February 2, 2002


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Aesthete at work

Director Bala Bala became one of the most talked-about and admired filmmakers in Tamil Nadu after the release of his film Sethu.

To think that, at one point, he could not even get a proper release for Sethu. But it was thanks to Sethu that the talented Vikram became one of the most sought-after actors in Tamil Nadu.

Expectations ran high when Bala's second film Nanda readied for a Diwali 2001 release. The director did not disappoint. Of all the films released last Diwali, only Vijayakanth's Thavasi and Bala's Nanda were hits.

If Vikram got respectability as an actor after Sethu, Nanda changed actor Surya's life.

Shobha Warrier met Bala for a chat:

What made you choose filmmaking as a profession? Were you passionate about films when you were younger?

I was not interested in films at all. My parents used to drag me to the theatre because they didn't want me to stay home all alone. Bala at what he does best - direction

But in college, I was no different from the other youngsters. I watched the films they watched.

By the time I completed my degree course, I had decided that filmmaking was what I wanted to do. I was never fascinated by a government job or a 9 to 5 job anyway. I came to Chennai from Madurai with no idea about filmmaking. I knew it would take years to learn. Thankfully, I spent the first ten years with Balu Mahendra.

What did you learn from Balu Mahendra?

The art of filmmaking. You need time to learn the aesthetics of filmmaking. It was he who taught me how to write a screenplay, the dialogues, how to modulate dialogues. He is my guru.

There are not many filmmakers like him. Nobody else can claim any right to his films --- he owns them completely. There is no role for an assistant director in any of his films. You can only help him manually, not creatively. He doesn't need help from anyone as far as creativity is concerned.

He does not write his scripts; he only says them aloud. It is the assistant director's job to write the screenplay down while he narrates it.

In a recent interview, he said he feels the emotions of all the characters as he narrates the dialogues.

Vikram in Sethu Yes, it is an experience listening to him narrate the story from the opening shot to the last one. He has all the frames in his mind. And as he narrates, you start visualising the film. If people say my stories and dialogues are good, it is because of the experience I had in writing down what he narrated.

You worked with him for ten years. It was only after another five years that you made a film of your own. Why did it take so long?

I understood the technical aspects of filmmaking after working with Balu Mahendra. I was confident I could write a good script too. But I didn't have any 'life' experiences. Without them you cannot understand human beings and their emotions.

I knew I did not have the maturity to make a film about human experiences and emotions. Even Balu Mahendra had told me that I would have to wait till I matured as a human being. So I decided to wait.

What did you do then?

I travelled, met people. In Sethu, there are many scenes in a mental asylum with around 300 to 400 mentally challenged people. It's not easy shooting a scene like that. I could not have done it unless I had the maturity to handle people.

Meanwhile, I had narrated stories to quite a few people in the industry. No one seemed to understand me. And I didn't want to compromise. I was angry with myself because I couldn't agree with them or get along with them.

If I had agreed to do what they wanted me to do, I would have made some ten films by now and substantial money. But that was not what I wanted. I didn't want to make films I didn't believe in.

How much did Sethu and Nanda satisfy you?

Say 75 per cent to 80 per cent. My film should satisfy me first. It should satisfy at least 60 per cent of my creative urge. No filmmaker is 100 per cent satisfied with his creations.

Vikram once narrated the difficulty you had in getting a theatre release for Sethu. Were you very disappointed then?

Vikram in Sethu I won't say I was disappointed. It would have been very nice if it were released in a theatre and people saw it. Frankly, even when people refused to buy the film, I was not sad. They told me it was a bad film and it would not run -- I didn't take them seriously.

But I was sure people would like the film.

Is it true that people came to watch Sethu only because of word mouth publicity?

Yes, there was no publicity for the film. Nobody watched the film in the first week. Many theatre owners wanted to withdraw it. We had to fight with some of them to continue showing the film for one more week.

The media came to my rescue here. I got such good reviews that people watched the film.

Sethu won many awards and ran for 100 days. Were you elated?

No. I was mature enough to look at it in a detached way. The travelling made me grow as a person. Nothing affects me --- failure or success.

I might have felt bad if Vikram or Surya did not get recognition for the pains they took for my films. They devoted all their time and energy to my films. Their dedication and commitment was amazing.

Apparently, the ending of Nanda, where the mother poisons her son did not go down well with the audience.

I wouldn't say they didn't like the ending. They were so shocked they couldn't bear it. If I hadn't ended the way I did, there wouldn't be any difference between the other films and mine.

Surya and Laila in Nanda I tried to convey certain things through expressions, not words. I did not tell the audience the mother was mixing poison in her son's food. There was no bottle labelled Poison. Nor did I make the mother rant and rave about her plight.

Her son also did not scream. He just looked at her pathetically. When people are fed on melodrama, such endings are bound to shock initially.

I do not want the audience to go out for a puff or to the toilet during a song or fight sequence. So I made the film so tight that if they so much as turned, they would miss something. I want them to watch my film as seriously as I made it.

So you feel films are not for entertainment alone?

Films are not for entertainment alone. Many people harbour that illusion. Aren't there other distractions for entertainment?

To me, film is a very powerful, creative medium through which you can convey so many things.

Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj

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