the delight of Tamil movie buffs, this healthy competition brought the best out of the two big “B”s—Balachander and Bharathiraja—at a time when Hindi blockbusters had started flooding the Tamil screen.

“The audience had started believing that I could handle any subject, from the exploits of a psychopath killer in Sigappu Rojakkal to a glossy thriller in Tik, Tik, Tik, to a serious experimental movie such as Nizhalgal, to pristine love tales in Kizhake Pogum Rail and Mann Vasanai, to serious socials like Puthumai Penn, Anthimantharai and Kizhakku Cheemayile,” he says. Mudhal Mariyadhai, a gentle and mature love story between a village belle (Radha) and a respectable, middle-aged village head (Sivaji Ganesan), he says, is his magnum opus. “Sivaji was a director’s delight and a phenomenon,” he says.

But failure began stalking him in the late 1990s. His critics say his persistence with rural themes is one of the reasons. His 50th film, Annakodi, is again a village-centric love story that has many similarities with 16 Vayathinile, they point out. He did try to prop up his sagging fortunes by giving a few commercial hits like Kodi Parakkuthu with Rajinikanth and Bommalattam with Nana Patekar and Arjun in the lead.

But neither failure nor success has had an impact on him. “Failures cannot destroy me. I learn from them. Successes prompt me to strive for perfection,” he says. He says he has never played the caste card “explicitly in any of my ventures as a few of today’s directors do. I am a creative artist”. Vedam Puthithu is about an inter-caste love affair between a Brahmin girl and a Thevar youth while Kizhake Pogum Rail was about a village hairdresser falling in love with a caste Hindu girl. In Alaigal Oivathillai, a Christian girl elopes with a Brahmin boy.

“In all these films I have made ‘love’ the protagonist and not caste or character. I was extremely careful not to mention directly any caste or religion.” He is of the opinion that creativity cannot be put into such narrow social confines.

The successful trio of Bharathiraja, Ilayaraja and Vairamuthu, despite many hits to their credit, had to part ways to “survive and prove our individual mettle”. “Our originality got hopelessly submerged in our collective creativity. Hence, we parted ways and we have no regrets today,” he says.

He is competing against a third generation of directors today. “Their innovative ideas simply amaze me.” Digital technology is giving them an edge, he says. Tamil cinema, he feels, is undergoing yet another transformation as young artists and directors make their mark. “But I am also in the field, a part of it,” he says. “I am making the kind of films I have always wanted to. I have no regrets.” He is already on to his next project and his journey is one that few directors have made.

R. Ilangovan