For those of us born in 70s and growing up in 80s, K Balachander’s importance went beyond films. It was he — along with the writer Sujatha —- who provided on mainstream media our first glimpse of intellectualism in agreeable and easily consumable bite-sized portions. It was them who made us realise that intellectualism need not be some kind of forbidden fad pursued mostly by cigarette-smoking, Goddard-quoting, kurta-wearing, Communism- dripping individuals who did not fit snugly in the grooves of our essential middle-class living.
It was not as if KB’s films were unflinching pursuits of high art, but they were rooted, realistic and, most importantly, reachable. Balu Mahendra’s films, it seemed, were almost always housed in the misty silhouetted, cool Nilgris. Bharathiraja’s amidst the acrid, dusty in-your-face miasma of Usilampatti and thereabouts. But Balachander’s movies were forever located in middle-classness. The unchanging neighbourhood of our every-dayness. They were not art house. But our house. We understood its throb and thrum.
You went to an MGR movie and came back with the lavish exuberance of the ‘message’ songs and the vague satisfaction at the triumph of underdog that he mostly played. You trooped out of a Sivaji starrer awash with admiration for his astonishing histrionics and the interplay of sentiments (sometimes OTT) that were the cornerstone of his films. But with ‘KB films’ —- in star-centric times, films generically prefixed with the director’s name was in itself a huge achievement —- you came out and talked. And talked.
You discussed with friends whether Prasanna was right in proposing to a much elder Bhairavi (Apoorva Ragangal). You debated with elders whether Rangan ending up as barber is the victory of ideology or the death of it (Varumaiyin Neram Sigappu). You dissected with your putative girl friend whether Nandini was a brave new woman or just the traditional doormat that women are reduced to in our society (Manadhil Urudhi Vendum). You wondered within yourself especially about the sly naming of hero as ‘Sethu’ who falls in love with a girl from Sri Lanka. You introspected on the insidious portrayal of a tragic story in a mostly comic form (Server Sundaram). Isn’t that all our lives for all practical purposes? The question echoed in you. And your inside echo-chamber, reverberated with more insistent queries. And you kind of took the first unsure step towards that all-important empathy. That one quality that would help you understand and appreciate art better. In that sense, KB films provided the vista that opened out to newer and satisfying horizons in your progress as a cineaste. And, I am sure, it is the vista that has also provided the path for the birth of many filmmakers later.
It was not just through the characters — some of the most memorably quirky ones that Tamil cinema has ever seen — that Balachander was able to create quality cinema. His triumph was mostly in making those characters, quintessentially creation of their times, seem to have arrived from a distant future. The singer with a social conscience Udayamurthy (Unnal Mudiyum Thambi) or the vehemently in love Vasu (Maro Charithra), the agreeably impertinent Indran and Chandran (Thillumullu) would be misfits today (the tomorrow of yesterday). KB’s talent lay in writing characters, and fleshing them out on screen, that had the right mix of realism for us to believe in, yet steeped in drama that lend themselves to mainstream cinema of these parts.
While his eye for picking actors and making them into stars is universally well-known and acknowledged, what is of equal worthiness is his grasp of the technical side of film-making, the stuff that get done behind the screens. It is amazing that from his initial days when his films were more or less ‘stage plays on screen’, he quickly understood the dynamics of the medium and honed his craft of telling stories visually too. But more important was his unmatched ability to move the story aurally, too. Be it Prasanna singing a ragamaalika and finishing it in a magical flourish on the raga Bahiravi, the name of the woman he is proposing to (Apoorva Ragangal) or getting set the deliciously delightful Idhazhil Kadhai Ezhudum (Unnal Mudiyum Thambi) to Lalitha ragam, again the heroine’s name, something which plays an important humorous part in the film. You have to admire his depth of musical knowledge and nous to name Suhasini in Sindhu Bhairavi, Sindhu, which is also the name of the quaint, earthy musical tradition of nomadic ballads whose authorship is not well-known. Sindhu, in the film, is in search of her author (father).
By the 90s, KB’s prowess had started to wane, and he was mostly operating out of memory. You caught an occasional glimpse of his old magic in scenes, rather than in a full film. In that sense, the present generation is unlucky to miss out on his best period, and hence may not be able to appreciate him as much as he should be. And some of his offerings do feel a bit dated.
But for us, those schooled in 70s and 80s, he was arguably the best. A wholesome director, if ever there was one. It is impossible for us to take him as dead. He will perhaps now remain like that intriguing creation of his, Irumal Thaatha, not seen, but you always feel his presence in the next room. A coughing memory!