Visual Epics to Relive the Master Storyteller
Did Balu Mahendra excel more as a cinematographer or a director? So may wonder film buffs, particularly those who were wowed by his memorable works in the 1970s and 80s, with the curtains coming down on a sterling movie career that spanned four decades, across five languages.
Though Balu Mahendra also dabbled in screenwriting and editing and even acted in his last movie, Thalaimuraigal, which was showing in theatres till very recently, it was his signature cinematography that took south Indian cinema to a higher plane.
It is not to say that he was bad at direction. He excelled in that too, joining the top league of directors, which comprised of a couple of other Big Bs — K Balachandar and Bharatiraja. But what set him apart in those decades when south Indian cinema was trying to reinvent itself with path breaking filmmakers entering the arena, was his extraordinary cinematography, which inspired more than a generation of camerapersons in the later years.
His foray into films itself was as a cinematographer for the Malayalam film, Nellu (Paddy) in 1971, which won the Kerala government’s best cinematographer award. In fact, he was the cinematographer for epic movies like Mullum Malarum (Thorn and Flower) by J Mahendran (1978) and the 1979 Telugu musical Sankarabharanam (Shankara’s ornament).
Known for his deft use of natural lighting and soft focus on subjects, his frames were a visual treat, drawing spontaneous applause in movie halls in those times. One such scene was an waterfall that slowly turns brighter and brighter, telling the viewer that the night is over and another day is born in Olangal (Ripples), which was his maiden directorial venture in Malayalam in 1982. It was a movie inspired by Erich Segal’s novel, Man, Woman and Child. Indeed many of the films directed by him were inspired by popular stories. Moodu Pani (Mist in Tamil), in its closing scenes, brought back memories of Alfred Hitchcock’s legendary Psycho and the similarity between his Azhiyatha Kolangal (Indelible patterns in Tamil) and Hollywood blockbuster Summer of 42 was unmistakable. However, not only were those movies not copycat ventures but they went ton to make the Tamil movie lover go gaga over the perceptible freshness in the directorial and cinematographic innovations.
His Veedu (House), which came out in 1988, was more an art house movie that explored the trials and tribulations of a typical middle class family’s tryst with building a house of their own. It brought out the harsh realities that prevailed much before the present skyscraper housing boom.
Among the most memorable of his films is Moondam Perai (Third phase of the Moon, translated loosely from Tamil) of 1982 that stands out, not just because it reaped a clutch of awards, but it had Silk Smitha in a substantial role, proving her acting skills. The film was later made into Hindi as Sadma by Balu Mahendra himself.
His was a career that also had its share of controversies. One was his marriage to actress Shobha, whom he featured in Moodu Pani and Azhiyatha Kolangal. The sudden suicide of award-winning actress had then led to a police probe, which did not reveal anything against Balu Mahendra but had the media going to town with stories. A court case was then filed stating that he should be deported to his country, Sri Lanka, as he had stayed illegally.
But the court ruled that his stay in Tamil Nadu had only enriched the local culture and that he had contributed remarkably to Tamil cinema. No one can disapprove of the observation for the master raconteur of visual epics has left behind a oeuvre of films that are timeless in their appeal.