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On November 27, actor Bala Singh breathed his last. The film industry bid adieu to a fine performer, with a credible lineup of characters whose depth outshines its length. For instance, take a look at his character in Mani Ratnam's 2002 drama Kannathil Muthamittal. During the initial wedding scene, a woman mockingly asks the bride Shyama’s father (played by Bala Singh) whether he is ready for another marriage, to which he replies ‘Why not, in ten years your grand-daughter will be old enough to marry me.’

The quality felt so true even in his recent outing, Magamuni, where he instructs his subordinate to cover his traces, as a politician should. Despite appearing for just a scene, the moment acts as a tipping point of the whole film and it required a performer of Bala Singh’s caliber to execute such a manipulative, shrewd character.

But if there is one from his filmography that will be deeply etched in the murals of Kollywood, it will be Anbu, his character in the 2006 crime drama Pudhupettai. As time passed, Pudhupettai proved to be a revelation, where gangsters are humanized. They are corrupt, cruel, and their minds have an unending appetite for power. But still, they face adverse consequences for their actions, except for Tamilselvan (played by Azhagamperumal), who gets away with his crimes.

“The character of Anbu is a highly nuanced one and you need a fantastic actor to pull it off. I was very confident instinctively that he could do justice to the role” recalls Selvaraghavan, the writer-director of Pudhupettai. He then added, “I am very specific about what I want my actors to portray. However, Bala Singh used to add his own touches to Anbu’s character, having understood what the performance required. He was a pivotal character to the script and no one could have pulled it off better.”

Anbu’s characterization is written in such a way that you will never forgive for his sins or root for him, but one wishes that Anbu hadn’t incurred the wrath of ‘Kokki’ Kumar. Bala Singh transcends the grey shades and silver linings of his character with aplomb. Moments before Anbu’s death from Kumar’s hands, we hear him say ‘Unna yaen pulla maadhiri dhaana paathen’ (I treated you like my own child) to his killer. Bala Singh utters the line with so much conviction as we see his Anbu subtly build a protective wall of sentimentality to guard himself against Kumar. Within a fraction, the whole wall is shattered by Kumar’s cold-blooded act.

That is the point where the world of Pudhupettai becomes unapologetic in its moral code and the film’s tagline ‘Survival of the fittest’ comes to its fruition. Bala Singh gave life to Anbu through his eyes, which exude an equal amount of ferociousness and wry humour. His introduction with Kumar is a remarkable example of the latter. Take the moment where he tries to control his laugh when Kumar refers to him as ‘Anbu sir’. His eyes communicate a sense of pride and self-deprecation, as he grapples with the laughable innocence of a desperate teenager.

Bala Singh’s performance is a masterclass on how to walk the tightrope between portraying a demonic, human and comic side of a character without entirely caricaturing it. Anbu has accumulated a legacy of his own, with his lines and moments living a shelf life through memes.

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