A voice of the voiceless

TNIE catches up with public broadcasting stalwart and documentary filmmaker P Balan, who retired from All India Radio after a 34-year-long illustrious career, to discuss his life, career, politics, the future of radio, documentaries and more
Documentary filmmaker  P Balanarayenan (Balan)
Documentary filmmaker P Balanarayenan (Balan)

KOCHI: When award-winning radio producer P Balanarayenan (Balan) called time on his illustrious 34-year career with All India Radio (AIR) last month, perhaps the loudest applause came from an Elanji tree swaying jubilantly in the cool monsoon wind on the premises of AIR’s Kakkanad office.

Twenty years ago, when ‘development’ came knocking and threatened to blow away this tree, Balan got in the way. No warnings of punishment could sway the Kannur man, who, with his radio programmes, had by then become the ‘voice’ of the need to preserve our environment. Eventually, the authorities shelved their proposal for a new car parking space and let the tree remain. And it does even today, as a reminder of the profound impact individual actions can have in society.

One rainy evening, Balan opens up about his life, career, and more.

The beginnings

Much of Balan’s inclinations for creativity stems from his childhood in a small village in Kannur, where evening hours are spent writing and reading at vayanashalas. Later, these interests found political agency on the anvil of campus life at Brennen College, Thalassery.

“Kannur, as you know, is a vortex of political activity. During my time here, Thalassery witnessed the most politically motivated killings,” recalls Balan. Though he, too, played a small role in politics then, Balan found the nature of it quite distasteful. “I knew politics could take other forms too. I soon found my creed in art and film clubs,” Balan says.

These were later honed during his time at Sree Kerala Varma College in Thrissur, where he pursued literature. “The campus offered much in the realm of arts. The Navachitra Film Society holds a dear place in my heart,” says Balan.

It was also here that the idea of joining the radio was first sown in Balan. “Seeing my enthusiasm for arts, my professors suggested I apply to AIR. I, too, felt that it was naturally aligned with my aspirations.”

Initial years in radio

One of the first things that Balan did on joining Akashavani in 1989 was break its decades-old mould. “I wanted to induce some creativity, some new energy into the system,” recalls Balan. And the opportunity to do so came soon enough. After the outbreak of Gulf War in August 1990, as bombs fell in the Near West, poetry rained down from the broadcasting towers of Thrissur.

“We used poems to express our angst and concerns about the war,” Balan says. The programme was a clear departure from the norm — news, radio dramas and features. And so naturally, there was opposition from some quarters.

Soon, his efforts were not only recognised but also rewarded. Balan won the AIR national award for best programming three years in a row. “It did two things. One, it buoyed my confidence and quelled opposing voices. Two, it gave more room to explore new ideas, innovate.”

Indeed, his programmes soon included the contemporary, with society and the environment taking a special focus.

The eye-opener

Balan also knew the power that media wielded, thanks to an event that transpired in 1985. “It opened my eyes, really.”

Here also a tree takes centre stage, one on the premises of Sree Kerala Varma College. Learning that the tree was to be cut, Balan protested the move. He was joined by several fellow students. “I also found allies then in C Achutha Menon, the former Kerala chief minister, and Sunderlal Bahuguna, a force behind the Chipko movement,” Balan says.

His campaign was covered widely. Eventually, the college authorities had no option but to abandon the idea. “I saw the true form of politics here also the power of media and its effect on a society that hadn’t yet learned the know-how to protect the environment,” says Balan. So that was going to be his mission — to educate.

The Kochi FM era

At the turn of the century, his ambitions found the perfect anvil at the newly-launched Kochi FM station. Here, he found a cohort of like-minded people eager to shed the old ways and usher radio into the new age. “There was only one way to do it. Go local,” says Balan.

Indeed, the Kochi office — the first and only FM station of the four AIR branches in Kerala — soon became the mouthpiece of the people, a platform to promote local talents. “Kochi was on the cusp of a change, sketching ambitions to become the metropolis that it is today. This came wth a profound impact on the environment,” Balan recalls.

To address this, he ran 200 programmes advocating for a balance between the thrust on development and environmental protection. It received appreciation from the National Biodiversity Board. The emphasis on health, agriculture, fisheries and the environment quickly won Kochi FM a horde of active listeners.

The Elanji-Coorg chapter

After a stint with AIR’s Chitradurga and Ooty stations, Balan returned to Kochi FM in 2013. It was also the year that the Elanji story unfolded.

“How can we of all people, who advocate for environmental protection, chop down a tree in our compound? That too, an Elanji tree, renowned for its air-purifying properties,” Balan says.

For his stance, AIR slapped Balan with a ‘punishment’ transfer to Coorg. “I took this as an avenue to breathe fresh air, learn. I was there for six years and it is during this time that I undertook my biggest project yet,” he says.

Nestled between the Coorg hills, a small radio station commenced an ambitious programme to map the music of tribal communities in India.

“It went beyond the ambits of a traditional radio programme, but help came from all quarters. The whole series was a big learning experience,” says Balan. Indeed, it also enabled the first comprehensive documentation of India’s tribal music.

“Such is the role of a radio. We often forget the fact that a radio is not just a broadcast station. It is also a cultural organisation,” Balan points out.

P Balan under the
Elanji tree at Kochi FM
P Balan under the Elanji tree at Kochi FM

The busy final years

This fact was nowhere more profound than at Kochi FM, where Balan finally returned.

“During the floods and later, the Covid, radio stations were a beehive of activity, offering help and information to Malayalis the world over,” he says.

Even with the advent of TV and now, social media, Balan says, “Radio has only grown in influence.”

Unlike the two platforms, which cater to a savvy crowd, the radio reaches ears of those beyond the mainstream, he elaborates. “Your 60- to 70-year-olds... The radio informs and empowers them, and lets them know they belong. That is also the role of radio. It builds communities,” Balan adds.

Indeed, there’s a 63-year-old woman in Tripunithura who, after listening to radio, started learning computers. A cycling trainer in Mattancherry, to whom women have flocked to learn how to ride a cycle after she was featured on the radio. A Vypeen native who took to entrepreneurship at 67 after a radio programme walked her through the steps.

“Sometimes our actions can feel trivial, amounting to very little. But that does not mean there is no impact. Every drop counts,” he adds.

What’s next?

The radio veteran is also not entirely dismissive of social media or for that matter, TV. “They all have their advantages. In fact, I’ve long been advocating that Kochi FM, too, tap the power of social media. Public broadcasting culture needs to be more prominent in Kerala,” Balan says.

To this end, the master is working towards a public broadcasting non-profit venture with a few retired and like-minded media professionals. “The programme will, no doubt, continue…”

Documentary run

As equally poignant as his radio programming was his documentary work, by way of which he brought to the fore social issues plaguing Kerala. “I was taken to films from my childhood. To make films was the natural progression of this interest,” says Balan. His first directorial work, Aanpoovu, released in 1996, “portrays the life of a woman from a backward family who, under certain circumstances, undergoes a sex change surgery to become a male.”

It grabbed headlines and won a clutch of awards, including the Kerala State Award For Best Documentary. His next work, The 18th Elephant - 3 Monologues, is a scathing critique of man’s mercenary attitudes towards nature at the expense of life and habitat of other species, bagging awards globally. “I find great joy in filmmaking, but of course, I had a lot of help. From a lot of youngsters who shared the same vision as me,” Balan says.

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