K. Balachander, winner of this year's Dadasaheb Phalke award, on his war against mediocrity.

A little self-congratulatory streak would not have been out of sync. After all, K. Balachander had just been conferred the Dadasaheb Phalke award, the acme of all awards in our cinema. A few lines of rehearsed modesty would have been expected as well. Who does not wish to sound humble and generous at a moment of convenience? But KB Sir, as he is affectionately called, takes one completely by surprise when he admits the faults of his personality, the limitations of his way of working, and the frustration at his inability to carve out his own niche in the big bad world of Hindi cinema.

For the last few days his phone has not stopped ringing. All that the press wants to know from KB Sir is, “How does it feel to be conferred the award?” Well, in his finest hour, Balachander has been very forgiving of mediocrity of the media (something he never brooked of his film stars), even indulgent. “It feels great. I am very happy. God is kind…” these are the words he has repeated without any apparent tiredness creeping into his voice. So, one resists the obvious. He has got the highest cinema award alright, but isn't it true that he can be a bit short tempered with his stars on the sets?

Without flinching for a second, Balachander gladly admits, “Yes, it is true. I am a bit short tempered. And I want perfection for every shot. I do not okay a shot until I am 100 per cent satisfied with it. If the hero or the heroine is not able to deliver after many retakes, I have on occasions, screamed at them!”

Hey, but did not he do more than just lose his cool at Kamal Hassan, way back on the sets of a film in the 1970s? And didn't he mete out similar treatment to Sridevi and Jayaprada when they were beginning their career, sending the latter weeping to her mom? Incidentally, Kamal, Sridevi, Jayaprada — and indeed Rajinikanth — are all Balachander's discoveries!

“I might have slapped Kamal Hassan but I don't remember. And once on the sets despite numerous retakes, Jayaprada was struggling to get her lines right, so I screamed at her. She started weeping. And Sridevi when she did my film was just 13-14; she was just a kid. In our society, don't we as adults vent our anger at our children when they do something wrong? I might have lost my temper on my stars, but there are no regrets. Nobody ever carried any grudges home. They are all like children,” says the veteran who started his career 40-odd years ago with… It took him another decade-and-a-half before he attracted the audiences beyond Tamil, Telugu and Kannada cinema with “Ek Duje Ke Liye”, the Kamal Hassan-Rati Agnihotri starrer that did roaring business on Bombay and Delhi circuits.

Star maker!

You talk of Hassan, and Balachander falls short of words of appreciation; he is slightly less prolific when it comes to Rajinikanth. “I did not discover Kamal Hassan. I nurtured him. He is such a great artiste. He picks up things in a matter of minutes. He has no ego hassles with me. He gives himself up to the director to mould him. I can say I have moulded him, nurtured him. He has done some of his finest films with me.”

What about the girls who made it big in Hindi cinema but confined themselves to largely Tamil and Telugu flicks with him?

“See, I am not a star maker. I have been fortunate to see the spark in some young boys and girls who later became big stars. I found that in Rajinikanth too. He is so humble even today. I found that in Jayasudha, Sujata and many others. As far as Sridevi is concerned, she was a child when she first worked with me. But I found her to be very intelligent. Though she was 13-14, she had the understanding of a 20-year-old. She was a very quick learner and understood the nuances of her character. She learnt on the spot.”

Though 80 now, Balachander's memory remains razor sharp. “I remember when I first saw Jayaprada, she was so young and fragile. She would weep if I scolded her. But she is a great artiste, a director's artiste. Though in Hindi cinema she had this image of a docile woman, in my Tamil and Telugu films, she did many challenging roles. In ‘Anthuleni Katha' she played a totally difficult character, something which was not exploited by other filmmakers.”

If he played mentor to so many stars who had a successful run in Hindi cinema too, why did he limit himself to only an occasional Hindi film?

“I could not do many films. ‘Ek Duje Ke Liye' was a big hit. The songs were a rage but I still found myself uncomfortable in Bombay. It was a different area from my work interest. I got many offers but I did not take them up because my work ethic was totally different. I work from nine in the morning to evening. They used to work from nine in the evening! I am a punctual man. I cannot keep waiting for any star. Nor can I take any tantrums.”

Isn't it true somewhere down the line his films have been a reflection of his personality? Hearing this, Balachander goes down memory lane. And it is a long lane which has taken him from being a government servant to being a playwright — he has just come back to theatre with a couple of plays — to writer-director-producer. “I have always focussed on learning. And believed that films have to have a strong social content. Mere buffoonery or action is not cinema. My career as a filmmaker has given me mental satisfaction. And after this award, I feel even more honoured. I never expected to have this kind of journey when I began as a filmmaker. But today I feel humbled that the audiences have loved my films. They have loved me for my work. And I have done the kind of films I wanted. I have been lucky to get the Dadasaheb Phalke award when there are other giants in the industry.”

So, what after Phalke? “Films. I want to make a small budget film, maybe in just Rs.1 crore. I also want to spend more time on theatre. Earlier I could not concentrate on theatre because films took a lot of time. As for another Hindi film, I cannot talk about it now. It is a moot point.” The veteran is at peace. With himself. And the world.