On the surface, J Mahendran seems to have had a strangely schizophrenic career. On the one hand, he is one of the seventies' directors responsible for the transformation of Tamil cinema into cinema, a visual medium and not just a photographed stage play. On the other hand, you have his writing credits for, well, photographed stage plays – ripe melodramas like Thanga Pathakkam and Vaazhnthu Kaattugiren. The former, which features Sivaji Ganesan in one of his most legendary roles, is a power struggle between a father and his wayward son. The latter is the kind of four-handkerchief weepie Sujatha specialised in. She's married to Muthuraman, who begins an affair with Padmapriya. So she moves out and turns to what appears to be sex work. As she puts it: Naan andha kaalathu ponnaa irundha, purushan kai vitta odaney aathukko kenathukko [tharkolai pannikka] odiyiruppen. Naan indha kaalathu ponnaache. Adhunaala tharkolai pannikka padukkai araiye podhum-nu theermaanam pannitten.
There's nothing inherently wrong with this line, of course. It's the kind of stylised (and heavy) wordplay Tamil cinema has always specialised in, and it's not easy. It takes skill, and this skill may not be available with a more "cinematic" writer or filmmaker. But here's the thing. When Mahendran turned to direction, with the Rajinikanth-starring Mullum Malarum in 1978, it was the most artfully cinematic of outings. (See Flashback video below.) How did this drastic transformation occur? Was it due to the cinematographer, Balu Mahendra, who guided a newbie-filmmaker out of the thicket of photographed stage plays and into a new terrain called pure cinema? Or was there something in Mahendran himself that pointed to this transition?
I'd guess it was a bit of both. The FTII-trained Balu Mahendra had worked with the likes of Ramu Kariat (Nellu) and KS Sethumadhavan (Chattakari), and by 1977, he'd already directed Kokila, which co-won the National Award for Best Cinematography (with Soumendu Roy, for Ray's Shatranj Ke Khilari; those days, the awards were separate for black-and-white and colour photography.) In Conversations with Mani Ratnam, the director said the decision to work with Balu Mahendra, in his first film Pallavi Anupallavi, was largely motivated by Mullum Malarum. "I was fascinated by the way his films were shot, especially Mullum Malarum, which was really an eye-opener. You come into a Tamil film and you're seeing a format which is new, wider, shot in 35mm but with a mask, like a rectangle. And then he had this way with natural light and baby zooms, tiny zooms that were not the kind of zoom shots that were being used… There is this very small movement of zoom, but more to balance out the composition. It's the kind of thing we'd not seen in Tamil cinema before. Our zooms were either a pull back from somebody or a full-on charge into their face… And with [Ilaiyaraaja's] background music it turned into something poetic."
But even if we assume that this "poetic" quality in Mullum Malarum was Balu Mahendra's doing, a scene from Thanga Pathakkam reveals how Mahendran himself possessed a lot of these minimalistic instincts, and perhaps it was the maximalistic nature of the genre of films he was writing for that made him craft lines like the one Sujatha says in Vaazhnthu Kaattugiren. Let's look at the scene where Sivaji Ganesan's superior summons him and says, "Mr. Choudhury, I have bad news for you." His wife is dead. We cut to a close-up of Sivaji Ganesan clenching his face. The violins go into overdrive. A purplish light falls on Sivaji Ganesan. He sways in place. He turns to walk away, and after a few steps, he stumbles. He recovers. He strides out of the frame. It's all the highest kind of melodrama, and quite deliberately done this way – courtesy the director (P Madhavan), the music director (MS Viswanathan), and the cinematographer (PN Sundaram, who was one of the cinematographers of Kaadhalikka Neramillai).
But look at what Mahendran contributes to this scene, the line Sivaji Ganesan utters after receiving news of his wife's death, after clenching his face, after that shade of purple light has fallen on him, after the violins have underscored his internal turmoil. He simply says, "Naan pogalaama, sir?" (May I leave?) That's it. The thunder and lightning is relegated to the other departments of moviemaking, and the scriptwriter decides to stay in the shadows. Perhaps this was the real Mahendran, the Mahendran we would go on to see in his works as a director: the most famous ones being Mullum Malarum, Uthiri Pookkal, Johnny and Nenjathai Killathey. About the latter, the director said, in The Hindu, the story occurred to him when he saw a young woman jogging and wondered: "Her concern was just fitness. Would it be the same once she gets married?" If only more filmmakers today took their inspirations from the world around them.
No mention of Mahendran's cinema is complete without two of his most stalwart collaborators. First, the cinematographer Ashok Kumar, who made his Tamil-cinema debut with Uthiri Pookkal. The natural lighting style was instantly recognisable, and it fit beautifully with Mahendran's own unadorned style of writing and directing. (Metti is probably their most exquisite work together.) Then, of course, Ilaiyaraaja, who, like Mahendran, had two sides. For the AVM productions, the composer would go ballistic, but in Mahendran's films, he'd go so silent that you'd think you were actually hearing the wind rustling past a blade of grass in the background. The love theme from Johnny is justly celebrated, but let's not forget the eerie flute that creeps up like a ghost from the past when Vijayakumari meets Sarath Babu in Metti. And let's not forget the songs: 'Kaise Kahoon' from Nandu, 'Santhakavigal' from Metti, 'Uravenum Pudhiya Vaanil' from Nenjathai Killathey, 'Aanandham Aanandham Nee Thandhadhu' from Poottaatha Poottukkal, which is such a burst of joy that the opening word couldn't have been anything else…
Mahendran did not have a very consistent career. Mullum Malarum and Uthiri Pookkal point to a far better body of work. Of Kai Kodukkum Kai, Anandha Vikatan wrote that it teetered between Rajini-ism and Mahendran-ism. Azhagiya Kanne was an inexplicable disappointment, a half-hearted stab at arty horror. But even in these films – his last one was Sasanam, which was released in 2006 – the most admirable quality was that of experiencing a moment in real time. Mahendran would let a scene play out the way it might have in reality – or at least, we'd be left with that illusion. Take the stretch in Azhagiya Kanne where Suhasini finds out where Sarath Babu is and meets him after a long time. (They were engaged once, and then he left abruptly.) She says things like "didn't you feel like looking me up?" and "don't you have a conscience?". But only her words are melodramatic, not the scene, which has no score. You wonder how Sarath Babu is going to respond to her accusations, but after a bit of silence, he asks her, "How did you know I was here?" It's a very practical question. It's what one would ask. But it's not what you'd find in many other films, where the "punch" of the moment would have been amped up with him trying to placate her. At his best, Mahendran represented this quality. He tried to take dramatic situations as close as possible to real life.