Interview: K Balachander

‘I DON’T LIKE TO REST’

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

Review: Paruthi Veeran

THIS SON ALSO RISES

Sivakumar’s younger boy debuts in a showcase for how good filmmaking can (almost) overcome mediocre material.

MAR 2, 2007 – IF FLAVOUR WERE TO DETERMINE THE WORTHINESS OF A MOVIE Paruthi Veeran is a classic, one for the ages. It begins with scenes from a thiruvizha — I would have said “folk fair”, but given the rustic context here, that just doesn’t sound right — and this is possibly the most bravura stretch of atmospheric filmmaking since the manjal neeraatu vizha in Kaadhal. People who’ve actually grown up (or lived) in villages may or may not find these depictions accurate, but for those of us from the cities, it’s a whirlwind tour of the rites and the rituals and the traditions that make up rural Tamil Nadu. There’s a staggering amount of detail here — dancers in exotic costumes, loudspeaker announcements, cattle with balloons tied to their horns, card players oblivious to the ear-shattering noise around them, eunuchs singing the praises of a local big shot to the tune of Gangai karai thottam… These opening frames so completely transfer us to a different world — thanks also to the burnt yellows of the cinematography and Yuvan Shankar Raja’s magnificently earthy score — that much later, when the hero discovers love and when Kaadhalin deepam ondru plays on the soundtrack, it comes as a shock. Yuvan may have chosen this number — one of his father’s loveliest creations — to underline the mood of the moment, but it’s too urban, too silken a song for Karthi’s coarse-cotton hero. (He’s named Paruthi Veeran, after all.) It’s when this song came on that I realised how completely the director (Ameer) had succeeded in immersing me in his (fictional?) Paruthiyoor.

This flavour — really — is the reason for the film’s existence, for entire stretches of screen time are devoted to nothing else. The infrequent bits of exposition are almost apologetic, as if Ameer is telling us that he’d rather show a bored Karthi entertaining himself by bullying a group of folk types into dancing than establish the framework of the narrative. And that’s why so much of Paruthi Veeran works so well. After all these years of the cinema, I doubt if anyone actually goes to see a “story” unfold anymore, and Ameer probably knows that his story is his weakest element. (It’s basically a spin on the Romeo-Juliet template, where warring families oppose the young lovers getting together.) This is a movie in no hurry to get anywhere real soon, and that’s because it centres on someone in no hurry to get anywhere real soon. Veeran is the kind of guy you’d club under the category of sandiyar. His life is spent in and out of the local jail — almost always for crimes involving the aruvaa — and his big dream is to land up in a big Chennai prison. But the way Karthi plays this character — and the way Ameer has written him — there’s a strange vulnerability to this young man, and we see this in a scene in jail where he reaches out through the bars and locates a hand mirror and inspects his face as he twirls the ends of his moustache.

This is how he defines his masculinity — and this is how he defines himself. If he weren’t doing these stupid things and ending up in jail, he wouldn’t have anything else to do with his life. He would be a nothing. So it seems only natural that he’d smile for the police photographer, for there’s no one else giving him that kind of recognition. His only friend is his uncle Sevvazhai (a very entertaining Saravanan), and the two cook up a routine so filled with laugh-out-loud one-liners that the real comedy track — one that’s quite funny, featuring Ganja Karuppu — appears redundant. But audience-pleasing apart, Veeran is an unusual kind of hero, because the things he does you’d usually associate with a villain — and it’s not just the constant drinking. At one point, he waylays a couple of lorry drivers who’ve brought a prostitute to their usual haunt, and for a second, you expect Veeran to slap them silly, give them akkathangachi advice, and send them packing. But he takes the woman inside for his enjoyment, promising the others that they can have her once he’s through. And his heroine (Muthazhagu, played by Priya Mani, who surely has the straightest spine ever in the history of Tamil film heroines) is even more unusual, for she knows that the man she loves is sleeping around, and yet she declares, “En odamba ammanama kaatturadha irundhaa onakku mattum dhaan…” Ah, true love!

And also something else. Watching Paruthi Veeran — or Pithamagan, for that matter — we see how far village-based cinema has come from the days of Bharathiraja. Where there was once sensitivity, there is now sensationalism. That dialogue of Muthazhagu is among the least sensational aspects of this film, for even if it makes you flinch, it’s only in your mind. There are scenes here calculated to make you flinch physically, as if it’s not enough that your mind experiences the revulsion, your body should too. Why else would we be treated to the image of Muthazhagu vomiting all over the screen, or Veeran’s shorts being ripped off to expose a bare buttock, or women being repeatedly slapped and smashed against walls and shoved and raped and murdered brutally? Maybe this is how those bloodthirsty villagers really are. Maybe the problem is with us lily-livered urban audiences. But I couldn’t shake off the feeling that a lot of this is just Ameer’s way of bludgeoning his audience into submission. He goes equally overboard with the cuteness. The colour-bleached flashbacks of the young Veeran and Muthazhagu are bad enough — though we do get to hear a beautiful number sung by Ilayaraja, Ariyadha vayasu — but when Muthazhagu sits down a group of old crones and jokingly tries to instruct them in the ways of Carnatic music, it’s impossible not to wince.

But then, the director probably felt he had to have something for Muthazhagu to do till Veeran reciprocates her love, which isn’t till late in the film. Ayyayyo, the number that plays soon after, is an instant classic, but the romance in the song isn’t matched by the romance on the screen. He is indifferent to her at first, she doggedly pursues him until he crumbles, and the moment this happens, we should have felt something — the mental equivalent of those giant sunflowers crowding the screen in the Bharathiraja movies. But I remained curiously unmoved. And from this point on till the end, I never quite cared about the characters, who simply seemed to be mechanically fulfilling plot functions — which is so different from what they were doing earlier on, just being. Priya Mani is quite good, but I couldn’t help thinking how much better she may have been had Paruthi Veeran been merely a love story — like Mann Vaasanai, where the boy and the girl were merely pawns on a chessboard dominated by the people around them — instead of a hero-centric love story. In today’s scenario, we’re asked to deal with a protagonist who won’t just switch off the lights, he’ll leap up and break the glass bulbs with his aruvaa. If you don’t giggle at this bit of macho insanity, it’s because of Karthi, who holds the screen with the assurance of a veteran. This is a superb first-film performance by any standard, and it makes you reach for that oldest of movie-myth clich¨¦s: A star is born.

Copyright _ý2007 The New Sunday Express

Between Reviews: Love Letter to a Love Story

LOVE LETTER TO A LOVE STORY

APR 6, 2008 – ONE REASON THEY’RE CALLED “MOTION PICTURES” could be that they’re never at rest inside your head. They infiltrate, then gestate, then mutate _ sometimes combining with memories from other movies and morphing into a different genetic creation altogether, and sometimes overlapping with your own wishful thinking to become an amalgamation of the film you saw, the film you thought you saw, and the film you wanted to see. The latter _ the film I wanted to see _ came up recently when a recent acquaintance, a film-school student, and I were jamming about the movies in general, and about Balu Mahendra’s Moondram Pirai in particular.

We both agreed it was one of our favourite films, and I said what was most fascinating for me was the unresolved sexual tension between Kamal Hassan and Sridevi (well, between the characters they play, actually, but then you knew that). Seen from one viewpoint, there’s nothing stopping them from nudging the emotional aspect of their relationship towards a more physical plane (in fact, he firsts meets her in a brothel, where he picks her from a lineup, and surely not because he wants to coo Kanne kalaimaane into her ear) _ but on the other hand, acting on this impulse would border on paedophilia, because she has regressed into childhood. After hearing me out patiently, this film-school acquaintance _ RS Prasanna, who’s recently completed a documentary on Balu Mahendra (more about that later) _ had just this to offer: “But none of this is explored in any way in the film.”

And I countered that it was there, if you looked for it. It’s buried in the landscape of the film’s narrative _ and if you marked an X and started digging at the point where Kamal discovers that a local has tried to rape Sridevi, if you stopped to think about the fury that this discovery engenders in him, you’d see it right there. Couldn’t Kamal’s rage be as much the result of the would-be rapist’s actions as the fact that this man has dared to look at Sridevi as a woman _ an impulse that Kamal is no doubt suppressing every minute of his life with her at home.

Every time he tries to think of her in grown-up terms, she’s made him revise that notion. He gets her a sari to wear, and he imagines her in front of him, the very vision of womanhood _ even motherhood, if you want to mine these frames for further subtext, for in this dream, she cradles him in her arms, nestles his head near her bosom and feeds him a glass a milk _ but when she finally comes out of the room she’s gone in to change, she’s back to being a child, the sari bunched around her in hideous, hilarious tufts. So after this rebuff, couldn’t you view Kamal’s anger towards the man who tried to rape Sridevi as the explosion of these festering frustrations? “Here I am, controlling my every hormonal impulse, letting the lover inside me be quashed by the father and the brother and the tender caregiver inside me _ and you think you can just barge in and have her body?”

This contention, of course, led to a lot of heated debate _ the kind where no resolution is possible because both parties are right; we are, after all, talking about subjective and hypothetical interpretation _ and the good that came out of this is the advance copy of the Balu Mahendra documentary that Prasanna dropped off subsequently, for my viewing. (Note to self: The next time you’re railing at the heavens at your choice of profession, at having to sit through One Two Three and Race and Rama Rama Kya Hai Dramaaa, remember these rare moments of grace.)

Titled Balu Mahendra _ Art & Craft: A Master Class Session, the film has the director talking about various aspects of his craft and career, and revealing unexpected shades of his personality. I never got this from his films, but the man comes off as something of an unabashed romantic. His first viewing of Pather Panchali was at a film society he formed in his college, and when the screening got over, he recalls that it was raining outside. “I went out and got drenched and danced and laughed,” like Durga and Apu in the film. “That was our way of celebrating Pather Panchali.” And later, a different kind of confession, that one of his hobbies is “butterfly watching, if you know what I mean.”

In between, filmmaker K Hariharan lauds Balu Mahendra as “an emotional Hitchcock,” and Kamal Hassan remembers fondly that, at first, he thought, “Either this guy is a genius or he’s mad.” A pause. “He was both.” Proof comes through clips from Balu Mahendra’s work, mostly from Kokila, Moondram Pirai, Sandhya Ragam and Veedu _ and thankfully, none from Neengal Kettavai, that steaming pile of contempt he hurled at his audience _ and once again, I was struck by a scene from Moondram Pirai, the one where the dinner that Kamal is preparing gets burnt and he vents his bile on poor Sridevi.

I haven’t seen the film in a long while and I’d forgotten what an accumulation of Kamal-isms this stretch is. He needs to go out and buy food now, so he hurriedly pulls on a pant and a shirt. He opens a drawer in this haste (to locate his wallet) and its contents crash to the floor _ among them a bottle of ink, now reduced to a spreading stain of red. Kamal _ the peerless manipulator of props that he is _ skirts around the mess and tries to push the drawer back into its recess. No amount of fidgeting helps, so he drops it in irritation. He continues tucking his shirt into his pants, and locates the wallet in another shirt hanging on the wall. He grabs it and tries to stuff it into the front pocket of his pants, and he tries again, and then discovers that these pants have no pockets, so he places the wallet inside his shirt and strides out. People often point to Kamal being inspired by Marlon Brando, but Marcel Marceau is a more likely progenitor in this case. It’s a masterly physical performance by an actor at the peak of his powers, in a film by a director at the peak of his powers _ and it’s just one of the reasons Moondram Pirai will never meet the fate that befell its protagonist. This is one film that will never end up sad, alone, forgotten.

Copyright ý2008 The New Sunday Express. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.