Fondly known by all as "KB sir", South Indian film director K Balachander, who breathed his last on Tuesday night at the age of 84 after a brief illness, would have been overwhelmed if he knew, just how many people - from the film industry to the political world - came to pay their respect to him at his home on Warren Road, Chennai, where he lay lifeless. It was a poignant moment to see the man, a legend during his lifetime, who was always restless and on his feet, lie motionless. Scores of film personalities, men and women, who owed their fame and existence to him, were heartbroken and weeping when asked to speak a few words about their mentor.
Tamil Nadu loves to bestow titles to film personalities and political leaders. Rajinikanth is therefore "Superstar"; Kamal Haasan is "Ulaganayagan" (the hero of the world), J Jayalalithaa "Puratchi thalaivi" (revolutionary leader)... There may not be a consensus on these titles in the film industry, but ask anyone - and no one will dispute the title given to K Balachander - "Iyakkunar Sigaram" (the one who has scaled the peak in direction).
Born in a Brahmin family at Nannilam, a small town in Tanjore district on July 9, 1930, Balachander grew up watching films of MK Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, the then superstar of Tamil cinema. Even as a student in school and college, he was drawn towards the stage, acting, directing and writing plays. After graduating from Annamalai University, he worked briefly as a school teacher before moving to Madras to join the accountant general's office as a clerk. He wrote and directed plays like Mezhuguvarthi (Candle) and Major Chandrakanth that was a big at the time. MG Ramachandran (MGR), who was a popular actor at the time, saw his plays and drew him to the big screen where he was asked to write scripts for movies. After a few years, Balachander began directing films.
|K Balachander with Kamal Haasan (left) and Rajinikanth.|
The Tamil film world during those days had been deeply influenced by the birth of Dravidian politics and ideologies. Members of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) such as M Karunanidhi and CN Annadurai wrote scripts in a language that attracted the masses with films like Parashakthi loaded with Dravidian politics. It was left to the genius of Balachander to realise the emergence of a new middle class, its confusion and moral questions in the new churn that the Tamil society threw up that were at once baffling and challenging. He took a bold step in plunging into directing films with unconventional subjects. Films with themes that were much ahead of their time, that went on to, to everyone's surprise, become box-office successes. The middle class audience lapped up his controversial themes, too. When Dravidian moral dialogues filled up at great lengths in the pro-DMK films, people accepted Balachander's films such as Arangetram (1973), the story of a woman from a Brahmin family who turns to prostitution to support her siblings; Avargal (1977), which follows the life of a woman, a divorcee, to falling in love; and Apoorva Ragangal (1975) that explores the relationship between an older woman and a younger man. The last one won him three National awards, including for the best feature film in Tamil. The film was also an important breakthrough for the future Superstar.
Balachander's keen eye to spot talent introduced Rajinikanth to the film industry. Balachander also introduced child star Sridevi as a heroine in his Moonru Mudicchu. Kamal Haasan, who people knew only as a child star, was given a lead role in his unconventional subject Arangetram.
KB sir did not stop with directing Tamil films. He directed and produced more than 100 films in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Hindi, including the box-office smash Ek Duuje Ke Liye. A nine-time National Award winner and multiple Filmfare award winner, he was awarded the Padma Shri in 1987 and the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 2011.
Along with his peers like Balu Mahendra and Bharathi Raja, Balachander was the vanguard of change as well who pointed out that offbeat films could be commercially successful as well.