MELODRAMA FOR THE CLASSES
Joyojeet Pal writes on the legacy of Dada Saheb Phalke awardee, K Balachander.
The opening sequence of the 1970 film Ethiroli remains an apt introduction into K Balachander as a filmmaker. The title cards appear with no sound other than the crackling of moving film, against the black and white backdrop of a courtroom. There is a noir-ish expectant tension as the camera pans to lawyer Sivaji Ganesan, readying himself to cross examine a witness. The camera focuses on Sivaji for several seconds as he stares down the witness. The exchange between the two of them is wordless with the focus being the intensity of Sivaji’s histrionic gaze as he taps his spectacles against his face. The camera switches back and forth between Sivaji and the increasingly nervous witness. Without a word spoken, with the witness caves and confesses. “That is all your honour", finishes Sivaji.
Flash forward to the opening sequence of Thaneer Thaneer, a decade later. In this, a half-naked young boy is carrying a pot of water on his head through sunburnt landscape, and he sees a torn photograph of a movie star lying on the ground before him. The child’s eyes light up with excitement as he bends down to pick up the photograph. The scene is tense as the pot continues to wobble precariously. The audience cringes as the boy stares at the picture in his hand as he walks instead of at the uneven earth below. The director toys with us as he lets the tension continue towards the inevitable—the picture flies out of the boy’s hand, distracted he trips, the pot falls and the water turns over. The full horror of the situation is revealed as the crying boy desperately tries to salvage the water as the earth soaks up past his tiny digging hands.
The two scenes bring out so much of what KB’s films have come to mean for his audience and the filmmaking fraternity as a whole. The sequences depart from the convention of the time as film openings go and yet it does so without deviating significantly from the ground rules of good old Tamil screen melodrama. In Thaneer, was KB crafting an allegory to poverty and stardom in a state where poverty exists seamlessly with a fanatical devotion for movie stars? Or one where a political-cinema fraternity fuels the on its imagery (at the time MGR was CM), while for the most part the population is deprived of the most basic needs? Experience suggests there may be less than meets the eye. In interviews, KB has been known to confess that symbolisms that film theorists have found in his films were often news to him. For him, pitching the film to an audience was paramount.
With Kamal Hassan, one of his foremost protégés.
Balachander and his iconic film company Kavithalaya have been giants in both Tamil and Telugu cinema, and KB has directed in Kannada, Hindi and Malayalam as well. Several of his films—Ethir Neechal, Arangetram, Apoorva Raagangal, Avarkal, Maro Charitra (Telugu, remade as Ek Duje Ke Liye), Thillu Mullu, and Sindhu Bhairavi are considered textbook regimen for film students, and practically household fare through most of the state. The list of people who were either introduced or had careers were deeply impacted by his work is practically endless—Kamal Hassan and Rajnikanth both see him as their guru, Suresh Krissna, Vasanth, and Saran have all assisted KB at some point. His visual compositional style and use of close-ups, especially in his black and white cinema, was extremely influential, but it was his narrative that really reshaped Tamil industry.
KB entered the scene in the mid-1960s when Tamil cinema was still very driven by the mythology / fantasy film on one end and the propaganda caper on the other. In conservative Tamil Nadu, the film medium was seen as base, and restricted in appeal to the lower middle classes. The specific orientation of film towards the Dravidian movement meant that most urban and upper class themes were either missing entirely or portrayed in caricature or outright dismissively. Being urban or middle class was seen as morally corrupting or presenting the responsibility of uplifting the poor. Balachander came to cinema from writing for stage and plunged into themes that struck at the heart of middle class urban Madras.
For the most part, his films were not formulaic, and this was possibly one of the reasons he never directed a film with MGR in it, despite the fact that his first break came as a writer for MGR’s Deiva Thai. KB was distinctly middle-class himself—he had a college degree and worked as a teacher before beginning his creative career. In that, he entered with a different sensibility than the prevalent filmmaking tradition of the time. He entered directing without going through the ranks, had no real affiliation with production houses before turning director, did not come from a wealthy family, and was unaffiliated with the Dravidian movement. Coming into film from theatre and writing, he brought to film his greatest strength—the script.
Unlike the propagandist script of the Dravidian movements that emphasised dialogue and social order, KB’s films emphasised the individual characters, relationships, and a narrative flow. His move away from the star vehicle meant he was free to experiment thematically. In Ethir Neechal, he explored class and servitude, in Bama Vijayam he looked at aspiration and consumerism, in Maro Charitra at inter-ethnic relationships, in Varumayin Niram Sivappu at unemployment. His films typically had middle class protagonists, who generally sympathetic, but borne down by society.
A still from Ethir Neechal (image courtesy The Hindu)
Unlike the budding art house cinema of the time, KB’s films were firmly in the ‘popular’ characterisation, and even when he worked with a complicated theme, the focus was always to keep the film accessible and for the most part, acceptable. While MGR’s films offered an imagined ideal for the masses, KB’s films offered an imagined reality for the classes. Both entertained, primarily.
The topic that KB’s legacy will be of greatest debate is probably his characterisation of women. In his earliest films, the underlying theme of female characters seems clearly one of social order. Thus in Poova Thalaya and Bama Vijayan we see that badly-behaved women, i.e. those who put their own interest ahead of the collective interest of the family unit are likely to bring the house down. Likewise, although his women are powerful, the films underline the risk of concentrating the power in the woman—thus in Poova Thalaya, the woman’s attempt to control finances leads to grief, in Iru Kodugal, the female protagonist having a job that is senior to that of her husband is a source of legitimate discord.
The balancing act between offering strong roles to women on screen with ‘acceptability’ of what a good Tamil woman should be is most striking in the characterisations of working women. First up, the women typically work when the men fail. The ‘female breadwinner’ is probably one of the most enduring themes of his cinema from Iru Kodugal to Manathil Uruthi Vendum. Thus in Iru Kodugal the husband disappears, in Aval oru Thodharkadai the father abandons the family to become a saint leaving her with one drunkard and one blind brother, in Arangetram there is an old and pathetic father, in Avargal a divorced husband.
Sowcar Janaki in Iru Kodugal
In every single case, the woman’s act of working leads to trouble, ranging from bruised egos and generic disharmony in the family to scandal and utter catastrophe. In short, if a woman works, there is already a failure in place and only further grief in store. Thus in most of these woman-as-breadwinner films, the general theme besides the fact of the system being broken is that the woman eventually subsumes her own life to that of the family, she is doomed to never have a family outside of the one she is born into. No happy married life ever after, given that is something to aspire to!
Likewise, KB’s approach to a woman’s sexuality is also complicated. On one hand, he has had the kudos of approaching seemingly taboo themes such as a younger man falling in love with an older man in Apoorva Ragangal, the love life of a prostitute in Arangetram, and an unwitting mistress in Sindhu Bhairavi. This approach to each is fascinating because his moral position is never exactly clear, and each of the women enjoy an eventual comeuppance. In Apoorva Ragangal while the age mismatched older woman-younger man pair is doomed, the older man-younger woman pair sneaks through the cracks. Likewise, in Moondru Mudichu, when wronged by a malevolent and persistent suitor, a woman exacts vicious revenge by marrying the suitors father, and becoming his step-mother!
Rajnikanth in Apoorva Ragangal
Few filmmakers offer the complex legacy that KB leaves behind. Irrespective of one’s point of view on the message of his films or more recently his television shows, it goes without saying that he opened a number of topics for discussion. Perhaps the only way for him to make his brand of topical social films was to poke at the subject enough to get people thinking, only then to satisfice with an outcome acceptable to his audiences. In honouring him with the Phalke award, the government has rewarded him for being a master storyteller, and for his role as a pillar of Tamil cinema. Countless Indians have grown up on his filmmaking. In a 45-year long career, he has made Indians laugh, cry, and ponder in several languages, cross fertilising film from various regions of the country and in the process arguably opening yet another topic for his audiences—the diversity of the nation.
And of course, he gave us Rajnikanth.✑