On 15 December, Tamil cinema lovers had a nasty scare. The news came that a doyen of Tamil cinema, director Padmashri K Balachander, had to be admitted in hospital. It sent the media, fans and the film industry into a tizzy. By evening, it was clear Balachander’s condition wasn’t serious but his ailments were age-related. By then, everyone from Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan to Mani Ratnam and Khushbu had paid him a visit at the hospital.
At 84, “KB sir”, as he is fondly called by one and all in the industry, has seen Tamil cinema evolve and is a guru and mentor to many people across many fields, including acting and directing. Though he has been in the south film industry for nearly 50 years (he completes 50 years in 2015) and has introduced more than 60 actors, Balachander’s roots actually lie in theatre and drama.
He gave life to plays like Server Sundaram, in which Nagesh had the starring role, and which was made into a film in 1964, by A V Meiyappan (AVM) with Nagesh essaying the lead here too.
Many top actors in the 1960s and ’70s had a long-standing association with the director. Some of his favourites of those decades included Nagesh, R Muthuraman, Gemini Ganesan and Sowcar Janaki. Today, if there are two actors whose names are synonymous with Balachander, they are Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth.
Both these actors came together for Balachander’s Apoorva Ragangal in 1975. It was Rajinikanth’s first film and for Haasan, this was a breakthrough film. Said Balachander of Haasan in an interview a few years back, “I did not teach him everything he knows. He just absorbed everything I knew. The rest he discovered himself by asking, probing, begging, watching, observing, reading, demanding, investigating, improvising, experimenting, experiencing, learning and not being afraid of stretching himself beyond his own limits. I only gave him the platform and the opportunity to discover himself. In the process, I was blessed enough to discover myself.”
Of Rajinikanth, the director said, “Rajinikanth claims that I am his school. But I must admit that this wasn’t the Rajinikanth I introduced. He has evolved on his own merits and strengths. I gave him an opportunity and unveiled him to the world. He went and conquered it.”
Popular villain Prakash Raj and comedian Vivek too were introduced to cinema by the legendary director.
Balachander was and remains passionate about cinema. He is also the pioneer of new genres being introduced to Tamil cinema. Early on in his career, he focused on turning his plays into scripts for the silver screen, but in the ’70s he moved into new territory with this storytelling – extra-marital affairs, unconventional love stories and women-centric films became his obsession. He saw success after success not just at the box office, but also in terms of the critical recognition and awards he received for his new cinema. From Tamil cinema, he made an easy transition to other regional cinema and eventually, into Hindi films. In fact, his Ek Duje Ke Liye remains an evergreen Bollywood film and a classic in every sense.
Having made his mark in theatre and cinema, Balachander decided to explore the small screen. In the late 1980s, his Kavithaalaya Productions moved from working in the silver screen to television. This was when India was discovering television and from Rail Sneham and Ramani Vs Ramani, to Kai Alavu Manasu, Premi and Jannal, Balachander had the Tamil TV audience hooked.
That’s not the end of his achievements. Not many know that Balachander is also a splendid actor. In some movies, you can see this hidden facet of his. Next year, he’ll be making an acting appearance – one of the few in his life – in his disciple Haasan’s Uthama Villain. For now though, get hold of Apporva Rangangal, watch it again and remember why Balachander is a legend in his lifetime.