A believable story with characters having flaws that real people have placed in a realistic environment, artfully lit by natural light who undergo an emotional ride due to their vulnerabilities make up a film by legendary Balu Mahendra.
Born in Sri Lanka on 20 May 1939, he is a student of Cinematography in Pune film institute and one of the few film makers who brought realism to Indian cinema. Earthly colors and back lit actors without make up are a pleasure to watch. His films strike a fine balance between art and commercial cinema. Though he has made 23 films, his themes doesn't waver a lot.
He has made 16 Tamil films, 3 Malayalam films, 2 Hindi films, 1 Kannada film and 1 Telugu film. Both the Hindi films are remakes of his own films. Two out of three Malayalam films (Oomakkuyil and Yathra) are remakes of his own films as well.
He is receiver of six prestigious National Awards.
Out of his 23 films, 13 are original stories. Among these stories there are recurring themes. Probably, most of them are autobiographical and straight from his heart. Even the films which are inspired or remade follow similar themes.
THEME 1: DESIRE
A man's desire and the grave consequences is a recurring theme in Balu Mahendra's films. These films look very real. May be such realism come from his own personal life.
His first film Kokila (1977) in Kannada which is remade as Oomakkuyil (1983) in Malayalam and Aur Ek Prem Kahani (1996) in Hindi deals with this theme.
Kokila (1977) / Oomakkuyil (1983) / Aur Ek Prem Kahani (1996)
Kokila is the first Kannada film to be screened for 100 days in Madras.
Father, mother, daughter and a house maid makes up a happy family. A paying guest joins them. He and the daughter, Kokila falls in love. But, accidentally, the maid and paying guest make love when they are alone in home later to realize that she has become pregnant. Both gets married and leaves without telling Kokila. In an unexpectedly visit to a village as a doctor, Kokila understands about their marriage and their daughter named Kokila
Olangal (1982), Rettai Vaal Kuruvi (1987), Marupadiyum (1993) and Sathi Leelavathi (1993) also follow similar themes.
This is inspired from novel Man, Woman and Child by Erich Segal
Ravi and Radha are a happy couple who live with their only daughter until Father John arrives in the city with a young boy Raju, Ravi's son from an affair with Reetha before his marriage to Radha. Now he has to keep the boy with him for a month before Father John takes the boy abroad. Ravi introduces the boy to his wife as the son of a dead friend, George, and she happily accepts to keep the boy with them. But the truth emerges when the 'dead friend' visits their house. The six-year-long marriage between Ravi and Radha shatters.
Rettai Vaal Kuruvi (1987)
This is loosely based on the 1984 Hollywood film Micki and Maude
Gopi works in a TV station under V K Ramasamy. His wife is Tulasi whom he knew since their early days. He meets Radhika, a singer. Love develops between them into marriage.
Gopi juggles between his two wives leading to a hilarious climax in the hospital where both wives are admitted for delivery. Finally all ends well.
Though a serious subject, this is made as a comedy.
This is a remake of Mahesh Bhatt's 1982 Hindi movie Arth
This move was a success both critically and commercially.
Thulasi is married to Murali Krishna, a film Director who has an extra marital affair with his heroine, Kavita. Murali moves on to get divorce when Thulasi finds out about this affair. The only solace to Thulasi is her stranger friend Gowri shankar. Post divorce, Murali discovers that Kavita is psychological affected because of her guilt. While Murali is now in a dilemma, Thulasi does not accept him back and disagrees to marry Gowri and decides to pursue her own path.
This film's tone is seriously and a woman's need to break the shackles of bearing a bad husband just because they are married.
Sathi Leelavathi (1993)
This is a comedy film produced by Kamal Hassan
Arun is embarrassed about his wife Leela's looks. That's when he meets a good looking girl Priya. He takes her to a vacation which meets his school friend Sakthi spoils. Sakthi, eventually finds out about the affair. While Priya finds out about Arun's marriage and Leela about his affair, rest of the story is about how Leela gets back Arun.
This film is also treated as a comedy and this is considered to be one of the best Tamil Comedy film.
THEME 2: LOST LOVE
An innocent and pure loves blossoms. But, that love is not forever. This is another recurring theme in the legendary Balu Mahendra's films. These films are fragile and definitely touch everyone's heart. May be these film's are expressions of his own craving for the love which he lost.
His blockbuster Moondram pirai (1982) remade as Sadma (1983) in Hindi is a classical example of this theme. Vanna vanna pookal (1992) is another good example.
Moondram pirai (1982) / Sadma (1983)
Moondram pirai won 2 national awards for Best Actor (Kamal Hassan) and Best Cinematography (Balu Mahendra). This was a blockbuster and completed 329-day run at the box office.
Viji, an amnesia patient, comes into the life of a teacher in Ooty, Cheenu who has been living peacefully. While he has a good time with the child like innocence of Viji, her father searches for her. Eventually, the father finds Viji after she is cured of amnesia. Cheenu loses his childlike mate forever. The sub-plot of the film follows the wife of Cheenu' boss who is attracted to Cheenu, though Cheenu does not reciprocate her feeling.
Vanna vanna pookal (1992)
This film has won the award for National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Tamil at the 39th National Film Awards.
Siva saves Manoranjitham from committing suicide and brings her home. This makes his neighbour, Shenbagam jealous. Adding to the complication, Siva falls in love with Manoranjitham and decides to marry her. But, she mysteriously disappears on the day of wedding. Later he finds that the reason for her attempt to commit suicide is her ill health. He bids her goodbye as she dies in her death bed.
Balu Mahendra's telugu film Nireekshana (1982) which is remade as Yathra (1985) in Malayalam follows lost love theme. Adhu Oru Kana Kaalam (2005) is loosely based on Nireekshana.
Nireekshana (1982) / Yathra (1985)
The film tells a fictional story, but built upon the human rights violations by the Police and the prison authorities in India during the nationwide emergency of 1975-1977
This movie is an adaptation of the 1973 song "Tie a yellow ribbon around the old oak tree"
The story revolves around a forest officer. He falls in love with a tribal girl, Tulasi. He gets arrested by Police as they mistakenly identifies him as a Naxalite. In an unfortunate event, he kills a policeman and gets life imprisonment. The whole plot runs in a form of story telling when Bhanu Chandar released from the jail and he happens to travel in a school bus. He hopes that Tulasi still waits for him even after several years of his jail, thus the name of this film "Nireekshana" which means The Waiting.
Adhu Oru Kana Kaalam (2005)
This film is loosely based on 1982 Telugu film Nireekshana and Yathra.
Srinivasan escapes from jail and narrates his love for the maid's daughter to a lorry driver. As he loved maid's daughter, his parents doesn't approve. Meanwhile, Srinivasan lands in prison for crashing a police vehicle. In the prison, a fight builds and the opponent dies because of a head injury due to which Srinivasan was convicted for 10 years. To meet his love, he escapes the prison while narrating this story.
THEME 3: SOCIAL ISSUES
Apart form heart felt themes like Man's desire and lost love, Balu Mahendra also dealt social issues which are at the heart of realistic cinema.
Balu Mahendra considers Veedu (1988) and Sandhya Raagam (1989) to be his best works. Thalaimuraigal (2013) is his last film in which he did a pivotal role as well.
This film earned high critical acclaim, securing two National Film Awards (Best Feature Film in Tamil and Best Actress for Archana)
This film is about the difficulties faced by a middle class family, a woman along with her father and daughter, while building a house in Chennai
Sandhya Raagam (1989)
Shot in black-and-white, the film was photographed and edited by Mahendra himself.
At the 37th National Film Awards, it won the Award for Best Film on Family Welfare (1990)
Chokkalingam, an octogenarian, leaves his village upon the death of his wife. He migrates to Madras, where his nephew Vasu, a lower middle-class man lives along with his family. Chokkalingam becomes an additional burden for Vasu, who is not able to meet the demands of his own family.
The film's central theme revolves around old age.
At the 61st National Film Awards, the film won the Nargis Dutt Award for Best Feature Film on National Integration.
Aditya is a city bred child of a doctor couple who had an inter caste marriage. Circumstances force Aditya to spend a long time in village with his grandfather, an old man who is fanatical about his religion, caste and his language. The old man turns the city bred English speaking Aditya into a real Tamilian.
THEME 4: THRILLER
Mostly inspired by American films, Balu Mahendra has directed two thrillers which are well made and captures the essence of Thriller films.
Moodu Pani (1980) and Julie Ganapathi (2003) are two films which fall in this category. Both of them deal with obsession.
Moodu Pani (1980)
This is a psychological thriller based on the novel Idhuvum Oru Viduthalai Thaan by Rajendra Kumar and draws inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 thriller film Psycho.
Chandru hates prostitutes since childhood, as a prostitute ruined his family by taking his father away. Raghunath is an inspector who knows Chandru and his mother. Raghunath's son Ravi is engaged to Rekha. Rekha's friend Pallavi comes to Bangalore to meet her. As the events turn out, she lands in a brothel house and is forced into prostitution. Chandru comes to the same brothel and takes Pallavi in his car and kills her. While Raghunath investigates and gets a lead through a still photographer, Chandru meets a psychiatrist who advises him to marry soon. Chandru meets Rekha and proposes her. Rekha politely informs him that she loves Ravi. Chandru kidnaps Rekha and pleads to marry him. Meanwhile, Raghunath continues his investigation. Rekha eventually learns about Chandru and his love for his mother. The unavoidable climax brings the film to an end.
Julie Ganapathi (2003)
Remake of the 1990 American horror film Misery, itself an adaptation of the Stephen King novel
An obsessed fan of a television show writer, as luck turns out, fetches the writer when he is lying helpless after and accident. Seeing her love for him, he offers her the script of future episodes. She reads and as the ending is not as per her liking, she house arrests him till him to changes the script to her liking. Rest of the story is about how he escapes from this misery.
THEME 5: OTHERS
Apart from the above recurring themes, there are other themes as well which Balu Mahendra has dealt.
Azhiyadha Kolangal (1979)
This is a coming of age movie about the events that happen during the adolescent age of three friends who live in a small village. Filmed in very scenic locations, the movie takes one through an exotic joy ride of emotions, first love and the agony of death.
Raman Abdullah (1997)
Abdullah wants to go to Dubai while his father wants his to work in a school. So, he sends his friend Raman to school who needs a job. Rest of the film is the misadventures of this situation.
En Iniya Ponnilave (2001)
Rosie and Shiva are two runaway couple who find a place to live in a ramshackle building amidst prostitutes and con-men. Though the tenants of the building live outside the morals of the society, they possess good heart and are kind to Shiva and Rosie. But can Shiva and Rosie's love withstand the test of time is the rest of the film.
Neengal Kettavai (1984) and Un Kannil Neer Vazhindal (1985) are probably two of the worst Balu Mahendra films which he claims to be an attempt to prove critics that he can make commercial films too.
Neengal Kettavai (1984)
Poornima Jayaram is a widow living in Ooty leads a peaceful life with her two sons. Jaishankar, a tourist who visits the place gets tempted and rapes her which kills her leaving her two sons who witness the murder. The eldest son (Bhanu Chander) is raised by his maternal uncle while the younger brother (Thiagarajan) joins a blind music teacher as he has great interest in music. With a turn of events leading to both sons joining together and take revenge for their mother's death forms the rest of the story.
Un Kannil Neer Vazhindal (1985)
Rajinikanth and Y. Gee. Mahendran are two sincere police officers who join duty in a police station where the existing police officers are without any morals. Rajinikanth is in love with his friend's sister. In an investigation, his friend is killed and Rajinikanth is suspended and the rest of the film is about how Rajinikath takes revenge and gets his job back as well.
Balu Mehendra's films are technically sound and are his simplistic treatment takes you into the film. He is a master of framing, lensing and lighting. Even after so many years, the aesthetics of his films are so pleasing and stunning.
Apart from his first two films for which music is scored by Salil Chaudhary and Sandhya Raagam by L. Vaidyanathan, for the rest of his films, music is scored by maestro Ilaiyaraaja. This combination has produced some of the most memorable and mesmerizing Tamil songs.
Archana appeared in 5 of his films Nireekshana (1982), Neengal Kettavai (1984), Rettai vaal Kuruvi (1987), Veedu (1988) and Sandhya Ragam (1989).
Bhanu Chander is a fan of Balu Mahendra and acted in 5 films, Moodu Pani (1980), Nireekshana (1982), Neengal Kettavai (1984), Veedu (1988) and Sandhya Raagam (1989).
Kamal Haasan has acted in 4 of Balu Mahendra's films starting from his first film Kokila (1977) and then in Moondram Pirai (1982), Sadma (1983) and Sathi Leelavathi (1993).
Shoba featured in his first 3 films Kokila (1977), Azhiyadha Kolangal (1979) and Moodu Pani (1980) until her death in 1980.