Kailasam Balachander has carved for himself a unique place in the history of Tamil cinema as a director who explored social themes in a manner that stimulated in viewers an appetite for such bold creations. Today, at the age of 82, Balachander has expanded his creative horizon to explore the limits of television as a medium to express himself. In 2010, KB, as he is fondly called by his admirers, became the first Tamil film director to be honoured with the Dadasaheb Phalke Award.
AN hour-long discussion on his films, many of which defied established social norms and customs of the middle class, brought to the fore the complexities of his creative output. The characters he created remain etched in memory. Who can forget ‘Pattu’ mami and ‘Madippadi’ Madhu of Edhir Neechal, Collector Janaki of Iru Kodugal and M.R. Bairavi of Apoorva Ragangal?
His best, he said, had sprung from his heart and head. “Had any one of my movies flopped, it was not because I produced a bad one,” he said. “The viewers did not take it. But how can you expect me to give ‘typical, goody goody endings’ because the audience would have liked them? Perhaps, they did not accept the sophistication in my plots,” he said. He was, however, quite content with his works.
Balachander was candid and forthright in his self-appraisal, which oscillated between pride in his works and prejudice in his characterisation. Critics curse his vanity for portraying his characters, especially women, as impudent, arrogant and individualistic. “They were my creations and had to be intelligent. They were my alter egos. They thought rationally and acted progressively. What is wrong in it?” he asked.
He rarely made compromises. But for an effective rendition, he did not hesitate to move out of his self-imposed rigid boundaries. In Nizhal Nijamakirathu, he had an egoistic girl (Sumitra) fall for the macho antics of the hero (Kamal Hassan) “to lend credence and strength to the plot. Also, she provided a perfect contrast to the innocent victim Shobha, the other character.”
All along, he portrayed his characters as powerful decision-makers, strong and bold and in no way vulnerable. They drew inspiration from the poet Bharathi and Mahatma Gandhi. “Saritha in Agni Sakshi was Bharathi personified. Similarly, Sujatha in Aval Oru Thodar Kathai, Srividya in Apoorva Ragangal and Saritha again in Achamillai Achamillai and Thanneer Thanneer. The women in Kalki and Manathil Uruthi Vendum were against any societal restrictions,” he pointed out.
Intricate plots were his forte. His films on knotty, cross-generational and “unusual” inter-personal relationships lifted him to a completely different plane of creativity. He could deftly create puzzles in human relationships, with his characters battling their emotions all by themselves.
The pangs of a family caught in an enigmatic triangular love affair transcending the generational divide are best exemplified in Apoorva Ragangal; Avargal, the failure of which still perplexes and rankles him; Sindhu Bairavi; and Nool Veli.
His protagonists rarely succeeded in their love. “As far as my treatment of subjects—socio-political, family or love—was concerned, I approached them with a difference. I never compromise,” he said.
To portray this “unusualness”, Balachander’s critics claimed that he had indulged in crafting unorthodox characterisations and creating disturbing visualisations. Sometimes, they border on sadism, which annoys viewers but invariably leaves an indelible mark in their minds. For instance, the rape scene in Punnagai; the scene in Varumaiyin Niram Sigappu in which a hungry Kamal Hassan picks up an apple from a cesspool; and the one in Moondru Mudichu in which birds screech as Rajinikanth looks on in treacherous villainy while Kamal Hassan drowns in an eerie-looking placid lake. “Yes, I created sadistic characters but not mean perverts. Rajinikanth in Moondru Mudichu was overwhelmingly jealous, while in Avargal, he was an absolute sadist. You cannot expect me to cast my characters as stereotypes and lifeless,” he said.
Balachander and Kamal Hassan enjoy a symphonic relationship wherein all the notes fall into a rhythmic pattern. In an interview to Frontline, Kamal Hassan said: “In fact, many have asked me whether Balachander discovered you. I tell them that he invented me.” Both have worked in many films, eight of them in a row. “I am very proud of him [Kamal]. He has reached the pinnacle where none could reach,” Balachander said. Who else other than Kamal could have done justice to the roles of “vikadakavi” in Aval Oru Thodarkathai and Chaplin Chellappa in Punnagai Mannan, he said.
The Balachander “school” has produced a long list of actors, technicians, directors and comedians, who include Prakash Raj and Vivek. The director Vasanth, who made his directorial debut with Keladi Kanmani,said he shared an emotional bond with Balachander. “Our relationship transcends the guru-shishya one. I dedicate all my movies to him since KB sir has made me what I am today. His movies added a dash of fresh colour and life to Tamil cinema. He is different in both thinking and execution.” Vasanth worked as Balachander’s assistant in 18 films for eight years.
Balachander vividly recollected how he spotted Rajinikanth. “I was at a function where I met a boy with sharp features and a unique style of his own. It was a brief negative role for him in Apoorva Ragangal; but he made it an everlasting one. I realised that a star had been born.”
Balachander was also comfortable making comedy films. His Bama Vijayam, Edhir Neechal, Poova Thalaiya, Server Sundaram, Manmatha Leelai, and Thillumullu are good family entertainers. He said: “These comedies not only provided a respite to my audience who had been watching my serious films, but also prepared them for another set of my complex creations.”
He also gave everlasting romances such as Marocharithra in Telugu, strong political satires such as Thanneer, Thanneer and Achamillai Achamillai, a thriller in Naanal, and a musical extravaganza in Ninaithalae Inikkum, which has been re-released in digital format recently.
On the criticism that he carried the influence of his stage experience into films, he said: “Yes, a few of my earlier movies, such as Neerkumuzhi, did carry the influence of the stage play. You cannot expect colourful dream sequences and glorified violence from me. Who can make an entire film in a hospital ward other than me in Neerkumuzhi? Can anyone experiment the way I did in Arangetram, Thamarai Nenjam and Punnagai today?” he said.
Many of his movies dealt with serious social issues such as widow marriage, live-in relationships and divorce. “Hence, I am bracketed as an anti-system person,” he said. “No one could have dared to cast the heroine who is from an orthodox background in an anti role, as a prostitute, in Arangetram,” he said.
A primitive approach to technical details is another accusation that is hurled at him very often. He said he would rather accept these accusations than deny them. “My strong conviction is that technology cannot usurp the director’s chair. It should be behind me and not before me,” he said. Today’s Tamil films, he felt, lacked in emotive content. He has a special liking for the director C.V. Sridhar, a contemporary. “The tenderness with which he handled his subjects and characters amazed me,” he said.