Skills: Director, Screenwriter, Producer
Active Since: 1999
Favourite Genre: Drama
Biggest Hits: Naan Kadavul (2009), Pithamagan (2003)
Awards: National Film Award for Best Direction, Naan Kadavul (2009)
During a rare television interview, while Bala shifted in his seat, the interviewer noticed some strange beads around his neck. “It was given to me by an aghori from Kasi,” explained Bala. “They’re people who eat dead bodies. But isn’t there an artist inside everyone? He eats one person every other day, collects a small piece of bone from each carcass, shaves it patiently into the shape of a skull, and keeps it with him. Once he collected 108 such pieces, each from a different person, he strung it into a chain and gifted it to me.”
That’s filmmaker Bala for you. He began his career as an assistant to Balu Mahendra (the director of Sadma, more on him later). He went on to make his first film Sethu in 1999 and in a span of 18 years, he has made only 7 films. His fourth, Naan Kadavul, earned him the National Film Award for Best Direction in 2010.
His Best Work
Naan Kadavul (2009): The film has two parallel story arcs that come together in the end. One is the story of Rudran, a boy deserted in Varanasi by his parents, who grows to become an aghori and returns to his native village in South India on the bidding of his guru. “You’ll know when it’s time to return,” his guru tells him. The other arc is that of a blind beggar girl and her cohort who are kept enslaved in a dingy, underground den by the evil Thaandavan.
Trivia: Rudran, the aghori played by Arya in the film, wears the same chain of skulls as Bala.
Watch the trailer here:
Pithamagan (2003): Chithan is an orphan who grows up in a graveyard. He befriends Shakthi, who makes a living by selling petty items with cooked-up stories. There’s also a woman who sells drugs and a simpleton girl who gets easily duped. The film explores the bonds that form between these four misfits and whether Chithan can fit into a normal society. This song from Pithamagan gives you a beautiful snapshot of their relationship:
5 Filmmaking Tropes of Bala
1. Raw Realism
From the plots of Naan Kadavul and Pithamagan, it must be apparent that Bala tends to focus on lives of people we brush aside, out of fear or repulsion. His characters are people we rarely encounter, or have no need to meet. Yet, when they appear on screen, they feel real. This realism is Bala’s biggest strength and has become his identity.
Other Tamil filmmakers from the realism wave like Balaji Sakthivel, Vetrimaran and Manikandan present a carefully constructed and chiseled realism. Bala’s films meander with a certain unrestrained rawness, just like his characters. These rough edges around the corner make his films more realistic.
While portraying reality, he doesn’t pity his characters and neither does he expect you to do so. In fact, you won’t find a single close-up shot of a person looking sorry in Naan Kadavul. You will see only see coins dropping into bowls of the beggars or legs walking past them. There’s even a moment when a beggar remarks, “These people who visit the temple believe dharma will save them and give us money. Let’s have some pity for them and accept their alms so they’re saved!”
2. Solitary Netherworlds
Each one of Bala’s films can be seen as an elaborate depiction of a living hell. Sethu (remade in Hindi as Tere Naam starring Salman Khan) was the story of a man who escapes a mental asylum after regaining his sanity, only to realise his lover is dead. Nandha was about a young boy who kills his abusive father but loses his mother’s love forever. In Paradesi, a bunch of people migrate to a tea estate for a better life but realise they’re hopelessly enslaved forever.
The films keep revisiting the same point – life is an arduous, never-ending journey from one suffering to another. His characters are almost always like bugs caught within a glass jar with a flame burning at its centre. They keep trying to climb out of it but keep falling back into the fire.
Watch Sethu here:
3. Cunning Commercialism
Bala’s protagonists are almost always larger-than-life heroes. They have the traditional introduction songs that are staples of a Vijay or Ajith film. In fact, the lyrics of Om Sivoham from Naan Kadavul are completely in Sanskrit, blaring out the supreme qualities of Lord Shiva! He doesn’t shy away from staging grand stunt sequences with camera angles carefully orchestrated to create whistle-worthy moments.
He keeps his plots very simple, just like commercial films. Vikram in Pithamagan and Arya in Naan Kadavul are classic masala hero template characters – there’s nothing that can shake them, going to any extent to kill the bad guys.
But what fuels them is different. Chithan’s (Pithamagan) strength is from the awareness that everyone ends up in the grave eventually. Rudran’s (Naan Kadavul) strength is from his transcendental spiritual enlightenment that he has no boundaries. The peculiar backgrounds of these characters make you believe that they possess superhuman strength. He makes you wish that the bad guys must be destroyed which gives a satisfactory pay-off when they are butchered in the climax.
Though larger-than-life, Bala’s protagonists are invariably misfits or outcasts. They’re shabby, rugged and don’t refrain from speaking coarse language. Arya as Kumbindrensamy in Avan Ivan is perhaps mocking the chocolate boy he’s played in other films. This celebration scene should give you a feel of his character:
4. Ridiculing the Absurdity of Life
Bala’s films are usually classified as tragedies. But it would be more apt to classify them as tragedies with a “heavy dose of ridicule”. He makes us laugh at misery and wade through the absurdity of life with irreverence. In Naan Kadavul, making the beggars dress up as Gods and rebuke each other was a riot. In Pithamagan, when we laugh at Suriya trying to sell all kinds of weird concoctions to unsuspecting customers, we’re laughing not at him but at ourselves and our tendency to be easily fooled.
5. Embedded Narratives
Traditionally, realistic films have always been mere reflections of society or about specific human emotions. But Bala’s films portray reality while also transcending it and speaking of an eternal agony that tortures the human soul.
Let’s take the final pan shot of the tea estate in Paradesi’s climax. Here’s a man who’s wailing for his family that’s joined him in his misery and the pan shot literally shows his cries travel across the entire tea estate, dotted with other workers. If you consider the tea estate to be a metaphor for the world, then the narrative assumes a much larger philosophical dimension. Bala has been adept at tucking hidden dimensions beneath the rug of realism in every film.
On the surface Thaarai Thappattai is a love story gone horribly wrong but it’s also an exploration of how each generation thinks its subsequent generation is a degraded version of itself. The best embedded narrative is in Naan Kadavul. It raises the bigger question of who’s the real beggar. The lyrics of Pichai Paathiram that metaphorise the human body as a begging bowl make the bigger point that all humans are beggars seeking divine deliverance. And in that grand scheme of things, the distinctions of being pure or impure, rich or poor, and well-built or handicapped, crumble.
In a way, Bala’s films are like Buddhist tales from the past. These stories were always about people who were disillusioned and after some suffering they would end up at the feet of Buddha, become a disciple, meditate and attain nirvana.
One such tale is that of Kisa Gotami, the distraught lady who went to the Buddha, begging him to bring her dead son back to life. Buddha asks her to fetch mustard seeds from a family where nobody had died. She searches far and wide and finally realises there’s not a single house that hasn’t known death. She returns to the Buddha with this realisation, becomes his disciple and attains nirvana. Had this been a Bala film, the story would pretty much be the same. Except that Gotami would still be searching for those mustard seeds, hoping she can revive her son, roaming the earth in eternal agony. And you would watch his film, not because you can shed tears for Gotami, but because Bala will make you feel that Gotami and you are one and the same.
(With inputs from N Balasubramanian, Ganesh Babu, Venkataraman and Ajay Vignesh)