September 16, 1998

‘Not art for art’s sake’

Print edition : February 06, 2015

Balu Mahendra. Photo: The Hindu Archives

A still from Balu Mahendra's film "Veedu". Photo: The Hindu Archives





BALU MAHENDRA, who wrote and directed Veedu, which won this year’s national award for the best Tamil film, spoke on realism and social relevance in cinema. Excerpts from an interview:

What, according to you, is the central problem with Tamil films?

We make the maximum number of films in India—125 to 150 a year. This is our quantitative achievement. But when it comes to quality, we are at the very fag end. A really serious film has not yet been made in Tamil. Such a film would not only be on a serious theme, about something vital to present-day living, to present-day realities, but would be made by somebody who really knows the medium, and who has a total command over it. Everyone has something to say: many people have this burning itch. But only a person who has the means to communicate can get his idea across, without it losing its meaning, its relevance.

Would that make art?

Not necessarily, but it makes for simple communication, the basic presentation itself. And if there is order, if there is aesthetic intensity in your presentation, fine, beautiful. It might straightway be recognised as a piece of art, or it might take time. But nobody, no sincere creative artist, sits down with the idea of making a masterpiece. No. He simply wants to share an experience, and this experience could be anything. This has to be clearly understood—I am not trying to create art for art’s sake.

Do you see art and the aim of communication coming together in Tamil cinema today?

One or two earlier films tried to be different, purposeful. Even entertainment, let us be clear, is a purpose. As human beings we have to relax, we have to be entertained. But these films went only half way, fizzled out, because they mixed commercial saleability with aesthetics. This mixture does not jell. When you are trying to say something vital, something about the realities around you, you should not bother about selling your product.

As a Tamil I have been bothered by this lack of seriousness. If film-makers in Bengal and Kerala can do it, why not here? My first film of this kind was, ironically enough, in Kannada ( Kokila), because at that time the Kannada audience was more exposed to this kind of films. Girish Karnad’s Kaadu, Vamsa Vriksha, and other films were getting a far better reception than I thought we would get here. But being a Tamil, I should have made that film in Tamil. I was compromising then.

Do you think Tamil audiences are now ready for a change from fantasy?

I would really be surprised if Veedu turns out a commercial success. I would think something is really changing. But the relevance of this film will be after 50 years, because it will be a true representation of Tamil Nadu in the late 1980s. I am not aiming this film at the so-called mass audience. I would prefer to call this a Tamil film for the Indian audience.

How did you get the theme?

I was toying with so many ideas and emotions that could be communicated. I was disturbed by the problems that people face every day in Madras, the water shortage, the nightmare of getting a child into primary school, drainage. This is a city that does not have proper drainage. One 15-minute shower, and you cannot pass through Gemini junction (beneath the Anna flyover). Nobody seems to be bothered about this. They are all talking of the glory of Tamil and what not. It was Komal Swaminathan (of Thanneer Thanneer fame) who suggested that I make a film on building a house, and suddenly some chord vibrated inside.

You have dealt with house-building as a problem of the middle class. Why only the middle class?

While housing is a need for everyone, for the middle-class man it is a necessity like food and clothing. And owning a small house is his dream. You hear it often voiced: “ Namakkoru plot vaangi, oru chinna veedu!” (Oh, to buy a plot for ourselves, to build a small house!) It was poet Subramania Bharati’s dream too, what he asked Parasakti for, as a middle-class man: “ Kaani nilam vendum” (I want a piece of earth). Basically, because I belong to the middle class, its problems are immediate to me. I am interested in the guy living in a rented house, dreaming of owning a house some day. I am worried about him because that is me! So I have dealt with this problem of housing at two levels in Veedu. First, the project itself, the resources, the logistics of building a house, people joining together to build the physical house. Secondly, this process, what does it do to the persons involved in it? To their personalities, relationships? Their thought processes interest me as a film-maker.

You have presented the love affair in low key, no song and dance, no love scenes as such. This is certainly refreshing. You have also chosen to soft-pedal the usual employer-employee tensions, and instead to heighten the friendship between the middle-class woman and the woman construction worker. But their chumminess does not ring quite true. Though it may exist in real life, it seems pointless to show it.

This sort of encounter does take place and I feel it is quite right to show it. I wanted to make a couple of points—that women have to share their problems. That is why I chose Manga and not any of the male workers to defend the girl from the contractor’s insults. And I wanted to show what kind of woman Manga was. An uneducated woman who has not married, after her lover, a worker like herself, fell from the seventh floor. Who will build a statue for this Kannagi (the embodiment of chastity)? That is why I have shown this ordinary unskilled woman sittaal (helper in a construction job) as a Kannagi.

Manga’s character undoubtedly has great power as well as the potential of a myth in the making of the vigilant, virtuous, and above all “loyal” worker, who makes the middle class employer feel safe. A myth conveyed through this medium does not allow you to respond—you are almost totally passive. Does not this power give the film-maker a special responsibility?

It is true that the impact of cinema is the most powerful of all the arts. None of the other arts hits directly at the emotions or the intellect. The film-maker certainly has to use his medium very carefully. But the viewer, after taking in the film, probably reconsiders and analyses the whole thing and comes to his own conclusions. I do not believe in art for art's sake; I also do not believe a creative artist has to fall into a doctrine, or an “ism”. I want to share my feelings about the realities I see around me, and I will be happy if a certain section of the audience vibrates with me.

Change is a historical process. As a creative artist I have no special responsibility to uplift society. No. But I have this responsibility as a human being, just like anyone else—it is important to make at least a little stir, a start. I have the power of my medium, certainly, but that does not mean you, or anyone else is powerless.

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