His name might not be spoken in the same breath as stalwarts of Kollywood like Balachander or Bharathiraaja, as his output as a director was much less as compared to them. But it would be harsh to discount J Mahendran’s contribution to Tamil cinema as many of the films for which he wielded the megaphone were several notches above the mundane fare that hit the screens during his halcyon days.
It was Mahendran’s penchant for writing stories and scripts that propelled him to cinema. The film ‘Naam Moovar’ released in 1966, for which he penned the script, marked his entry into the industry. He also wrote scripts for Sivaji Ganesan’s starrers like ‘Nirakudam’ and ‘Thanga Padakkam’ and his powerful lines spoken on screen by the redoubtable Sivaji was the piece de resistance of ‘Thanga Padakkam,’ a runaway hit.
Mahendran’s directorial debut was with the film ‘Mullum Malarum’ starring Rajanikant, Sarat Babu, Shobha and Fatafat Jayalakshmi in the main roles. The film was based on a novella of the same name written by Uma Chandran (elder brother of acclaimed stage and film actor Poornam Viswanathan) and was produced by Venu Chettiar of Anandi Films. Even before a single shot could be canned, Mahendran had to brush aside the producer’s reservations on casting Rajanikant, who at that time was hardly a marquee name and was mainly doing villain’s roles. Mahendran, though a debutant, stuck to his guns and was so peeved at one stage that he almost opted out of the film, before he finally got his way.
The film was based on the bond between a brother and his sister, the roles essayed by Rajini and Shobha, and narrated how the sister rallies to her brother’s side as he is left forlorn and frustrated after losing his hand when a lorry runs over him, lying supine on the road after a drunken bout. A highlight of the film was the cinematography by Balu Mahendra, who turned it into a visual delight. With Mahendran still learning the ropes as a director, it was Balu who took the film on his shoulders and guided Mahendran on various aspects like screenplay and script writing. Shot on exotic locations in thirty days flat, ‘Mullum Malarum’ turned out to be a top grosser.
With this film, Mahendran also found a kindred spirit in music director Ilaiyaraja, whose captivating score topped the charts with the Yesudas number ‘Senthazham Poove’ proving a chart buster. Placing his faith on the theme and the story, Mahendran eschewed the usual formula elements and even the melodrama was low-key. His casting for the film was perfect and all the lead stars had well fleshed out, meaty roles which they enacted perfectly. Although the film’s producer remained skeptical about the film’s prospects at the box office, ‘Mullum Malarum’ picked up after initial hiccups and turned out to be a box office hit.
If ‘Mullum Malarum’ was made on a shoestring budget, Mahendran’s next film ‘Uthiri Pookal’ released in 1979, based on a story ‘Sitrannai’ written by Avant Garde writer Pudumaipittan cost even less, as the entire film was shot on location with hardly any expenditure on sets or costumes. The film’s cast, which comprised Malayalam actor Vijayan and Ashwini in the lead roles with Charuhasan and Sarat Babu in the supporting characters, too had little clout at the box office. Ashok Kumar, who was soon to become the mainstay of Mahendran’s films, was the cinematographer and Ilaiyaraja scored the music. The film narrated the story of a sadistic villager who exploited women at every opportunity while treating his own wife as chattel. In a stunning climax, the philanderer who by then had become a widower earns the wrath of the entire village and is ordered to choose the manner of his death. At that point, his humanity is restored and after embracing his two infant children he wades into the river to meet a watery grave.
As in his debut film, Mahendran in ‘Uthiri Pookal’ too had chosen his lead actors, the sadistic anti-hero, the submissive and docile wife, the cruel stepmother with great care and the roles fitted them like a glove. The critically acclaimed film raised Mahendran’s stock as a director and with his next film ‘Johnny’, which had his favourite hero Rajinikant in a dual role, popular actress Sridevi as the heroine and Deepa providing the glamour quotient, he proved that he was at home directing purely commercial films as well. Rajini breezed through the twin roles, one that of an ardent fan of the singer Archana (Sridevi) and the other as a barber. Once again it was Ilaiayaraja at his musical best and Ashok Kumar’s excellent camera work which supplemented Mahendran’s deft directorial touches. The Rajini-Mahendran duo came together once more in ‘Kai Kodukkum Kai’, a remake of Puttana Kanagal’s Kannada film ‘Katha Sangama’ with Revathi playing the female lead of a blind girl who is raped by the villain.
The film which won maximum recognition for Mahendran was his 1984 venture ‘Nenjathai Killathe’ which saw Suhasini, daughter of Charuhasan and niece of Kamal Haasan, making her debut as a heroine.
The story goes that Suhasini, who at that time was apprenticing under Ashok Kumar as she had a penchant for photography, was penciled in by Mahendran, who was on the lookout for a fresh face. Though she had not set her sights on a career as an actress, accepted the film for a lark on her father’s persuasion.
The actress later became a multilingual star and also won a National Award for a stunning performance in Balachander’s ‘Sindhu Bhairavi’. The film had Mohan, Pratap Pothan and Sarat Babu (a Mahendran staple) in the pivotal roles and revolved around the theme of youthful love. The novel treatment of the subject by Mahendran, Ilaiyaraja’s tunes and Ashok Kumar’s breathtaking cinematography turned ‘Nenjathai Killathe’ into a phenomenal box office hit and the film ran for a whole year. It also won three National Awards for Best Tamil film of the year and also for the Best Cinematography and Audiography and three state awards as well.
The last film that Mahendran directed, ‘Saasanam’, was released in 2006, after being in cold storage for an inordinate length of time. Though it had saleable stars like Arvind Swami, Gautami and Ranjitha in the cast, it failed to click. Mahendran, who had played a cameo in the film ‘Kamaraj’, a biopic on the legendary leader, was a surprise choice for villain in Ilayathalapathy Vijay’s film ‘Theri’ and his portrayal impressed audiences.
The director’s autobiography, ‘Cinemavum Naanum’, which dwelt on his romance with cinema over the years was well-received. Mani Ratnam is one of the directors who has admitted to being influenced by Mahendran’s films and that alone speaks volumes of the latter’s talent as an auteur.