Balu Mahendra’s genius lay in recognising what was good with our cinema and what was not
In a village full of wise men, an educated man is more useful. Balu Mahendra was that educated man. Not that we didn’t have cinema knowledge, but it was a new medium, and people were trying to superimpose their previously acquired knowledge of theatre and literature on an absolutely new medium, that had another kind of glamour.
Everybody learnt that grammar at their own peril, at their own expense… sometimes at other people’s expense. And there were masters who were there in Tamil cinema who made themselves what they were through sheer hard work. But it was still a gurukulam kind of pattern that we were following.
When Balu and his friends came from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, it was not only a breath of fresh air, but it changed Indian cinema. There were some of them who looked at the existing industry, their place of work with derision because they were all trained internationally. They went on to alienate themselves. Balu Mahendra was not one of them. He was proud of being a Tamil. He wanted to give something back to Tamil cinema instead of ridiculing it. He was like an educated man returning to his village, knowing fully well what was wrong with it, and where its strength lay. That’s what worked and that’s why we became friends.Different style
Even before we attained fame, I remember my surprise upon seeing him when he came in as a young man, full of confidence. I remember asking, “Where is this guy from? His writing style is so different.” He wasn’t working in the regular pattern. I liked the way he lit his shots. I was told that he would be working with the famous Malayalam director Ramu Kariat and that he might be collaborating with filmmaker Sethumadhavan as well. He was the new lad on the block. I was surprised to see director Sukhdev Ahluwalia coming to visit him on sets. Sukhdev was a kind of hero for me. I used to watch his ad films, which had their own style. I then realised what kind of peers Balu had. And so I made myself his friend.
The first time Balu wanted to direct a film on his own, he told me that I would be the hero. I thought he was just being friendly, that it was just conversational bonhomie. But he really did live up to his word and we made Kokila.
It was a dream we were all talking about and it became true. We were a team and we worked together. He has been a cinematographer on many films in which I acted. We constantly met and spoke about cinema. Even the gossip was about what went wrong in the making of a classic, never about personalities.Many memories
There are so many memories of him that I have. There’s this time we used to take dips by the Hogenakkal waterfall, some 200 metres away from it. We used to dare each other to swim across the falls. The current would be tugging at you and you had to quickly make that 100-metre dash. And we did.
We also spoke a lot about the camera, which he knew all about. Since there was no universal methodology of how the projections would be in Tamil Nadu, the cameraman’s framing could go haphazard at any point of time. What you frame in your film may not be there in the theatre, because each theatre had its own dimensions of projection.
There was no universal code or measurement. What happens to be an inch on the projection frame would become a foot by the time it projects it on the screen. When you have a very tight frame showing, say just the lips and the top of the nose, then most probably, in a rural theatre, you may not find the lips, or you may find half of it.
Balu Mahendra corrected these projection errors with a very simple innovation that nobody dared to use. He put a gate in the camera. Instead of correcting the rest of the world, he reduced his space of operation. Nobody could tamper with his universal framing, which would never go wrong. Even when you over-project it, you would have a black frame. And you can’t shrink it too far. Others talked about it, but he acted on it. So he was always a forerunner. This was the way he held sway over his department.Rule-breaker
His travels are astounding. By the time we met, he had seen most of the classics by the masters of world cinema. He had even met some of the filmmakers. Balu built the first bridge between a box office hit and good cinema. Moondram Pirai [the Kamal-Sridevi starrer] was a silver jubilee hit and it won the national award. The unspoken rule was that most award-winning films would be art films which wouldn’t run. He broke that.
He was absolutely instrumental in my growth as a filmmaker, of course not like the other B, Mr K Balachander, which is another story altogether. My biggest complaint with Balu was that he could have done more films, 20 more at the very least. He began playing it safe, but he could have done more, continued with his work on cinematography at least.
When he narrated the story of Moondram Pirai to me for the very first time, I listened to him for 20 minutes and then told him I was on board. But I added that we need to work on the climax. We pushed the idea of the broken-hearted man to its extreme. We got my character crawling on the ground and soaking in the rain, which became quite the iconic image. In fact, the rain was so hard to come by during the filming of the climax of the Hindi remake Sadma, we almost looked at the clouds and said we could do with a little help. And thankfully it rained for the climax scene. Balu said it was all a moment of magic.Celebrate him
We used to meet on and off. I am not flabbergasted by his death as I know this will come to all of us. My only worry is that he could have done more films. But it’s all compensated by the students he has left in his wake. I think more than the sad part of missing a man like Balu Mahendra, what supersedes that is the great moments I had with him. I would rather celebrate those moments than mourn his death.
Had I met him on his deathbed, I would have told him, “Don’t worry Balu, your work will live on.”