a little after the news of filmmaker Sridhar’s demise, I requested K Balachander to share some memories of his contemporary. I hoped he’d open up about his favourite films of the late director, along with an anecdote about being a fan, perhaps, or a recollection of a long-ago meeting — but more importantly, I hoped for some context. If we appreciate Citizen Kane and Orson Welles today — we who were born several decades after the fact — it’s because American cinema (or even European cinema) has been the subject of extensive documentation. Critics and scholars down the years have argued about Kane, wrestled with it, deconstructed it to a molecular level, and an equal number of forests have been felled in arguing about and deconstructing its maker and his motives.
Therefore, those of us who were not around then, and cannot take a trip down memory lane, only have to take a trip down to the library (or click on Google) to become aware of what the filmmaking milieu was like when Welles appeared on the scene, how his radio background influenced his filmmaking, why Kane is so revolutionary (despite its tricks having being stolen so many times since, they’re practically clichés today) — so on and so forth. And thus, when we see Citizen Kane today, we see it in context. Even if we cannot appreciate it as a vital, pulsating work of our times, we are able to realise why, at one time, it was considered vital and pulsating, and why Welles was such a pioneer in the West.
But when it comes to our filmmakers and our films, it appears at times that all we have is statistics. Over the past days, we’ve been hearing about how Sridhar was the first star director, whose name was the first to feature above the film’s title. We’ve heard about him being the first to shoot a film in Kashmir (Then Nilavu), to make an all-out comedy in colour (Kaadhalikka Neramillai), to shoot a film in a single set (Nenjil Or Aalayam) and in record time at that. While these are certainly accomplishments of note, the question that looms in an uncharitable corner of the mind is whether these logistical considerations — these statistics — are enough to induct a filmmaker into the pantheon.
That Sridhar made a number of good films, fine films is indisputable, but what made him great? That’s perhaps where Balachander’s evaluation of the man he terms his munnodi (his predecessor) comes in useful.
“The films of the time, even if they were love stories, were hero-oriented. There was no role for the heroine, except to sing along and clap during the fights. Sridhar made the first real love stories. There was no violence in his films. They were soft films, and the dialogues were colloquial, not grammatically correct, and this came as a breath of fresh air.” And then, he sighs nostalgically. “You just had to be there.”
I guess that last remark arose from my professed inability to differentiate much between Kalyaana Parisu and, say, the Bhimsingh melodramas. Because the way I saw it, in both, ordinary people are forced to navigate some fairly heavy-duty melodramatic contrivances, and in both, the formula of laughs-tears-and-everything-in-between is faithfully adhered to. Of course, Sridhar had the greater delicacy of touch, and his films were more about the people in love while love was just one of the many emotions that drove Bhimsingh’s movies — but then again, as Balachander puts it, I guess I had to be there.
“If you see, even my films today,” says Balachander, “you may find a lot of clichés, a lot of over-dramatisation and overacting. A tear-jerking song situation like Kaadhalile tholvi uttraal (in Kalyaana Parisu) is unimaginable today.” He names Nenjil Or Aalayam as his favourite Sridhar film, and Kaadhalikka Neramillai comes next. “Whether Sridhar made a comedy or a tragedy, love was his basic theme. It may look clichéd now, that (as in Nenjil Or Aalayam) a woman’s former lover would turn out to be the very doctor who has to operate on her husband. But at that time, it was totally off the beaten track.” And having provided a fair amount of what I was after — context — Balachander winds up with this tribute. “He has been an inspiration to all future filmmakers, including myself.”
Now that I have aired Balachander’s memories of Sridhar, I feel less presumptuous about airing my own. After all, a contemporary of the late director would obviously have a better handle on the filmmaker and the times he made his films in than someone who, in school, waited breathlessly for Oliyum Oliyum to telecast Ennadi Meenatchi, from Ilamai Oonjalaadugiradhu. Then again, how odd that, due to our longstanding reliance on oral history and due to our preference for anecdotal information over documentation and analysis — and this is not so much a judgement as a statement of fact, though it does make me wish things were different — I know more about the general circumstances of American and European directors than I do about someone like Sridhar.
My memories of Sridhar’s films, consequently, centre primarily on the specifics — the photography and the songs. His were the few films of the era where people weren’t bunched into the centre of the frame while the camera was switched on, and long before Ram Gopal Varma began to shoot scenes from intriguing angles, Sridhar was asking his cinematographer to take a peek at Devika (in Nenjil Or Aalayam) from underneath a hospital bed. And I don’t know if I can think off-hand of another director who, for so long and so consistently, coaxed the best from his composers.
A disconsolate Gemini Ganesan roaming about a desolate Marina beach in Manidhan enbavan dheivam aagalaam, Rajasri and Ravichandran intoxicated by the delights of first love in Anubavam pudhumai, Kutti Padmini seated on the back of Nagesh playing elephant in Muthaana muthallavo, Gemini Ganesan and Vyjayanthimala paddling midstream one enchanted evening in Nilavum malarum paaduthu, Kalyan Kumar setting the precedent for several generations of jilted lovers with the song-that-became-a-catchphrase Engirundhaalum vaazhga, the camera following Vijayakumari’s feet as she bounds through the corridor and into the garden to begin Indha mandrathil odi varum, Sivaji Ganesan and KR Vijaya lit apparently by nothing less (and nothing else) than the full moon in Muthukkalo kangal (that yielded the phrase thandhuvitten ennai, which yielded the title of the director’s last film, starring a young hero named Vikram), Karthik and Gigi doing the chicken walk towards one another in Neethaane endhan pon vasantham — that’s what I’ll remember when I think of Sridhar.