The Balachander touch: The director who rocked the roots of Tamil cinema
K Balachander, who passed away on Tuesday night in a Chennai hospital, changed the way Tamil cinema was made and perceived. Be it his powerful visuals and sharp dialogues or breaking away from the clichés, he mastered it all.
The camera opens to a lanky loin-clothed boy walking towards the audience carrying a water pot on his head. He gets distracted by a cinema star's (Rajnikanth) photograph lying on the path. He picks it up with great difficulty still managing to balance the pot which is precariously perched on his head. A gush of wind takes the photo away from his hands; the boy tries to catch it and breaks the pot. The water gets immediately absorbed by the parched land, the boy tries to save it in vain. Cut. Title card "Thaneer Thaneer" ( Water! Water!) appears on the screen. A film which dealt with water scarcity and corruption, the message of which was conveyed even before the title was shown in a dialogue-less two minute interlude.
The man behind the camera was K Balachander and this scene was referred to as the 'Balachander touch'. The term which was given to a particular style of filmmaking: where a dialogue-less exchange or minimal but pointed dialogue was used to convey a message in place of a detailed verbose rendition.
Balanchander or KB as he is fondly called, needs no introduction to the Hindi-speaking world. Even today, whenever a yesteryear cinema lover listens to Lata Mangeshkar's honey filled Tere Mere Beech Mein emanating from a radio, he or she gets immersed in the memories of watching romantic tragedy Ek Duuje Ke Liye's riveting climax.
The blockbuster introduced South Indian artists Rati Agnihotri and singer SP Balasubramaniam to Hindi film industry, both of whom, utilised the hit to carve successful careers in Bollywood in their respective fields.
Balachander had always believed in young talents rather than betting on proven horses. His belief goaded him to introduce more 60 new faces to the film industry. A small excerpt from the list he introduced includes names like Rajinikanth who was introduced in Apoorva Raagangal, Kamal Haasan whose first film as an adult actor was Arangetram, character artist Nasser in Kalyana Agathigal, comedian Vivek in Manathil Uruthi Vendum, Prakash Raj in Duet and many more notable names in Tamil Cinema.
The Balachander touches
KB conveyed his message through powerful visuals and sharp dialogues. All his films had one scene or the other which can be cited as 'Balachander touch'. Sample these...
In his film Iru kodugal (parallel lines), the hero had a past relationship with a Hindi-speaking superior at work, who is obsessed with the Hindi word 'accha' which she uses many times in the movie. Hero's wife comes to know of this old relationship and confronts him. Hero, unsuspecting of the depth of his wife's knowledge about his past affair, blasts back at her repeating, "What do you know, what do you know". Hero's wife replies, "Accha." There are no more dialogues in the scene.
In his film, Nizhal Nijamakirathu (Illusion becomes reality), the heroine in a moment of anger yells at the hero not to cross the rangoli and come inside the house.
But internally she had always liked him though general hatred for men had stopped her from revealing her true feelings. The next time the hero passes the house, she brushes off the rangoli and looks apologetically towards the hero, who comes and stops near her, sheds a knowing smile but leaves without entering.
Tamil films at that time came along with a lot of sentiments attached to it. There were cliches like camera opening to someone shouting "victory, victory" in the start of the movie which was supposed to be a good omen. A lot of films opened with sun-rise and a rising flute music in the background. Others showed a temple with a bell ringing. And most of them had happy endings.
Whereas KB opened his blockbuster hit Punnagai Mannan (King of smiles) with a couple deep in love committing suicide. His runaway hit Maro Charithra had a heart breaking tragic climax. In Duet one of the heroes get killed. In fact most of his movies had a tragic ending. Thus, breaking the taboo that "sad endings make a movie flop".
KB was one of those few directors who really believed in woman liberation and wrote heroine-centric stories. Even though many of his films have had a female-centric screen play, three of them - Avargal (Them), Arangetram (First stage performance), Aval Oru Thodarkathai ( She is a serial story) stands out.
Avargal is a four-sided love story, which shows the plight of a woman (Sujatha) with a failed love affair (Ravi Kumar) who gets married to a sadist (Rajinikanth) and also admired by a ventriloquist (Kamal Hassan). In the end she ends up settling down with none of them. KB would have showed the strength of his woman lead, whenever she fails in life. First her love falls apart, she overcomes and gets job. When her sadist husband tortures her she would quit the job and him and start living alone. When she finally wants to get back to his admirer, even he would have gotten away. But life goes on....
In Arangetram, a Brahmin woman (premeela) due to family pressure gets forced into prostitution owing to monetary compulsions. One classic scene shows her naked with loads of paper currency pasted on her body symbolically conveying the way men treated her. The very family which enjoyed the money she sent resents and neglects her when the truth comes out. She gets torn and loses sanity. The portrayal of a bold Brahmin prostitute shook the very roots of South Cinema.
Aval Oru Thodarkathai deals with a woman who is the sole earning member of a big middle class family. She overcomes a drunkard brother and failed love to come up in life.
A poster of Aval Oru Thodarkathai.
She settles down and decides to marry a superior at work. When everything goes well and the film enters climax a shocking tragedy stops the marriage. The film is famous for it's opening and ending. As both were the same. It shows a series of actions done by family members so that the female lead can get ready for her office. This film starts and ends with the same set of events showing that her life is an unending serial.
KB's films are filled with sharp witty dialogues. Sample these.
In Iru Kodugal, Heroine's father develops deep hatred for the hero as he had left his daughter to lurch after promising marriage. When hero re-enters her life, the father tells the heroine, "I hate all those things which are 'related' to him," and the heroine replies: "I'm myself a 'relation' to him. Will you hate me too?"
In Varumayin Niram Sigappu, a film which portrayed unemployment and poverty, many of Kamal Hassan's ever-green idealist dialogues carved many real-life youngsters' ways of life. This author threw away his IT job with a famous MNC partly inspired by one such dialogue.
Kamal, who runs away from his family challenging his dad that he will return with a job, settles for a barber job without his family's knowledge. When his father unknowingly enters the saloon in which he is working both are stunned and words fail. Kamal's famous monologue on why he took the job while his father stands rooted never uttering a word in return was one dialogue exchange which brings out KB's potential.
"There is nothing to get angry in this. I couldn't do any job which killed my conscience. But instead of indulging in bad habits because of unemployment, I had to pacify myself and get into some job like this. If we don't get what we liked, what we get is to be assumed as the one we liked. In this job there is no lie or deceit. I don't have to forgo my self-respect. Of course, I studied MA and now I'm working as a barber, there is no connection. But where the hell is the connection for the ones who studied bio chemistry and working as a bank clerk? And above all that I'm happy and satisfied in this job. I don't kill anybody in this job. I cut hair not anybody's throat. If you feel what I did is right, even you can take the seat and I'll happily serve my father."
His father accepts the logic without any word in return and Kamal shaves his father.
The man who gave us all these gems may not be with us today. But his works will never die. They have an immortal life in the hearts of his fans.