Thursday, February 20, 2014

Balu Mahendra: Artist, Plagiarist and Philanderer

Roger Rosenblatt eulogized JFK Jr  in Time magazine saying "When a man dies, a civilization dies with him. Whatever constituted his being--his gait, manners, tone of voice, political opinions, appearance, his particular use of language, philosophy, sense of beauty, sense of style, his personal history, ambitions, his smile--all go". That eulogy best captures the passing away of director and cinematographer Balu Mahendra.

David Lean's filmed his classic 'Bridge on the river Kwai' in Sri Lanka. An impressionable young boy watching the filming was inspired to become a filmmaker. The boy, Balu Mahendra, later graduated from Poona Film Institute with a gold medal in cinematography. Indian cinematography would never be the same again. Balu got his first of many awards for his cinematography in the very first film, Nellu, by Ramu Kariat. Within 3 years Balu had struck out as director too. Balu, whose language was art, frequently crossed linguistic barriers. His first movie as director was 'Kokila' in Kannada. The debutante director garnered an award and his style of subtle movie making was noticed. 




Mahendran redefined Tamil cinema with 'Mullum Malarum'. He dragged Tamil cinema out of the histrionic excesses of Sivaji Ganesan, Karunanidhi, K.Balachander, K.S.Gopalakrishnan, MGR and others. Mahendran's movie introduced subtlety to the Tamil viewer. In an era when color films had debuted not too long ago it was not uncommon to splash the screen and the viewers eyes with garish costumes and in your face colors. Into that era came Balu Mahendra who helmed the camera for Mahendran's cinema and for his part introduced the Tamil viewer to silhouettes. 


Balu's first movie in Tamil cemented Mahendran's style. Titled 'Azhiyatha Kolangal' it was a coming of age movie about adolescent boys, their escapade, their sexual awakenings and their obsession for a comely teacher. The movie was rumored to have shades of 'Summer of '42' but it was also autobiographical. Recounting his school days in Vikatan he would say "fed up seeing the village fatsos we were enamored of slim and fair Indhu teacher" ('மொத்துமொத்தென்று முறுகித் திரண்ட எங்கள் கிராமத்துத் தடிச்சிகளைப் பார்த்துப் பழகிப்போன கண்களுக்கு, இந்து டீச்சர் சற்று ஒல்லியாக, உயரமாக, சிவப்பாக, ரொம்ப அழகாக இருந்தார்கள்). A dusky Shobha would play the role of Indhu teacher. The songs were filmed with montages of Shobha and Pratap Pothen walking, hand in hand, gently romancing against a silhouette, sharing a laugh, a tease here and a tease there but never once, unlike the tradition of movies, would they lip sync the songs. Salil Chaudhary, Salilda, had scored the music. I recently watched a clip of "Summer of '42" and Salilda's music, dare I say, is inferior. The movie shocked many viewers in conservative Tamil Nadu. While Balu went mostly for subtlety he too, like Mahendran in 'Nenjathai Killathe', gave ample space for the plain ribaldry of the ever redoubtable Vennira Aadai Moorthy. 

Shobha would become the first scandal in Balu's life. A torrid affair ensued. Even as Shobha went on to earn the National Award her personal life was on a slide. It is said that she would act like a truant child around 'uncle' Balu Mahendra. One day Shobha committed suicide and Balu was suspected as having played a role. 

Balu would later tell in an interview "I was crucified'. That was unfair. Shobha was the victim not he. He added that stung by the controversy he vowed silence until after a year when he "threw down Moondram Pirai" as answer. Balu Mahendra brought to screen, with fantastic acting by Sri Devi, a platonic relationship between a nubile woman who, due to an accident loses her mind and is also amnesiac, acts childlike (not childish) and a young man who happens to meet her in a brothel but ends up rescuing her. Kamal Hasan earned a National Award for his heart rending performance in the famous climax. A third factor in the success of the movie was then sex goddess Silk Smitha. That even a sensitive filmmaker like Balu had to rely on the uninhibited oomph factor of Smitha made people chuckle at the commercial compromise. He later did accept the compromise but he added that Smitha's presence served a purpose. Kamal rebuffs Smitha's seduction and thus lends credence to the fact that he could have an asexual, sort of platonic, love with a nubile girl. Balu, sanitized his relationship with Shobha thanks to an artistic movie made with commercial compromises. Their relationship, to be sure, was anything but platonic or even the implied paternalism of 'Moondram Pirai'. 

Of the many movies that Balu directed only two standout for not just being uncompromising but even artistic integrity. 'Veedu' touched a chord in the hearts of many a middle class member because it spoke to their yearnings. shunning the standard Indian formula of songs the movie was made on sparse budget with dusky Archana as spinster who tries to build a small home. The puckish old man played by Chockalinga Bhagavathar was a hit. Yet, compared to Satyajit Ray's 'Mahanagar' it will remain a valiant effort not an achievement. Balu's talents as director are way overrated. Just because he sought to make movies that had a leisurely pace, lingering shots, sparse dialogues and of course lovely cinematography all of which contrasted with a sea of utter mediocrity in Tamil cinema the movies are exaggerated as artistic excellence. Fear of old age haunts any man let alone an artist. Balu made his one other uncompromising movie 'Sandhyaragam'. Literally meaning 'song of the twilight hour'. 

If Scorsese has a fetish for gangster movies Balu's fetish was making movies themed about extra marital affairs. He would plagiarize 'Mickey and Maud' to deliver a laugh riot in 'Rettaivaal Kuruvi' where a photographer will have two wives. Then he would turn to the subject again in a a Tamil remake of Mahesh Bhatt's 'Arth' as 'Marupadiyum'. When the heroine walks out on her husband, a movie director, learning of his affair with an actress a song wails in the background "a woman wishes to be garlanded but once, can she live with a man who garlands a woman a day, would such a marriage be civilized". By now Balu Mahendra had another affair, with Archana from Veedu, after Shobha. 

After 'Marupadiyum' he made forgettable movies most of which bombed in the box office. Mounika, who starred in a movie as a nymphet, would go on to become his second wife. She would support Balu in his lean years when he was reduced to making short films, based on short stories, for the drab national television. As a person who loved literature he chose excellent stories but crippled by lack of money he could get only Mounika and few low budget actors to star in the shoddily produced episodes. Kamala Hassan, another habitual plagiarizer, roped in Balu to do 'Sathi Leelavathi' that was rip off of Meryl Streep starring 'She Devil'. 

Balu Mahendra made movies that were either 'inspired', albeit uncredited, or totally plagiarized. 'Moodu pani' was inspired by Psycho. 'Julie Ganapathy' was plagiarized from 'Misery'. Lets remember that Balu sat on the jury for National Awards. For a man who took pride in his work and had a healthy ego to end his movies with a sign off 'A film by Balu Mahendra', this plagiarism, par for the course in Indian movies, will remain a blot.

Even after many directors, including childhood friend Bharathiraja, deserted Ilayaraja, who had grown titular and stale, Balu stuck by his friend. Ilayaraja had run out of steam by the early 90's and his scoring for Balu's movies made after that had mediocre music and thanks to Raja's antics about lyric writers there were not much decent lyrics either. When an artist sacrifices perfection for the sake of relationship art suffers. Mediocrity creeps in and finally destroys.

Balu Mahendra's penchant for literature did not translate into bringing any Tamil classic to movies other than the short film series. Bhim Singh brought Jayakanthan's classic tale 'Sila Nerangalil Sila Manithargal' to screen. We cannot speak of a Balu Mahendra 'oeuvre'. Anyone who sets Balu's directorial abilities on a pedestal has not probably had even a modicum of introduction to Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Aravindan, Shahji, Ray, Benegal, Girish Karnad and others. His last movie 'Thalamuraigal' bombed at the box office. Few quoted the last words of the movie: "don't forget Tamil or this grandfather". I was surprised to see that chauvinism in Balu, a man who made movies in Hindi, Malayalam and Kannada besides Tamil. The man had lost his creative juices a decade back and the last movie only confirmed that the creator had died before the body died.

In an interview he would claim, insanely, that Gandhi said "I'll not hit your body but I'll hit your brain". Cooly he would ask the demure air headed interviewer Anu Hasan "which is bigger violence? hitting body or mind?" Anu Hasan would be grinning incapable of comprehending the nonsense that Balu just spilled just to support a violent movie made by his disciple Seeman (who was sitting next to him). He was no intellectual. Like many of his compatriots he had not much to say beyond films, specifically the technical knowledge of movie making, and a smattering of literary taste. In the later years he would have another paramour after Archana. His third. In another interview he would extol that his legal wife Akila epitomized the ideal Indian woman and needs to be worshipped. She could've done well with a little less worshipping.

Balu's extra-marital affairs were front and center to not just his life but to his movies too. As such they are of topical interest beyond just salaciousness. Tamils while being conservative when it comes to the morals of their fellow citizens they will tolerate, in fact applaud, their politicians and movie fraternity to flout all morals. Bigamous politicians are feted. Archana and Easwari Rao stood at the near the head of Balu's lifeless body caressing the casket. Balu's wife Akila sat in a chair nearby. Life is stranger than fiction indeed. In what caused a minor sensation Archana and director Bala prevented Mounika from seeing her beloved. This was a gross disrespect to Balu who had openly and categorically stated that he was indeed married to Mounika. 

Balu Mahendra, Balachander, Kamal, Rajini, Ilayaraja and many others were part of anyone who lived in Tamil Nadu in the 80's and 90's. They shaped our ideas of entertainment and art (which I had to unlearn with effort). Musing on mortality is something that hangs over my thoughts always. Just last week as I was listening to an 80's song I was thinking ruefully that they are all aging and many cannot even walk. The grim reaper awaits several of them. When Rajini had a serious health scare I felt sad. Seeing Kamal, the ever youthful and nattily dressed man, have jowls for cheeks and sagging eyelids I cannot help notice that an era had passed.

The outpouring of love for Balu Mahendra, not just from his contemporaries, but amongst a younger brood of directors and cinema technologists was astounding indeed. It does speak volumes of the man. Kannadasan once ignited a rumor that he was dead just to see how many really loved him. Balu's soul can take comfort from how his cherished proteges flocked to his funeral. Balachander and Bharathiraja openly sobbed. Balachander whenever he suffered losses from his artsy movies he would produce a commercial movie, usually starring Rajini, but directed by somebody else. In his hey days Balu would scold Balachander saying "if I decide to do prostitution I'd do it myself not pay somebody else to do it". 

Two things irked me about the funeral though. First, for a man whose art was all about subtle aestheticism his funeral had no semblance of it. It was rambunctious, disorganized and shorn of any beauty. His body was tossed about hither and thither while being loaded onto the caravan and while being brought down. People were just milling around and jostling each other both when his body lay in state and all through the funeral. I wish there were a few sensible eulogies. Only Kamal Hasan wrote a half-decent obituary. I was disappointed to read the eulogies of Bala, Bava Chelladurai and Suka. They were moving testimonies of their relationship with their mentor but every one made it a point to record how they screamed in agony and how their families too copiously cried. This is pornography of grief.

We are all mortals and we hope the reaper would not take us before we had our fill of this life. When film musician Mahesh died young of cancer Kamal wrote a beautiful obituary for his friend titled "Mahesh: Celebratory worshipper of life" (Mahesh: வாழ்க்கையின் ஆராதகன்). Even now only Kamal spoke of man being mortal and that he came to the funeral as an expression of thanks to the life that Balu had led and for the impact he made on many lives in that period. I can sympathize that for Bava, Suka and Bala it is a deep personal loss. But Balu, aged 74, had been ill for a few years. For those who claim to produce works of art it is surprising a lack of appreciation of mortality as a fact. Death is not even understood as an ever present shadow. 


Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman shockingly died young due to heroin overdose. He was a drug addict. Friend and Oscar winner Aaron Sorkin shocked many with a touching but blunt eulogy in Time magazine. Sorkin said "So it’s in that spirit that I’d like to say this: Phil Hoffman, this kind, decent, magnificent, thunderous actor, who was never outwardly “right” for any role but who completely dominated the real estate upon which every one of his characters walked, did not die from an overdose of heroin — he died from heroin. We should stop implying that if he’d just taken the proper amount then everything would have been fine."

We are yet to learn how to mourn and how to measure a life. 

26 comments:

Anonymous said...

You have written my impression of Mahendra , overrated , with an unhealthy obsession for teenagers , he spoilt quite a few lives and took one .

gnani said...

excellent article. i lke the tongue in cheek humour and sarcasm laced with semi confessional statements about growing up.

Jeyannathann K said...

Loved the way , you had linked his life and the films he made in his career. Interesting read for people like us who were born during 90's.

Anonymous said...

While I agree with your views, I disagree with the point that he was a plagiarist. Barring a few exceptions like RVK, Moodupani, Sathileelavathi, JG, and Azhiyatha Kolangal others were true in it's narration. Regarding Marupadiyum, he himself claimed that it was a remake of Arth, and decided to remake the film as it was closely connected to his personal life. Moodupani was not a frame-to-frame copy (of Psycho) unlike JG and RVK. Lastly he was not over-rated, I'd say he was under-rated even during his hey-days. Veedu and Sandhyaragam, both considered as his masterpieces were not given enough recognition at the National level. You say that, his movies "had a leisurely pace, lingering shots, sparse dialogues and of course lovely cinematography". Don't you think dirs. like Mani Ratnam too followed the same pattern in their movies. Of course, Balu did everything by himself (screenwriting, cinematography, direction and editing).

Anonymous said...

'Mullum Malarum' was directed by Mahendran and not Balu Mahendra. That is not the only thing you are wrong about. Stick with overrated Hollywood movies and aliens. That will suit people of your ilk more.

Athenaeum said...

Replying to two Anonymous comments:

1. I have clearly stated that Mullum Malarum was directed by Mahendran (not Balu Mahendra) "Into that era came Balu Mahendra who helmed the camera for Mahendran's cinema and for his part introduced the Tamil viewer to silhouettes. " --- Read the blog before commenting.

2. //Barring a few exceptions like RVK, Moodupani, Sathileelavathi, JG, and Azhiyatha Kolangal others were true in it's narration// -- Thats quite a number of plagiarized movies. Not a few exceptions.

Victor Suresh said...

Well written view Balu Mahendra's professional and personal lives. Only comment that I see as unfair is "I was surprised to see that chauvinism in Balu, a man who made movies in Hindi, Malayalam and Kannada besides Tamil." The movie was in Tamil portraying Tamil characters. Grandfather is asking his grandson not to forget his mother tongue which happens to be Tamil. If it were a Malayalam movie, the grandfather character would have asked the grandson not to forget Malayalam. Where is the chauvinism here?

Venkatesh said...

//We cannot speak of a Balu Mahendra 'oeuvre'. Anyone who sets Balu's directorial abilities on a pedestal has not probably had even a modicum of introduction to Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Aravindan, Shahji, Ray, Benegal, Girish Karnad and others//
This is highly ridiculous. Balu made films predominantly in mainstream cinema while the ones mentioned by you concentrated only on parallel cinema. Do you think Shaji N. Karun, Aravindan are more popular than someone like Mani Ratnam when it comes to the understanding of a common man? It's like comparing apples and oranges!

Anonymous said...

Wow! CRITIC in caps! the good, bad and ugly are all there to see. In this age of sycophancy, some still retain balance, though it was a wee bit too personal! By the way, im a non tamilian, searching for some info on ilayaraja. think u can help me?

Anonymous said...

The Veedu heroine was not a spinster, she had a boyfriend.

That I'm sure of -- I recall teh Marubadiyum mistress/2nd wife as being a dancer and not an actress but less sure there.

Anonymous said...

Nobody is perfect. If you think you are so right, why write this after his demise ? Just because you "think" you can write well, doesn't mean you can scribble any nonsense and abuse your freedom of expression

-Ajeeth

Anonymous said...

It's far easy for you to criticise a creator of many outstanding artists , movies, a generation of filmmakers.
A good vocabulary doesn't give you the license to ridicule and mock a genius.
If you can't genuinely appreciate without hidden sarcasm that in itself shows the quality of this article .

Anonymous said...

Great article. All men are like this some goodness some ills. Its the people who paint demigod pictures of a man and then destroy it.

Sundar said...

One can easily identify a strong hatred in the mind of writer towards Balu Mahendra. Crticising liberally about a person's personal life without knowing much is disgusting. And 'remaking'is not plagiarising. I was shocked to read your last paragraph. After everything you dint even leave his death! "This is pornography of grief." You are not god! Come out of your closet! You cant know everything! you cant judge everything! If you have personal vengeance against Balu Mahendra probably because of his ideological inclinations you should come out openly on those aspects. In the name of artistic criticism you are spewing vengeance on his personal life in a tawdry way. Labelling every act of Balu Mahendra as 'plagiarism', 'Philandrism', 'egoism' is simply suffocating. you may have to tone down your hatred while writing articles because that clearly shows up and renders yours articles obviously biased.

Anonymous said...

Here we go, another confused and delusional tabloid writer who cheery picks incidents in Balu's life and career to his convenience to suit his narrative, that too after Balu's demise.So cheap.Affairs and film making do not mix.
Just take Hollywood for example, famous for its scandals but never short of excellent film making.Example would be, "Gone with the winds" which is the greatest film of all time, famous for its innovative cinematography in 1939 was made by individuals who had affairs in their personal life, Vivian Leigh the movie heroine was famous for having high sexual drive and went to have three different husbands but does that make them any less genius in film making?Absolutely not!Balu had affairs, so what? Balu's personal life was his right and that is not anyone's problem.And what gives anyone the authority to question the "morals" of other people?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for an excellent, witty and thoughtful write-up. I quite enjoyed reading it and learning more about some of the sordid details of BM's life. Let's set aside BM's lust for young girls and budding actresses. Let's also set aside his rampant sexual activity even while being married to someone or the other throughout his life. The most tragic victim of this guy's rampant and irresponsible sexual affairs is the talented actress Shobha.

Now let's look at BM's career. Per Wikipedia, he studied at London University and it's reasonable to assume he had access to a shit load of Western cinema - Hollywood and European, especially French New Wave and Italian Neo Realism. So it's no surprise he's learnt a few cinematography tricks and applied them to South India cinema, and winning awards for stuff that was done in Western cinema decades ago, whether it's lighting a particular set or shooting characters in silhouette. As for directing capabilities, almost all his well-known films are either remakes, based on novels or hacked from Western films and books. Azhiyada Kolangal - Summer of '42, Moodu Pani- Psycho, Olangal - Man Woman and Child, Rettai Vaal Kuruvi - Micki and Maude, Julie Ganapathy - Misery, and the list goes on. Most of his other films are duds. He'd apply techniques from Western cinema and India's Ray, make it look like he's some kind of an innovator when he's just a thief and a hack serving stolen goods to innocent audiences. Did I forget to mention Moondram Pirai/Sadma? I actually saw that film recently and was laughing at how badly it was made, and Kamal Haasan's over-the-top acting. And that Silk Smitha's character was there not just to titillate the audience but to provide BM with sexual recreation during the film shoot.

BM can be forgiven for being a master plagiarist but not for his irresponsible sexual conduct that cost the price of another human being, a promising young and innocent talent. He has NO legacy left whatsoever, being a hack master. But the culture of sycophancy and regionalistic jingoism will not permit anyone to expose this talentless philandering hack for what he is, without incurring serious wrath. Still, let's have a happy ending here - I'll give him credit for making 2-3 really good films among the 20+ he directed, and for extracting some wonderful music from the great Ilaiyaraja.

Venkatesh said...

Oh dear anonymous, you should know the difference between inspiration and plagiarism. What's the big deal in getting inspired by a Hollywood film? I'm sure you haven't seen all those which you'd listed. Making films from novels isn't something that one should be ashamed of.; it's an art by itself. Mind you, Pather Panchali was made from a namesake novel. Most of Ray's works were heavily influenced by novels, short stories which were either written by himself or somebody like Tagore. So Ray too must be labelled a plagiarist, no?

Lastly, you cannot talk about the cinematographic abilities of someone who passed out of the FTII with a gold medal. Do we know Subrata Roy? and what he said about Balu Mahendra, one of his students at the FTII?

Anonymous said...

Going by Wikipedia, this guy Balu marries 15 year old shobha when he is 38 year old. This is borderline pedophile and statutory rape if he consummated marriage when she is minor. isn't the marriage illegal. How can society and legal system and the righteous film fraternity and her parents allow this?

Uday said...

And no one's even talking about the rich legacy he has left behind. Bala, vetrimaran, ameer to name a few. What's our problem here,? That the man had a controversial personal life or that he was overrated as a film maker?

Anonymous said...

Hello Sir,
First of all, I have to say this was one of the best articles I have ever seen on Balu Mahendra.
I have a few queries based on what you have written and I was hoping you will elaborate.
1. You said Balu Mahendra was no intellectual. I am inclined to agree. However, I can not able to come to any logical conclusion as to why. It is just a feeling I got from seeing his life and works. Could you elaborate why so that I can get more clarity?
2. You said, "Like many of his compatriots he had not much to say beyond films, specifically the technical knowledge of movie making, and a smattering of literary taste."
I do not understand what exactly you mean. I do see that this is in relation to your previous statement about intellectualism.
I feel like I am mistaking technical expertise in one's field with intellectualism because the said field is art which I think requires a certain level of introspection, analyzation and subtlety that characterize intellectuals.
I am a big fan of your blog and would be honoured to hear from you.

Anonymous said...

Balu mahendra's direction is unique style from others. I have read this article aout his assitant director is going to tribute him manam.online/Director-MR.Barathi-talks-about-his-Guru-Balumahendra

Unknown said...

Fitting reply!! Very well written article about the over rated director who didn't know what leading a good personal life is!!

Prakash Bala said...

You can easily disqualify an article by the way it throws conclusions. See this / because he sought to make movies that had a leisurely pace, lingering shots, sparse dialogues /.
He didn't tell WHY and he didn't prove his points by any examples, just mere words with hatred.
And, a criticism should be about movie, not at the director. (You can write a piece about his personality separately, but don't combine both)
I sometimes feel our place would be better with out INTERNET!!!

Rajesh Thrissur said...

His earlier movies are all inspired from English movies. He was addicted to young women below 20 age. Shobha was a victim. She committed suicide when she came to know balu mahindra was staying with her ex wife. Even in his last stage he was planning to adopt a 20 year old girl who related to one of his film. Young girls were his weakness till his death. In his last movie releasing event he said he never gave peace of mind to his wife. It is true he never give any respects to any of the girls he had in his life

Riyaz Mohammed said...

The creator had died before the body died.

Anonymous said...

"Anyone who sets Balu's directorial abilities on a pedestal has not probably had even a modicum of introduction to Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Aravindan, Shahji, Ray, Benegal, Girish Karnad and others."

Are you aware of Balu's connection with FTII? Adoor used to have a great respect for the filmmaker in Balu. Ditto with Shaji N. Karun, who was his junior at the institute. BM was among Ray's favourites at the FTII. Keep your half baked analysis to yourself.