There she was, under that huge tree, her face shining brighter than the thousand lamps she lit up, to welcome him home, after years spent in jail. The climax of Yathra was moving. And pretty as a painting. Only a director, and a cinematographer, with delicate sensibilities could have shot it like that. Balu Mahendra, who died in Chennai on Thursday at the age of 74, was both.
Not many in Indian cinema have both called and performed ‘cut’ as well as he did. Yes, he did most of his work in Tamil, his mother tongue, but his contribution to Malayalam cinema is not inconsiderable, either.
Yathra remains one of the greatest love stories in Malayalam cinema. The poignant story of a forest officer, who is arrested by the police mistaking him for a criminal, and a poor girl from his neighbourhood was a big commercial success too.
Fine performances from Mammootty and Shobana and pleasing music, both songs and background, by Ilayaraja also ensured that Yathra would be remembered long after it was released in 1985. “ Yathra is my personal favourite in Malayalam,” Balu had told this writer in an interview over three years ago. “I had to shoot the entire sequence of the climax in one night and we had lit up 1,500 lamps, but a wind would come and blow out many of them; it was a tiring task.”
Balu’s journey in Malayalam cinema had begun long before that, in 1974, when he was assigned as the cinematographer by Ramu Karyat for Nellu . He went on to crank the camera for talented directors such as P.N. Menon, K.S. Sethumadhavan, Bharathan, and K.G. George. He was also Mani Ratnam’s first cinematographer; the film was in Kannada, Pallavi Anu Pallavi .
He shot one of the biggest blockbusters ever of South Indian cinema – Sankarabharanam . “The film was rejected by as many 45 distributors before it was first released,” he had said.
Balu could make a sudden impact as a director too, with films such as Azhiyadha Kolangal , which he said was autobiographical, Marupadiyum and Moondram Pirai , which should be among the finest films in Tamil.
His first Malayalam film, Olangal , was based on Erich Seghal’s novel Man, Woman and Child . The film that sensitively portrayed the human emotions in a complex situation was well received.