If any filmmaker raised the status of the director in the eyes of Tamil cinegoers, it is undoubtedly K Balachander. He exercised total control over his films, refused to bow down to the dicates of the star system and in his own unique style made a string of memorable and successful films. And not just in Tamil, he has also directed films in Kannada, Telugu and Hindi.
Kailasam Balachander was born on July 9, 1930. He got attracted to the world of cinema while still working at the Accountant General’s office in Madras. But even before he entered the world of filmmaking, Balachander was already active with his own drama unit, Ragini Recreations. His best known plays were filmed: Server Sundaram (1964) by Krishnan-Panju and Major Chandrakanth by Phani Majumdar in Hindi as Oonche Log (1965).
Balachander got a break as a writer for Deivathai (1964) thanks to MG Ramachandran and then made his directorial debut with Neer Kumizhi (1965), based on one of his most successful plays. He subsequently founded his own production concern, Kalakendra, settling into a career of prolific filmmaking. He himself filmed Major Chandrakanth in Tamil for AVM Productions in 1966. The film starred Sundarrajan, Nagesh and Jayalalitha. Balachander followed this with another popular film, a bilingual in Tamil and Telugu – Bhama Vijayam and Bhale Kodalu (1967) respectively. The film looks at a movie star, Bhama (Rajasree), who moves next to a large joint family of three husbands and wives. Even as the wives accuse their husbands of being too close to Bhama, they themselves go on a spending spree beyond their means so they can show off and ‘keep up’ with Bhama. The film was re-made in Hindi as Teen Bahuraniyan (1968).
Balachander’s audience is mainly urban in nature as he almost always sets his films in contemporary times, dealing with urban middle class issues and always reinforcing the values and beliefs of this strata of society. Thus, his films often end with solutions that conform to the accepted norms of middle class morality. Popular films of his in the 1970s include include Kaviya Thalaivi (1970) – a remake of the Suchitra Sen starrer Uttar Falguni (1963), Apoorva Ragangal (1975), Manmatha Leelai (1976), Avargal (1977) and Maro Charithra (1978).
Maro Charithra is a Telugu film looking at the love story breaking linguistuc barriers. A Tamil man, Balu (Kamal Haasan) loves a Telugu woman, Swapna (Saritha). Their families, against the affair, ask the two not to see each other for a year. If they can fulfill this condition, then they can marry. The film was a huge success and Balachander directed its Hindi re-make for LV Prasad, Ek Duje ke Liye (1981). This film, introducing Kamal Haasan and Rati Agnihotri to Hindi audiences and converting the love story to a Tamil-Punjabi romance, was also a huge success at the box office. Rati Agnihotri went on to fairly successful career in Hindi films, even if Kamal Haasan did not get quite the success he deserved in Hindi cinema. His other collaboration in Hindi with Balachander, Zara si Zindagi (1983) had its moments but was rejected at the box office.
Balachander also made the political dramas Thanneer…Thanneer (1981) based on a play by Komal Swaminathan and his own story, Achamillai Achamillai (1984). Of the two, Thanneer…Thanneer got great critical acclaim. The film looks at Athipattu, a village in the arid region of southern Tamil Nadu where there is no access to any water source and the villagers struggle for even a bucket of water. A fugitive seeks refuge in the village and he is protected by Sevanthi, wife of a policeman. Elections to the state legislative assembly are announced and candidates from different political parties visit the village making many promises. However, the villagers boycott the elections and push forward their demand for water. They also attempt to dig a canal from the nearest water source miles away but are thwarted by government officers. The police take action against the villages for defying authority and the fugitive dies while attemping to escape from the police. The Tamil Nadu Information Minister RM Veerappan had called for a ban on the film. Achamillai Achamillai had its share of critics who attacked its violence, calling it grotesque.
Among Balachander’s later films, Sindhu Bhairavi (1985) deserves special mention. The film, a musical melodrama, sees one one of Suhasini’s best performances in the role of a folk-music teacher, deservedly winning her the National Award for Best Actress.
In retrospect, Balachander’s early films did have an element of the stage but gradually he successfully began exuding a more cinematic knowledge of techniques and storytelling, besides effectively using outdoor locales and bringing in political issues. It speaks volumes for K Balachander’s impeccable sense of judgement that a number of artistes introduced by him went on to make quite a name for themselves in Indian Cinema – Kamal Haasan, Rajinikanth, Sujatha and SV Shekhar to name some.
K Balachander was awarded the Padma Shri by the Government of India in 1987. The biggest feather in his cap was the prestigious Dadasaheb Phalke Award for his contribution to Indian cinema. He passed away in Chennai on December 23, 2014 after a prolonged illness.