Neatly framed, the National Award for best director monopolises one part of the room in celebrated director Balu Mahendra’s film school. A closer look reveals that the award belongs to his most famous ward, director Bala for the movie 'Naan Kadavul'!
Such is the respect and admiration for the guru. The guru-shishya tradition with regard to filmmaking in Kollywood is well and thriving, with the legacy being passed down from one director to another.
With five national awards and a plethora of other awards to his name, Balu is no ordinary guru. To give him credit, his disciples too have proved worthy of him, winning awards by the dozen. One such disciple is Bala.
But a true guru does not discriminate between his disciples.
Says Balu: “It’s true that Bala was my student but there are others too who have made a mark, like poet-lyricists Arivumathi, Na. Muthukumar and Suha, whose first film 'Padithurai' is soon to be released and of course, Vetrimaran.”
But just as a father cannot resist from talking about his much-loved son, Balu reveals that Bala was smuggled into his unit by Arivumathi and began by working as a production assistant. Noticing his industrious nature, Balu quizzed him as to who he was and soon began to train him and with his very first effort 'Sethu', Bala proved that the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Director Vetrimaran, who is riding the crest of success with his movies 'Polladhavan' and 'Aadukalam' (the latter won him the national award for best director) had adopted Balu as his father. “Just a few months after I joined Balu, my father passed away and that lacuna in my life was filled up by Balu,” recalls Vetrimaran.
It was Bala who spurred Vetrimaran to acquaint himself with modern Tamil literature as he felt that was the key in producing good cinema.
Director Ram, who directed the critically acclaimed 'Kattradhu Tamil', became a student of this ‘gurukul’ by default. “I wanted Balu sir to handle the cinematography for my film but it got shelved for some reason. However, by then I had started visiting Balu’s film school every day, picking up the finer aspects of filmmaking in the process. In fact, Balu feels that 'Kattradhu Tamil' was a film that mirrored his style—perhaps a greater compliment Ram could not have received!
Adhering to the guru-shishya tradition, Bala helped nurture the career of Ameer Sultan, who kept his guru’s faith with meaningful films like 'Mounam Pesiyadhe', 'Raam' and the blockbuster 'Paruthiveeran', which put Tamil cinema on the world map.
Sasikumar, another young Turk, worked as an assistant to both Bala and Ameer, carefully observing them at work. 'Subramaniapuram', in which Sasi acted and directed, was just the tonic for starving Tamil audiences. Now, Sasikumar is helping his assistant Prabhu direct a still untitled movie.
Talk about Balu’s legacy and one can’t help but mention the tale of the viewfinder which has become part of Tamil cinema folklore. Subrata Mitra, Satyajit Ray’s cinematographer handed over a viewfinder to Balu in recognition of his talent. When Bala made 'Sethu', Balu was so impressed that he handed the same viewfinder to his pupil. Bala, in turn, handed it over to Ameer when he saw 'Paruthiveeran'. It appears as though this viewfinder is tracing a new path for Tamil cinema.