January 7, 2002


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Balu Mahendra: The method, the madness

One rarely has the opportunity to meet an intelligent, articulate and knowledgeable man like Balu Mahendra in tinseltown. Balu Mahendra

Balu started in 1971 as cinematographer with Ramu Kariat's Nellu. In 1976, he directed his first Kannada film Kokila, starring Kamal Haasan, Shobha and Roja Ramani. The film went on to win him the National Award as well as several state awards.

Eighteen directorial ventures and 30 years later, Balu Mahendra is on the verge of completing the script for his new film. The director of such superhits as Moondram Pirai, Veedu and Sandhya Ragam., still works out of an old dilapidated building. He still writes the story, screenplay and dialogues for all his films. He is also editor, cinematographer and director.

It is hard to find filmmakers like him today, finds Shobha Warrier:

When you write a script, do you become one with the characters?

Yes, I try to get under the skin of all my characters. I go through their emotions. I recite the dialogues out loud. If those words convey what I want to say, I put it down on paper.

There are times when I would stop speaking to anyone because that would make me cry. I cannot be an onlooker when my characters experience strong emotions.

Don't you feel exhausted after you finish a script?

Totally. When I ask my actors to experience certain emotions, I must be clear what I want them to portray.

Which is more exhausting: script-writing or directing?

The writing part is the most important part for me. Another important factor is editing. I edit my films while I write, while I photograph and while I direct. So editing starts in the scripting stage itself.

Your award-winning film Veedu was very disturbing. What prompted you to choose the subject?

It was my mother that prompted me to make the film. She was a lovable, relaxed person, with a smile on her face all the time -- till she started building a house. I was eight years old then.

She was not the same after that. She became temperamental. She forgot to laugh. She had no time to teach us or play with us. The changes confused me.

Years later, Veedu brought this transformation to life.

People, especially children, seem to be really influenced by films...

Yes, films determine the psyche of children. For the younger generation, music is film songs. Poetry for them is the lyrics of the film song. Dress sense is dictated by the film stars' wardrobe and the latst dance steps are copied from films.

In the case of Tamil Nadu, from Annadurai to Jayalalithaa, all the Chief Ministers have a background in films. So they are a part and parcel of our daily life.

Could that be dangerous?

Children should be taught to enjoy and understand good films. They should know how to distinguish between good and bad films.

Film appreciation should be taught in schools as part of the curriculum. I have said this to the President of India and at various forums. Students won't cut classes because they will be shown films. There are plenty of teachers available to teach. Course material is already available at Pune's Film and Television Institute of India [FTII].

Just as students systematically learn to analyse and appreciate literature, they will appreciate films also. They will learn the basic components of a film. Besides, it also happens to be a mass communication medium, which is tremendously powerful.

People ask why there are no good films. Well, there should be an audience for that. Some say good films do not run at the box office. They will, only if there are people to see them.

So you feel when their attitude to films change, they will reject bad films?

Yes. If the young groups reject bad films, people will be forced to make better films.

Why is it that a majority of the filmmakers are callous about their responsibility to society?

Because these filmmakers are out to make a fast buck. Most are ignorant. They might be making films but they are not filmmakers. It is like this: everybody who writes is not a writer.

Many filmmakers say their first responsibility is to the producer not the society. Would you agree?

Yes, unfortunately, this medium requires an enormous amount of money. But it is possible to make fantastic films with a fraction of the amount these people are spending. But you should know how to make a low budget film well.

Who is responsible for the escalating cost of today's films? The stars?

No, I will not blame the stars. Ultimately, the producer is the deciding factor. If ten or fifteen producers realise that a good, watchable film can be made in Rs 60 lakh, cinema will improve.

The current situation is like this: when a particular actor's film runs well, all the producers mob him and fight with each other to get his dates. They are willing to offer anything to the star and thus the price of the star shoots up.

Why are they running behind these stars who were once newcomers? Why can't they create new stars?

So I blame the producers and distributors.

Do you feel 'art' films are unpopular because they cannot communicate?

To an extent, I would agree. Filmmakers have fumbled even though they had good intentions. They erroneously believe that an art film has to be very slow and unemotional. That was one of the main reasons why parallel cinema hasn't fared well in India.

These so-called art filmmakers claim you should view an art film only through your head and ignore your heart. I disagree with that. A work of art should appeal to me both intellectually and emotionally.

You have been a part of this industry for 30 years. How have you grown?

I have made 18 films in 30 years. I'm satisfied only with two -- Veedu and Sandhya Raagam. I have made the least number of mistakes in these films.

But there is one question that has been plaguing me, particularly after my heart attack. One moment, I'm hale and hearty and the next, I am in a hospital with a heart attack. It was then that I started thinking about life. The story does not end with oneself. It extends to the family.

In these 30 years, I have seen people who started with me and after me are financially better off than I. They have three cars, two houses... And I don't even have a car.

I don't have any of the luxuries that those in the film industry have. God has given me the talent to make films but because of my own conviction, I've made only 18 films in 30 years. That too, the same kind of films.

Now, my career is near its end. Having undergone one heart attack, I ask myself: Was I right in denying my family the comforts they would have otherwise enjoyed, had I been a little more liberal and commercial regarding my cinema?

My wife has to worry about telephone and electricity bills at the end of each month. Because of my stubbornness, I used to tell the producers I would make only this kind of film -- take it or leave it. Was I right in doing that?

Are material luxuries important to you?

I do not want to be a hypocrite. Yes, I want to own a car. Today, my wife stands in a queue to catch a bus. I need not have compromised so much to give her some comforts but I was stubborn then.

It makes me very sad, very sad now.

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