Balu Mahendra passes away

B Kolappan
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He was pronounced dead just past 11 a.m on Thursday

Award winning film director and cinematographer Balu Mahendra, whose masterpieces such as ‘Azhiyatha Kolangal’, ‘Moondram Pirai’, ‘Veedu’, ‘Sandhiyaa Raagam’ and ‘Vanna Vanna Pookal’ left an indelible mark on the Indian film industry, died in Chennai on Thursday. He was 75 and is survived by his wife and son.

Mahendra was admitted to Vijaya Hospital on Thursday morning following chest pain and was pronounced dead just past 11 a.m., according to one of his assistants. He had suffered his second heart attack this morning.

The legendary film-maker's body will be kept at his film school ‘Cinema Pattarai’ in Dasarathapuram, Saligramam for fans and well-wishers to pay homage. The final rites are expected to take place on Friday and more details are awaited on this as his son is yet to reach the city at time of going to print.

Legend of Tamil Cinema

A native of Amirthakali near Mattakalappu in Sri Lanka, Balu Mahendra, came to India to study at the Film Institute at Pune. He studied cinematography and graduated with a gold medal in 1969. “I used to cut my cinematography classes and attend classes in direction, screenplay writing and editing. However, I used to top the class in cinematography. My main concern at that time was direction and scripting with a little bit of interest in cinematography,” he had said in an interview to Frontline magazine , in a special issue dated October 18 last year.

His first break in the film industry came, when he was assigned as the cinematographer for director Ramu Kariat’s ‘Nellu’ in Malayalam. He directed his first film 'Kokila' in Kannada. His first Tamil film was 'Azhiyatha Kolangal' the music for which was scored by Salil Chowdhry. His unique style of cinematography - making use of ambient light as much as possible - and a measured narrative bereft of “formula trappings” became the trademark of an alternate Tamil cinema that took shape through the 1980s, challenging the then mainstream. His directorial tour de force ‘Moondram Pirai’ in 1983 fetched him the national award for best cinematography, and also won Kamal Haasan his first national award for acting.

“He has worked as a cinematographer for the first film of many a outstanding directors. He was with Bharathan when he directed 'Prayanam'. Again he joined hands with Mani Ratnam for his first film 'Pallavi Anupallavi' in Kannada. Director Mahendran’s debut 'Mullum Malarum' had Balu Mahendra as the cinematographer,” said Suka, film director and Balu Mahendra's student.

The camera work for K. Viswanath’s 'Sankarabharanam' which made waves was also done by Balu Mahendra, whose original name was Mahendra. His father’s name was Balanathan.

Balu Mahendra used to say it was Satyajit Ray’s 'Pather Panchali' that made a permanent impact on him. “The impact was terrific and I could not concentrate on anything for days. It was as if I was possessed by a ghost,” he used to say.

Apart from being a torchbearer for serious and uncompromising cinema, Mahendra is also regarded as one of the best teachers of the medium, his assistant directors often going on to become master craftsmen themselves. The most prominent among them are Bala, Seenu Ramasamy and Vetrimaaran.

Many assistant directors learnt their craft from Mr.Mahendra at his film school in Saligramam called “Cinema Pattarai” (translates to Cinema Workshop). To them, it was not really a school but an extended family. All his assistant directors had access to the director even during non-school hours and most of them turned to him even for personal advice.

An avid reader himself, Mr.Mahendra always exhorted his students and even the journalists who interviewed him to read and learn about one’s culture through literature. He shared a special bond with music director Ilayaraja, who scored music for most of his films. In fact a couple of compositions of Ilayaraja’s ‘How To Name It’ was used in the film Veedu.

(With inputs from Karthik Subramanian)

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