Interview: K Balachander


On the eve of the release of his 101st feature _ the young-love story, ‘Poi’ _ director K Balachander talks about the journey from then to now.

SEP 10, 2006 – Let’s start at the very beginning! When you first came into the movies _ from the theatre _ what was the scenario like? Obviously, MGR, Sivaji Ganesan and Gemini Ganesan were the big stars then…

By the time I came into films, I had become very popular as an amateur playwright. I was known in the film fraternity, and MGR asked me to write the screenplay-dialogue for his Deivathaai. Very frankly, considering the nature of MGR movies, I was a fish out of water, but the producer, RM Veerappan, helped me. He was adept at writing scripts for MGR. After that, I wrote Poojaikku Vandha Malar for Muktha Srinivasan. Then I got a producer for my first movie. At that time, most films were based on heroism. They were all male-oriented, male-chauvinistic films. I knew I had to be different, so I chose the area I knew best _ middle-class issues. I decided to remake Neerkumizhi, one of my favourite plays. Compared to the other films of the time, it was something new for the audience. It was shot mostly on one set. The concept, the structure appealed to everybody. It became a big hit, and I became a film director.

You just said that the films then were hero oriented. But even your stories, initially, centred on a male protagonist (if not a “hero”). I’m talking about Neerkumizhi, Major Chandrakanth, Edhirneechal… And slowly you became known for your women-centric subjects. How did that transition happen?

I never wanted to make films with big, established stars, with the exception of a few like Nagesh. I was very comfortable with Nagesh. I wrote scripts like Server Sundaram that were tailored for him. But he was a very busy comedian, and I couldn’t go on making movies with him. And I knew that the middle-class subjects that interested me wouldn’t interest any other hero. So it was a matter of convenience. With heroine-oriented subjects, I could do what I was comfortable with, without compromises. There’s another reason. In the theatre, I couldn’t always do the subjects I wanted to because those days it was difficult to get women to perform on stage. So most of my plays had male protagonists. In cinema, that restriction was no longer there.

These women-oriented films usually have tragic endings. You put these women in interesting circumstances, but they somehow fail to find happiness. Sujatha in Aval Oru Thodarkathai, Suhasini in Sindhu Bhairavi, Pramila in Arangetram _ their characters seem abandoned at the end.

In Sindhu Bhairavi, Suhasini decided that she could live without a man. She found happiness with those slum children. In my opinion, that is a positive ending. Marriage is not the be all and end all. Arangetram was a different case. That was a very acidic subject. I was showing a lower middle-class Tamil Brahmin family where the parents had several children, and the heroine becomes a prostitute to support this family. After showing her as a prostitute for most of the movie, I couldn’t give her a happy ending. In those days _ the early seventies _ the society was very traditional. I didn’t want to alienate my audience, so I tried to strike a balance between what I wanted to convey and what I thought my audience would accept. If I made the same movie today, she would have lived happily ever after, with or without marriage. As I said, a happy ending doesn’t necessarily mean marriage.

These heroines _ most of them were hardly the glamour girls of their day. Sridevi was probably the only one. Otherwise, you kept featuring heroines who were more powerhouse performers than pinup girls. It’s almost as if you wanted to prove a point to the box office.

Let me talk about Saritha. I auditioned many girls for Maro Charitra, but I didn’t get what I was looking for. They all looked the same, and I wanted someone fresh. Then Saritha came in. She answered all my questions. I told her it’s a very difficult role. She said she could do it. I liked the way she talked to me. I asked her if she would sing, and she got up immediately and started singing and dancing. It was some Telugu film song, and she performed it in the same style as the hero and heroine. She did all this spontaneously. I was taken aback. And I said I’d take her. Everyone around me, including my hero, had reservations about this girl. But I was right about her. Earlier, there was Sowcar Janaki, another performer not exactly known for glamour. I wanted to cast her in a play _ Mezhuguvarthi _ and I didn’t know if she’d agree, being a popular film star. Finally, ¡®Major’ Sunderrajan talked to her and she said yes. That was the first play she did, and she became part of the family. Then I cast her in Edhirneechal, in a total contrast to the parts she was doing then, where she was always in tears.

You tend to find a few actors and stick with them. Among the heroes, it was Gemini Ganesan, Sivakumar, Kamal Hassan, Rajinikanth. And you repeatedly used heroines like Sowcar Janaki, Sujatha, Saritha. Is it just the comfort factor? Considering your stage background, did this cast become your “troupe”?

It’s the comfort factor. My actors were like family. It was like a gurukula, and I wanted to exploit their talent by casting them in various roles. But it was primarily the comfort factor. We used to do rehearsals for the stage, and the same set of actors would go for shootings too, as I’d begun directing a few films. But after a point, I had to leave theatre for good. My films had succeeded in a big way and I wasn’t able to concentrate on theatre any more. But these actors provided a comfortable working environment. The feel-good factor comes only if your artists are well-disposed towards you, if they treat the director as the captain of the ship. Nowadays, I don’t think that is the case.

Two of these actors are still at the top in Tamil cinema. Did you sense they would get this far? What did you see in them when they first approached you? And after these two, you haven’t done much work with big stars, except a Madhavan, maybe. Do you consciously avoid big names?

The way in which I spotted Saritha, the way in which I spotted Nasser, the way in which I spotted X, Y, Z that’s how I spotted them too. Something intuitive happens which tells me, This person will become a star or an actor.’ I cannot define it. The main thing is that they had a lot of potential and could be used in many roles. About using stars after that, it’s again just a question of the comfort factor. They can’t dictate terms to me. They can’t say, I will come at 10 o’clock.’ They have to be there at 8 o’clock. That’s the only way it will work for me. Some of these actors become stars after being in my films, and then they become unavailable to me. If I cast someone, they should be available to me always.

You make all these serious films. Suddenly there’s a Manmadha Leelai, a Thillu Mullu, a Poova Thalayaa. Considering that these are popular even today, why didn’t you do comedy more often?

When I made Poikaal Kudhirai, I wanted to relax myself. I’d made Agni Saatchi before that, and that was a very difficult subject. But after Poikaal Kudhirai was released, everyone asked why KB had made such a movie. I had become slotted as a maker of serious movies. After that, I didn’t want to take that risk of making a comedy. I can do comedy very well, but they are not letting me do it. Even today, people ask me why I don’t make something like Bama Vijayam or Thillu Mullu, but these people are very few.

You not only got branded a serious filmmaker, you also became known for a certain kind of relationship movie, with permutations of one-versus-many _ one husband with two wives, or three sisters in love with one man, or a socially taboo older-woman-younger-man angle. Do you like to shock people?

Yes. It’s rather inborn in me that I want to shock people. Of course, it’s risky when you do this, because I’ll have to consider my survival also. If I take on a shocking subject and it fails, then I immediately make a safe film _ for the audience.

Your serious films deal mostly with relationships. Even in Arangetram, which dealt with prostitution (and perhaps family planning), the overall structure revolves around a woman and her obligations to her family, her relationships. But there was a period where you made Varumayin Niram Sivappu, Thanneer Thanneer, Achchamillai Achchamillai _ and in these, the relationships seemed secondary to the social issues. How did that phase come about?

That came out of my urge to be different. I wanted to make something different from “my” type of movies. But even then, I never wanted to make fully political movies. I just wanted to touch a political backdrop. I decided to do Thanneer Thanneer the moment Komal Swaminathan said he was writing the play and told me it was the story of a village. It was simultaneously developed as a play and a film. The play was staged earlier and was a big success, but if I’d staged the film like the play _ with the village as the protagonist _ I don’t think it would have succeeded. The film succeeded because I made the woman the protagonist. I laid emphasis on one particular character and the whole story went along with that character. Achchamillai Achchamillai is also a political subject, but I kept it within the four walls of a house, as a story between husband and wife.

Now that we’re talking about Achchamillai Achchamillai, let me ask you about this character named Sudhanthiram _ a little person (I think is the politically correct term) whose stunted growth is a metaphor for the state of our freedom. Things like metaphor and symbolism _ that “Balachander touch” people keep talking about _ do these go back to your theatre background?

Not really. I didn’t touch on this issue when I was answering your first question. When I came into films, I was in a dilemma about how best to attract audiences. So I thought of new ways to present things. I wouldn’t call it gimmickry, but it was something like that. This became very popular and the audience gave this a name _ the “Balachander touch”. And then it became a must in my movies. They began to expect these touches in my films. Even now, people say they can tell it is my movie after just a couple of scenes _ even if they haven’t seen it before.

You mentioned Thanneer Thanneer earlier, and one of the things we remember about the film is the lovely number Kannaana Poomagane, composed by MS Viswanathan. Whether with V Kumar or MSV or Ilayaraja or AR Rahman, your films have had some very good music. What is your interest in music? Do you leave it to the composer, or do you know what you want and ask for that?

I don’t leave it to chance. I don’t leave it to the music director. I do sit with the music director when he is composing and there are times I’ve even rejected tunes. But all the song situations are dictated by me. Take the romantic song in Varumayin Niram Sivappu _ Sippi Irukkudhu. It’s my job to conceive such situations that throw a challenge to the lyricist and the music director, otherwise they will not come up with their best. The song you mentioned, Kannaana Poomagane, was a big challenge, because it couldn’t have many instruments in the background. It had to be simply sung, that is all. In Aboorva Raagangal, I told MSV that the entire climax is contained in a song. In Agni Saatchi, I wanted a song _ Kanaa kaanum kangal _ that would reflect the state of the heroine’s mind. I knew my shot would start from a close up of her head. So the music reflected that. But it’s different today. Vidyasagar, though, was nice to work with (in Poi), because he’s like someone from the old days. He was very happy that I had come to him, and he was happy to compose for song situations that were very specific.

You’ve remade a lot of your own movies in other languages. Varumayin Niram Sivappu, for instance, became Zara Si Zindagi. Iru Kodugal became Eradu Rekhagalu. What interests you in this process, having already gone through the whole story and dealt with the characters once? Is it possibly because you’re in love with your characters and can’t bear to let them go?

Nothing like that. It’s just a matter of convenience when getting into another language. With a proven subject, it becomes easier for me. A new subject could be a big risk. Yes, redoing something in another language is a big bore. But when I made, for example, Ek Duuje Ke Liye (from Maro Charitra), most of the cast was different. So some amount of freshness was there. Of course, when there’s an earlier movie, there’s always the element of comparison _ not only for the viewer, but even I start comparing my shots here with the shots I took in the original version. Sometimes they are superior, sometimes inferior.

In less than forty years, you’ve made about a hundred films. That works out to more than two per year. There’s hardly anyone around these days who makes movies at that rate. Why do you think this is so?

There are directors like Dasari Narayana Rao, who have done many more films. But in my case, I don’t like to rest. I am 76. How many other directors are still working at this age? That’s because I don’t have any interests other than writing for films or for serials. For the past ten years, I’ve been busy with my projects for TV. I guess it’s the constant urge to be in the limelight, or maybe to satisfy my own ego. Balachander has not become old.’ That’s what I want people to think.

I know this is a clichéd question, but I have to ask you this. What’s your view on Tamil cinema today? And what are the films you’ve enjoyed watching recently?

Of course, technically speaking things have improved a great deal. Last week I saw a film that was technically brilliant, technically excellent, technically… you can insert another superlative word. But after coming home, I couldn’t remember what it was about. I couldn’t recall scenes or dialogues that stood out. But some of the smaller films are good, like Chitiram Pesuthadi. I liked the format of the love angle. And there was no bloodshed or violence, despite the Mafia backdrop. I liked the fact that the love affair was treated with significance. (Then, when I prod him about Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu’…) It’s a good movie, very well done, very well enacted and all that. The moment I saw it, I sent for Kamal. He came here and we discussed the film.

When the audience for your films stopped going to theatres and switched to television, you followed them and made serials. But now you’re back with Poi. What made you want to get back to the big screen? And what’s special about this movie?

I was getting bored with what I was doing for the past ten years. If you look at just the writing aspect of it, writing for films and writing for TV are not very different. But with TV, your thinking becomes restricted, mainly due to the budget. For instance, you cannot have a song situation. So I decided to make a film. I consider Poi an antidote to the kind of films coming out today. It’s a simple love story. It’s about the lies we tell in our everyday lives, and how they play havoc with the life of a boy and girl. I think the KB audience will like it because I’ve done things like using a surreal character _ like the “conscience” in Moondru Mudichu.

You started with theatre, and now there are rumours that you are getting back to the stage. Is that true?

The rumour is right. I will be getting back to theatre soon. Actually, I want to come back with two plays. I have already written the script for one. It’s a middle-class subject. About the other one, I have some ideas. I have made a commitment for one more film, and after that I should be back on stage.

Copyright ý2006 The New Sunday Express