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The KB school

Film historian and critic RANDOR GUY traces the filmmaker's significant journey

This year's Dadasaheb Phalke Award has deservedly been bestowed on K. Balachander, one of the most prolific and multi-faceted filmmakers of India. He has scored a century in films, a record by any Indian filmmaker. He has made films in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Hindi, with most of them becoming not only box-office bonanzas, but also classics and cult films to be cherished — and watched. He has also established his stamp of creative brilliance on the smallscreen creating many memorable television serials.

A flair for writing

Kailasam Balachander (born 1930), a native of Thanjavur District, joined the Accountant-General's Office in Madras after taking his Bachelor of Science degree from Annamalai University. Drawn to theatre even in his school days, he had a flair for writing and directing plays, besides acting. While working for the government, he did plays in English, and one of them was “Major Chandrakanth”.

Finding that the scope for English plays was limited in Madras, he wrote the play in Tamil, and it proved a sensation especially among the educated theatre audiences. Its hero was a new character for Tamil theatre, a middle-aged, visually-challenged, Army officer Major Chandrakanth. The amateur stage actor, also a government servant, played the role with conviction, and soon became a stage and later screen and television star. The role became so synonymous with him that he came to be known as ‘Major' Sundararajan! With this hit, Balachander and his troupe won fame and enjoyed a solid following among the Tamil middle-class.

Hailing from such background, he knew the milieu well and portrayed it with depth, understanding and empathy. Tamil theatre donned new colours, thanks to him. His plays were a watershed in Tamil theatre history and a turning point witnessed decades after the historic Boys' Company Movement initiated by the founding father of the Renaissance of Tamil theatre, Sankaradas Swamigal. It is all the more astonishing that when he achieved it all, Balachander was not yet a full-time professional!

Balachander had a talented team of actors such as ‘Major' Sundararajan, C.K. Nagesh and Srikanth. ‘Sowcar' Janaki was also part of the troupe. No wonder he attracted the attention of film producers such as Meiyappan, MGR, RM. Veerappan and Muktha Srinivasan, and he wrote films such as “Deiva Thai” (1964, an MGR-starrer), and “Poojaikku Vandha Malar” (1965, Muktha Srinivasan).

One of his biggest stage hits was “Server Sundaram”, in which Nagesh played a restaurant waiter with great feeling. Meiyappan acquired the movie rights of the play, and engaged Balachander as his writer.

“Server Sundaram” (1964), a Meiyappan production, was directed by Krishnan-Panju, and had Nagesh in the lead with up-and-coming multi-lingual star K.R. Vijaya, Muthuraman, and S.N. Lakshmi as the hero's mother. Balachander's dialogue had punch and power. The film was a success, and won the Indian Government Certificate of Merit in 1964 and the Filmfare Award. Balachander was still in government service, and at one stage, found it difficult to obtain leave. Even in the best of times, cinema is a highly insecure profession. It was more so for the likes of Balachander with only a secure government job, and no family wealth to fall back on in times of need. Many creative men in movies and writing around the world have faced this crossroads in their lives, and Balachander faced it now. He discussed the situation with Meiyappan. Aware of his creative talent and skills, he encouraged Balachander to take the plunge. That was not all. He offered him three pictures for three years — which he could not only write but also direct! Such was the confidence that Meiyappan had in Balachander.

Balachander took his bow as a filmmaker with his play “Neerkumizhi” (1965), in which he used most of the cast of his troupe, such as ‘Sowcar' Janaki, Nagesh, ‘Major' Sundararajan and V. Gopalakrishnan.

Another film was “Major Chandrakanth”. The lead was played by Jayalalitha, an attractive sophisticated actor, well on her way to becoming a multi-lingual superstar.

Balachander blossomed as a trendsetter and a major force in Tamil cinema. He discovered many new talents and groomed them to stardom. Two of them became superstars — Kamal Hassan and Rajnikanth. His other discoveries include Sujatha, Jai Ganesh, ‘Phataphat' Jayalakshmi, Vivek and Prakash Raj.

It is difficult to choose the best among his films, but mention must be made of “Aval Oru Thodar Kathai”, “Bhama Vijayam” “Moondru Mudichu” “Sindhu Bhairavi”, “Iru Kodugal” and “Maro Charithra”(This writer had the privilege of working with him in his box-office bonanza “Maro Charithra”, writing the English lyrics for a Telugu-English duet brilliantly filmed on Kamal Hassan and Saritha. And, the song became a hit!)

Minimum dialogue

During a period when dialogue ruled the roost in Tamil cinema, Balachander, in spite of his theatre background, kept dialogue to a minimum. In “Aval Oru Thodar Kathai”, one sequence deserves mention — a lengthy scene with Jai Ganesh. No word is spoken, and there's just the background music (M. S. Viswanathan).

Ananthu was Balachander's alter ego and creative inspiration. His colleague in government service, a job which he refused to give up even later, was a serious student of international cinema. He watched many movies from Hollywood, Europe, Japan and other countries, absorbing all that was best in cinema. His influence on Balachander was immense…

Balachander, one of the icons of Indian cinema, especially South Indian, has created what is known as the Balachander school of cinema. No filmmaker can ask for more...

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