Edited excerpts from an interview between Kavithalaya Krishnan and Baradwaj Rangan.
We are celebrating K Balachander’s 90th birthday today. Tell me why we should celebrate a filmmaker like him.
Look beyond the films he made at a time like that or the circle of his career to start with theatre to move on to cinema and to finally create for television. It’s not just about the ideas his films put forward or the great actors he introduced. But beyond all that…the life he lived. It’s impossible to see a person who lived an honest, correct and perfect life. He stuck to what he knew best. He made films within a middle-class milieu. That’s what he did in drama as well.
In my opinion, even great directors end up making around 25 films and they get repetitive after that. But Balachander was able to make more than a 100 films because he was generous. A director should be a very selfish person. But he should also be a little generous and magnanimous. You have to have the ability to appreciate the creativity of others. Balachander’s greatest films were outside products he did not write himself. Iru Kodugal, Aval Oru Thodarkathai and Poikkaal Kuthirai…these were all written by others.
Wasn’t Poikkaal your first film with him?
Yes yes. Even Thanneer Thanneer was Komal Swaminathan’s subject. Whenever he came across something good, he would get this urge that it must be converted to cinema. Not many people have that urge. Further, he was never concerned about the commercial aspect of his cinema. He personally believed that commerce adulterates creativity. So when a film of his releases, he never looked beyond what Ananda Vikatan, Kumudam or The Hindu wrote about it. What it did in terms of business is just incidental information for him. Why I know this is because when Punnagai Mannan released (it’s a film that’s very close to my heart), it was mutilated by the Censors.
Because of the Sri Lankan issue?
Yes. They mutilated it. They cut off around 500 feet from it. Balachander didn’t watch the film after that. He wanted to release the film earlier but couldn’t. We couldn’t even argue with the Censors to not make those cuts, because it was a sensitive issue. So he didn’t even watch it. He said the film is not my child anymore. At that time, I was a member of a theatre group that was touring all of South India. We would travel all night and perform in the evenings. I took with me a card from Kavithalaya. As I visited each place, I would go to the theatre playing the film there and meet the manager. I’d gauge the reaction and then call up Balanchander sir. Usually, he takes a small siesta between 1 and 4 in the afternoon. But because I would call, he would stay awake waiting for my call. Sir would also talk to that theatre person, sending him to the seventh heaven because this great director spoke to him. I visited 10 places during that time and the response was phenomenal in all these places. Even then, he would say that the response may be great, but it is still a mutilated film.
That belief he had in himself. He had that self assurance. That’s a very rare quality. He had that arrogance about his product. Suppose I suggest a change in a film. Let’s assume someone says “Couldn’t you have let Kamal Haasan get married to Srividya in Apoorva Ragangal” he would say, “When YOU make Apoorva Raagangal, you do that.”
Usually, once a director makes 30 films, he starts to get repetitive. But he made over 100, which is a very large number, even if that includes a few remakes…especially his own films into other languages.
His only remake was Nizhal Nijamagiradhu, which was a remake of Adimakal (Malayalam). He wished he had made the original. He regretted not making the original.
In his career, he has seen lots of success and also failure. How did he handle failure? I look at him as an Indian Woody Allen because, Allen would make a film every year, no matter what. Balachander too had that level of productivity. How did he put that failure in the past?
I don’t think he has had creative failures at all. He might have had commercial failures, but he always believed in them. Agni Saakshi was one film that devastated him. He expected a lot from that. He put his heart and soul into it. He considered it one of his finest and some of us believe that too. So when the film didn’t run, it upset him a lot. Otherwise, he was never disappointed creatively. When he was making Ek Duje Ke Liye, some North Indian film personalities in Bombay watched a preview show and said, “Madrasi ne achcha kiya. But this won’t run. (The Madrasi has done well. But it wont run). This information was conveyed to LV Prasad. Prasad was a nonchalant guy. “Oh, is it so? Why are you telling me this? Tell Balu,” he said. Balachander heard this and went to LV Prasad and said, “Those people are saying that this won’t run because the hero and heroine die in the end. Shall I change the climax?” He replied, “Isn’t this your film? Isn’t Maro Charithra running even today? So you believe in it, don’t you? Let them say what they want.”
This was something Balachander used to keep reminding himself. “If someone else has belief in me, how can I lose belief in myself?” That was his point. “I doubted myself because I don’t know the Bombay industry.” Even when he was doing Ek Duje Ke Liye, he was very convinced about certain things. He was very convincing too. He was told to not use SPB’s voice and to use a North Indian voice instead. He asked why. They said that it was because SPB had a South Indian accent. So, he asked, “Isn’t the hero in the film a South Indian? What’s wrong in that?” He was so stubborn that he said that if SPB could not sing, then, let’s not have any music in the film. SPB talks about this even today, about how his Hindi career would not have taken off but for KB sir. KB sir always spoke his heart. And if he liked something, he would never hesitate to tell that person that he liked it. He had another rare quality. Say, if I had introduced a friend to him, he would treat them like royalty. As though they were the most important people. That friend would keep asking me about him after that for months.
The same way, if he needed me for something, he would call me and I would go. But then he would also make Mohan call me from his side to ask for me. I would ask KB Sir why he made Mohan call me. He said, “If I call you, I know that you’d leave everything aside and come. But if Mohan calls, I know that you’d be honest and say, ‘I’m at a shoot now. I’ll come by six.”
I too have this personal experience with him. The year he got the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, he called me to his office. He had gotten a few copies from the National Awards Committee, so he wanted to give me an autographed copy. But in it, he wrote a whole verse for me. I still have it as my FB cover image. And I wasn’t even a friend. He was nice that way.
He is absolutely generous. In his autobiography that he gave me, he signed, “To my indispensable rascal.” He would always take that extra effort. He was even very particular about his fountain pens. He would go to a particular shop and fill ink from there and then start writing.
How did Balachander look at competition? For instance, he started his career in the 60s. There were directors like Bhim Singh and AC Tirulokchander then. Then, you move to the 70s, with new-age filmmakers like Bharathiraja, Balu Mahendra and Mahendran. And then in the 80s, you had Mani Ratnam coming in. In each decade, there were other people coming up. How did Balachander handle competition?
This is something even I have wondered. He stuck to what he knows best. He never thought anyone was competing with him. He was a huge fan of Sridhar, SS Vasan and AVM Chettiar. These three were heroes for him. He made what he knew and what he believed in. So, if someone made a good film, he was happy to congratulate them. He was delighted after watching 16 Vayadhinile. The same way, there was no one else who would make films like his. Even today, there isn’t anyone who can convert a written script into a movie the way Balachander could.
Can you give me an example?
Most of his films. He would narrate stories to me before he would start making a movie. He would not want me to listen to the script for my approval. He didn’t need all that. I was just a sounding board. When he tells me, he feels there will be some improvement. Maybe I’ll make a suggestion, which I DARE not. The first time I made a mistake was when he told me the story of Kalyana Agathigal. I said “There was no romance in this.” He got livid. “Isn’t a good story enough? Why do you need romance? It’s my mistake for telling you the story.” He then narrated the whole story again and said, “Every story in not about romance.”
And when he narrated Sindhu Bhairavi, I assumed it would star Kamal Haasan, Ambika…stars mainly. But when he said Sivakumar, Suhaisini, he said that “The film needs a set of actors and that’s who you should choose. Not merely people you like to see.” He used to write a script without keeping a particular actor in mind. He would only think of actors only after the script is done. He made a tele film which needed an alcoholic character, which I ended up doing. I have not had a drop of alcohol my whole life, neither has Balachander sir, but he performed it and showed me. I was making a fool of myself. He said, “Convey that through your body language. Don’t slur your words because I need them to be clear.” It took me some time to comprehend that but once I was done, he said “Okay”. Delhi Ganesan was there, and he said, “He didn’t do it as well as you did it KB sir.” KB sir replied, “But it shouldn’t look like what I did. If Krishnan does it, it should look like him. The same way with Kamal Haasan and Sivaji Ganesan. If actors perform just like me, then why do I need them? I can do everything.”
He also used to insist that his actors perform their activities (like lighting a cigarette or taking a cup of coffee) in a scene, before the dialogues got over. I didn’t understand this at first and I asked him why. He said, “You won’t understand it.” A week later, he called me up to his editing suite and explained why. He explained how the editor would cut once the dialogues would get over, removing whatever actions that were being used after that. “So, if you do do something, I will have to remind the editor to include that if he cuts it off. It’s better you do your own work, right?” I don’t think any other director would teach you like this. Other directors would just ask “What are you doing to do?” They will not enact it for you. His actors will have traces of Balachander in them but he would not let their individuality get lost.
With regard to Rajinikanth, we were shooting for Thillu Mullu in Sowkar Janaki’s house and he was having difficulty reciting those long dialogues. KB sir was getting angry. KB sir’s anger was more like irritation. But he realised that “Maybe, it is I who has to change. Because they accepted Rajinikanth, I can’t ask him to change.” So he told Rajini not to change a thing.
I wanted to ask you that question. Even though Kamal became a superstar, Balachander kept making films with him. But that didn’t happen with Rajinikanth after he became a superstar.
Rajini too must agree to this. There was a time where Cheeni Kum could have been made again here. Jayaprada had come to visit KB sir after long and she was so excited to see him. She asked, “Sir have you seen a film called Cheeni Kum?” She said why don’t you make that film here with Rajinikanth to which he said he’ll think about it. I then narrated the film to him and it was even decided that Rajini would play a taxi driver in London who also owned a small South Indian shop there. He even said that Sowcar Janaki could play his mother. But when we discussed this with Rajini, he was reluctant to do the film either because of the content or because it was Balachander, I wouldn’t know. But he said, “It’s not my kind of film.” Rajini said, “Why don’t you do another film with me sir?’ KB sir said, “If you don’t do my film, how can I do your film?”
He has said many times that this was not the Rajnikanth he found. He said that he was bound to have met Kamal Haasan somewhere in his journey because Kamal had acted in movies even before KB entered the field. But Rajinikanth was pure destiny. It was accidental and he found him from the crowd. “I saw him in just a microsecond”. He said, “The moment I saw Rajinikanth, I knew this chap would go places.” Even during Kuselan, which he could have made, he didn’t want to disturb the aura he created for himself. He didn’t take the credit for what Rajnikanth became. He just introduced him. He said he didn’t know what to do with a star like Rajinikanth and a big budget.”