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Making films for the real world

Bala loves the rural settings and likes to set his stories with realistic backdrops, irrespective of budgets or approval of high budget producers.


He's the man who wrote the film that saw the rebirth of Vikram as the now so popular `Chiyaan'. The creator of `Sethu' and the man who rejuvenated Surya with `Nanda', is probably among the promising directors of our times.

Hardly a week after winning the Cinema Express Award for best director, he sits unassumingly under a tree at the Woodlands Drive-in hotel saying "Nothing is permanent".

Question him about his negative approach to stories and his reasoning behind scripting tragedies, director Bala is quick to smile. He tells Sudhish Kamath, "The very concept of an end is negative. Do we like death? Death is the end of life. It is inevitable."

NOT THAT he does not like happy endings. "It just happened that my first two films had settings that required tragic ends. I could have played it what the industry calls `safe' and made ten films with the usual happy ending masala. But I had set myself a target of five years to make it big here since I had already spent too much of time being lazy, hanging around," the 37 year old director who started out as an assistant to the legendary Balu Mahendra says.

"Since I had to make up for the time I lost, I hadn't considered `Sethu' a risk. I narrated the story to Ilaiyaraja and he agreed instantly. He in fact put me on to a lot of producers who all said it was good, but they weren't brave enough for a film. I went into depression after repeated story-narration sessions and I made up my mind that I would make the film the day I find a producer who does not ask me for a story narration. And that's how I finally made `Sethu'. Vikram had struggled hard too in life and `Sethu' was just a coming together of two people who struggled hard," Bala continues the story.

But the struggle only got bigger as the film neared completion. Distributors who saw it wouldn't touch it. Some said it would be a good film if the ending was made positive. There was no way Bala would change the end. It was a subject close to his heart. "One of my friends who is dead now, inspired the character that became `Sethu'."

After over 65 screenings for distributors failed, `Sethu' was heading towards a tragic end in real life as in the film. "We were all going mad," recollects Bala. "I would suddenly wake up in the middle of the night and scream. It was so stressful."

Suddenly, a little luck with distribution changed all that. The media took note of a daringly dark and different film.

The critics sat up and noticed an emaciated Vikram (who lost 21 kgs in as many days) giving it all he had. And the epic tragedy saw a happy beginning. Bala and Vikram made a bow.

After `Sethu', he wrote `Nanda'.

"All of us would have known and seen a `Sethu' somewhere. But `Nanda' is me, you, everybody. We just need to look at the other side of us. There's a `Nanda' there," he says.

The media-shy director who likes to keep a low profile finds it comfortable to work with artistes whom he can relate to and his association with Vikram, Surya and Laila continues. In his latest project, `Pitamahan', the director hopes to set the stage for a realistic violent drama involving `two usually different characters' who are survivors in a society. "All the ingredients are there — comedy, fight, songs but all done realistically. No glamour though. My films have never needed the help of glamour. This is the way I want to make my films. I want the people to accept that and the critics to appreciate that."

But isn't he running a risk of repeating himself with similar plots and treatment, we ask. "Yes, there might have been a lot of similarities in style in both `Sethu' and `Nanda'. And that was probably because I used to act out the modulation and dialogue delivery for each scene and the actors would follow it closely. But now onwards, I have decided to give my artistes the freedom to interpret the characters and say the lines in a way it's comfortable to them," explains Bala.

Bala loves the rural settings and likes to set his stories with realistic backdrops, irrespective of budgets or approval of high budget producers. "A film like `Indian' or `Muthalvan' needs to be taken with grandeur. But my films are not about issues, they are about characters and a story. I believe that a break in the story and the setting by shifting to a foreign location for a song, takes away the flavour from the rural backdrops my stories are set around."

Not just the locations, Bala is equally passionate about music. "The growth of music has stopped with Ilaiyaraja. Only sound and audio technology has developed over the years. Music is not about equipment, and nobody comes close to Ilaiyaraja," he says.

After more than an hour of an informal chat, a confident Bala goes on to declare: "Good films will never fail. They just need to be promoted well."

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