The 1970s saw a transition in Tamil cinema, which had by then acquired enormous political and economic clout but limited artistic success. The Dravidian Movement had restricted cinema to a propaganda tool and financiers only saw money in it. But for exceptions like Unnaippol Oruvan and Dikkatta Parvati, Tamil cinema was struggling to break free of the formula built on melodrama, mythologicals, song and dance, stunts. A new crop of directors then arrived and changed the grammar of Tamil cinema. They did not reject the market for high art, but sought a middle-ground to tell the stories of ordinary people in a realistic manner. J Mahendran, the director who died aged 79 on Tuesday, was one such filmmaker, who had a deep influence on those who followed him, for instance, Mani Ratnam.
The film that made a name for Mahendran, until then a scriptwriter, was his directorial debut, Mullum Malarum. The 1978 film had an unusual hero and Mahendran chose an actor who was known for playing the villain. The film was a runaway hit and the villain-turned-hero went on to become Tamil cinema’s unrivalled superstar. Rajinikanth counts Mahendran among his mentors and Mullum Malarum figures at the top of his list of favourite films. Mullum Malarum was followed by Uthiripookkal, which again had an unconventional hero and storyline, and Nenjethai Killathe. Nenjethai Killathe, unlike its predecessors, was set in an urban, middle-class milieu and the narrative revolved around a heroine, played by a debutant actress, Suhasini. Mahendran’s later films didn’t make ripples, but his preference for unusual narratives, fine characterisation and the ability to explore faultlines in human relationships, turned his oeuvre into a classroom.
Filmmakers like Mahendran and Balu Mahendra established that cinema is primarily a visual art-form, not to be overburdened by verbose scripts. Directors like Mani Ratnam, who romanced the visual over the text, had a ready audience when they started making films in the Eighties because Mahendran and others had already prepared the ground.