Tamil filmmaker and screenwriter J Mahendran died in Chennai on Tuesday morning, days after he was hospitalised following complications after a dialysis session. His son, John Mahendran, confirmed the news on social media.

Mahendran has several classics to his credit, including the Rajinikanth-starrer Mullum Malarum (1978), Uthiripookkal (1979) and Nenjathai Killathe (1980). Critical of the over-the-top elements of commercial Tamil cinema, Mahendran wanted to make films that were understated and true to life. But before he became one of Tamil cinema’s most influential filmmakers, Mahendran was a screenwriter.

Born J Alexander in Ilayangudi in Tamil Nadu on July 25, 1939, Mahendran made his writing debut in 1966 with Jambulingam’s comedy Naam Moovar, which featured Jaishankar, Nagesh and Pandari Bai.

More writing projects followed in films including Jambulingam’s Sabash Thambi (1967), J Jayalalithaa-starrer Panakkara Pillai (1968) and P Madhavan’s Thangapathakkam (1974), starring Sivaji Ganesan, Cho Ramaswamy, KR Vijaya and Major Sundarrajan.

Thanga Pathakkam (1974).

After scripting SP Muthuraman’s action drama Aadu Puli Aattam (1977) that starred Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, the filmmaker made his directorial debut in 1978 with the acclaimed Mullum Malarum. Considered a milestone in Rajinikanth’s career, one of the films that paved his way to superstardom, Mullum Malarum is loosely based on Uma Chandran’s novel of the same name. The film traces the tender relationship between a winch operator and his younger sister, Valli (Shoba).

The film faced hurdles at the start and the producer is said to have refused to cast Rajinikanth, who had played predominantly villainous characters till then in films including Moondru Mudichu (1976) and Avargal (1977). Mahendran however stood his ground, Tamil producer and writer G Dhananjayan recalled in his book Pride of Tamil Cinema: 1931 to 2013. The film, which was later remade as Venalil Oru Mazha (1979) in Malayalam and Pyari Behna (1985) in Hindi, fetched Rajinikanth his first Tamil Nadu State Award.

Mahendran told The Hindu in an interview that he would not have made the film without Rajinikanth. “In my films, I eliminated all things I hated regarding Tamil cinema and they said it was revolutionary,” he said.

Mullum Malarum (1978).

His second film as director was the seminal Uthiripookkal (1979). Starring Vijay, Sarath Babu, Ashwini, Charu Haasan and Madhu Malini, the drama follows Sundaravadivelu (Vijayan), a sadistic school manager who sabotages his relationship with his family when he tries to get his ailing wife’s younger sister to marry him. The film is based on a short story, Chitrannai, by Pudhumaipithan.

Tamil filmmaker Mani Ratnam, who has often called Mahendran an inspiration, lauded the subtlety of the film in an interview with The Hindu in 2002. “If I get anywhere near what Mahendran did in Uthiripookkal, I’ll be a happy man,” Ratnam told the publication.

Uthiripookkal (1979).

Mahendran collaborated with Rajinikanth once again in IV Sasi’s action-drama Kaali (1980), which he wrote. He then directed the Tamil screen icon in the hit crime thriller Johnny (1980). Rajinikanth played a dual role as Johnny, a petty thief, and Vidyasagar, his villainous lookalike. The film also starred Sridevi as Archana, a singer and Johnny’s romantic interest.

Mahendran directed his fifth film, Nenjathai Killathe (1980) a few months after Johnny. The love triangle traces the journey of Viji (Suhasini), a young woman who marries the kind-hearted Pratap (Pratap Pothan), when her boyfriend (Mohan) mistrusts her. The film, which also stars Santhakumari and Sarath Babu, won three National Film Awards that year, including Best Feature Film in Tamil and Best Cinematography.

Johnny (1980).

More family-themed dramas including Nandu (1981), Metti (1982) and Kannukku Mai Ezhuthu (1986) followed. The filmmaker directed Rajinikanth one last time in Kai Kodukkum Kai (1984), a romance drama also starring Revathi, Rajalakshmi and Sowcar Janaki.

Mahendran’s last film as director Sasanam (2006), about a married couple whose relationship turns sour when they give shelter to a woman who has nowhere to go. The cast included Arvind Swamy, Gouthami and Ranjitha.

In later years, the filmmaker also appeared in front of the camera in numerous films. Mahendran made his acting debut in Kamaraj (2004), A Balakrishnan’s biopic of former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister K Kamaraj. Mahendran played Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam politician K Rajaram in the film. In Atlee’s Theri (2016), the filmmaker appeared as a ruthless politician, who goes head-to-head with Vijay’s police officer to avenge his son’s death.

He was last seen in Karthik Subbaraj’s Rajinikanth-starrer Petta (2019), where he played a village strongman who is betrayed by his sons.

J Mahendran in Theri (2016).

Tributes for the filmmakers poured in from members of the Tamil film fraternity.