chatline Will Paradesi be Bala’s super sixth? t. krithika reddy talks to the director about his upcoming release and his style of filmmaking

In a dimly-lit office dominated by dark-toned furniture, I look around for Bala. I catch the director in a subtle interplay of darkness and light, in a pensive mood like the heroes in his gripping frames. “Coffee” he asks, as I open the first page of my new notepad. I’m hoping this will be an extensive interview since here is a man who has stunned the film world and the audience with his distinct style of filmmaking.

A period theme

From his debut work Sethu in 1999 to his last release Avan Ivan in 2011, Bala has proved there’s an unusual sort of brilliance about his work that cannot be ignored. His five films so far have made him an award-hauling director in Tamil cinema. Powerful black-and-white images of Paradesi, his upcoming release, have already generated interest about the tone and treatment of a period theme. “It’s set in the early 1940s and is loosely based on Paul Harris Daniel’s book Red Tea which has been translated into Malayalam and Tamil.”

Bala speaks very little. Like most of his heroes there’s a kind of reticence that’s strangely appealing. I prod him to speak more about Paradesi, and with a far-away look, he says, “People were taken aback by the title. I wanted something hard-hitting. I could take the liberty since I’m the film’s producer as well. Paradesi is set in the tea plantations of pre-Independence times. In our daily lives, we ask each other, ‘Tea?’ so many times. Little do we realise the hardships faced by the people who worked in plantations in that era. This film will make the audience think and feel deeply for the labour force when they take every sip of tea. I’m usually only 75 per cent satisfied with the final product. But with Paradesi, I’m 95 per cent pleased. I think we have perfected the period look.”

Long pause. I’m reminded of some surreal scenes from Bala’s path-breaking films. The way he audaciously brought together the mainstream and the art-house, the mundane and the unexpected and emotional turmoil and mental tranquillity is something we rarely see on our screens. Be it the college toughie who helplessly returns to the asylum in Sethu, the youngster from the juvenile jail who fails in his attempts to convince even his own mother about his will to put the past behind him in Nanda, the weird undertaker who is driven to lead a normal life before the unexpected happens in Pithamagan or the intense Aghori delivering moksha in Naan Kadavul, Bala’s big plus is his mastery over depicting his characters. “When I work on the script, my focus is thoroughly on the characters. All my heroes, from Vikram and Suriya to Arya and Vishal, are all good actors. A director’s job is to take his artiste’s skill to another level,” says the filmmaker who has given dream breaks to his actors.

“In Paradesi too my artistes have come up with perfect portrayals. The film will be a turning point for my lead actors. Like his previous heroes, Atharva’s transformation is total. “Dhansika literally starved to get the look for the climax. We had to put her on a drip! But actors believe in my vision and they realise I want the audience to see them as characters and not as stars. During the making of Avan Ivan, I was keen on adding that extra something to the role played by Vishal. He volunteered to sport a squint. It was a huge challenge, but he took it up.”

It looks like Bala is warming up. I quickly cram three questions into one. But there’s more silence. So I simply ask if he, like his heroes, prefers quietude to verbal communication. A hesitant smile follows. “Cinema is a visual medium so I keep dialogue to a minimum. There’s so much characters can communicate through their facial expressions and body language. The way they look, walk, smile…can speak more than mere lines.”

For a change, I pause and hesitantly ask whether the dark and stark overtones of his films are a reflection of his own life. With honesty, he confesses, “I was a very bad student. In college, I cleared only one out of 36 papers. Drug and violence were part of the reality in which I existed. After three years, my mind was totally blank. That’s when I decided to change the course of my life. Cinema is an open field. You can get in and fit into any role. I joined as set assistant to Balu Mahendra and gradually worked my way up. He is the spark that ignited my passion for cinema.”

Bala's debut work Sethu that opened at a suburban theatre (single show in the noon) went on to become a major hit and won the National award for Best Feature Film in Tamil. “It took a while for people to accept the ending,” says the director.

“Films are a roller-coaster ride. Sometimes it takes even years to wrap up a film. Thankfully, we were able to complete Paradesi in 90 days. And that’s not because I’m the producer. Everything just fell in place.”

It’s pause mode again. I check my notepad — I’ve used up barely four pages — and decide to leave Bala to the silence he values most.