Visual poet

Balu Mahendra (1939-2014), the award-winning cinematographer and director, made lyrical films on human relationships and created fine artists.

Published : Mar 05, 2014 12:30 IST

Balu Mahendra at work.

Balu Mahendra at work.

FROM studios to the streets, from maudlin family melodramas to nuanced narrations of various other aspects of life, from dialogue-centric reproductions of stage plays to depictions of life with telling silences, Tamil cinema’s transition truly started in the 1970s.

Narratives of life in black and white gave way to storytelling with shades of grey. The finer and not-so-rational aspects of human relationships came into focus. All this was thanks to the emergence of a new crop of directors, cinematographers, musicians and screenplay writers.

The Tamil audience, which would erupt in appreciation of Sivaji Ganesan’s emotion-packed dialogue delivery or M.G. Ramachandran’s revolutionary rhetoric or songs evoking social justice, started recognising that good cinema was the result of the talent not only of those who performed in front of the camera but also of those who added value to it from the space behind the camera or away from its frame.

In a way, Tamil cinema moved away from the confines of the studio and inched closer to the sociocultural moorings of Tamil society by technically sharpening itself in the course of its journey. Among the names that made this journey possible was Balu Mahendra, cinematographer extraordinaire, who passed away in Chennai on February 13 at the age of 74.

A committed explorer of human relationships, he took Tamil cinema to a new level with his out-of-the-box treatment of complex themes dealing with interpersonal relationships. Balu broke the myth that art films could never become box-office hits, and he could make his actors become the characters they were portraying.

A diehard romanticist is how actor Kamal Hassan described Balu. His films are in a way silhouettes of his personal life in which bonding was as intense as separation. All his films, from his first in Tamil, Azhiyatha Kolangal (Inerasable Drawings, 1979), with Shobha and Pratap K. Pothan in the lead, to his last one, Thalaimuraigal (Generations, 2013), have autobiographical elements in them. They are about relationships and separations.

Balu, in Azhiyatha Kolangal, handled adolescent curiosity about sex and its sensuality with dignity and without being moralistic. Set on the banks of the Cauvery, the film is poetic and daring. It carries shades of Federico Fellini’s 1973 Amarcord, a spin-off of the Italian neorealism that swept across Europe. “I immortalised my Indu teacher through the film,” Balu said in an interview.

This coming-of-age film carries strands of his own school life in a Sri Lankan village, where he was born Balanathan Benjamin Mahendran in 1939. As a 13-year-old boy, he was inspired by the shooting of David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai at a location in Sri Lanka. “My film handled my adolescent fantasy about sex and my blurred understanding of it,” he once said. Azhiyatha Kolangal instantly took Balu into the elite club of directors of the 1970s, which included Bharathi Raja and J. Mahendran.

His classic Moondram Pirai (Crescent Moon, 1982) is yet another tale of the flowering of a relationship between a schoolteacher (Kamal Hassan) and a girl (Sridevi) who loses her memory and maturity temporarily because of an accident, and their separation. She regains her memory after treatment but the relationship and the separation do not figure in it. For the schoolteacher, she remains a memory thereafter. The emotion-packed and rain-soaked scene (shot in Udhagamandalam), in which Kamal Hassan strains every nerve to remind her of him, leaves viewers highly perturbed. Kamal Hassan got his first National Award for Best Actor for the film, while Balu received the Best Cinematographer Award for his magical work behind the camera.

Moondram Pirai The film was made after Shobha’s death at the age of 17 in 1980. Shobha was more than an actor to Balu. He never had any qualms about camouflaging his affection for her. He used to call her “my Shobha”. Their bond, as his friends pointed out, was somewhat surreal.

That was perhaps why he never responded to even the most outrageous and slanderous allegations against him after her death. Her death affected him intimately. “Can I narrate the tragedy of a beautiful butterfly that sat on my shoulders for a brief spell, choking me with bliss and then flew away abruptly?” he bemoaned in his blog. This heart-wrenching tragedy was retold passionately in Moondram Pirai . This film was remade in Hindi as Sadma in 1983.

Veedu (1988) poignantly portrays the ordeal of a middle-class family that tries to construct a house. He based the story on the hardship his mother suffered when she built a house in Sri Lanka. “I had never seen her smile at that time,” he had said. Rated as the best among his best, Veedu was as huge a commercial success as Moondram Pirai .

Moodu Pani (The Mist, 1980) is yet another masterstroke that emerged from the complex mind of an exceptional artist. Although Balu was inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho , his camerawork, the mist-covered nights of Bangalore and Udhagamandalam, and the weirdness of the subject made the film unique. The characterisation of the protagonist, with flashes of wickedness bordering on perversion, was new to Tamil cinema because the viewers, at the end of it all, could not hate him. In making this film, Balu faced the challenge of distinguishing it from Bharathi Raja’s Sigappu Rojakkal (1978), which has a similar theme and Kamal Hassan in the lead.

Marupadiyum (Again, 1992), a remake of Mahesh Bhatt’s blockbuster Arth, is yet another emotional drama which focusses on the intricate relationship between a man and his wife and his lover. The fatal attraction leaves the protagonists in a mental turmoil. The feeling of guilt and despondency is an all-pervading factor in the film.

Again, it was an essay on extreme emotions in Julie Ganapathy , a passionate story of a woman fanatically in love with a writer whom she detains in her house against his wishes. Saritha portrayed the emotional twists and turns of Julie powerfully. Jayaram played the role of the writer and victim.

Athu Oru Kanaa KalamAzhiyatha Kolangal

Vanna Vanna Pookkal deals with a youth and two girls in a triangular love story. His Rettai Vaal Kuruvi (1987) and Sathi Leelavathy (1995) revolve around the relationship between a man and two women which leads to complex situations, treated in a satirical manner.

The last phase of his life saw him make a valiant attempt to resist advancing age. He thought an image makeover with a director’s cap, a pair of sunglasses and a scarf would make him look young and colourful. However, when he acted in Thalaimuraigal , he cast aside this new image and appeared as he was.

Thalaimuraigal is about an aged man’s denial of love and care and his sense of isolation. The film poignantly presents his love for his grandson and his fears about Tamil getting short shrift in today’s educational system. Balu stood before the camera for the first time as an actor in the role of the grandfather. Santhiya Ragam (1989) also details the sufferings of an old man (Chockalinga Bhagavathar) who has outlived his “utility” and becomes a “burden” on society.

“Balu was totally against commercial cinema though he was forced to do a few for his survival. Producers of commercial films were reluctant to approach him since he never compromised with anything that would stifle his creativity. He wanted the new cinema of naturalism and realism rather than romantic commercial flicks. Similarly, he would not shoot any violence or fight scenes,” said Se. Ganesalingan, a Tamil writer and a close friend of Balu for four decades.

Simple, sultry women Although Balu’s films are based on complex scripts, the women in his films are simple, sultry and ravishingly Dravidian with girl-next-door looks. But his camera made them look ethereal. Balu, like Charles Marlow in Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, seemed uneasy with sophisticated fair and lovely girls. Powdered cheeks, painted lips and deodorised armpits had never impressed him. “Since the skin of our actors is Dravidian, it requires no make-up. Powdering may give a fictitious look. He even asked actors to get their painted faces washed and come for shooting,” Ganesalingan said. His leading women such as Shobha, Archana, Saritha, ‘Silk’ Smitha, Rohini, Mounica and Vinodhini were dusky and down to earth. But their big deep eyes with a dash of melancholy added sheen to his intricate plots. Balu, as the Sri Lankan Tamil writer Kasi Anandan said, loved beauty passionately. The Sri Lankan Tamil poet V.I.S. Jayabalan said Balu worshipped the beauty of the south on the big screen.

Besides the magical camerawork and complex storylines, Balu employed silence as a powerful tool of expression. In fact, he requested the music directors Salil Choudhury, who scored the music for Kokila (Kannada, 1976) and Azhiyatha Kolangal , and Ilayaraja, who was his music director right from his third film, Moodu Pani , to his last, Thalaimuraigal , not to violate the sanctity of silence in his films.

Silence as a medium The language of silence adds sublimity to his characters and richness to his artistry. The typical elements of reality are in full flow. “Ilayaraja thought I was interfering with his creative freedom. But I explained to him that it was the script that decided everything. He understood,” Balu said in an interview. Raja’s music added value to the silence, Balu admitted. Thalaimuraigal has no songs, only background music. The two masters remained friends, enriching each other’s creativity.

Like the silence, the sun and its rays have a figurative presence in almost all his creations. Balu’s camera expertly harnessed natural light. The employment of the sun at dawn and dusk as the principal imagery made his films poetic. It is magical in Chemmeen -fame Ramu Kariat’s Nellu (1974, Malayalam) and Mahendran’s Mullum Malarum (Tamil), for which Balu was the cinematographer, and in his own Moodu Pani . Many of his opening shots showed the rays of the morning sun filtering through a green canopy of trees. They got reflected from crystal-clear and pebble-strewn streams and painted mountains and verdant meadows in crimson red. His camera would capture the dipping sun as a huge yellow ball, silhouetting details in a frame. These colourful canvasses can be seen in all his film; Mullum Malarum, Azhiyatha Kolangal, Moondram Pirai, Moodu PaniNeengal Kettavai the mist-drenched eerie nights and foggy street lamps in Moodu Pani are simply elegiac. These natural scenes virtually made him a visual poet.

“I waited for nearly two months for him for my film 16 Vayathinalae . But he was busy with leading directors then. I had to bring in [the cinematographer P.S.] Niwas to complete my project,” said Bharathi Raja, his close friend for nearly four decades.

Balu was a stickler for quality. “When he worked on the sets with his camera he would lose track of time. He would often miss his lunch. His commitment to work was godly. He would work with dedication until the shot was perfect. Once he made Rajnikanth repeat the action six times for a single shot to get perfection,” Ganesalingan said. Balu won five National Film Awards—two for cinematography, for Kokila and Moondram Pirai, and three for direction, for Veedu, Santhiya Ragam and Vanna Vanna Pookkal .

He started his career as a cinematographer with Nellu and went on to direct 22 films in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Hindi. “He withdrew from the world with a tinge of sadness and indictment. Yet, he enriched Tamil cinema with his lyrical presentations,” Kamal Hassan said.

Balu’s unfulfilled wish was that the Tamil Nadu government and the film fraternity should take initiatives to preserve the negatives of Tamil films the same way it was done at the Pune National Film Archive. He said he “felt an overwhelming sense of grief, as though I had lost my children” when he found the original negatives of Veedu, Azhiyatha Kolangal, Santhiya Ragam and Marupadiyum damaged.

The director Bala, one of his disciples, referred to Balu as his gnana thagappan (father of wisdom). “But for him I would have died some 15 years ago. He gave me my life and a career and made me a human,” Bala said. A crop of young directors—Ameer Sultan, Vetrimaaran, Ram, Selvaraghavan and Sashikumar—who are making waves in Tamil cinema today, and cinematographers such as Santosh Sivan, Natarajan Subramaniyam and K.V. Anand were inspired by him. At his Cinema Workshop, he taught them the nuances of the medium, which he had mastered at the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune. He blended his directorial experience with cinematography to turn them into wholesome products. “They are my children,” he used to say with pride.

Balu Mahendra created not only works of art but many fine artists. That is the secret of his immortality.

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