As I was paying my homage to the great man, my mother’s words rang in my ears — ‘you may have acted in many serials under many directors but always remember that it was Balu Mahendra who first cast you as the hero of his Story ( Kadhai Neram )’.
In 2001-02 when Balu Mahendra was asked by one of the channels to make a serial, he chose to shoot a number of short stories by popular Tamil authors, mostly Sujatha’s. I asked him the reason for his choice and he said they are all subjects he always wanted to make as movies but they did not have enough in them for a full-length feature. He would start shooting on a Thursday and shoot for three to four days, do the post-production on Monday and Tuesday for Wednesday’s telecast. Such was his quest for perfection and attention to detail. I had the honour of working in 10 of the 50 odd episodes he shot and they were truly one of the high points in my career as an actor.
I remember shooting at a roadside restaurant when all he had was a portable emergency light and was complaining that it was too harsh. He could shoot in any light and make you look good. He always wanted his actors to say the dialogue in the exact manner that he had written it. He was always open for discussion if we felt uncomfortable with the lines. In one episode, he had decided that the end shot was to be in one way, I suggested something quite different and his reaction was — ‘Show me’. He saw what I did, thought for a while and said — this is better, much better than even the short story’s ending and suggested a few more points that were added. He had a lot of pride about his work but no ego.
A few weeks later we got to shoot a story by Sujatha on a movie director – called “Story Discussion”. When we began shooting, he came to me and gave me three sheets of paper and said that is the original story, when I asked him for the screen play or dialogues he said we are going to improvise — ‘I will improvise the screenplay as we shoot and you take care of the dialogues’. The first shot was of me, as a film director narrating a story to a producer and he said, go on, say something interesting. There was an old magazine there used as a set property with a cover story of a hijack, I started narrating that story and this went on for more than eight minutes. When I stopped he asked me softly, can I now say ‘cut’. He was thrilled with the output but apologised to me that he will be forced to edit it and not telecast it as a single shot. He loved experimenting and trying out new methods of shooting. I was particularly thrilled when a few students from his film school came to me and said that he was using a particular episode that featured me to teach improvisation. He was always free with his praise and equally critical if he did not like something.
He never compromised with quality. Once we were shooting a scene in his kitchen and the sun had set while we
were halfway through. We had to use lights and he was unhappy about it. I mentioned that it was the last day of shoot and will be expensive to shoot an extra day. The next morning he called me to the edit suite and showed me the shots and said that he will be reshooting the scene. When I pointed out that it was just a TV serial, he said it’s title was not just Kadhai Neram but Balu Mahendravin Kadhai Neram .
He also added that however well we light the scene nothing can better the way Nature illuminates the world. The master is no more but his work will continue to illuminate and inspire many.