Balanathan ‘Balu’ Mahendra, master director-cinematographer who helped bring Tamil cinema out of the realm of myths and morality, died of a cardiac arrest at a Chennai hospital Thursday morning at 75. He is survived by wife and a son.
He was known in Hindi for his 1983 film Sadma, while in the South, Balu Mahendra was an icon. His latest was Thalaimuraigal (2013) in which he also debuted as an actor.
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A majority of the films he directed, and almost every single work he did for other directors as a cinematographer are considered among the best in Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam.
Balu Mahendra’s work won national and state awards for himself and his actors, while his camera helped launch careers of directors such as J Mahendran (Mullum Malarum), Bharathan (Prayanam) and Mani Ratnam (Pallavi Anupallavi).
The best directors and cameramen around, including national award winners Bala, Ameer, and Vetrimaran, and Santhosh Sivan and Ravi K Chander call him their master.
A Sri Lankan Tamil, Balu Mahendra was fascinated by the world of cinema after watching The Bridge on the River Kwai shot there. He came to India to study at the Film and Television Institute in Pune, from where he graduated with a gold medal in cinematography in 1969.
Award-winning Malayalam director Ramu Karyat, who saw Balu Mahendra’s diploma film, was impressed and took him on as the cameraman for Nellu in 1974, which won him the Kerala state award that year.
Soon, he did cinematography for other Malayalam filmmakers such as P N Menon, K S Sethumadhavan, and Bharathan, Mahendran in Tamil, K Viswanath and Bapu in Telugu, before turning a director with Kokila in Kannada in 1977. That year, he won the national award for cinematography.
The next few years, he switched between directing films in Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu, and working the camera for his peers. True to the spirit of the 1960s and ’70s, his stories were simple, camera reflective and visuals evocative.
The most popular of the films he directed were Azhiyatha Kolangal (1997), Moondram Pirai (1982), Veedu (1988), Sandhya Ragam (1989), Vanna Vanna Pookal (1992) in Tamil and Olangal (1982) and Yathra (1985) in Malayalam. His only work in Hindi, Sadma, was a remake of Moondram Pirai. He won national award for cinematography twice, best film in Tamil and best feature film, besides five state awards in Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
All through his career as a film director, he collaborated only with Ilayaraja as the music composer.
All the works he personally considered best came in the ‘70s and ‘80s. His brand of realistic cinema that ran parallel to the mainstream lost its crowd in the glitzy ‘90s when Tamil cinema completed the transformation into Kollywood. He returned after a hiatus in mid-2005, but the next two films, too, failed.
He then took another break and launched a film school, Cinema Pattarai (workshop), in Chennai. It took eight years for him to make a film again which was to be his last. Released last year, Thalaimuraigal told the story of a virulently conservative old man and his city-bred grandson in which these extremes reach a middle path. It was given a warm welcome. The farewell could not have been better.
The one collaboration that went beyond the shooting location was his brief relationship with gifted actress Shoba that, however, ended in a tragedy. They worked together in Mullum Malarum, Kokila, Azhiyatha Kolangal, Moodu Pani, Ulkadal, and Manavoori Pandavulu.
Having begun her career as a child actor, Shoba was soon recognised as an exceptional actress who was cast by leading directors in Malayalam, Tamil and Kannada, and won the national best actress award for Pasi in 1979 when she was 17. Balu and she were married for almost a year till May, 1980, when Shoba hung herself to death before the age of 18.