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A life in cinema


Balu Mahendra rewinds to his heyday in the South Indian film industry.

On screen story teller: Balu Mahendra.

Listening to Balu Mahendra is like viewing with your mind's eye clips of some of the big hits and significant films in South India, made in the seventies and eighties. One of the pioneering directors who gave a new realistic direction to Tamil cinema in the 1970's, Balu also raised the bar of cinematography.

For the last three years, Balu has been busy with his film institute in Chennai.

Teaching cinema

“It is more like a ‘gurukulam.' I enjoy teaching cinema to my students. I make them watch several world classics and then discuss those films. The other day, I was showing them Satyajit Ray's ‘Pather Panchali'; I must have seen it at least a hundred times and know it frame by frame, but when the screening finished, I could not speak about it, as there were tears in my eyes. But my favourite Ray films are ‘Charulata' and ‘Aparajito.'

“I still try to see as many classics as possible. I have been doing it since my days as a student in the Film and Television Institute, Pune. One major difference I have noticed since I left the film institute is the emergence of Iran as a major force in world cinema. I hadn't heard of Iran then, but now they undoubtedly make some of the best films in the world,” he said as he went on waxing lyrical about cinema.

He is, in fact, busy planning for a movie. “My next film will be in Tamil and will feature newcomers; the shoot will begin soon,” said Balu who was in Kozhikode, for a book release.

“This visit brings back pleasant memories. The last time I came to Kozhikode was for the shoot of my first film, ‘Nellu' [Malayalam] in which I was the cinematographer. I had stopped by on my way to Mananthavady, the film's location. The experience behind the camera was unforgettable.I have always loved nature and nature was at its best in Wayanad at that time,” he recalled.

Ramu Karyat was the director of ‘Nellu.' So, how did Ramu discover Balu?

“Karyat had seen my diploma film at film institute. He liked my work and gave me the assignment. It was the best debut I could have hoped for; I had seen his movie ‘Chemmeen' and was impressed. I was lucky that I could work with some of the finest directors in Malayalam cinema such as Karyat, P.N. Menon, K.S. Sethumadhavan and Bharathan. I was also the cinematographer of K. Viswanath's Telugu classic ‘Shankarabharanam,' which was a phenomenon in all the languages it was dubbed into. The film was rejected by as many as 45 distributors before it was released,” said Balu.

Reminiscing his association with Bharathan, Balu said: “I had cranked the camera for his debut film. I had also manned the camera for the debut films of two other filmmakers.They are J. Mahendran (‘Mullum Malarum') and Mani Ratnam (‘Pallavi Anu Pallavi').”

Meeting Mani Ratnam

Did Mani's rise to fame come as a surprise to him?

“No. I still remember my first meeting with him, way back in 1982. He said he wanted to direct a film in Kannada and I asked him if he had learnt direction from an institute. ‘No,' he said. Then I asked him if he had assisted somebody in direction. ‘No,' he replied. So how was he going to direct, I asked. He said if I agreed to be his cinematographer, he was confident that he could direct. I agreed to do the film because I was impressed with the intensity with which he narrated the story to me. I am so proud of him today,” said Balu, who added that Mani's ‘Mouna Ragam' and ‘Nayagan' are among his favourite movies.

“‘Azhiyatha Kolangal,' my first film in Tamil is autobiographical. Although it was a different kind of film, it was successful at the box office. ‘Marupadiyum,' an adaptation of Mahesh Bhatt's Hindi film ‘Arth,' was dangerously close to my own life. ‘Veedu' was in a way my tribute to my mother; I never saw her smile while we were building our house. ‘Sandhya Ragam' was a look into what could be my old age; you see, till recently, I was waging a battle against aging, like dyeing my hair and moustache,” said Balu. Although he hasn't seen many Malayalam movies of late, of the few he saw, he said he enjoyed ‘Ore Kadal.'

“It was an excellent film and Meera Jasmine was superb in it. The director of ‘Ore Kadal,' Shyamprasad is a talented director. In fact, as the jury chairman in 1999, I had given him a State film award for the best director,,” he said.

Balu added he was drawn by the magic of cinema while watching, as a young boy, the shoot of David Lean's classic ‘Bridge on the River Kwai' in Sri Lanka, where he was born and brought up. The spell has not been broken.

* * *


Balu Mahendra chooses six of his favourites from his portfolio

‘Azhiyatha Kolangal'

‘Moondram Pirai'

‘Sandhya Ragam'




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