Directors Week: K. Balachander, Father of Tamil Cinema

Yaaaay, a classic director! Better than that, a classic director whose films are readily available online (thank you Rajshri Tamil official youtube channel, blessings on you and long may you reign).

Tamil film is not my area, so I have only the lightest outline of its history. But from what I can find, it is currently and has always been a stronger artistic community than Hindi film. Mostly because the state support for film in Tamil Nadu is so strong. And because Tamil film is so tidily limited by state borders. The vast majority of the audience for Tamil film, and the artist pool for Tamil film, are all within one state. With the way state versus national powers are distributed in India, this means Tamil film could be protected in a way that Hindi film, trying to find an audience across various states all with separate laws and practices, could not.

The premiere film school for the Tamil industry was founded in 1945. The premiere film school for Hindi wasn’t founded until 1960. The Madras studio complexes were air conditioned, clean, and with bathrooms as long ago as the 1970s. The Hindi film studio complexes did not become air conditioned, clean, and with bathrooms until….some point in the future after the time when I am writing this? In Tamil Nadu, the government regulates ticket prices, and gives tax breaks to films that have entirely in Tamil titles. And of course, the most powerful politicians in Tamil Nadu are tied into the film industry, former scriptwriters and movie stars who want the industry that gave birth to them to continue.

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Also, they have cool weird statues! What IS this?

This all ties back to language, Tamilians are fiercely passionately proud of their language. A Tamil language film industry is vital in keeping the language alive, and spreading linguistic pride. There will always be movies in Tamil, and the audience will always see them. Hindi films, and Hollywood films, will have a harder time breaking through there than anywhere else.

But, here’s a radical question, are Tamil films actually GOOD? Eh, sometimes. Back in the early years, they tended to be big epic films, mostly action oriented, often with explicit political messages. They were sometimes very good, sometimes not. We still have those epic films, but there are also these brilliant films that deal with human relationships, that have visuals of striking artistry, that bring in a sense of sadness and endurance rather than simple triumph at the end. And that is because of K. Balachander.

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Here he is with his wife, back in the days before people were allowed to smile in photographs.

K. Balachander came from the era when you had to do film for the passion and something else for the salary in order to survive. He went from being a village school teacher to a clerk in the General Accountant office in Madras. He formed an amateur acting troupe and started writing scripts for them, around his office schedule. His plays became increasingly popular, one of his scripts was purchased for film and turned into a National Award Winning movie (directed by someone else). K. Balachander was still cheerfully going to work every day at his office job and writing scripts at night. This work ethic would stand him in good stead as he spent his career making up to 8 films a year, half as director and half as producer.

K. Balachander’s first few films were film versions of his stage plays, and they look like that. His focus was on creating a good basic set, for instance an apartment building courtyard in two floors with multiple doors that could open and close and allow for entrances and exits. But even in these early films, he was experimenting a little with the film art style to tell a story in a different way. The few moments that he broke out of the set felt different, and he used them for magical special character moments. And he used his actors differently, close-ups and small movements that would not work on stage but lit up onscreen with the focus of the camera.

No subtitles, but you don’t need them. Just look at the way the camera suddenly moves at 1:20. That’s what I’m talking about, this scene is mostly filmed just as it was in the play, but there are still small film touches

K. Balachander started as a playwrite at in his 20s, he directed his first film at 35. As he gained confidence as a director, his vision expanded. From films in which the dialogue and performances were the center piece, he moved on to long wordless sections in which the characters internal life was conveyed by visual metaphors or glances exchanged across a distance. But what never changed was his focus on the story above all.

A K. Balachander film is not about fun set pieces, songs sequences or action moments or comedy scenes. They are there, yes, but they are only there to work in context, to help tell the story of these characters. And somehow Balachander managed to tell amazing stories, stories you would not believe could be commercially viable in India or anywhere. Would you like to watch a film about a teenage girl who marries the father of her attempted rapist in order to exact vengeance on him? Balachander has that. How about a young woman who becomes a prostitute to support her family? That too. A young rebel who falls passionately in love with the woman twice his age who is hiding him in her home? Yep, that too. A movie about a funny tailor who kills a man in revenge for his sister’s suicide? That was Balachander’s first big hit!

Balachander’s films are amazing, but that is only half the reason he is the father of Tamil cinema. His art was great, but his person was even greater. Balachander reached out into Tamil Nadu and pulled forth talent. He launched Sridevi as an adult actress, Kamal Haasan as an adult actor, and discovered a strange ugly young acting graduate from the Tamil film institute named “Rajinikanth”. In one of his last films, he helped Prakash Raj restart his career. As a producer, he mentored Mani Ratnam and produced Roja, his big crossover hit film. Oh, and it was Roja which started the career of AR Rahman. Balachander is one of those people whose influence cannot be quantified or understood because it was so far reaching. The type of man that did most of his good for the community in hidden ways. His first impact on Rajinikanth wasn’t when he cast him in a film, it was when he came to talk at the acting institute and seeing him made Rajinikanth feel like staying in school was worth it, like he could do this career after all. How many other students did he influence in the same way through talking time out of his schedule to give a guest lecture? How many people did he meet at parties, in coffee shops, or simply talk to them because they showed up on film sets asking for advice? The answer is probably legions. Balachander was a kind kind man who believed in what he was doing, believed in the Tamil industry and wanted everyone to have the same chances he had. He made movies for 42 years, and spread kindness the entire time. While politics, fame, competition, and finances divided the industry, Balachander was a source of light that brought it together.

Image result for balachander rajinikanth sridevi

And that comes through in his films. His films are, ultimately, so hopeful. There is no tragedy of life that cannot be solved, no human that cannot be redeemed. Nothing that cannot be endured, and overcome. I’m going to spoil one of his movies, Moondru Mudichi where he launched Sridevi as an adult actress and gave Rajinikanth his first full length role, just so you can understand what I mean. Even if you read this, I still encourage you to watch Moondru Mudichi because a plot synopsis cannot convey the whole feel of the film:

SPOILERS Sridevi is a teenage girl lovingly spoiled by her older sister who works as a small time actress. She falls in love with a teenage boy Kamal Haasan, a student, who shares a room with his friend Rajinikanth in the same apartment building where she lives. She has a few disturbing run ins with Rajinikanth, and sees him seduce/rape (she is willing at first but then seems shaken afterwards) the young maid who services the building. Kamal does not believe Sridevi when she talks to him, and she does not have the words to fully convey why she is disturbed. The three of them go out for the day on a lake, and Rajinikanth impulsively kills Kamal by pushing him off the boat while Sridevi watches in shock. He warns her that no one will ever believe her if she tries to turn her in. Sridevi returns home and learns her sister was injured in an accident on set and can no longer work. Sridevi quits school and looks for work, desperate to get away from the building where Rajinikanth is still stalking her. She answers an add for a wife by mail that she sees in the paper. But when she arrives at the country house to meet her prospective “husband”, he is an embarrassed older gentleman, a widower with 4 children. His friend placed the ad without his permission and Sridevi is clearly far too young for him. But she is desperate and he takes pity on her, instead hiring her as a nanny for his children. She brings her sister to stay with her and is finally free of Rajinikanth. Until Rajini shows up at the country house, coincidentally he is the oldest son of her employer. Rajini puts on a show of being a proper young man and proposes to her. His father is delighted, and Sridevi is once again unable to articulate in a way that people would believe why she is disturbed by Rajini and afraid to marry him. Trapped with no escape, she finally takes a leap and instead proposes to Rajini’s father, telling him that she has grown to care for him and would rather marry him than his son. She is now elevated from a defenseless young woman a victim of a stalker to the one with power over him. She torments Rajini by playing the “perfect mother” and making him do things “for his own good”. She also welcomes the maid he raped into their household along with her baby (Rajini’s baby) as a constant reminder of his sin. And then Rajini takes her and his father on another boat trip to the same lake. His father slips off the boat into the water and Rajini flashes back to his murder and panics. This time he jumps off the boat and searches for his father while Sridevi screams. They reach shore and the father pops out of the water where he has been hiding. He heard Sridevi and Rajini talking and believed what he heard Sridevi say about the murder. He did this to test Rajini, get him to confess. Rajini, shaken by his father’s knowledge of his true nature and the reveal that his father believed Sridevi over him, rushes off to kill himself. But at the last minute, is redeemed when he sees his baby with the maid. He returns home, and while his father wants him to return to the police, Sridevi orders him to marry the maid and raise his child, and she will forgive him. END SPOILERS

Whole movie, with subtitles embedded in the film. Rajshri Tamil is the best.

That is a ridiculous plot, but the theme at the heart of it is important. Our heroine starts as a teenage girl who knows that Rajinikanth is a rapist, knows that he is dangerous and bad, and is scared of being around him. But she cannot articulate her feelings in a way that would make sense to someone else, can’t even fully justify them in her own mind. As our heroine grows in power and independence, she still does not share her illogical fears but instead finds ways to protect herself and enact her own vengeance. That is satisfying, but the real solution is when, finally, someone else learns her story and believes it. She can’t find healing by vengeance, she can only find it by being believed, by having someone else stand by her and say “yes, I believe you over him, your fears are valid”. This is the universal feeling that gives the film meaning. Every woman has had that moment of illogical fear. Every woman has decided not to share her fears (because who will believe them) but instead to figure out how to protect herself all alone. And a few lucky women have had the wonderful blessing of an outsider coming in and saying “yes, I believe you, I support you, I stand with”. That’s a Balachander movie. One that looks at the universal inner struggles of humanity and comes up with the sweetest balm for them.

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15 thoughts on “Directors Week: K. Balachander, Father of Tamil Cinema

    • I’ve noticed that. Or, alternatively, before 1960 the whole world was filled with unsmiling black and white people.

      On Sun, Sep 8, 2019 at 11:00 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • I think it was because photos took a longer time to take back then and people couldn’t hold smiles for a long time or at least in the early days??? Could also be that not smiling during photos was just the norm

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  1. I just started exploring Tamil film so I don’t know/haven’t seen that much. I did hear about K. Balachander and how he had strong female characters but never knew the specifics of his films and they all seem very fascinating! Definitely going to check his films out in the future!

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  2. The women in Balachander’s films always seemed real even if the situations were sometimes outlandish – they didn’t just exist to move the plot along or fall in love with the hero. Have you seen Thappu Thalangal? Its a young Rajnikanth and Saritha and they’re both so good in it. I think what I really miss about Rajini’s films now is that back then he still had the swag but there was this vulnerability that you don’t really see as often now. And Saritha is amazing.

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    • Kabali! Such a great Rajinikanth role, and he actually shows vulnerability.

      I haven’t seen that movie, there is so much Balachander out there it’s kind of overwhelming. I really need to get serious about sitting down and watching them all.

      On Sun, Sep 8, 2019 at 9:49 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. I enjoyed Balachander movies from 70s and 80s – the middle class lives, strong woman characters, etc. I also liked couple of straight Telugu movies he made – Maro Charitra (Ek Dujhe Keliye) and Chiranjeevi’s Rudraveena.

    However, just like other great Indian directors, he too fizzled out and made some unbearable disasters at the end of his career like Madhavan’s Paarthale Paravasam

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        • I’m fine with that part of it, so long as it doesn’t go super specific. Left Right Left lost me entirely because it was so specific to the Malayalam political scene. But all the other communist movies I have watched, I’ve really liked.

          On Mon, Sep 9, 2019 at 3:01 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • The views of this movie are not specific to situation but are more universal and some quotes are directly taken from revolutionary telugu writer “sri sri”, so telugu people connect to it lot.

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