KB’s continuum

A still from ‘Major Chandrakanth’  

K. Balachander (KB)’s Major Chandrakanth, an adaptation of his play by the same name, has turned 50. It was his third directorial venture, a year after Naanal and Neerkumizhi. Like many of his movies, it had a Hindi version — Oonche Log.

However, if there is one element that makes > Major Chandrakanth different from his other films, it is that the Hindi adaptation preceded the Tamil one.

The film is about a selfless retired major, played by Sundarrajan — who was to take the moniker ‘Major’ later. Shown to be a disciplinarian, he also seems to be finding it difficult to adapt to the chaos of the civilian life. Lacking a sense of humour but filled with a spirit of honour, he doesn’t hesitate to give shelter to a murderer, even after he learns that the person murdered is his own son. The film, playing out as a chamber drama with histrionics, struggles to step out of its play version. In this regard, its Hindi adaptation, with a dose of colloquial Urdu strewn in, scores.

Though the title role is played by Sundarrajan, the show stealer here is Nagesh. Playing a caring brother who murders the man responsible for his sister’s suicide, Nagesh brings a certain quirkiness that is devoid of his usual funny antics. Just notice the nonchalance with which he ends his confessional speech to Muthuraman at the end.

Placing Nagesh, who could make the audience laugh with even a minor twitch, at the centre of the narrative and weaving the entire storyline around him without overt focus on his comic skills was something K.Balachander was great at. The apotheosis of this was not Server Sundaram — scripted by KB with Nagesh in mind — but Ethir Neechal, where Nagesh brings in the desperation of an orphan living at the mercy of his fellow chawl dwellers without making it too melodramatic.

It was a world of storytelling where the family as a unit, as a microcosm of the nation, was kept at the centre. It is perhaps this one aspect, that of weaving themes around family life, that made KB’s scripts extremely relatable, and remake-able.

Take the example of the 1974 film Aval Oru Thodarkathai. Showing a single woman as the sole breadwinner of a family — the director had said in one of his interviews that there must hardly have been 10 of them in the whole of Madras — was a heterodox narrative move. However, to make it look more acceptable, KB showed Kavita (Sujatha) not working for the sake of building a professional career for herself, or as a means of expressing her own individuality, but for the welfare of her own family.

The fact that she was willing to give up her job when her brother got one on his own was a mark of conformism. That she considered marriage as the ultimate tool of liberation for women in his household sounded backward. And this was certainly not the woman KB considered his ideal. These were moves borne more out of commercial considerations, those accommodated with a lower middle class, urban audience in mind. And the script found audiences throughout the country.

Aval Oru Thodarkathai story travelled to different industries, finding adaptations and remakes in all the south Indian languages, Hindi, and Bengali. The Bengali version, Kabita, one with which KB was not directly involved, follows the storyline, even the dialogues, to perfection.

The fact that a certain Kamal Haasan played his only major role in Bengali where he improvised on his original role, added to the enjoyability quotient.

KB’s foray into Hindi cinema as a director was with Aaina (1977) and Ek Duuje Ke Liye (1981). However, KB the storyteller must have been a familiar name in Bombay — if not by name then by the likeable story elements in films like Main Sundar Hoon ( Server Sundaram); Do Phool ( Anubavi Raja Anubavi) and Lakhon Mein Ek ( Ethir Neechal). That there were actors like Mehmood — who played almost all the roles done by Nagesh in the Tamil originals — to adapt to the story’s needs helped.

Most delectable among KB-original’s adaptations were those done by the master himself. Take the case of Zara Si Zindagi, the Hindi remake of Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu. The Subramanya Bharati-quoting, politically conscious idealist lead loses some of his impulsivity in the Hindi version. This shows in him taking the route of the moderation of poet Kabir, rather than more fiery wordsmiths like, say Ramdhari Singh Dinakar.

The best example of the relative moderation in his stance is in the famous interview scene (the Hindi version). When asked if he is a ‘communist’ and likely to form a union, he replies in a matter-of-fact way “ mazdoor union mazdooron se banti hai communists se nahin” (you need labourers, not communists, to form labour unions).

The final rant ends with “democracy down down” and when he steps out, there is the whole mass of unemployed, job-seeking youth is seen in agitation.

K. Balachander’s filmmaking argot, with individual acts of sacrifice for the interests of the family being valorised, was not dissimilar to that of Hrishikesh Mukherjee or Basu Chatterjee. However, the fact that he could come up with many such scripts in quick succession, each pushing the boundaries of acceptability a little bit without rocking the boat, not just added to his output, it also gave him ample time to recreate his originals in other languages.

This process of adaptations, improvisations and remakes could be said to have begun with Oonche Log and Major Chandrakanth. It wouldn’t be a stretch to label KB’s output a thodarkathai (a continuing tale), with the versions in one languages taking the narrative forward, acquiring a new flavour without losing resonance.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2022 8:19:24 PM |

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