K. Balachander

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Print edition : January 23, 2015

K. Balachandar. Photo: S.S. Kumar

K. Balachandar with his star proteges, Kamal Hassan and Rajinikanth. Photo: R. Shivaji Rao

Kamal Hassan and Srividya in "Apoorva Raagangal" (1975). Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Sujatha (left) and Sripriya in "Aval Oru Thodarkathai" (1974). Photo: The Hindu Archives

Rajinikanth and Saritha "Thappu Thalangal" (1978). Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Suhashini and Sivakumar in "Sindhu Bhairavi" (1985). Photo: The Hindu Archives

K. Balachander (1930-2014) gave Tamil cinema a new direction by making films with unconventional subjects and middle-class protagonists with all their eccentricities and complexities intact.

AT a time when formulaic films and iconic stars held centre stage in Tamil cinema, along came a young director who made films that took a bold new look at the complexities of human relationships in a middle-class milieu.

Until 1970, before K. Balachander arrived on the scene, the industry was rooted in fanatical adulation of heroes who used the medium to nurse their political ambitions. But he changed all that. For the first time in the Tamil film industry, the name of the director in the title card received roaring applause. His unique way of presenting unconventional storylines about everyday characters with a touch of realism came as a sharp contrast to the gaudiness of the films of that time.

The man continued to deliver for nearly four decades, whetting the appetite of filmgoers in south India and creating in the process a brand of films and film-making that had his signature written all over it. Kailasam Balachander passed into history on December 23, 2014, at the age of 84, in Chennai.

KB, as he is fondly known to his friends and fans, would sculpt his characters based on a strong script. But in the end, the director would stand out. His obsession with perfection was the stuff of folklore. Perhaps that was the reason for his relentless search for fresh faces for each of his films. A search that gave the film world inimitable stars such as Kamal Hassan and Rajinikanth.

He gave other film-makers the confidence to make different kinds of films, and they did so with a gusto that saw Tamil cinema undergo a transformation every 10 years or so with bold forays into socially complex subjects. The 1980s saw the entry of Bharathi Raja, Balu Mahendra and Mahendran who moved Tamil cinema out of the studios to a higher plane of visual grandeur with innovative techniques. For the first time, rustic beauty and the wonders of nature were captured in resplendent colour.

But Balachander remained unmatched in all the four decades that he made films. His films, each one thematically different, were meticulously planned, a practice he imbibed during his theatre days. Thus was born the “KB touch”, which had a unique place in Tamil cinema.

He studiously avoided commercialism as far as he could. Despite a series of flops towards the end of his career, he never tried to rope in established actors. Failures did sadden him, but they did not prevent him from experimenting. “A few of my films such as Avargal, Agni Satchi and Punnagai, which I consider my best output, should have been released a decade later. Film appreciation was just maturing then but not enough to appreciate thematic ones,” he told this writer last year during an interview for the Frontline special issue on 100 years of Indian cinema.

However, as critics point out, it was he who demolished the myth of heroes in Tamil cinema. Though it was M.G. Ramachandran who brought him to the field to write the script for his Deiva Thai in 1964, Balachander never felt obliged to cast him in any of his movies. “Balachander’s mindset was far removed from the aura of MGR and yet it was MGR who gave him his first film assignment. The rest is history,” pointed out his friend and noted writer Ashokamitran.

“His orbit was different. It wouldn’t have suited my type of films,” Balachander said. He justified casting Sivaji Ganesan in his film Ethiroli (1970), which depicted the moral decay of men. He said, “Both of us wanted to measure up to each other’s potential in creativity.” He consciously avoided the raucousness with which Tamil films during his times were associated. In fact, he drove home the message that the time for such absurdities was over in Tamil cinema.

It was the upwardly mobile and English-loving middle and upper-middle classes that interested him. At the same time, he did not spare the social and cultural hypocrisies and eccentricities of this section of society, whose identity was split between tradition and modernity in the 1970s. KB portrayed the inherent complexities that resulted from this situation.

The society to which he belonged, with its aspirations, disappointments, failures and successes, was a rich source of ideas for his films and characters. The person-next-door familiarity of his characters was new to the audience, who, until then, remained hypnotised by the idealistic, fairy-tale, hero-centric world of celluloid. He made a conscious effort to distance his films from that genre with his realism and bold narratives.

Notwithstanding his unconventional subjects, he did not compromise on the values important to society because of cinematic compulsions. He lashed out at its snobbish traits too. In Sindhu Bhairavi, which won three national awards, he conveyed the idea that music, including Carnatic music, should be understood and enjoyed by all and that it should not be the exclusive preserve of a few.

His sense of music lent enormous depth to his plots of unusual interpersonal relationships. The songs in his movies transcend time. He even named his characters after ragas, such as Bhairavi in Apoorva Raagangal, Sindhu in Sindhu Bhairavi and Lalitha in Unnal Mudiym Thambi. In fact, he devoted an entire film, Ninaithale Inikkum, to music, in which he cast his star proteges, Kamal Hassan and Rajinikanth, in the lead roles. M.S. Viswanathan scored the music for the film, which carried the tagline “musical extravaganza”.

He loved and respected his women characters the most. In fact, he enjoyed talking for hours about them. “Women need to be independent and individualistic in a patriarchal society that is undergoing constant change,” he said. They were feminists and liberal thinkers, with minds of their own.

Strong women characters

Many of his films revolved around such strong but single women characters. The characterisation of Lalitha (Pramila) in Arangetram was stunning. He managed to convey to the audience that she was a victim of an exploitative society as she coped with the responsibility of taking care of her large, poverty-stricken family. “Can anyone think of such a radical subject?” he said. Sridevi, in Moondru Mudichu, marries the father of her lover’s friend who wanted to possess her, becoming his stepmother in the process.

Can anyone forget the cross-generational romance in Apoorva Raagangal and a single mother’s search for identity in Avargal? Who was not shocked by Thappu Thalangal? The character of Kavitha (Sujatha) in Aval Oru Thodarkathai was the epitome of perseverance and courage. He would make society the villain in all his controversial subjects. “I have to shock the audience. Hence, I ran such risks,” he said. The heroic struggles of individuals that he portrayed might end in defeat but never in ignominy.

Was he a sadist? He denied being one. “A few of my characters tend to be sadists, say, Ramanathan (Rajinikanth) in Avargal and again the character Rajinikanth did in Moondru Mudichu. But we can spot these characters among us in our everyday lives. They exhibit extreme possessiveness which leads to streaks of negativism in their characters. Since they are my creations, the people correlate them with the creator. I became a sadist for you all,” he said.

“I am a creative artist dealing with complex emotive content in humans. Variety in characters and screenplay make films get noticed. My characters represent me. Otherwise you would not have come to a director who belonged to a distant past. My films bring you to me even today. They will in future too,” he said with a mischievous smile.

“But how can a sadist produce some rip-roaring and effervescent comedies, such as Ethir Neechal, Bama Vijayam, Manmatha Leelai and Navagraham?” asked the director Vasanth, who considers Balachander his godfather. “How can a sick mind create a film of high-intensity pathos like Neerkumizhi, which was shot in a single indoor set and which ran for more than 80 days in Chennai, or Server Sundaram?” he asked. “Strong feminist characters need to be offset by characters who are almost sadist. His riveting emotional and physical presence would motivate even a novice,” he said.

Yet another criticism against him was that he was an escapist with a cynical disposition. While he could boldly support widow remarriage ( Aval Oru Thodarkathai), he did not unravel the knotty issue of whether an aged man can fall in love with a teenaged girl or a middle-aged woman fall in love with a boy her daughter’s age ( Apoorva Raagangal). In Arangetram, when all the issues seemed to have been resolved, he made the protagonist turn insane. Maro Charithra and Thappu Thalangal had similar shocking climaxes.

He denied these charges by saying that as a screenplay writer he had to construct a movie justifying his characters’ socially unacceptable acts, but as a responsible citizen he could not exonerate them of their wrongdoings. He chose to tread a middle path that offended nobody. After all, the society to which he belonged and to which he was catering had to be understood in the proper perspective before it was showcased.

“I dared to venture into a domain which no one else had thought of entering. I knew that the subjects I chose had to be handled cautiously. At the same time, they should be socially relevant. By ending my films with a certain degree of vagueness, I gave my characters an element of mystic charm and their creator a lasting visibility. You cannot expect a typical ending from me,” he said. Some sort of compromise, he maintained, was allowed in experimental movies.

Successful adaptations

Many accused him of carrying techniques from the “stage” onto the visual medium. “Of course, I cannot leave it behind. Hits like Neerkumizhi, Major Chandrakanth and Naanal were successful adaptations of plays produced under my Rahini Recreations. My actors played these popular stage roles in the films too with a freshness that the audience loved,” he said.

“His best films were with Nagesh, especially Ethir Neechal, said Ashokamitran.

He brushed aside attempts to brand him a stereotypical director by producing hits with different subjects, such as Thaneer Thaneer and Achamillai, Achamillai (1981). The freshness with which he handled the subject in them was extraordinary. The hero in the former is water. “When I took up the novel of Komal Swaminathan, many discouraged me. But once I decided my hero, I went through with it,” he said.

He had a special love for the director Sridhar. “His experiments with love as a subject have been unique. That does not mean I am criticising others. Sridhar handles it in a tender way, while others have made it cinematic,” he said. He himself handled the different shades of love in movies such as Apoorva Raagangal, Sollathan Ninaikkiren, Thamarai Nenjam and Agni Satchi. In Varummayin Niram Sigappu, while focussing on the social evil of unemployment, he blended beautifully a filament of love into it. Bharathi Raja said that he and others showed love in its innocence and villages in their rustic beauty. “But KB handled them maturely and for a social message,” he said.

“I hate lust and violence. I was pained to see audience savouring the scenes of gory brutality in Subramaniapuiram. I could not stand it,” said Balachander, with a tinge of sadness in his voice. In fact, he said, he pictured certain scenes, which he thought were vital for the story but embarrassing for him to direct, symbolically in the films Nool Veli and Thappu Thalangal.

His production unit Kavithalaya, besides making movies, also ventured into tele-serials with resounding success. It was he who made mega serials a popular genre on the small screen. Rail Sneham, made for Doordarshan, was a hit. He made similar lengthy serials, including Marmadesam, Kasalavu Nesam, Kadhal Pagadai, Kai Alavu Manasu, Anni and Engirrundho Vandhaal. “What he could not do in films, he achieved in his television serials,” Ashokamitran said.

“Forty years and a hundred films is not a mean achievement. For years, he will be remembered for the characters he created,” said Ashokamitran. That is a fitting tribute to the phenomenon called Balachander.

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