It has taken me a couple of days to accept the fact that a pioneer in Tamil Cinema Balu Mahendra is no more. As days and years pass, I realise we are losing out on all the stalwarts of the film industry, whether it be Shammi Kapoor, or Rajesh Khanna, Suchitra Sen and now Balu Mahendra. So what is it that brings a lump in my throat as I write about this film maker who loved to be a part of offbeat subjects in the film industry?
He had the capacity to portray a story line with a touch of reality that is unbeatable. Today he is no more. Doctors say he had renal problems and then suffered a heart attack and whamoosh! He is no more. It is sad that a person who thrived on his artistic abilities to direct a movie with a flair of confidence and flamboyance should die leaving us in the darkness with only his natural lighting tricks to lead us the way.
Who does not remember Tamil movies like 'Moonram Pirai,' 'Sandhya Raagam' and 'Veedu' as also Malayalam movies like 'Oomakuyil,' Olangal,' and 'Yathra' and the very popular Sadma in Hindi starring Kamal Hasan and Sridevi in an award winning role? These are movies close to our heart and for a person like me who does not watch too many regional movies; it is only the brilliant direction of this veteran director that made me watch them over and over again. Balu Mahendra worked in most of South Indian language movies and created a masterpiece in each work of his. Born in Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, Balu was attracted to cinema when he watched the shooting of ’The Bridge On The River Kwai’ directed by David Lean while he was on a school excursion. This movie inspired Balu to get enrolled in the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune and here he rightfully won the gold medal in the cinematography course in the year 1969. Balanathan Mahendran had entered film industry.
The awards kept coming in and he entered films at a time when the studios were giving up and were in the process of shutting down. He entered at a time when directors were dabbling in mainstream cinema and trying to revive and reinvent it. Nellu (1974) was a path-breaking movie in which his cinematography was widely appreciated by director Ramu Kariat. Nellu brought instant fame and acceptance to Balu. As another famous director K. Vishwanath rightly put, Balu had the knack of allowing his visuals to take over his speech and direction. There was lot of emotion in his scenes and he had the ability to leave a lasting impression on the viewer’s minds with his visuals. Sankarabharanam another runaway hit also had Balu as the cinematographer and the director of the movie K. Vishwanath appreciated his ability to bring a movie to life.
Gradually, Mahendra handled many films and he graduated into a director. He had his own genres of psychology and character in his film directions and he began his direction with the Kannada film Kokila in the year 1977. This got him the National Award for best cinematography and screenplay. 'Azhiyadha Kolangal' was his next try and this was a refreshing movie in those days with the story of three boys portrayed brilliantly by Balu. The movie Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock inspired Balu to make the movie Moodupani in 1980. 'Moonram Pirai' is a movie which any Tamil cinema goer would vouch for being the Bible of Balus films. This movie was a phenomenon and ran in theaters for more than a year continuously. This also got him the National Award for best cinematography and Kamal Hassan won best actor for it. This is the same movie, which was made in Hindi as Sadma. Who would not want to see the talented Sridevi crumble like a small child in the initial scenes and Kamal Hassan break down like a mental wreck towards the end?
Sandhya Ragam, Vanna Vanna Pookal, Marupadiyum, Sathi leelavathi, are all movies, which are typical favorites of Balu Mahendra fans. In the last few years, Balu was running his own classes in cinematography, acting, direction and has mentored many filmmakers like Sasikumar, Ameer, Seenu Ramaswamy, Vetrimaaran to name a few. Balu always used to express his regret in the Tamil movie not getting enough recognition and wished to have an archive for the Tamil film Industry. He was devastated when the negatives of his movies like Sandhya Raagam, Veedu, Sathi Leelavati got destroyed in a fire.
We as movie buffs often watch a movie and regret when our idol is no more. Now is not a time to lament. Now is a time to preserve, to preserve this flame of passion ignited by the erstwhile Balu Mahendra. His soul would Rest In Peace only then.