K Balachander at 90: Why the director's films still appeal to women
Back in the ‘70s, in my middle class household of five members, the only person who would watch movies was my mother. She would do that with her “lady” friends in the neighbourhood who were all in their mid-thirties. Typically, they would catch the matinee show at the nearby single screen cinemas. And in the days to follow, discussions and heated arguments around the movie, its story, the characters and its climax would dominate their daily evening ‘thinnai’ chats. As a small kid, these were my first induction sessions into the world of cinema.
My mother and her group of women in the same milieu were quite choosy of the films they watched. If there was one filmmaker whose films they would never miss, it was K Balachander (KB). My mother is in her late 70s today, her memory is fading, but her pick for her most favourite filmmaker continues to be KB even today. And I reckon this would be the case for most women above 50 today who watch Tamil films.
The reason for KB to be a darling among women of that era is not difficult to fathom. Making his films centred around women characters while espousing feminism and women’s emancipation (his version of it anyway), KB was a ‘woke’ champion much before even the term got into our pop lexicon. He broke away from hero oriented subjects written around larger-than-life male stars of that era and made films around ordinary characters. And even in doing so, KB ensured an equal if not higher focus on women characters.
Back to my mother, when I used to ask her what endeared her and her friends to KB’s films in particular, apart from the interesting storylines around middle class families, great music, the “Balachander touch” scenes, no vulgarity and so on, the main reason she gave was that, KB was a king in tying a knot in the story and untying at the end. (Mudichu pottu kadaisiyila avukarathula KB mannan) She added that importantly it will be the women characters who untie the knot.
The earliest KB ‘mudichu’ my mother talked about to us was after watching Apoorva Raagangal. Even today, she can narrate the legendary riddle on the complex relationship among the characters in that film. And our first introduction to a “Balachander touch” scene was the horse going backwards in Manmadha Leelai as a symbolic shot to show the waywardness of Kamal Haasan’s character, a womaniser.
Today, when you look back at his films right from Ethir Neechal (1968), Arangetram (1973) down to Kalki (1996) and to his last film Poi (2006), a few things stand out. Invariably, it is the female protagonist who took key decisions that were bold and contrarian for those times. Such decisions would either change the course of the story or deliver a knockout punch in the climax. Moreover, “teaching a lesson to their male counterparts” was at the centre of those moves. I have often read that women liked KB because he spoke their language in his films. I would say that he spoke the language they aspired to speak. In that sense, I could make out that my mom and many of her ilk, felt liberated coming out of a KB film.
Recently, Rajiv Menon’s Kandukondain Kandukondain was fondly remembered on its 20th year since release. Among other things, the film got a lot of acclaim for the way its woman characters were showcased – independent, bold and progressive. The women characters in most of KB’s films were all that.
It is interesting to understand why he made women-centric films when such an approach was not considered popular or wise.
KB did not go to any B-School. He didn’t train himself for marketing either. He was not into making ad films even. But, inadvertently, he was an early practitioner of the advertising concept called USP (Unique Selling Proposition) made famous by Rosser Reeves as early as 1961 in his book – Reality in Advertising. By his own admission, KB made women-centric subjects his USP. And till the end that became his calling card and positioning.
It is well known that KB was inspired by the Tamil poet Subramania Bharathiyar and he used every opportunity to showcase Bharathi kanda pudumai pen in his movies. KB said that in pursuing women-centric subjects, he saw an opportunity to differentiate himself from other filmmakers. A three-month break due to a heart attack in 1972, made him reflect on his journey as a filmmaker till then and that’s when he decided to make female characters the actual heroes in his films. This paid off. It is extremely difficult to pick a KB film where the female lead character just comes as eye candy. Or is shown as the “loose ponnu” immortalised in many Tamil films.
Even in films that are seemingly around the male lead, KB didn’t hesitate to shine the spotlight on the female character at the end and stun the audience. KB’s film Achamillai Achamillai (1984) is a fine example of this. It is actually a political drama that charts the course of a man with lofty ideals who gets into politics but gets corrupted along the way in pursuit of power. However, at the end, KB brings the focus on the wife of the politician played by Saritha. In the climax, she is shown as killing her husband whom she loved so much in the beginning, when she finds him no longer sticking to his original ideals.
Even when KB transitioned himself from the big screen to the small screen, he stuck to his positioning of being woman-centric. Interestingly, when he stepped out of his comfort zone of strong women characters in a few of his later films like Unnal Mudiyum Thambi, Duet and Paarthaale Paravasam, they didn’t do well at the box office.
So, did KB’s positioning of being a women-centric filmmaker make him popular only among women? Of course not. Somewhere, his characters touched a chord even among men. This universal appeal is why KB could make over a hundred films and stay on top of his game for nearly four decades. And today on KB’s 90th birthday, for many women like my mother who followed his films avidly – Avar Oru Thodarkathai!
Anand Kumar RS is a management professional by week and an avid blogger by weekend. He writes on politics, business, and films.