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A Short Tribute to K. Balachander
This article originally appeared in CRI content has now been subsumed in The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of

(Ace film director K. Balachander has been  chosen as the recipient of this year’s prestigious Dadasaheb Phalke Award. The Dadasaheb Phalke Award is India’s highest award in cinema given annually by the Government of India for lifetime contribution to Indian cinema. Our guest contributor Girish pens a short tribute to him focusing especially on some of his early movies)

To many, Indian Cinema equals Hindi Cinema (abjuring use of that detestable term Bollywood – as if anything connected with movies ought to be named and defined in one dimension). The reality however is that far more movies are made in the South Indian languages than in Hindi. In one estimate in 2009, 3.5 times more films were produced in the four South Indian languages than in Hindi. The number of Telugu films produced in that year was only 17 less than the number of Hindi films. Given the higher potential viewership numbers, the canvas and consequently budgets tend to be higher for Hindi films. Higher budgets also impact on production values, technology that can be afforded, and indeed to quite an extent the resultant commercial success – A possible way of explaining the higher salience.

Against these odds, it is not surprising that national level formal recognition through the Dadasaheb Phalke award for K Balachander has come so late. Many of his masterpieces were made in the 60s and 70s.

Industry related factors explored earlier will mean that for a potential path breaker, success has to be achieved through sheer creativity. In this kind of milieu it becomes quite a challenge for a regional film industry aspirant to deliver high quality work and commercial success at the same time. Balachander’s genius can be located in doing this.

If we try to describe his creativity, two terms come immediately pop up – Subtlety and stunning mastery over depicting the middleclass milieu.

Subtlety: In a melodramatic cinematic environment of yesterdays were everything was overstated, Balachander was superbly subtle. For long period of time  this was what conventional grammar of film making  meant –  dialogues were  to be loud, emotion understood as lots of tears, and entertainment value essentially realised through a action sequence or gracefully choreographed group dance. Balachander largely accepted the broad contours of this framework but brilliantly improvised and delivered all of this in his own inimitable way. Despite his early tutelage in theatre, when he made his transition to film making he was able to provide a totally refreshing treatment.

Balachander explored complex human relationships without being crass, mushy or lewd; to name a few,  Iru Kodugal (forced estrangement between a husband and wife and their reconnection in later life) Apoorva Ragangal ( father-son, romance between a twenty something and a forty something), Avargal ( a woman going through a spate of relationships and breakups) or Aval Oru Thodarkathai (woman shouldering family responsibilities and managing her own emotions) or Nizhal Nijamagiradhu (deceived maid realises her moment and extracts her subtle revenge). So much so, many Tamil the term ‘Balachander touch’ became a integral part of Tamil movie lexicon to describe any delicate moments of film making deftly handled through subtle direction.

Middle Class Connection – Realism: Bringing in middle class memes where the average film goer could easily connect was another of his forte. A middle class woman (or man) could see the film characters in her own life; the happenings could well be in her own house. One could take the example of Bhama Vijayam (an old widower bringing order to his chaotic house), or Edhir Neechal (a orphan balancing and battling multiple forces sharing the proverbial ‘cupboard under the stairs’)

If you analyse his directorial style more closely, treatment wise two aspects stand out in the Balachander way – humor and songs. Most Balachander movies have excellent comedy sequences with many brilliantly executed by Nagesh. He also did some purely light and highly enjoyable movies (like Anubhavi Raja Anubhavi).

On songs he placed them in movies in such a way that they were an integral part of the narration. They are never out of context or a drag. You miss them in a movie, you may need to do some figuring out! So if you are in a movie hall you never step out for a break during the three minute song sequence! One great example should suffice – Ilakkanam Marudho from Nizhal Nijamagiradhu.

But a deserving candidate for life time achievement award will need to do more than just produce and deliver good stuff. Here Balachander was not just a director – he has been an institution. He identified, nurtured and grew talent. One can keep throwing names – from Kamalahasan, Rajnikant, Sujatha, Jayachitra to Prakash Raj and Vivek – all were either introduced or perfected through this institution.  AR Rahman got his first break in Roja movie produced by Balachander.

I organised to show an eighteen something of today, who had lived practically all those years abroad with her standard diet of English movies, Nizhal Nijamagiradhu (released some twenty years before she was born). That led to an instant preference for Tamil movies. I cannot think of any other filmmaker whom I could so proudly show off.

Balachander Sir, we are proud of you. It may be some twenty years late, but you deserve it and should savour the recognition.