Overshadowed brilliance

Pathbreaker

Earnest: Tamil director K Balachander

Balachander maintained that the fact that he has been chosen worthy of an award that has only once gone to Kollywood (when the late thespian Sivaji Ganesan won it) added to its luster.

Playwright-turned-director Balachander has had an eventful career of over four-and-a-half decades in cinema and has directed over a hundred films in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi. Most of his early films were remakes of his successful plays on stage like Neerkumizhi, Edhir Neechal, Server Sundaram,  Bhama Vijayam, Major Chandrakant, and Naanal, among others. Those were days when cinema was made only in black and white and emotional and melodramatic family dramas ruled the roost. Balachander was a past master in the art of making films which struck a chord in the hearts of the audiences and almost all his black and white films were successful.

He was one of the first filmmakers to win over audiences with fiery dialogues and attractive story lines and he could make the transition from stage to screen with ease. A turning point in the then young director’s career was the films in which he projected female protagonists in a series of avant garde films like Aval Oru Thodarkathai and Avargal (Sujatha), Thappu Thalangal, Agni Sakshi and Achamillai Achamillai (Saritha), Kalki (Shruti) and Sindhu Bhairavi (Suhasini). Balachander’s heroines were those who rebelled against a male chauvinistic society and were tough as nails as they fought a system that forced them to buckle under. All these films proved to be huge hits and the Balachander fan club began to swell.

 Apart from his numerous films, seven of which won National Awards, Balachander has secured his place among the pantheon of greats in Indian cinema for the number of stars that he introduced to the silver screen. Nagesh, Rajnikant, Kamal Haasan, Chiranjeevi, Prakash Raj, Vivek, Sujatha, Jayanthi, Jayaprada were all virtual nonentities till Balachander took them under his wing. The hard taskmaster put them all through a tough grind and such was his keenness for perfection that none of his artistes could get away with a half-baked performance. Kamal Haasan, who started out as a child artiste, was reintroduced to the Tamil industry in Arangetram and has since done several films with his guru. Significant among these films are mega hits like Apoorva Ragangal, Ninaithaale Inikkum, Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu and Unnal Mudiyum Thambi.

Rajnikant caught his eye when the director visited a film institute in Chennai where the latter was a student and soon, Rajnikant made his debut in a small but vital role in Apoorva Ragangal. Avargal, Thappu Thalangal, Thillu Mullu and Netrikan soon followed. When both his protégés reached the pinnacle of their careers, Balachander once commented that he could no longer afford to cast them in his films that were often made on shoestring budgets. One of his late introductions to the Tamil industry, Prakash Raj, has been going places and already has a couple of National Awards in his kitty.

Balachander, often, boldly ventured into areas which were taboo for the rest of his tribe — the travails of a prostitute (Arangetram and Thappu Thalangal), a whole village fighting an official’s apathy in their quest for water (Thanneer Thaneeer), the transformation of an honest man into a scheming politician (Achamillai Achamillai) and the infatuation of a famous classical singer for his ardent fan (Sindhu Bhairavi) who bears his child out of wedlock, were all themes that clicked and classified him as a filmmaker who could tackle various subjects with aplomb; a proof of his versatility. A number of his assistants like Vasant and Charan have since branched out into their own and have carved respectable niches as filmmakers.

Apart from Telugu films like Maro Charithra and Rudra Veena, Balchander also made a foray into Bollywood with the blockbuster, Ek Duje Ke Liye, a remake of his Telugu hit, Maro Charithra. The film had Kamal Haasan and Rati Agnihotri in the lead. Lamikant-Pyarelal scored the music while Lata Mangeshkar and S P Balasubramanian rendered the lyrics and were chart-toppers. His later films like Ek Nai Paheli, however, received only a lukewarm response and the director never ventured into Hindi cinema again.

Simultaneously, he also turned producer and his banner has made several hit films ever since. A lesser known fact is that it was Balachander who introduced A R Rahman in Roja, which was produced by him and directed by Mani Ratnam.
The octogenarian now devotes his time to the small screen and has all but thrown in the towel where feature films are concerned. There are no takers for his brand of cinema anymore as technical wizardry has taken over and storyline or the theme are no longer relevant. Yet, looking back at his eventful career, this Dadasaheb Phalke award winner can be content for he has stood his ground for so long,  withstanding competition from some of his outstanding contemporaries like Sridhar, K S Gopalakrishnan, Bharathiraaja, Mahendran and Balu Mahendra. And that, by any yardstick, is no mean feat.

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