When his movies—many of them precious gems of Tamil cinema—are heralded for their uniqueness and cinematic brilliance, is it any wonder that his film institute is different from the other cubes in the ice box? Straight off the bat, the iconic director clarifies, “Please don’t call it an institute; it is an ashram, a place for those who love cinema deeply and where we together share our love for this medium.” Right from the time it was started in 2009, the Balu Mahendra Film School is living up to the ideal cherished by its creator.
Clad in his trademark cap and neck scarf, the 70-plus writer-cinematographer-director confesses to the idea behind the school: “After my heart attack and stroke, I got the feeling that perhaps next time I might not be so lucky to survive and did not want my cinema to be buried with me. Also, when it would be physically impossible for me to make films, it would give me an opportunity to be around youngsters passionate about the same and last, it meant that I would be financially independent.”
From an 18-month duration, the course has now been trimmed down to a year. After much screening, roughly around 12- 15 students who have ‘madness for cinema’ are selected. “The first year, I had a couple of doctors, an accountant and an engineer who joined the course. Even if one student comes up to my expectations, I would be very happy,” says Balu. The course fee is much lower than those of any other film school.
The school does have a bit of history attached to it. This was the building that was built during the making of Balu’s masterpiece Veedu (House). Little did he know then that one day it would serve as a place for his film school.
With film schools mushrooming all over the place, what sets Balu’s school apart? “This is the only place offering a filmmaking course which incorporates scripting, cinematography, direction and editing; elsewhere each course is taught separately”, says Balu, adding, “I want to introduce a new breed of filmmakers, those who have total command over the film, my replicas really.”
He then lets on that his is the only film school where the medium of instruction is Tamil, making it the first Tamil film school in the world. Modern Tamil literature is a compulsory subject here and each pupil has to read one short story every day and write a synopsis of the same. Watching all world classics is also part of the curriculum. There is no rigid schedule here and students spend as much time possible on the field. Says Balu: “We talk cinema, we make and breathe cinema and on the pretext of teaching, I am learning. I tell my students to be as close as possible to the people and to let their stories be about them.”
While it is common knowledge that his wards (Bala, Ameer, Vetrimaran, Ram and Seenu Ramasamy) are keeping the Tamil cinema flag flying high, does he see such potential in his school pupils? “Every batch, I get two to three students who break all barriers,” says the veteran filmmaker.
Balu accepts that digital cinema is the cinema of tomorrow and he is gearing up his students for the same, although he says, “When what you are writing is sheer poetry, it does not matter whether you write it on toilet paper or bond paper.”
So is he making any film now? “Yes, I am. All I can say is that it has been shot and edited,” says Balu and then adds, “I want to show that it is possible to make world class cinema on a budget of just Rs 25-30 lakh.” Knowing Balu, one cannot help wonder whether he is adding another gem to the huge repository of Tamil cinema.