The jest in the suggestion is obvious when K Balachander says he has “probably run out of characters” to create if he chooses to do ano­ther movie. For, here’s a filmmaker who not only flagged off a new era in Tamil cinema by introducing Rajnikanth, Kamal Haasan, Nasser, Prakash Raj and Sujatha, but has been equally eulogised for having created memorable characters: those that often loom larger than the star-worth or acting worth of the actors reprising them.
Today, as he turned an octogenarian, KB recalls the highlights of a film career
replete with self-imposed restrictions for making complete and relevant films, one of those cardinal principles being “Give all characters their 100 per cent due”. And explains: “All my characters have been
important to me. There were times when filmmakers would just create a role on the sets because they’d need a person in an important scene to mouth just one dialogue. But I wanted all my characters, protagonists or otherwise, to be full-fledged, displaying individuality.”
It was this commitment to quality that helped craft characters like Mouli’s role in Nizhal Nijamaagiradhu (Mouli’s film debut) as the women-obsessed local tattler invoking the name of Kamasutra’s creator Vatsayana in every scene, or S V Subbiah, who played to perfection the role of a hapless father with traces of mental instability in Sollathaan Ninaikiren. And these were only supporting artistes, those whose presence hardly affected the film’s pivot.
As for his protagonists, despite a career spanning over a 100 films, it was only in a minuscule minority that KB intentionally collaborated with established heroes: like Gemini Ganesan in Iru Kodugal, or Jai Shankar in Nootrukku Nooru. “It was a conscious decision,” KB says, “to choose new actors for many films, mould them from clay, and when they had become complete dolls, let them go scot-free.”
Was it then not ironic that the filmmaker who refrained from heroism and larger-than-life characters for most of his film life went on to become the mentor of the Superstar, who has extolled heroism to unheard-of levels? Or did it not strike the filmmaker as odd that he was introduced to the film world by one of the earliest (and most popular) proponents of heroism, MGR, as dialogue-writer for Deivathaai? “No, they only make me proud,” explains the filmmaker, with specific reference to the Superstar, who debuted in KB’s Apoorva Ragangal (1975). “Nobody would have chosen Rajnikanth excepting me then. Unlike today, black was not an important colour then. When people see Rajni today, they will, I hope, see a puny K Balachander behind him.” In over half a dozen films which the Superhero worked with KB, he commonly played the antagonist.
Such role reversals were also the forte of this filmmaker, whose name is etched deep in film history, as the man who could make actor Nagesh cry and Sowkar Janaki laugh on screen. “Nagesh was extremely popular even when I was only a playwright. And yet, he insisted that he join my theatre troupe. I then wrote a play with only him in mind: Server Sundaram.” Considered biographical of Nagesh’s life, this rag-to-riches life of a waiter in a restaurant becoming an actor, showed Nagesh’s mettle.
Such hardiness in casting would later cause swashbuckler Jai Shankar, then known as the James Bond of South India for his action-packed roles, to play an effectively restrained and staid college professor in Nootru­kku Nooru. It also made Gemini Ganesan, Tamil filmdom’s poster boy for evergreen love, play a romantic con in Naan Avan Illai. “I rate it my best film in terms of screenplay. But the film, based on a Maratha play, was not a success then,” he recalls. A remake of that ’74 film was released in 2007, and became a blockbuster, perhaps, reaffirming the belief that KB’s films were always ‘ahead of their time’.
But there’s hardly a point in making a film at a time when the people aren’t ready for it, KB says, while speaking about subjects he could take up today if he were to do a film. He says he wouldn’t call it the time ripe to attempt a film on homosexuality, despite it being a mine of story ideas in areas widely regarded as his forte: relationship complications and social stigma.
“Homosexuals are coming out of the closet now, but how about the people’s perception about the issue? I don’t think it has changed too much,” says the matinee maverick, who did a film on divorce and remarriage in ’77 in Avargal, and created a ripple among the Brahmin orthodoxy for showing a prostitute from an orthodox household in Arangetram (’72).
Nor does KB see sense in doing films to empower women today, despite being the creator of most memorable heroines in heroine-centric films. “Women are already highly liberated today,” he jokes, adding that making films with women protagonists was only with the idea of establishing his niche area, at a time when heroines’ roles in films did not exceed “falling in love and clapping to cheer heroes when they fight”. Actresses Sujatha, Pramila, Jayaprada, Jayasudha, Sripriya, Sridevi, Saritha, Madhavi and Geetha are the notable heroines introduced by the director, who let go off Hemamalini when she auditioned for one of his films, Neerkumizhi. “I was looking for a girl to play a nurse and Hemamalini auditioned for it. I identified her as heroine material right away and did not want to cast her as a nurse in a film. She moved to Bombay and then found an offer in Hindi.”
Despite not being active as a filmmaker, KB is even today a keen observer of films. The directors’ impulse does take over even as he watches a film. “On seeing Trisha’s character of Jessie in Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya, I wondered as to how I missed the opportunity to show the state of confusion among lovers,” says the filmmaker who created a love story of epic proportions in Indian cinema, Ek Duuje Ke Liye. KB also does not miss a chance to personally send his wishes to any good film he sees, from Aamir Khan’s Taare Zameen Par, to Gautham Menon’s Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya. “Age is only a number and I am young by energy,” he says, speaking of his exuberance in being part of the film world, even today.
So then, is the octogenarian braced to direct a play or film again? “Not likely.”