I know K Balachander more by his TV series than his movies. That’s mainly because when I was in my preteens and teens, KB sir had all but stopped making movies, and instead concentrated on the small screen. K Balachandar-in Chinna thirai as it was called.
To appreciate the full impact of his making TV series, you need to understand the context where they came about. Cable TV wasn’t really a thing until the ’90s, I suppose. Heck, TV wasn’t quite a thing until the late ’80s either.
Tamil television was very sparse. I only got cable in 1995 or thereabouts. There were a lot of western channels, including Cartoon Network which ran only until 5pm after which it switched to another channel called TCM or something. Zee TV was a thing. And I think once or twice a week, they would show Tamil programs.
And then there was Sun TV. I watched a lot of TV back then. The shows on Sun TV were, as I recall, mostly cringeworthy. They weren’t yet in saas-bahu zone, at least not the prime time shows, but the sort of drama they portrayed were unrealistic, moralistic, and mostly bad quality.
I think KB got in the game early on. He started with Raghuvamsam, which I don’t remember watching all that much. It was a family drama if I remember right.
What got me hooked was his Kai-alavu Manassu. It was a very poignant story of a young widow (Geetha) with three children, who faces a heart condition, and ends up giving her children up for adoption. And years later, she’s become reasonably successful and all, and tries to hunt down her children, but they don’t remember her. This series was notable for introducing Prakash Raj to us. He played a businessman from Bangalore, and his catchphrase was ‘chindi chitranna’ (said while rubbing his hands). He would go on to be the villain in KB sir’s Duet, which was also, I suppose, another Kannada star Ramesh Arvind’s big Tamil hit. Ramesh Arvind later played a guest role in Kai-alavu Manassu as Geetha’s son who’s become a successful actor.
The difference between this soap and all the others on TV at that particular time, was this had story, this had direction. It had engaging characters. It had strong actors giving performances of a lifetime. And since it was a mega-serial, it could go in any direction, and you were treated to a lot of interesting sub-plots even if they didn’t really have anything much with the main plot.
One scene that sticks in the mind is with Kavignar Vaali. Vaali has a wife who suffers from a delicate heart condition. They have a very loving relationship, and she makes a sweet, and he composes a very funny poem about it. Then he gets the news that their son has just died. He can’t tell her that. And people keep dropping by to offer their condolences. And she keeps laughing and asking him to repeat his funny poem, and offering everyone sweets. He complies, with pain in his eyes, and pain in his heart. I haven’t quite seen anything like that in a long time.
The other notable thing was how KB portrayed women in his serials. Serials with a female protagonist didn’t start with him, of course. TV’s main demographic is women and they always cater to women by having women-centric serials. While others liked to go the woman-against-the-rest-of-the-world trope, KB introduced some depth into this.
This was seen very prominently in his serial Premi, with Renuka in the lead. Renuka always played the comic relief in anything before that, as the talkative, nosy neighbor. But in this, she came alive as a serious woman who was taking charge of her family which was pretty much out of control, and how she navigated across the many men who desired her (rewatching this a year ago made me wonder how and why every single man in the show wanted to marry her).
You’d see this in his movies as well. You don’t need to go as far as AvargaL. Even in Azhagan, the three leading women are all so different, have different motivations for fancying Mammooty, and each is so well-defined that you would understand them and identify with them. Or Parthale Paravasam, which was really cheesy in its execution, but it was actually trying to make a movie with Simran and Madhavan as complex characters.
One tool I notice KB sir reuses over and over again is to put his lead characters in a scene where they are expected to speak impromptu on stage. He’s done this in Azhagan, Premi, Parthale Paravasam, and so many others. Usually this is how a love interest gets introduced to the lead character, so when they meet later, it isn’t quite love-at-first-sight.
I can’t help but marvel at how KB sir deals with conjugal relationships in his movies and serials. He’d made two series, Ramany vs Ramany parts 1 and 2. The first one dealt with a modern (for the ’90s) newlywed couple, and the second one with a couple who’ve been married awhile and have a young child. When I watched it as a child, it was because it was slapstick. I took to watching this series again a few months ago, and I was struck by how on the mark it is.
Most dramas about newlyweds all deal with the big stuff, case in point, Alaipayuthey. This one was about the mundane, the everyday stuff. The easily mollified insecurities. The annoyance at your spouse’s flirty colleague. Discovering your spouse’s fanmail to Juhi Chawla. How annoying your husband gets when he’s sick. Pointless arguments about whose turn it is to make dinner. Or, in the case of the second series, the little reminders that your marriage has lost its sense of romance. Maintaining your me-time. Getting annoyed with how your mother messes your kitchen up when she comes by to help. Learning your spouse is actually cooler than you thought.
And then there was Jannal, with two parts again, where he explored the dynamics of an older couple’s friendship, and in the second part, how a boy tries to reconcile his parents’ divorce.
It’s amazing how he brings out these little nuances in a family, the small things that make you identify with the characters that much more. A serious drama, or a film doesn’t really give you much time to explore these things. I think it would be fascinating if you had a long running serial where you got top directors to work on six or seven episodes at a time.
What makes KB sir’s work be so memorable is that his screenplays are character-driven. Not necessarily plot driven. He gives you fascinating true-to-life characters. You don’t remember what the ending of Azhagan is, you remember Madhoo’s antics and dialogues. The ending of Duet doesn’t give you sleepless nights, you only remember how Prabhu’s character is for the most part selfless, and how Meenakshi Seshadri disdainfully makes jokes about Prakash Raj’s moves on her.
It doesn’t matter if Kamal Haasan and Revathi die at the end of Punnagai Mannan. What matters is Chaplin Chellappa, how Srividya stays the voice of reason, and how intense Kamal Haasan gets. And I only vaguely remember how AvargaL ends, but the sadism of Rajinikanth in that one movie is enough to shock the living daylights out of you. KB Sir pretty much takes a bunch of interesting, well-etched-out characters and puts them in fascinating situations, and watches them react.
When I contrast this with Mani Ratnam’s style of making a movie, he starts off with an idea for a plot, say, ‘three men get into an accident, it changes all their lives’. and in the process ends up creating fascinating characters, but then he’s thinking about advancing the plot, so he ignores exploring them fully, and then realizes it’s time to end the movie, but he can’t resolve the interestingness of the characters with the interestingness of the plot, so he ends things abruptly. That is also why in movies like Raavan or Kadal, his characters are walking metaphors or otherwise one-dimensional characters.
As someone fresh on ideas of how women aren’t represented accurately in TV and film, it has been refreshing to go back to Balachandar-in Chinnathirai as an adult, and pleasantly discover my formative years were all full of well-etched characters in the media and it is a lack of imagination and freedom, more than any sinister plot, that there aren’t that many fascinating women in TV and film today.
Everyone knows without KB sir we wouldn’t have Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan or Prakash Raj, apart from innumerable others now-famous actors and writers, but it also bears mention that so many stars of TV, like Renuka, Devadarshini, Chetan, Deepa Venkat, Mohan Ram, Ramji, Venu Arvind, owe their fame to Balachander.
And you totally wouldn’t have this gem from Revathi Sankaran either :)