Balu Mahendra – And the journey continues


By Meera

Good cinema is a transcending experience. Something that fires your intellect captivates your senses and engraves your imagination. Cinema is a visual medium that is not merely used to entertain and experiment but also to communicate with emotions that are exquisite, ecstatic and agonizing. Balu Mahendra, the legend who passed away, was a master of this medium.

Balu Mahendra started his journey as a cinematographer wielding the lens for a Malayalam movie Nellu. He later moved into direction although he single handedly oversaw the editing, scripting and cinematography of his movie. This gave him the much needed complete creative control. Balu Mahendra is also known to have collaborated with iconic film makers like Mahendran and Mani Ratnam in their debut attempts. When we think of Balu Mahendra, it is hard to decide whether we would remember him for his innovative yet almost invisible use of camera or for his off-beat stories that are inspired from everyday life. The only way to amicably end this struggle is by submitting to the genius that gnawed at our minds.

This was the man who gave us Moondram Pirai. Here was a handsome school teacher caretaking a special needs girl. Balu Mahendra could have easily milked this plot to satiate the mainstream commercial audience. But by putting faith in his craft, he led the audience into an unknown territory. The movie ambles along the cold terrain of Ooty but the fire it ignites within is ravenous. Silk Smitha's titillating song was not merely an item number. It was seductive, erotic and yet sensual. Sridevi emoted without going overboard. Kamal was a restrained performer adding his Midas touch to every scene, every shot. The director ends the movie with a tragedy. The couples do not unite. This is reality. He had the spunk, the confidence that few are capable of in this field. By vowing to travel the path less travelled, his journeys were breaking barriers in Indian cinema.

The chance to make a movie is sacrosanct. He knew the Holy Grail he held that in his hands, the opportunity that many are denied, many squander and he treated it with absolute respect. The movies he made might have fallen out of favor with the box office but never really left our mind. Veedu depicts the despair of the middle class. Their obsessions, a house in this case, the lengths they would go to attain it, the sacrifices they make and the futility of it all. He forsakes songs, an important narrative tool, since the script did not demand it. This was a risk he took even with an emotionally high melodrama that might have needed this much relief. Juxtapose this to the movies of today, where the hero and heroine break into a song in the Alps in the middle of a crucial plot point. Balu Mahendra knew that the story was the master, he simply went along wherever and however it took him.

He pushed the envelope further when he directed Sathi Leelavathy, the adult drama that details marital mishaps. Kamal was cast not as the main lead but as comic relief. He paired with Kovai Sarala who was largely seen as a comedian until then. Balu Mahedra was not afraid to go against the grain. He took decisions that startled us but were crucial for his drama. He uses Kamal's command over the language and accent to add another layer to this otherwise regular masala movie.

Balu Mahendra knew that for a movie to succeed there was one pivotal reason - The story. By surrendering to this, his movies are masterpieces – lyrical, riveting, spectacular yet very real. You do not watch it to switch off but to sharpen your senses. Although he has left us, his legacy lives on through his movies and film school – Cinema Pattarai. He chiseled filmmakers like Bala, Vetrimaran and Ameer under his tutelage who went on to make their master proud. Without him, like Kamal in Moondram Pirai who is deserted by Sridevi, cinema might seem wavering but it still holds on to the memories. Memories each one a diamond, forever dazzling never diminishing.




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