Kailasam Balachander a prolific filmmaker, was born in 1930 to a middle-class household in Nannilam, a small hamlet in (then) Thanjavur district. He grew up on tales of brave men and women; of the Mahabharatha, the Ramayana, and most importantly, the poetry of Bharathiyar. Inspired by the ideas expressed in them, he began writing stories and stage plays at an early age. It was a precursor to the kind of films he would later be renowned for: rich, layered stories about the relationships between strong women, and the men that love them.
Fame did not find K Balachander early. He began his career with a brief stint a teacher, before moving on to a clerical job. Although, he never moved on from teaching. Actor Kavithalaya T Krishnan, who was introduced by the director and appeared regularly in his films, says that the teaching career left a lasting impression on the director, “On sets, you’d see him assuming the mantle of the guru more than anything else. He didn’t direct us, he taught us. And I think in a way, this is one thing that helped him foster so many talents. He definitely drew on his experience as a teacher in his career as a director.”
A Bachelor of Science degree from Annamalai University helped him get a clerical post at the Accountant General’s office in Madras. It was a prosperous career, and one he eventually abandoned to pursue his dream of filmmaking. Krishnan would quiz his mentor about this decision, “At the time, it was unheard of and quite scandalous. Nowadays we have the Karthik Subbaraj’s who choose filmmaking over software. But back then? I’m sure KB sir’s choice went down like an atom bomb. I often asked him if he had any lingering regret or guilt over his decision.” K Balachander’s only answer would be a slight, enigmatic smile.
K Balachander’s first big theatrical production was the English language play Major Chandrakanth. The story, about a blind army major harbouring the murderer of his promiscuous son, was unusual for its times. When the play debuted in Tamil, it was a huge success. Thus began what would be an epic film-making journey.
In 1965, actor and politician MG Ramachandran was looking for someone new, talented, and bold to write the screenplay of his next film, Dheivathaai. By then, K Balachander had been living in Madras for fifteen years. He was still undecided about leaving the Accountant General’s office. His daughter Pushpa Kandaswamy recalls, “He felt that his theatre background did not prepare him enough for film writing. He was very reluctant, my mother used to say. But somehow MGR sir was able to convince him and give him enough confidence to go on.”
A way out came in the form of producer AVM Chettiar. Chettiar’s AVM Productions acquired the rights to KB’s play Server Sundaram, a rags-to-riches tale of a waiter who becomes a movie star. Director duo Krishnan-Panju were hired to direct it, and K Balachander was signed as the writer.
This moment, says Pushpa, was a turning point for KB, “There were several important decisions in our household after that. But perhaps the most important one was the one he took that day. He entered a whole new world, and left one behind. Problem was, back then and even now, cinema is a very financially insecure place to be. Appa already had a young family to look after and it was very difficult to obtain leave from his normal job. There was a lot of back and forth between AVM ayya and appa.”
AVM Chettiar, aware of Balachander’s talent, offered the budding director a contract. He would make three films in three years for AVM Productions. It gave KB just enough of a push to leave his day job. KB went on to make his directing debut with Neerkumizhi (1965), a film about a terminally ill orphan (Nagesh) who takes it upon himself to unite a young couple in love. He never looked back. With movies like Major Chandrakanth, Bama Vijayam, Iru Kodugal, Arangetram, and Apoorva Ragangal he cemented his place in the industry. His characteristic sharp commentary on social issues and his portrayal of headstrong, independent women made him wildly popular with the middle-class.
While Shivaji Ganesan, who also had roots in theatre, made films on a grand scale, K Balachander made films that appealed to the masses. His films were peppered with everyday characters, and the Tamil audience loved him for it. All his characters were written with specific mannerisms. T Krishnan points out, “If you look deeply, each and every one of his films will have a role with quirks and eccentricities! This is something that he insisted on, but he never really explained the reason behind it!”
Despite a successful film career, the director’s first love remained theatre. T Krishnan says, “His eyes would light up when we mentioned his plays to him. He was a man who lives for the applause and energy that comes after a show! He might not remember your name,birthday or anniversary, but he will always remember the plays and movies he shot!”
In a forty-year long movie career, K Balachander straddled three worlds –films, theatre, and television serials. Babu, a close associate of the director, told The Hindu that for KB the three were never different, “For him, what was important was the plot. If the plot couldn’t be stretched, he would make a movie. If sub-plots could be written, he would make a teleserial. If there were limitations, he would write a play. But the plot was his base.”
KB liked to build his stories from the climax, adds Babu, “First he’d think of an ending. If it was satisfactory, he’d then begin writing the rest. He felt that it was very important that a film have that perfect finish, and he definitely spent more time perfecting it.”
Both a director and a mentor, K Balachander introduced over a hundred actors to audiences, including Rajinikanth, Sri Devi, Sujatha, and comedian Vivek. KB also helped shape the careers of Nagesh, Sowcar Janaki, Muthuraman, and Gemini Ganesan and had a long, creative association with them. Some of Nagesh’s best work, onscreen and off-screen, were with K Balachander.
Balachander was a romantic at heart. T Krishnan says, “For who else could direct those intensely erotic scenes in Apoorva Raagangal or Achchamillai Achchamillai? He was a young man at heart. Always. There will never be another artist who can craft such exquisite romances. Never.”
This is the director who won eight National Film Awards, received the Dadasab Phalke Award, and the Padmashri, India’s fourth highest civilian award. And yet, till the end, K Balachander remained a humble man. T Krishnan says, “He had no plans to direct films, but he still woke up every morning and spent hours working on a script. He had the energy of a man in his thirties till illness took him away from us.” K Balachander passed away on 23 December, 2014.