K Balachander’s death in 2014 robbed Indian cinema of one of its most original talents. The multi-faceted creator of plays, movies and television shows cast a sharp and often caustic eye on ordinary Tamil lives for over five decades. Balachander’s productions in Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and Hindi created a middle ground between arthouse and populist cinema between the 1960s and the ’80s. He had a brilliant eye for new talent and an ability to extract indelible performances from his actors. His movies are counted as classics for their honesty, perspicacity and ability to create engrossing drama out of domestic situations.
Manohar Singh Bisht’s K Balachander begins with a sequence from a movie that made the director vastly popular outside his home state. Ek Duuje Ke Liye, a 1981 remake of Balachander’s 1978 Telugu-language Maro Charitra, was one of the year’s biggest hits. The Films Division production uses Ek Duuje Ke Liye to introduce Balachander’s many achievements to a national audience. The cradle-to-grave narrative covers several aspects of the director’s life, and includes warm and often moving interviews with his collaborators.
The 99-minute documentary benefits tremendously from an initial conversation between Bisht and the filmmaker in 2012. “He was a wonderful man, so down to earth and humourous,” Bisht told Scroll.in. “I set out to make a film on him and started conducting interviews.”
The interviews cover a range of areas, including Balachander’s eye for talent and his ear for dialogue. Actor Ramesh Aravind, whose films with Balachander include Manathil Uruthi Vendum (1987) and Duet (1994), declares that the director had an “X-ray vision for talent”. Several actors testify to the director’s ability to extract convincing, heartfelt and often difficult performances.
Kamal Haasan describes the sense of “silly disappointment” he felt when he was cast in Arangetram (1973) as an actor rather than an assistant director. Haasan delivered some of his most indelible roles in Balachander’s films, including Avul Oru Thodarkathai, Apoorva Ragangal, Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu and Ek Duuje Ke Liye.
Balachander is typically modest about spotting Haasan’s ability to command the screen. “He has grown along with me and I have grown along with him,” he told Bisht.
Bisht didn’t let the fact that he had not seen a single movie by Balachander except Ek Duuje Ke Liye deter him. “One of my friends told me, you are North Indian, you don’t anything about K Balachander, and I challenge you to make the film,” said Bisht, who has also made In Search of Fading Canvas, about hand-painted poster makers. “I watched 72 of his films without subtitles to get to know him personally, to get a sense of his cinema. I found a few themes – his use of symbolic elements, the middle class humour, the women.”
The film also explores Balachander’s use of music, and includes insights from Illaiyaraaja, M Balamuralikrishna and Vairamuthu. It is hardly surprising that Bisht had no trouble persuading actors, filmmakers and musicians to share their thoughts. “His is such a personality that nobody said no – they fed us and spoke to us at length because of him.”
Inevitably, some aspects are either ignored or treated fleetingly, such as Balachander’s use of punchy and conversational dialogue and his technical approach. Balachander’s use of dramatic close-ups and rapid cuts can be the subject of a separate film, as can his microscopic attention on the Tamil middle class. “I made the film linear, and the idea was that everybody should understand him well, from the cycle wallah to the auto rickshaw driver,” Bisht said. The original cut was five hours long, and bringing it to 99 minutes was “like cutting a leg and a hand”, the filmmaker added.
The best tributes to the director come from the men and women who fearlessly allowed him to mould them into the characters that his admirers love and remember. The actor Balkrishna sums up Balachander’s vision well: “He made films the way they were made in those days. He used to have one thought or one inspiration around which he used to spin a story, incorporate characters, then go looking for people to play those characters.”
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