Balu Mahendra, who died on Thursday of cardiac arrest, was one of the handful of filmmakers who, in the 1970s, changed the face of Tamil cinema.
He was also one of the handful who could be termed an auteur. Every film he made was distinctly his. Part of this was, of course, due to his roots in cinematography, his first passion. A single frame from Chattakari (1974), Mullum Malarum (1978) or Sankarabharanam (1980) is enough to announce that the film was shot by Balu Mahendra. You could sense this from the exterior shots, from the colour of the leaves as sunlight streamed through them. That translucent green had rarely been seen on the Tamil screen, though we’d seen it around us — this wasn’t colour obtained through heavy processing in a laboratory, but the colour of life around us. The interiors were equally lifelike, bathed in light that flowed through doors and windows or perhaps a lamp at a corner, leaving the room in a twilit state. As for the actors, they were revealed as if for the first time. Finally, we were seeing faces stripped of pancake and sheathed in skin.
This naturalism was Mahendra’s signature. You could find it in the way he shot his songs, forsaking choreography for speechless conversations. You could find it in the dusky actresses – most prominently, his muse Shoba — he repeatedly worked with, once he turned director with the Kannada film Kokila (1977). You could find it in the stories (either of his own or derived from works by others) that interested him, stories about ordinary men and women who found themselves in situations that didn’t require them to declaim — they simply spoke. You could find it in the steady pace of his films, and in the silences that filled them.
Barring a brief period in the mid-1980s when Mahendra went “mainstream” with a vengeance — Neengal Kettavai, Un Kannil Neer Vazhindal (though even this was quite restrained for a Rajinikanth starrer) — his films strove to infuse a certain kind of lyricism into commercial cinema, whether heavy (Olangal, Vanna Vanna Pookkal) or light (Rettai Vaal Kuruvi, Sathi Leelavathi).
The apotheosis of his art is Moondram Pirai (1982). As a “package,” the film was as commercial as it came — huge star-actors in the form of Kamal Haasan and Sridevi, a chartbusting score from Ilayaraja, the biggest music director of the time, and a story that, on the surface, seemed ripped from a throat-grabbing pulp paperback (Amnesia! Prostitutes! Extramarital lust! A rape attempt! Thwarted love!). But the film that resulted would not have been recognised by someone who’d heard the outline — so muted was Mahendra’s handling of this material. This is what he did time and again, making the most outrageous contrivances seem so... natural.