Arts from Far
Indian Tamil Cinema: Balu Mahendra
In this new column, we shall talk about performing and literary arts
and the print and electronic media, mainly about what happens outside
pour shores. Occasionally, we may include artistic activities in the
island itself as an exception to the ‘Afar’ tag.
This week, for instance, we talk about Indian Cinema, to be specific
films made in Tamil language. Since the different TV channels (both
local and abroad) show Tamil films as well, even non-Tamil speaking
people in our country with understanding or without understanding watch
Tamil films and even enjoy Tamil film music.
Most of the present day Sinhala audiences are familiar with the names
of Mani Ratnam (a film director who makes films in Hindi as well and A R
Rahman (a music director who became more famous after his winning the
Oscar). But there are many others who deserve to be noticed, but they
lack publicity from the manipulated media.
One such person is Balu Mahendra (alias Balanathan Mahendran
Benedict). Perhaps most audiences here have not heard about him nor seen
his films. This Lankan born artiste is one of India’s best
cinematographer and an offbeat and artistic Tamil filmmaker. Strangely
he is yet to make a Lankan Tamil film.
He is now domiciled in Chennai. He studied cinematography at the then
prestigious Pune Film Institute in India (FTII) and passed out as the
best student half a century go.
I read recently an interview he has given to an Indian journal in
Tamil called “Poovarasi” edited by a Lankan born young writer by name
“Eelavaani” Balu Mahendra makes some salient points which I want to
share with our readers in English. The primary comment of his was that
it is a bitter truth that “Lankan Tamils are responsible for not making
a Lankan Tamil Film.”
* Ram Kuriat ( who made “Chemmeen”, an adaptation from the famous
novel by the same name (Prawns) by the doyen of Malayaalam
Literature-Thakali Sivasankanpillai) who saw Balu Mahendra’s graduation
short film “A View from the Fortress” invited the latter to be his
cinematographer for his award winning Malayaalm film, “Nellu” (Paddy).
So his first entry into the world of artistic cinema earned him honours
* The first film he directed was in Kannada language called “Kokila”
starring Kamal Haasan and the late Shoba. Salil Chowdry the famous music
director of north India provided music for this film. Chowdry also
directed music for Mahendra’s own film “Aliyaatha Kolangal” (Indelible
Designs).” Kokila “won the national award.
* He used Kamal Haasan for his film “Moontraam Pirai” ( The Third
Phase of the Moon) which he made in Hindi too as “Sathma”
* He had been the cinematographer for five or six films in
* Balu Mahendra had handled the camera for the first films made by
directors like Mani Ratnam, Mahendran and Bharthan. The Balu Mahendra
touch is visible in director Mahendran’s “Mullum Malarum” (The Thorn and
the Flower) and “Uthirip Pookkal (Withering Flowers).
* Two of Balu Mahendra’s outstanding artistic films are “Veedu” (Home
or House) and “Santhya Raagam” (The Last of the Sonata). “Moodu Pani”
(The Encased Snow) is a halfway house between artistic and mere
* He consciously avoid making politics oriented films.
* Balu Mahendra’s erstwhile students include new filmmakers like
Vetri Maaran, Bala, Ram, Suga, and Suresh who have made popular and
* No one can dictate terms to an artiste.
* He runs a film school with 12 students now
* In his TV serial , he adapted 12 Thamil short stories into
beautiful creations in his “Kathai Neram”(Story Time)
* He has intentions to adapt a few Tamil novels by Indian writers
like C S Chellapa, G Nagarajan, and Asoka Mithran
* A tragedy is that the film rolls of his two masterpieces have been
* Some of his short film, scripts etc have been electronically
preserved for the benefit of his students
* Since he likes dark-skinned people he uses such women as his
actresses. Their skin maybe honeycombed.
My association with Balu Mahendra begins in 1947 when I joined
St.Michael’s College in Maddakalppu as a student in the fifth standard.
He was a classmate of my younger brother the late Thirukumaran.
He was two years younger to me. At that time I did not move with him
much. I moved to Colombo in 1953 when my father was transferred to the
Colombo Kachcheri. Therefore lost touch with my friends in my Alma Mater
run by American Jesuits.
Suddenly in 1961 as a member of an editorial board of a little
magazine called “Thane Aruvi” (The Honey Stream), he met me in Colombo
to interview me.
At that he was working as a draughtsman in the Survey Department.
Since then we appreciate each other.