Director Bala is a pioneer in transporting us to unusually different worlds. Be it Sethu or Nandha, he’s showcased a distinct voice and the unique ability to create a world that is whole. His films are never set in the reality that many of us know; he’s successful because his cinematic world almost turns into a fantasy, thanks to the magic infused by the characters.
He brings out the best in his actors, and the greatest proof of that are Vikram and Suriya. So much so that anyone who’s fresh from a Bala film seems a better performer. So, what’s Bala’s superpower? Two things come to mind : his thorough understanding of what it takes to fail and how it feels to be a helpless failure, and the fact that he ropes in performers and not stars to play characters that leave you devastated.
Bala often uses morbid humour to bring forth his idea of the darkness in humans and how power and greed make us less empathetic. His world is not an easy watch; it is difficult to digest. Those who truly understand his world might have been miserable losers at some point or those who bear a sad void in them even today. The sadness in Bala’s films is always primitive, almost existential. It’s not the superficial complexity of today’s reality. It is deep-rooted and toes the fine line between wanting to survive and giving up. But, all his characters somehow find something to hang on to, until it is snatched from them. That may be his core idea, his philosophy, and, probably, that’s where he comes from.
Take, for instance, his second film Nandha, in which Suriya who plays the titular character, has high morals. We empathise with him even though he’s grey. His yearning is most basic: he seeks his mother’s love, that’s always been his only pursuit, but his mother sees the devil in him. Nandha might be an accomplished gangster, but when he is poisoned by his own mother, he decides to give in, surrender to her. His ultimate sacrifice to be worthy of his mother’s love. Right when you think it’s all going to end well, Bala snatches it away. This isn’t him being a sadist; this is how probably life is. The idea of learning to accept your fate and see what best you can make of it, is what Bala is rooting for.
Pithamagan is a great example of how all actors, small or big, come together seamlessly in one film. Take Suriya, who plays the colourful Sakthi, who is inherently a crook. Bala wonderfully sets his characters in multiple shades of grey. Even the so-called villain is exactly the same as the hero; they do the exact same things, but we identify with the lesser evil. Vikram who plays Chiththan, feels life is complete when he gets a best friend / brother for life in Sakthi. But Sakthi is snatched away brutally. Does this only happen with the lead characters? That’s a speciality of Bala – all his characters fall into this trap of being a cog in this paradoxical loop. Take the character of Murugan in Naan Kadavul; he’s a guy who sells people with disabilities to his boss, who, in turn, makes them beg. However, Murugan after a drink is an emotional wreck who starts apologising. What is even more unique and something that only Bala manages to do is place wonderful non-actors around Murugan who hurl gentle abuses at him, but also console him; the victims consoling the perpetrator, as it were.
Bala makes these characters speak things that aren’t spoken by the so-called regular people. Naan Kadavul is a masterpiece in removing the so-called hero figure from the story. Rudhran exists, just like his philosophy of Aham Brahmasmi. Another thematic similarity is that none of Bala’s heroes is conventional, but they are all honorable.
Take Avan Ivan and the character of “Highness”. We don’t know much about Highness even in the end when we get a glimpse of what happened to him. But we see Walter and Kumbudraen Saamy and Highness as a family. Bala’s idea of family is not only the one that you are born into; it is also the one you are drawn to. You’ll see this in Naan Kadavul too.
To Bala’s credit, he has a huge number of performers/non-actors ready to take up substantial characters, and this plays a major part in making us believe the world he creates. The surreal world of beggars, with the associated laughter, tears and fears, is something we believe only because it is peopled by non-actors.
Does happiness ever exist in Bala’s universe? Like life, you see momentarily flashes. What Bala brings to the cinematic universe is a deep sense of agony: agony in trying to survive, agony is finding happiness, agony in finding love… More often than not, Bala’s characters are in quiet desperation.
Bala has managed to get cinematographers who understand his idea of how a film must look. There are no unwanted shots, unnecessary camera angles or movements; these shots don’t come from a place of wanting to make a frame look beautiful, rather from the need to make it look organic.
Bala gives us explorative human dramas, sans agenda. He has fantasies, but they are grounded. His worlds are not an indulgent extravaganza, rather they are lived-in, and fragrant with familiarity.