K Balachander, who died at the age of 84 in Chennai on Tuesday after battling a series of aliments, was the unlikeliest of mavericks. The veteran of the Tamil stage, cinema and television was an astute chronicler of middle class concerns and values. His plays, movies and films gazed upon the dreams and nightmares of the middle rung of society with an honest, unsparing and sometimes caustic eye.  In the process of laying bare human weaknesses and struggles, the zoology graduate and former teacher and government clerk launched and shaped the careers of several actors, including Sridevi, Kamal Haasan, Rajinikanth, Sujata and Prakashraaj.

Balachander is familiar to five generations of Tamilians for his work on the stage, which included such popular productions as Major Chandrakanth and Server Sundaram, and his subsequent movies and television series. He wrote, directed and produced films that had lasting impact: Arengetram, Aval Oru Thodar Kathai, Apoorva Raagangal, Moondru Mudichu, Avargal, Varumayin Niram Sivappu, Thaneer Thaneer, Sindhu Bhairavi and Duet.

Balachander set his works mostly among the middle strata, whose doubts, self-deceptions and minor victories he articulated through clear, spoken Tamil shorn of rhetorical flourish. No Balachander movie is complete without an acerbic comment about the human propensity for hypocrisy.

One of Balachander’s favourite targets was false morality, especially towards women. Some of his movies in the 1970s, made at a time when filmmakers across languages were considering the gender question, bordered on the scandalous, at least for his strait-laced core audience. While Balachander was no radical or feminist, he was progressive enough to shine a light on prostitutes (Arangetram), single, working women (Aval Oru Thodar Kathai), older women in love with younger men (Apoorva Raagangal) and divorcées (Avargal).

Whatever the subject, its treatment or its outcome, a Balachander movie guaranteed homespun wisdom, a pragmatic approach to life, a deep interest in social currents, and memorable performances. His movies had enough kitchen-sink realism to keep arthouse fans happy and enough mainstream elements (big-name actors, songs, comedy) to keep theatregoers hooked. He made films mostly in his mother tongue but also in Telugu, Hindi and Kannada.

Balachander loved his actors and they loved him back. Among the many performers he picked and nurtured for Apoorva Raagangal was Shivaji Rao Gaekwad, whom we now know as Rajinikanth. Balachander extracted naturalistic performances from his actors, and they responded with relief and gratitude to the opportunity to be dramatic minus the melodrama.

Those who wandered into Balachander’s repertory later in their professional lives, including Kamal Haasan, Savithri, Saritha and Prakash Raaj, did their best work with him. Haasan, introduced as a child by AVM Studios in Kallathur Kanamma in 1959, shaped his intense, angry young man persona through films made under Balachander’s Kavithalaya Productions banner, including Apoorva Ragangal, Manmadha Leelai, Varumayin Niram Sivappu and Mano Charitra. Balachander's films were not star-struck or star-driven, and he accorded equal respect to actors in smaller roles.

Haasan also owed his brief crossover into Hindi cinema to Balachander, who remade the Telugu-language Maro Charitra as Ek Duje Ke Liye in 1981 and Varumayin Niram Sigappu as Zara Si Zindagi in 1983. Ek Duje Ke Liye, a version of Romeo and Juliet, explored language tensions between Hindi and Tamil speaking families. The intense and tragic love story was a huge success.

Balachander also appeared in a few movies, including Rettasuzhi in 2010, in which he plays a village school teacher who nurses a lifelong feud with a Communist, played by his contemporary and celebrated filmmaker Bharathiraja.

In the late '80s, Balachander moved to television, where such serials as Rail Sneham, Premi and Sahana continued to deliver the “typical Balachander” touch through quotidian middle-class characters who face their life journeys with common sense and sensibility.