The best school of film making!
Bala & Mani Ratnam  

Directors don't just make movies- they are also institutions from where others learn the craft of film making. Any director before turning independent would have apprenticed under some leading director of their time and this internship has a visible effect on the new director's style of film making. That's why we say that someone is from the 'Mani Ratnam school of film making' or use similar phrases to describe a new director's ascent to the main stage.

Tamil cinema has had many illustrious directors and many of them have been able to create lineages that uphold their styles and beliefs in film making. We have a line that originated from Bharathiraja and contains Bhagyaraj, Pandiarajan, Livingston, Parthiban, Vikraman , K.S. Ravikumar, Cheran and Jegan; all directors being assistants of the previous one at one time or the other. This is perhaps the biggest and most flourishing family of directors that can be traced in Kollywood at the moment. Then there is the great man K. Balachander himself who has been mentor to names like Vasanth, Saran and Selvaraghavan at different times.

Out of his many assistants, S.A. Chandrashekhar can proudly point to Shankar as his successor who in turn has been instrumental in giving names like Balaji Shakthivel and Vasanthabalan who are however strikingly different from Shankar when it comes to film making styles. Then there is the man whom many call the best director in India at the moment, Mani Ratnam. In many ways he has been the person who lifted Tamil cinema beyond just the limited regional appeal. He has introduced names like Azhagam Perumal (Dum Dum Dum), V.Priya, Susi Ganesan and the latest debutante Kannan (Jayam Kondaan).

But, we are yet to discuss the line of directors who have had the deepest impact on Tamil cinema over the years. This is the line that has a distinctive style and conviction in film making that has distinguished them from the rest in a way that none else has been able to. Director Mahendran said many years ago that if Tamil cinema was to rise to any distinguishable level in the echelons of world cinema then the duet has to be eliminated. Years later, Tamil cinema still is in the song and dance routine that many believe is pulling it back. Whether that is true or not is another question. We all enjoy songs and dances; the problem is sometimes film makers are not sure where to draw the line between what is enjoyable and what is an intrusion in the script. The only league of directors who seem to have taken it upon themselves to make films that accede to Mahendran's vision starts from the days of Balu Mahendra.

A cinematographer who later stepped into direction, Balu Mahendra was a brave trendsetter in Tamil cinema. Yes, there was Mahendran with his movies that were so close to life and there was also Bharathiraja who is famously credited with taking Tamil cinema out of the stifling and plastic environments of a studio to the vibrant outdoors. All three men were directors with conviction and vision and they made a huge difference to Tamil cinema in their halcyon days. But, it appears that only Balu Mahendra managed to successfully transfer his conviction into the conscience of his wards, the most famous of whom we know by the name Bala. The line continues with Bala's assistant Ameer and the latest addition Sasi (Subramaniapuram) who has been an assistant to both Bala and Ameer.

Now coming to the question, someone once asked me, “who is a better director, ‘Bala or Mani Ratnam?’, ‘Shankar or Ameer?’” Though it’s like comparing oranges and apples, if I were to give a hypothetical answer, it would be Bala and Ameer, from the film making school of Balu Mahendra. This is because of the way they handle their song sequences. Both of them do not encourage dreamy duets in their songs and follow more of a narrative style of song choreographing.

Bala's handful of films have brought in recognition and accolades in hordes to Tamil cinema. Starting with Sethu which failed to bring in the Best Actor National Award by a whisker, to Nandha which exposed the serious actor in Surya and Pithamagan which brought the National Award back to Tamil Nadu after a long time, Bala's films have always been special. Now we await Naan Kadavul. It takes courage to swim against the tide. In an industry where even the best and biggest directors and banners feel insecure if they do not add enough commercial elements, only Bala has shown the gumption to tread the offbeat path. What makes it so special is that he manages to court success every time he treads down a different path. Now, he has just completed the most adventurous journey of his career. Taking three years to make a movie could be mentally sapping, yet he has pulled it off looking amazingly sure of himself. And, he has shown us that music does not mean just the popular enjoyable kind that we get very often. Even solemn Sanskrit mantras when used appropriately can make captivating music, the proof is in the form of audio sales that Naan Kadavul has been recording since its release. Bala is in a league of his own.

Ameer did seem to go the normal commercial way with his debut but the way he showed his class with movies like Ram and Paruthiveeran have underlined the fact that he is indeed from the Bala school. Accolades are not just national, they got bigger and better. Finally, we know what a debutant going by the name of Sasi did to Tamil cinema this year, he set a new benchmark. Subramaniapuram is being celebrated as one long awaited classic and it is no surprise that it came from a man who learnt from the Bala and Ameer schools.

A couple of directors who do not belong to this family have shown true conviction to tread seldom traveled paths. Radha Mohan and Venkat Prabhu have set great examples to film makers in Kollywood and in the year when we had Poo how can we not mention the presence of director Sasi?

Many of you would have read about the viewfinder that Balu Mahendra gifted to Bala which then changed hands to Ameer and may find its way into Sasi's hands in the future. It is a viewfinder that is tracing a new path for Tamil cinema.

(By Sudhakar, with inputs from Arun Gopinath.)

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