The real pioneer of the New Indian Cinema was Kailasam Balachander. Not Mrinal Sen. Not Mani Kaul. Not Basu Chatterjee or Aravindan or Adoor Gopalakrishnan or Shyam Benegal
While Balachander, who died last week in Chennai, directed his first feature, ‘Neerkumizhi’, a path breaking social drama in 1965, Sen’s ‘Bhuvan Shome’, Kaul’s ‘Uski Roti’, Chatterjee’s ‘Sara Akash’ came in 1969 – labelling the triumvirate as harbingers of a refreshingly novel kind of cinema. Adoor’s debut work, “Swayamvaram” opened in 1972, Benegal’s ‘Ankur’ in 1973 and Aravindan’s ‘Uttarayanam’ in 1975.
All of them were part of the emerging New Indian Cinema, a cinema that veered from the routine song-and-dance fare, a cinema that was subtle, sensible and meaningful. Balachander was bold enough to tear himself away from this kind of make-believe fantasy that Indian cinema was renowned for. He stepped in with radical plots. His films had amazing stories, his characters were sharply etched and his work was pure cinema – very, very different from the kind of pictures made in that era.
Although, Balachander’s early years were spent on stage, his fascination for the moving medium was unmistakable. Even as kept writing plays and acting in them, he never missed a chance to watch the movies of the then superstar, M.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar. In fact, “Neerkumizhi” was a jugalbandhi of theatre and cinema: he converted his own play into a film.
What was most inspiring about Balachander was his ability to treat cinema not just as mere mirror of society but also as a forecaster. His 1971 “Nootrukku Nooru” spoke about sexual harassment; a college professor finds himself accused of this misdemeanour by three women just before his marriage. Sexual harassment might have existed then, but who ever spoke about it then? It was never written about either. But Balachander could foresee this becoming a bigger evil.
Also, “Nootrukku Nooru” was an epitome of pure cinematic values. There were scenes which carried the story forward without dialogues. If Balachander saw sexual harassment especially at workplace happening with increasing frequency, he also predicted the evil of consumerism, and its power to wreck relationships. In his 1973 “Arangetram”, a woman leaves home and goes to the city to work in order to help her impoverished family of parents and several siblings. But the young woman is pushed by circumstance into prostitution – which helps her to earn more money and send more goodies home.
The family is deliriously happy, making even greater demands on her. They do not bother to even find out where she was getting all the money from. Finally, when the truth is out, the family is so insanely selfish that it disowns her. The woman, physically abused and emotionally depraved, loses her mind. “Arangetram” is a powerful lambast of an unfeeling society – of a family which is consumed by greed and materialism. And consumerism was not even visible on the horizon in 1973 India.
Certainly, “Arangetram” was woman centric, and Balachander was one of the first whose protagonists were strong-willed women. Take “Aval Oru Thodar Kathai” (1973) – which was remade in or dubbed into five languages including Telugu, “Anthuleni Katha”. Unlike Lalitha in “Arangetram” (who has to literally sell her soul), Kavitha is under no such compulsion. She works in an office, and is literally the head of her family. Her father becomes a saint, and walks out on his family of a wife, a widowed daughter, an unmarried daughter, a blind son and a drunkard son, who has his own family! Kavitha is all set to get married when her reformed brother dies in an accident, and we see her hopping on to the same public bus that will take her to work. The movie begins and ends with the same shot.
The 1977 ‘Avargal’ (Balachander remade the film in Telugu as ‘Idi Katha Kaadu’ in 1979) is also a story of a strong woman whose letters to her lover never reach him. And the man she marries turns out to be a sadist. Both Rajinikanth and Kamal Hassan are seen together here. And as the jealous husband, Rajinikanth is superb, though in a very small role.
In fact, Balachander is credited with having discovered and nurtured Rajinikanth, Kamal Hassan, Chiranjeevi, Prakash Raj, Nagesh, Sujatha and Jayapradha among a host of others. Who can forget Nagesh as an orphan in the 1968 Tamil drama, ‘Ethir Neechal’? It was certainly Nagesh’s career best performance. And who can forget Hassan as an unemployed youth in ‘Aakali Rajyam’ (Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu), a 1980 movie that was a powerful indictment of an India deeply disillusioned with the socialist structure.
Three years later, Balachander made a Hindi version of ‘Aakali Rajyam’ and titled it ‘Zara Si Zindagi’. Kamal starred here as well, but his Hindi diction was awful. Hassan’s ‘Ek Dujhe Ke Liye’ (‘Maro Charitra’ in Telugu) came earlier in 1981, but here his pronunciation did not matter, because he portrayed a Tamil boy falling in love with a Hindi speaking girl. This was one of the first films which painted the agony of star-crossed lovers in the truly Shakespearean style. Though this was essentially a love story, I could never miss the fact that it underlined deep-rooted linguistic prejudices.
(Years later, I would see this in Two States, and how two families from Chennai and Delhi would quarrel over cultural differences when their daughter and son fall in love with each other.) Interestingly, though Balachander came into the tinsel world after being cajoled into writing dialogues for M.G. Ramachandran’s ‘Deiva Thaai’ in 1965, the auteur did not get into propagating political ideology on the screen – which men like MGR did.
Balachander’s cinema was largely apolitical (except perhaps for ‘Aakali Rajyam’ (Varumayin Niram Sivappu), but overly social. It spoke about structures, particularly the family and inter-personal relationships within it. Above all, Balachander, I would think, was a keen observer of human failings like greed and selfishness. We see this clearly in ‘Ethir Neechal’ – where family after family uses Nagesh’s Maadhu for its own self-centred ends. The parents of a psychologically ill girl even plan to get her married to Maadhu!
Movies such as ‘Manmadha Leelai’ (the tale of a womaniser), ‘Iru Kodugal’ (where a man marries two women), ‘Sindhu Bhairavi’ (where a student falls in love with her older Carnatic teacher) and ‘Moondru Mudichu’ (all about revenge) were far ahead of the times they were made.
Popularly referred to as Iyakkunar Sigaram (Director Who Scaled The Peak), Balachander – who won several National Film Awards, Filmfare Awards, the Padma Shri and the Dadasaheb Phalke Award – made over 100 movies in a career spanning half a century. In many languages, including Telugu, Kannada and Hindi. He went into television in the late 1980s, and it was undoubtedly a loss for the big screen. And somehow, Balachander had lost his touch by then.