Article Hindi Tamil Telugu

Balu Mahendra, master craftsman and teacher: Birth anniversary special


Remembering filmmaker Balu Mahendra on his 80th birth anniversary and analysing what made him a great director and cinematographer par excellence.

Haricharan Pudipeddi

Award-winning writer, filmmaker and cinematographer Balu Mahendra, best remembered for films such as Azhiyatha Kolangal (1979), Moondram Pirai (1982) — remade by him as Sadma (1983) in Hindi — Veedu (1988) and Vanna Vanna Pookkal (1992), left an indelible mark on Indian cinema with his works.

On the occasion of Balu Mahendra's 80th birth anniversary (the filmmaker was born on 20 May 1939), we spoke to some of those from the film industry who knew him, worked with him or were mentored by him.

Balu Mahendra's Moondram Pirai (1982), later remade as Sadma (1983) in Hindi

Veteran writer-filmmaker K Viswanath, known for films such as Sargam (1979, Hindi), Sagara Sangamam (1983, Tamil) and Swati Muthyam (1986, Tamil), remembers Balu as a technician who could move audiences with his visuals.

Balu had cranked the camera for Viswanath's classic Sankarabharanam (1979, Telugu). “He had a knack of letting his visuals speak several emotions," the director said. "His visuals could create greater impact than any lines and words in a film. That’s exactly the kind of impact some shots of Sankarabharanam had on audiences and still have. It’s really rare to find a technician like Balu who can understand the visual medium as effectively.” 

Born Balanathan Benjamin Mahendran, Balu had a passion for images from a young age. He entered the world of films as a cinematographer and went on to become one of the finest filmmakers, screenwriters, and editors, a man known for his unique style of visual storytelling.

Actor-filmmaker-politician Kamal Haasan, in a article paying tribute to Balu, had said the latter brought in a different style to filmmaking and cinematography. "Even before we attained fame, I remember my surprise upon seeing him when he came in as a young man, full of confidence. I remember asking, 'Where is this guy from? His writing style is so different.' He wasn’t working in the regular pattern. I liked the way he lit his shots.”

Kamal Haasan also explained how Balu corrected projection errors with his own style of cinematography. “He corrected projection errors with a very simple innovation that nobody dared use. He put a gate in the camera. Instead of correcting the rest of the world, he reduced his space of operation. Nobody could tamper with his universal framing, which would never go wrong. Even when you over-project it, you would have a black frame. And you can’t shrink it too far. Others talked about it, but he acted on it. So he was always a forerunner. This was the way he held sway over his department.”

Kamal Haasan said Balu Mahendra could have done many more films. In his career spanning over three decades, he directed only 21 films across all Southern languages. He won two National awards for cinematography, for Kokila (1977, Kannada) and Moondram Pirai (1982, Tamil). However, his legacy has been successfully carried forward by such accomplished disciples as Vetrimaaran, Ram and Bala.

Filmmaker Bala, popular for path-breaking films such as Sethu (1999) and Pithamagan (2003), remembers his guru as someone who successfully bridged the gap between box-office hit and good cinema. “He broke the general misconception that award-winning films are art films that don’t make money," Bala said. "His Moondram Pirai was a silver jubilee hit [running for over 25 weeks in theatres].”

Even when Balu Mahendra's films failed at the box office, he was not the kind to get worried. If he felt good about his work, nothing else mattered to him.

Balu Mahendra was an avid reader. He believed it is very important to know literature to make good cinema. In a recent interview to the website Filmcompanion.in, filmmaker Ram, one of Balu’s successful protégés, opened up on what he learned from his master.

“I first learned the distance between literature and cinema," he said. "We cannot convert literature directly to cinema. Literature is a different medium; cinema is different. Both share similarities and dissimilarities. I can write certain things which I cannot shoot. So the expressions of both mediums are different. Film language is like a descriptive writing form of expression.”

When he stopped making films, Balu invested his time and energy in giving back to the industry through his film school Cinema Pattarai. According to filmmaker Srikantan, a graduate of Balu’s film school, a filmmaker should be humble, and it is something he learnt from the auteur.

“After I met him, my notion of cinema and the industry in general changed," Srikantan said. "He taught me that it is very important to be humble when you are a filmmaker. He said that when you remain humble and grounded, success or failure do not matter."