The passion with which prolific filmmaker Balu Mahendra romanced films throughout his life explains why he didn’t hesitate to make films even at 74, articulate boldly about the state of Tamil film industry at public gatherings and groom young filmmakers who are carrying the legacy he has left behind.
Born in a Sri Lankan Tamil Christian family as Balanathan Benjamin Mahendran, his passion for images started at a young age. He plunged into the world of films as a cinematographer and went on to become one of the finest filmmaker, screenwriter and editor known for his distinct style of visual storytelling.
Balu, 74, died of a heart attack at a private hospital on Thursday, leaving behind a visually rich filmography and an era of realistic cinema. He is survived by his wife and son.
After completing his schooling in Sri Lanka, Mahendra enrolled into a cinematography course at Film and Television Institute of India, Pune. In 1974, he started his career as a cinematographer in award winning 1974 Malayalam film “Nellu”.
His work as a cinematographer will also be remembered in films such as “Sankarabharanam”, “Prayanam” and “Mullum Malarum”.
In 1977, Balu called the shots for his directorial debut “Kokila” (Kannada), which featured Kamal Haasan and Mohan in lead roles. The film was a runaway success, cementing the auteur’s career as a director.
But it was National award winning Tamil film “Moondram Pirai”, later remade as “Sadma” in Hindi, which catapulted Mahendra as one of the influential filmmakers of the country.
The film’s story was inspired by Balu’s own relationship with late actress Shoba, whom he married for a brief time before she committed suicide.
“Moondram Pirai” earned Kamal Haasan his first National award.
Another path-breaking film in Balu’s career is National award winning Tamil drama “Veedu”, about the plight of a middle-class family to construct a house.
Drawing inspiration from the life of his mother, who changed over the course of building a house, the film is still considered one of his finest films.
In his over three decade long career, Mahendra directed 21 films across all southern languages. He had won two National awards for cinematography in “Kokila” and “Pirai”.
As a director, he pocketed three National awards for “Veedu”, “Sandhya Raagam” and “Vanna Vanna Pookal”. He had also won three Filmfare awards for his work in “Moondram Pirai” and “Olangal”.
Balu believed in appealing his audience emotionally as well as intellectually.
While most of his work was labeled as art films, Balu will be remembered for one of the best Tamil comedies “Sathi Leelavathi” starring Kamal Haasan as well.
Another fascinating aspect of Balu’s life is his association with maestro Illayaraja, who has composed tunes for all his Tamil films since “Moondram Pirai”. Their collaboration resulted in several memorable chartbusters that will ring in the ears of his fans for eternity.
Balu’s “Thalaimuraigal”, which also had music by Illayaraja, but incidentally no songs, was lauded for the latter’s background score as well.
His legacy continues in Tamil cinema in the form of his pupils. Incidentally, most of his filmmaker students such as Bala Pazhanisaamy, Vetrimaaran, and Ameer Sultan have won the National awards for the respective films.
Balu Mahendra’s unfulfilled wish was the archiving of Tamil films.