In a world where a star is created every Friday, J Mahendran was a rarity. He preferred to read, write, watch films and wait. Then finally made a film. He began his career as a movie critic, and some of his reviews were published in Cho Ramaswamy’s Thuglak. Mahendran went on to pen screenplays for many films of MG Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan, before making his directorial debut with Mullum Malarum in 1978. The film saw some of the finest brains of Indian cinema collaborate—Mahendran, cinematographer Balu Mahendra and music composer Ilaiyaraaja along with Rajinikanth, who played Kaali, a quick-tempered winch operator, who loses his arm in an accident.
Mullum Malarum was a revelation in Tamil cinema. Kaali kicks at the wheel of a rich man’s car because he couldn’t stand a lay worker being ill-treated. In a scene, Rajinikanth mouths, “Ketta paiyyan sir indha Kaali!” When he does so, he packs a punch, holding back very little, saying it all in his inimitable way. Only a filmmaker with delicate sensibilities could have shot it the way Mahendran did.
Many films of his were adapted from literary works of Tamil writers. Mullum Malarum, a story about an orphaned brother and sister, was inspired by Uma Chandran’s novel of the same name.
During the making, it was said producer Venu Chettiar didn’t want Rajinikanth in the lead because he believed the actor was more suitable for negative roles then. But Mahendran was stubborn. The film got released with Kamal Haasan’s timely help as Rajinikanth was not a phenomenon then. Mullum Malarum touched the 100th-day mark and remains one of the favourite films of the Superstar. Eventually, it was remade in Hindi as Pyaari Behna (1985) with Mithun Chakraborty reprising Rajinikanth’s role. The rest, as they say, is history.
Then comes my favourite, Nenjathai Killathey (1980), a romantic drama, which won three National Awards and a State award. Mahendran vividly captures the whole film in a song “Paruvame”, where Suhasini’s character jogs through the streets shrouded in mist. The story is about someone finding love and companionship at the age of 40. The film sensitively portrayed human emotions in a complex situation.
Mahendran wrote equally powerful roles for female actors. His characters—Archana (Sridevi) in Johnny, Manga (Phataphat Jayalakshmi) in Mullum Malarum, Lakshmi (Ashwini) in Uthiripookkal—bear testimony to it. He didn’t set out to make feminist statements or talk about the empowerment of women, but women were a strong element in his films.
A few years ago, Uthiripookkal, based on Pudhumaipithan’s novel Chitrannai, was screened at an international women’s film festival, and the audience gave a standing ovation. In an interview with an English daily, Mani Ratnam had mentioned if he got somewhere close to what Mahendran had done in Uthiripookkal, he would be a happy man.
Uthiripookkal, released in 1979, was an extraordinary film. Most importantly, its cinematic merit was unquestionable. It is not like mainstream cinema hadn’t earlier gone the path that this Mahendran film did. The authenticity of his characters stemmed from the space in which they existed.
In my observation, Mahendran was one of the great writers who proved that content is not about plot or screenplay, but also characters. Mullum Malarum was path-breaking, not because it had Rajinikanth, but it was Mahendran’s largely. Undoubtedly, he created the possibility of a different kind of narrative, and his visuals spoke so much rather than words. I would say Mahendran was an oddity in the commercial cinema because he made serious films. Most of them didn’t have big stars or glamour, but people feel for his characters after watching his films. He didn’t care about ‘commercial success’. He was on his own journey.
Trade analyst-producer-distributor-founder of BOFTA Film Institute, Dhananjayan says Mahendran set a tone for realistic cinema. “The glitzy big-ticket movie was the king, but Mahendran brought in the much-needed change with parallel cinema like Uthiripookkal that had its own loyal audience. He was against loud films. Also, I was fortunate to have him on board as the head of the direction department at BOFTA. He was very much interested in teaching and was a great pillar of support. I am happy he was approached with lots of acting offers while he was with us.”
Dhananjayan adds Mahendran had an opportunity to speak about Tamil cinema in front of MGR himself at the 100th-day celebrations of Naadodi Mannan. “He went on to criticise even films of MGR, who was insanely powerful that time. Mahendran’s idea of commercial cinema was different, and he didn’t do films post-Sasanam (2006). He was finding it difficult with the market scenario. He wasn’t happy about the kind of money required for making a film. He extensively made films on a small budget,” notes Dhananjayan.
Balaji Tharaneetharan, who directed Mahendran in Vijay Sethupathi starrer Seethakaathi, hails him as a gentleman. “Mahendran sir puts others at so much ease and we bonded over films and literature on the sets. Ellarayum mister pottu dhan koopiduvaaru. Though I am a huge fan of his movies, I like Poottadha Poottukkal (1980) the most. It revolves around the lives of a middle-class couple and was adapted from the short story Uravugal. His films were always progressive and hard-hitting. It was amazing how he kept himself updated on everything. He was an avid reader and believed it was challenging for a filmmaker to adapt a screenplay from a novel,” says Balaji.
Director Kannan of Boomerang fame echoes Balaji’s words. “I was keen to have Mahendran sir on board. His son John, a good friend of mine, made this possible. When I explained the role to him, he refused to accept remuneration. We shot his portions at AVM Studios and making such a legendary director act in my direction was a dream-come-true moment. Even as an experienced filmmaker, he was excited to learn new things. Mahendran sir loved camera and people,” shares Kannan.
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Recalling his experiences of working with Mahendran, director Priyadarshan says, “I tried assisting Mahendran sir in 1982, but wasn’t allowed to enter his house. I was angry. Later, I thought to myself, ‘Let me take this as a challenge and make good films. Someday or the other, I’ll meet him’. My dream got fulfilled when I roped him in for Nimir. He was a wonderful human being.”
Thalaivasal Vijay, who worked on Mahendran’s last directorial venture Sasanam, says the ace filmmaker’s demise is a huge loss to the industry. “Around the 80s, whenever we were down—Nasser, Selva and I—used to visit Mahendran sir. After speaking to him, we would feel all charged. Such was his energy, passion and commitment to cinema and the craft of making films. Around 2006, we were shooting for Sasanam in his hometown Karaikudi. Suddenly, from nowhere, he brought a peacock and gave it to me. I thought the bird had some role to play in the film. But he told me it was a gift to me on my wedding anniversary. He said I was a good actor, who is worth a golden peacock. I didn’t know how to react. Since it is not legally permissible to have peacocks at home, we decided to leave it right there.”