J. Mahendran has redefined Tamil cinema with an authority that remains unchallenged till date. The ace filmmaker is planning to stage a comeback

As a young student in 1958, J. Mahendran could poke fun at Tamil cinema, even when the legendary MGR was seated on the dais. “We too fall in love. But we never sing duets,” he said. MGR appreciated his nerve instead of taking offence, happily cheering him and the audience too joined him in the applause. Two decades later, Mahendran came up with another stunner. The crowd was only more than willing to applaud. Mullum Malarum (1978) had no duets.

In a career that spanned more than two decades, Mahendran directed only 12 films, but redefined Tamil cinema with an authority that remains unchallenged till date.

Seven years after his last film Sasanam (2006), the ace director is planning a comeback. “I always thought I was in cinema by accident, but that is the only thing I know,” he says. He is currently working on a script, and hopes it will go on floors soon. “It could be like Uthiripookal (1979) or something different. But there is one thing I am sure of. My next film, too, will be women-centric. I am only concerned with telling the story more beautifully and originally than before.”

Mahendran says he has learnt a lot on filmmaking after Sasanam. “I began watching a lot of international movies and have come to realise what a powerful medium cinema can be.” Coming from a director who has pulled off unparalleled classics such as Uthiripookal and Mullum Malarum, the statement comes as a surprise.

Mullum Malarum was in defiance of traditional Tamil cinema. “In my films, I eliminated all things I hated regarding Tamil cinema and they said it was revolutionary,” says Mahendran. The film turned out to be a milestone in actor Rajinikanth’s career. “I would not have made the film if Rajinikanth had not been in it. I had a producer who never turned up on the sets; but I had Rajinikanth, Ilaiyaraaja for the background score and Balu Mahendra for the camera. Naturally, the film was a success.”

A year later, he came up with Uthiripookal, till date considered nonpareil by acclaimed filmmakers, including Mani Ratnam. The film is based on Pudhumaipithan’s short story Sittrannai, and ranks among the 100 greatest Indian films of all time. The timelessness of the creation was proved recently when it wowed the audience all over again at a screening organised on a moonlit night by Thamizh Studio, a movement for alternative cinema. “We had the screening on the night of July 22 and it was enthralling. A large number of people had gathered, and after the film was done, we spent the rest of the night discussing it,” says Arun who runs the studio.

Almost all of Mahendran’s films offer a prismatic view of relationships. While Vijayan of Uthiripookal is rigid in his relationship with people, the conman Rajinikanth in Johnny (1980) is as vulnerable as a woman could be. Nenjathai Killathe (1980) was another film featuring nuanced story-telling with regard to relationships. Mahendran’s characters seem like they are drawn from real life. They are never larger-than-life. That perhaps explains why Mahendran’s women are so strikingly different from the screen women of Tamil cinema.

Never has any filmmaker in Tamil cinema portrayed women with such candour and sensitivity as Mahendran has. Far from the stereotypes that Tamil cinema was so used to, Mahendran’s films were unfeigned portrayals of women. Johnny was to Sridevi what Mullum Malarum was to Rajinikanth. In a film where Rajinikanth played two contrasting roles, Sridevi effortlessly stole the show with her extraordinary performance as a singer hopelessly in love with a conman.

Sridevi’s polar opposite in the film is Deepa, who turns into a bad woman because of certain circumstances. He attempts similar contrasts in almost all his films. In Mullum Malarum, it’s the docile Valli (played by Shoba) against a garrulous Manga (Phataphat Jayalaxmi). In Uthiripookal, it is the good-natured Lakshmi (Ashwini) against a firm Shenbagam (Mathumalini). “I only show them as they are in real life,” he says.

The filmmaker does not believe in making compromises. “Even in Mullum Malarum, Kali (Rajinikanth) is an egoist till the end. How can I show that my hero had a change of heart in the last scene? It is quite unacceptable. As a creator, I am not keen about the success or failure of my work. I only think of how to present it beautifully, without compromising on the reality of it.”

Perhaps, this is why he chose to be careful with his projects though he was flooded with offers after Mullum Malarum. “I really didn’t like cinema. But even in a forced marriage, you need to live your life. Soon cinema became to me a medium like a prayer or an act of sex, wherein a man gives himself completely. I was not doing it for money.”

The long gap in the industry has not made him any less a filmmaker. “I keep myself abreast of the Tamil and Malayalam film industries. I keep reading literature and working on scripts based on literary works. I am like a soldier. You don’t need a war every day to stay alert.”

The battle field is waiting to be conquered all over again.

Keywords: J. Mahendran