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`Thank God! I gave up acting'

Does music keep you young? — K. Balachander

They meet for the first time yet they seem like good old friends. Why not? Filmmaker K. Balachander and Carnatic vocalist Aruna Sayeeram have long been each other's fans. Mumbai-born Aruna had watched his plays ("Neerkumizhi," "Edirneechal," "Major Chandrakant") at the Shanmukhananda Sabha, and was later equally fascinated by the films ("Apurva Ragam," "Arangetram," "Thanneer Thanneer") that bore the 'Balachander' stamp. He noted the development of her style from the elite Dhanammal school to `houseful' acclaim. There is greater bonding now when they discover that both belong to adjacent Thanjavur villages. Of course, they have to take time to exult in their Cauvery delta heritage.

But soon, a rustle of papers proclaims that singer and director have come armed with ready questions. They fire away across the table, with scribe

Gowri Ramnarayan desperately chasing the swift volleys.

K.Balachander: Once I slipped unobtrusively into your concert, to hear just a few songs, but stayed till the end. Arresting — that's the word for your voice. Aruna, do you like this adjective?

Aruna Sayeeram: Of course, all the more when it comes from you. You've made remarkable films with music as a crucial element such as "Sindhubhairavi," and the just-concluded TV serial "Sahana." Every song sounds right, is placed right.

K.B: (pleased) Even Rahman hasn't produced music equalling the variety and sparkle of my "Duet." I have an intuition about making the right choices. Don't be misled into thinking of me as a connoisseur though! My father was one, vidwans like Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar would look for him when they performed in villages around my native Nannilam.

Aruna: You brought in new flavours of realism and middle class values to formula-ridden Tamil cinema. But wasn't theatre your first love?

K.B: I was a theatreman who blundered into cinema by accident. "Last Judgment" was my first play, I not only wrote but also acted in "Chaturangam." Thank God, I gave up acting.

Aruna: Yes, otherwise you couldn't have concentrated on writing and direction.

K.B: Don't forget I discovered excellent artistes. I count Kavya and Anuradha Suresh Krishnamurthy as the greatest success of "Sahana." When I moved house, a woman came across the street to welcome me to the neighbourhood. I didn't know that she was a musician, daughter of vidwan K.V.Narayanaswami. All I knew was that she was right as Sindhu in "Sahana." Anuradha was flabbergasted, exclaiming that she knew nothing about acting. I said leave the acting to me. She did, and I watched her grow into the role.

Aruna: Rajnikant was your discovery. Did you then think that he would become such an icon?

K.B: After watching a young man called Shivaji Rao act I asked him why he was imitating Shivaji Ganesan. Pat came the reply, "Because I too am a Shivaji!" I liked that sharp repartee. I told him, "There can be only one Shivaji in Tamil cinema. You will be Rajnikant."

Aruna: Have you had to make compromises for popular appeal?

K.B: Rarely. I reigned supreme and remained adamant about what I wanted. Sometimes I burnt my fingers. "Avargal" starts with a divorce, goes back to marriage, lastly into scenes of the couple's falling in love. Distributors were aghast, our people won't understand these techniques, they said. In some cinemas they even reversed the sequences — in the `proper' order of love, marriage and divorce! (Laughs). What about you, I'm sure you offended purists when your style diverged from the Dhanammal school, your training ground.

Aruna: I have this deep bass voice, very different from the norm of the high-pitched female voice. I worked hard at making it flexible and resonant. People took their time to accept me. My guru T. Brinda's music is what I'd call `essensified' music — for small groups of connoisseurs. Revamping and reinventing myself I have developed that music to suit wider, diverse tastes. Isn't it always a risk when you try something different? But your films have made us accept unconventional ideas... even love between an older woman and a young man.

K.B: Does love begin with people asking what's your date of birth? I trust my judgment in my themes. Success energises me so much that I have to plunge into a new film at once. Failure stimulates me to make another attempt to prove myself. Either way there's no peace, only obsession. Never been on a holiday.

Aruna: What about Balachander as a family man? Does he potter around in the garden... kitchen?

K.B: For the welfare of the family I never step into the kitchen. My wife must have been disappointed that I never took her out in the evenings. Made a hundred movies but never consulted her about a single one. Didn't remember what or when I ate, which class my kids were in. (Wistfully) Today I feel it was a big mistake to have neglected my family... The children have done well. (With a sudden smile) My wife doesn't praise me, but when she criticises other filmmakers for their poor direction I think she is indirectly saying that nobody can make films like K. Balachander, who happens to be her husband.

Aruna: There are many ways of parenting. Being a role model is one as you have been. My husband and mother-in-law have taken care of everything, including my children, and left me free to work. My greatest blessing.

K.B: (Himself looking fit and alert) I believe you are a grandmother now, you certainly don't look like one! Does music keep you young?

Aruna: (Smiling) I must admit marriage at 18 is one reason, but I'd agree that creative activity is rejuvenating. I welcome each day with a sense of wonder. What will it bring?

K.B: (To Gowri Ramnarayan) Now I'm going to ask questions for myself. No need to take notes. (To Aruna) As a layman I find raga alapana boring. So can't you develop the raga with words, say with Kannadasan's verses? Will there be a hue and cry from pundits?

Aruna: Tailpiece `viruttham' does what you suggest, but I'll certainly try out your suggestion.

K.B: I love ghazals, especially Ghulam Ali. I've used them in my serial. The form has richness, scope for creativity and improvisation. So why not ghazals in Carnatic concerts?

Aruna: Can't be forcibly grafted, but if presented aesthetically, ghazals will succeed like abhangs.

K.B: (Turning irate) What do you think of critics? Half-baked.

Aruna: (Diplomatically) There are many kinds of critics.

K.B: Instead of this you should've done that, they tell me. Who're they? This is my story, my film.

Aruna: (Hedging) Passion for the art is important, knowledge secondary. But, tell me, you introduced many women characters of strength and conviction. Did a real life woman influence you?

K.B: (Chuckling) Simple. I had to find a way of establishing my identity in a field dominated by two giants — Shivaji and M.G.Ramachandran. In fact, once I had to ingeniously avoid directing an MGR film. It spelt money, but at the cost of individuality. Don't know if I did anything for women's liberation. But by opting for heroine-oriented themes, I was able to craft my own style. Also, at a time when women were shown as worshipping their tali and touching their husbands' feet, I was able to bring a different perspective.

There is an exchange of gifts before leave taking. Aruna has her CDs for the director, while Balachander overwhelms the singer with a glittering shawl. Will they come together again? Will it be at a concert? Or will Aruna find herself one day before Balachander's camera?

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