New Delhi: “In my forthcoming movie, I am introducing a young man who has fire in his eyes. Just mark my words, he will go on to become a phenomenon,” K. Balachander wrote in a Tamil magazine 44 years ago.
The young man was Shivaji Rao Gaekwad, known to the world today as Rajinikanth.
Rajinikanth wasn’t the only megastar to have been ‘discovered’ by Balachander. The man who wrote and directed (and later, acted in) more than 100 films in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Hindi also counted among his protégés Kamal Haasan and Sridevi.
In fact, in an era when Tamil cinema was all about melodramatic stories starring big names like M.G. Ramachandran (MGR), Sivaji Ganesan and Gemini Ganesan, Balachander, in his 50-year-career, changed the game by prioritising new talent and good stories.
How it all began
Kailasam Balachander was born on 9 July 1930 in Nallamangudi in the Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu. As a boy, he and his friends used to stage plays in the veranda of his house. He continued to write and act in plays during his undergraduate studies in zoology at Annamalai University, Chennai.
After a short stint as a school teacher, he joined the accountant general’s office in Chennai, where he and a few colleagues set up an amateur theatre group.
Eventually, he began staging plays in the Sabha halls of Chennai. Actor V. Gopalakrishnan watched one of them, and asked him to join his drama troupe.
Balachander’s part-time script- and play-writing got him access to the cinema industry. Some of his notable plays were Major Chandrakanth, Mezhuguvarthi, Navagraham and Server Sundaram (later a hit film starring Nagesh).
After he gained popularity as an amateur playwright, MGR approached him to write the dialogues for a film. The result was Dheiva Thaai (1964), a drama that went on to become one of the year’s biggest hits, and was later remade in Telugu, starring N.T. Rama Rao (NTR) in MGR’s role.
Soon, Major Chandrakanth and Server Sundaram were adapted for the screen, and then Balachander turned director with Neerkumizhi (1965), a family drama based on his own eponymous play and starring Nagesh, Sowcar Janaki and V. Gopalakrishnan, who were part of his stage cast.
Movies with a message
Family, relationships and, later, socio-economic issues were regular themes in KB’s oeuvre. The classic Thaneer Thaneer (1981) deals with the problem of water scarcity, while in Unnal Mudiyum Thambi (1988), a rebellious Brahmin boy gives up his traditional musical profession to become a social activist.
In an interview in 2006, Balachander had said: “At that time, most films were based on heroism. They were all male-oriented, male-chauvinistic films. I knew I had to be different, so I chose the area I knew best — middle-class issues.”
Films such as Aval Oru Thodarkathai (1974), Apoorva Raagangal (1975), Moondru Mudichu (1976), and Sindhu Bhairavi (1985) featured strong female characters who challenged prevalent norms in their spheres. In Sindhu Bhairavi, the woman decides to live without a man, while in Avargal (1977), she moves from a break-up to a troubled marriage to finding another romantic relationship in office.
Balachander believed “marriage is not the be all and end all. A happy ending doesn’t necessarily mean marriage”.
Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu (1980) also touched upon class and caste struggles, while Arangetram (1973) had a middle-class Brahmin woman take up prostitution to support her family.
Brief flings with Bollywood
The year 1968 saw Balachander’s first story for the Hindi film industry, a comedy called Teen Bahuraniyan, starring Prithviraj Kapoor and Sowcar Janaki. In 1971, Server Sundaram was adapted to Hindi as Main Sunder Hoon, and in 1972, Thamarai Nenjam was remade as Haar Jeet.
But he made his directorial debut in Bollywood with Aaina (1977), based on his own Arangetram and starring Rajesh Khanna, Mumtaz, A.K. Hangal, Lalita Pawar and Nirupa Roy. Decades later, this film inspired Pradeep Sarkar’s Laaga Chunari Mein Daag (2007), starring Rani Mukerji.
In 1981 came one of Balachander’s greatest hits, Ek Duuje Ke Liye. Starring Kamal Haasan and Rati Agnihotri, this remake of his Telugu film Maro Charitra (1978) is a tragic love story that explores the divide between north and south India, and was a massive critical and commercial success.
Balachander wrote and directed a few more Hindi movies, but never really took to the way the industry functioned in Mumbai. “I never liked the party-and-work culture of Bollywood. There’s less work, more talk. I never fit in there. And yes, however great a film I make, they will label it a south Indian film.”
The later years
Balachander’s enduring legacy is due not just to the films and TV shows he wrote and directed and the multiple awards he was given, but also to the scores of actors and technicians he ‘discovered’ and gave breaks to. Apoorva Raagangal was not only Rajinikanth’s debut, but also Kamal Haasan’s breakthrough as a lead actor, while Moondru Mudichu saw Sridevi cast in her first lead role.
Other prominent artists who owe their careers to what is called the ‘KB School’ include Prakash Raj, Nassar and Vivek. But it was really Kamal Haasan with whom he had a lasting association, working together in multiple films, even if it was just for a guest appearance. In an interview, Haasan once said: “Many have asked me whether Balachander discovered me. I tell them that he invented me.”
In the late 1990s, Balachander himself began taking on small roles in his movies. The last movie he acted in was the Haasan-penned Uttama Villan (2015), which revolved around a dying actor and his last film, directed by his mentor. The actor’s role was played by Haasan while the director’s role was played by Balachander.
But in real life, it was Balachander who was terminally ill. He died on 23 December 2014, months before this movie was released.