How does a cinephile define an ideal director? Perhaps as someone who is able to distill human emotions — keeping the nuances of human nature in mind — and project his vision as a tangible whole through celluloid. And how do we define an auteur ? As a director whose movies distinctly reflect his vision, one who is not a mere craftsman but the master of his work. One whose politique, whose values, whose influences, whose ideology are all visible in his films.
At the risk of stretching myself, I would say that the success of an auteur can also be measured in the way he portrays the disadvantaged sections in his movies. This would include such categories as the poor, the unemployed, the marginalised. And, at least in the Indian context, it would include women.
K. Balachander was not merely a good director or a metteur en scene. He was an auteur, an authority on style as well as substance, a realist among practitioners of fantasies. And KB, for me, was ‘the’ ideal director.
In the 60s and the 70s, at a time when the Hindi cinema saw issues primarily through the lens of the male and Tamil cinema was high on the heroics of an MGR and the histrionics of a Sivaji Ganesan, placing woman at the centre of a movie and making the whole story revolve around her would have been a foolhardy act. And showing the woman exercising autonomy in terms of lifestyle, career choices, and, most importantly, choice of a partner, was nothing short of revolutionary.
In this regard, KB’s movies were revolutionary but not disruptive, for they were targeted at the larger thinking audience, not just the intelligentsia. He blended poetry with prose; idealism with realism; vision with vivendi to make it palatable for the masses. He sugar-coated the medicine through music, humour and melodrama but the quantity of sugar never exceeded the quantity of medicine.
When it comes to defining femininity, his ideal was that of a pudumai penn (new-age woman) — a term, like many other ideas, he borrowed from the revolutionary Tamil poet Subramanya Bharathi. His yearning to see this ideal in the everyday woman was ever-present, whether or not the movie had a woman as the central character.
Not only did many of his movies — from Aval Oru Thodarkathai to Paarthale Paravasam — have more than one woman in pivotal roles but their lives were independent, their personalities individualistic, their voices untrammelled by the presence or the absence of men in their lives.
Take the case of one such character, Kavita, from one of his earliest movies, Aval Oru Thodarkathai , a prototype of the woman characters he would go on to etch. She is shown, in the very first ‘chapter’ of the movie, not preparing food for someone but getting ready for work. As the sole bread-winner for a family of nine, as she approaches her workplace, she is showered, not with accolades but labels, with adjectives.
When she refuses donation to a bunch of striking unemployed students, they call her “arrogant”. The irony here is not lost on the viewer. In the early 1970s, when employment was considered a male entitlement, we have a working woman chiding a bunch of educated youngsters for not being able to do anything better than to protest!
She travels, like many lower middle-class working men of that time, by bus, perhaps the only woman in it. Her audacity brooks neither the sympathy nor the generosity of her fellow passengers.
Proud, haughty, arrogant, disciplinarian, audacious, a tough task-master — these are labels she earns. The background voice tells us that she is, in reality, a banyan tree, one who gives shade to a family of nine. The men in her family — a father who runs away from his responsibilities to become an ascetic; an alcoholic brother who indulges in vain philosophising — are devoid of any appreciable identity of their own.
On the other hand, being at the other end of the spectrum she wears her responsibility as a badge of honour. Circumstances have bestowed a certain pride, foolhardiness and independence on her. She has converted her audacity into individuality. She is a kavita (poem) her personality has many facets, her life is poetry-in-motion, a never-ending continuum (hence the title Aval oru Thodarkathai which roughly translates to ‘Her life is a continuum’).
Though this sounds revolutionary, KB’s Kavita did not have as many dimensions as his later day women characters like Anu of Avargal or Sarasu of Thappu Thalangal . However, she was and remained a prototype of a KB pudumai penn .
Further, looking at it from a 21st century viewpoint, there are themes in the movie that require recalibration to be appreciated. For instance, though it looks like Kavita has a good career ahead of her, she is made to consider pursuing a profession as a stop-gap, till a male takes over as the ‘head’ of the family. She is willing to give up her job when her brother starts earning.
Another problematic motif in the 1974 movie, by today’s standards, is that of marriage. Tying the knot is considered the most important tool of liberation for a woman. Thus we have, Tilak — whom Kavita loves — deciding to marry her widowed sister, not out of love but out of sympathy. Then we have Kavita asking her neighbour Prasad — played by a young Kamal Haasan — to marry her wronged friend Chandra, again not out of love but to give her a lease of new life. And as a deux ex machina , we have Kavita deciding to give another member of her family a ‘new life’ by deciding not to marry.
In all likelihood, these elements were inserted out of commercial compulsions of the early 70s, when a movie had to show a relationship between a man and a woman culminating in marriage. However, the original vision was not compromised. Kavita’s life, in the end, remains a continuum; in many ways, going in circles with the viewer seeing the first chapter being repeated at the end.
Commercial success was certainly important for the master, as he has admitted more than once. However, at heart and in terms of his vision, he was an iconoclast. At a time when Tamil cinema was high on hero worship and flourished through stressing the immortality of the hero, he spoke to us about the ethereal nature of human life through Neerkumizhi (Life is but a water bubble). In an era when it was in vogue to neatly divide the line between hero, villain, and comedian, he was able to show shades of grey in a ‘hero’ through Thappu Thalangal .
And when it was said that a comedian had to play a sidekick to the lead, he came up with the idea of having a comic actor as the main protagonist, not a ‘hero’ but a common man with a friendly sense of humour, through films like Ethirneechal ; Anubhavi Raja Anubhavi ; and Navagriham — there couldn’t have been a better actor than Nagesh to do such roles!
When it was a taboo to show a younger man falling for an older woman, he showed a married woman who has a young daughter — born out of wedlock — falling in love with a much younger man in Apoorva Ragangal . To complicate matters further, the young man’s widowed father develops a liking for the lady’s young daughter.
And in the 80s, when other auteurs like Balu Mahendra and Mahendran started creating a niche for themselves, KB made morality on screen look acceptable through Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu ( Akali Rajyam ); Unnal Mudiyum Thambi ( Rudraveena ); and Thanneer Thanneer . This again required some leap of faith as there was no set template. In similar hard-hitting movies in Hindi, like Ardh-satya and Ankush , the disillusioned lead/leads were shown hitting a cul-de-sac and resorting to vigilantism and, as a result, inviting self-destruction. However, in KB’s films, the existential angst faced by lead protagonists got sublimated into workable solutions. The lead lives his ideal, one move at a time.
Varumayin Niram Sivappu was an optimist’s version of my favourite Satyajit Ray movie Pratidwandi . The lead does battle his inner demons, and not without cynicism, but ultimately, finds some closure. He finds greater dignity in running a salon than in being a corrupt clerk in a bureaucratic machinery. And he doesn’t have to murder the corrupt officials for that. Looking at it from the protagonist’s perspective, we couldn’t fault him for that. Its Hindi remake, Zara si Zindagi , found much less appreciation. Perhaps, the dark decade of the 80s was not an appropriate time to rehash it in Hindi.
Speaking of remakes, Aval Oru Thodarkathai was one KB movie remade, by him as well as by others, with great success in many other languages — Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, Hindi and even Bengali. This perhaps is some testament to the appreciation his pudumai penn received in the 70s.
KB was a maverick, a visionary, a feminist, a connoisseur who made the even the mundane delectable, a johari (goldsmith) who could find style in a bus conductor’s mannerisms and convert him into a superstar. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I would say KB was Basu Bhattacharya, Basu Chatterjee and Hrishikesh Mukherjee rolled into one. Romance, family drama, comedy, thriller, his works spanned genres and yet each movie had that ‘KB’ touch because of which a Tamil film with him is never called a ‘Rajni movie’, a ‘Kamal movie’ or a ‘Sivaji movie’. It is always a ‘KB movie’.
Eighty four years of life, a Bradmansque record of directing 101 movies — a majority of them in the 20 years between 1970 and 1990 — more than a dozen national awards and many State awards for contributions to all South Indian industries as well as the Hindi film industry. Yet, he had the average cinephile asking for more. His vision and his yearning for an ideal society, an ideal family, an ideal woman, a pudumai penn on screen, is a thodarkathai — a work-in-progress, a never-ending process, an idealistic continuum.