When he appeared on screen for the first time, they weren’t immediately mesmerised.
He: A lanky, dark-skinned actor playing a character twice his real age, the abusive (and later, cancer-stricken) husband of the female protagonist, in the 1975 Tamil film Aboorva Raagangal (Rare Melodies). Unhandsome, tentative, he appeared late and only fleetingly in a movie dominated by stars such as Kamal Hassan and Sri Vidya.
They: The Tamil movie fans of the time — used to the colossal magnificence of Sivaji Ganesan and the charismatic dynamism of M.G. Ramachandran — couldn’t quite place the new actor. Neither could they find any remarkable feature in him but for his melancholic face and exotically accented Tamil.
But then, magic happened.
As the weeks rolled by, and the movie struck pay-dirt in the box office, the cinema-obsessed Tamil public lost its heart to Shivajirao Gaekwad a.k.a. Rajinikanth. Suddenly, they found a certain magnetism in his eyes, an effortless manner in his gait, a sparkle in his voice. They spoke ceaselessly of his cameo rather than of the marquee names in that movie. Here is a star like no other, they said. A bundle of Sivaji, MGR and some more.
One man wasn’t a bit surprised by all this brouhaha. After all, it was his script that was playing out.
Kailasam Balachander (KB), who would go on to become India’s most prolific filmmaker and direct more than 100 movies, had bet big on Rajinikanth. “In my forthcoming movie, I am introducing a young man who has fire in his eyes,” he had written just weeks earlier in the film magazine Pesum Padam. “Just mark my words. He will go on to become a phenomenon.”
36 years later, we call up to congratulate KB on winning the highest honour in Indian cinema, the Dadasaheb Phalke award.
“Naan sonna maadhirye nadandhadha, illaya?” Balachander asks us, the characteristic effervescence in his voice intact. “Hasn’t it happened exactly the way I had predicted?”
Balachander has deeply influenced and transformed Tamil cinema over a period of 47 years.
With people, he has been a veritable Midas having discovered more than 100 stars and technicians. The roll call of the “KB School” reads like a Who’s Who of South Indian cinema: Besides Rajinikanth, his protégés include such icons as Kamal Hassan, Sridevi, Chiranjeevi, A.R. Rahman, Jayaprada and Ramesh Aravind, not to speak of the countless directors and scriptwriters he inspired.
And it’s not like he then hitched his wagon to their stars: He spent a lifetime shunning the big names and making movies with newcomers nobody had heard of. Balachander never even directed MGR, who had brought him to the world of films in the first place, and he made just one movie with Sivaji. In fact, he stopped making movies with Rajini or Kamal once they became big stars (well, mostly).
As if that wasn’t enough, KB pushed his luck by choosing themes that were not just far ahead of their time but considered downright scandalous in their day. His movies often operated on the edge of social tolerance on subjects such as sexual freedom, unconventional love and women’s rights.
Those were the days when movies depended — as they do now — on upright heroes smooching behind tree trunks with otherwise chaste heroines and upholding mother’s love. So there was no reason why Balachander should survive in the superficial cesspool of formulaic Tamil moviedom even for a month.
As it turned out, he has thrived there for nearly five decades.
By any reckoning, Balachander was an outsider. By 1949, when this god-fearing Brahmin boy completed his B.Sc (Zoology) from Annamalai University, the raucous, anti-Brahminical Dravidian movement had begun making inroads into the Tamil film industry. In the ensuing years, Dravidian stalwarts such as C.N. Annadurai, M. Karunanidhi, Sivaji Ganesan and MGR came to dominate the industry either as writers or actors.
Balachander, meanwhile, settled into a comfortable life as a government servant. He got married in 1956 and the couple had two sons and a daughter. In time, he rose to be a superintendent at the Accountant General’s Office in Madras. This is the office that today unearths ugly affairs such as the 2G spectrum scandal but in those days, the job was much less exciting, given the general honesty of the ruling class. So, to while away time, a bunch of officers at the AG’s office came together to form an amateur theatre group. Given his flair for writing, Balachander became the playwright.
And what did these English-educated middle-class friends with an amateur drama troupe do? They wrote and acted their plays in English. Their tiny audience, largely made up of fellow officers of the Government of India, were just as comfortable in the Queen’s language as they were.
When a new accountant general took over in 1963, there was a felicitation and Balachander wrote a play for the occasion, titled Major Chandrakanth. It was about a blind, retired military officer giving refuge to the murderer of his son. Balachander didn’t know at that time, but the play would be later made into a movie in three languages (Major Chandrakanth in Tamil, Sukhadukhaalu in Telugu and Oonche Log in Hindi).
For the moment, among the gentle paper-pushing folk of the AG’s office, the play was an instant hit. One thing led to another and soon, friends were nudging KB to stage his plays for the general public. Since English wasn’t exactly the language of the arts in Madras, Balachander translated the plays into Tamil and took them to the ‘Sabha’ halls across the city.
Matinee idol MGR was one of KB’s early fans. “I later learnt that he had followed all my plays,” says KB. MGR particularly liked Server Sundaram, about a poor waiter who finds success as a film star but gives it all up in the end. In 1964, MGR was searching for a scriptwriter for his forthcoming movie Deivath Thai (Divine Mother), and decided to give KB a chance.
This effectively ended the free run that Sivaji and MGR had had for decades. Tamil cinema moved to a more realistic, less melodramatic level. KB focussed on urban, middle-class themes. Bharathiraja made us fall in love with the beauty of village life. Balu Mahendra wrote poetry on camera. Mahendran thrived on subtlety and bridged the distance between art and box office. With new stars such as Kamal and Rajini, and a rustic musician called Ilayaraja, coming into play, Tamil cinema was never the same again.
Check out our Festive offers upto Rs.1000/- off website prices on subscriptions + Gift card worth Rs 500/- from Eatbetterco.com. Click here to know more.
(This story appears in the 15 July, 2011 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)
Kb sir is truly a legend nd trendsetter..as righty said in this article.f he hadnt started d realistic trend many directors like even mani ratnam could not have come and told realistic stories on celluloid. Adn moreover,tamil cinema would have followed simply brainless masala films of bollywood. kb sir gave true identity to all the flms he made..his flms were a real surprise package for audiences..just wish he makes 1 more good movie for all of us..by the grace of god.on Apr 21, 2012
Who can be the best director? Ascor says: While watching the movie the director (direction) should not come to our mind. All the charaters should not reflect the action of the director. Watch closely balachander`s movie. Fans always appreciate the direction of director and even in characters of the artistes. Upto AvaL ORU THODARKATHAI Balachander got appreciation. After Apporva Ragangal the director lost his credit. (Remake of 40 carats).. almost most of movies were all remake of other language movies. It was published in BOMMAI. Though the direction seems enjoyable the climax of the movie always confusing which is more important. Luckily the new comers introduced by this director almost got succeeded in their film career with other directors.on Mar 27, 2012
I remember him for one of his serials shown on sony channel " Chhoti Si Asha". The very first TV shows we as a family used to watch together and taught me meaning of life. I really miss that complete show and pity the fact that no print is available to re - watch the serial. If a DVD can be provided of the same, I will be really greatful. Also just want to see the small girl recite the complete title track: " Seene mein hai dil ye chota sa.... Dil mein hoti choti si asha.... Chanda aur Sitare ismein..Dharti k najare ismein.. Gehra ha ye sagar ki jaisa.....".on Feb 6, 2012