National award winning director Bala who won the accolade for his film Naan Kadavul, a grim portrayal on the beggar mafia, never tires of showering praise on his mentor Balu Mahendra. It was the late cinematographer-director who took Bala under his wing, taught him the ropes and enabled him to make his livelihood as a film director.
However, if one were to look hard and long at Balaâ€™s oeuvres it would be difficult to discern even slight shades of his mentor's influence anywhere. The duo's choices always remained vastly different, even when it came to choosing genres.
Bala, who made his debut in 1999 with Sethu, has directed just seven films though he has been around for almost a couple of decades. There have been long interregnums between his films, largely because of his wavering in the matter of choosing his cast, especially for the lead roles, and for the leisurely pace of work.
Also, Bala has had to struggle extremely hard right from the time he directed his first shot and has always faced a dearth of financiers and distributors for his films - they have never fit the commercial slot and there was no guarantee of success at the box office.
The director endured his most taxing times right from the beginning of his career as there were no takers for Sethu and he had to run from pillar to post to convince producers and later the distributors to evince interest in his project.
Sethu was loosely based on a real life story of a wayward young man who falls in love with a meek woman but is unable to cement the relationship and this turns him into a stark, raving lunatic. In the final denouement, he is cured of his malady but on reaching the woman's house, he finds that she has committed suicide. He then decides to return to the asylum which had housed him.
Sethu had its fair share of disturbing cinema, with some mental asylum scenes shot in a green shade by cameraman Ratnavelu appearing grossly exaggerated and with a few sequences which even appeared repulsive.
The film, however, was a turning point for its hero Vikram as it ended his lean trot in the industry and his emaciated look in the film was to be a precursor for more such roles in the future. Sethu which appeared all set to disappear from the scene after a few days of release suddenly picked up steam and turned into a box office hit.
The success of his debut film enabled Bala to rope in Suriya for his next film Nandha which explored the link between a hot headed young man who had murdered his father when still a minor and a village headman who tries to nurture him.
The romantic element in the film came in the form of a Sri Lankan refugee Kalyani (Laila) who develops a crush on the hero. He, however, is too embroiled in the intrigues involving his mentor to reciprocate her feelings. Nandha too had a bloody climax and ends with the deaf-mute mother poisoning her son Nandha and ending her own life as well. The film received a lukewarm response at the box office and there were no flashes of brilliance in Balaâ€™s direction.
Two of the most significant films in Balaâ€™s career were Pithamagan and Naan Kaduvul and he bagged a National Award for Best Director for the latter film, an honour that has eluded the eminent gurus of Kollywood like Balachander, Bharathiraaja and Mani Ratnam. Both the films had little of "commercial" elements and even discerning audiences could have found some of the scenes of graphic violence quite revolting.
Pithamagan had as its central protagonist a gravedigger who has no interaction with civilization, having been raised in the jungles. Bala borrowed the plot from Jnanpith Award winning writer Jayakanthanâ€™s Nandavanathil Oor Aandi, added a bit of spice and a few more characters to the story.
The film narrated a raw, brutal story of friendship and treachery and was suffused with gory scenes of violence and bloodshed. It had disturbing visuals of the brutalization of Shakti (Suriya) by the villains and showed Chintan (Vikram) extracting his revenge by slaughtering the landlord responsible for his friend's death in a most macabre fashion.
Vikram, who had missed out on a National Award for Best Actor for Sethu had a solemn promise from Bala that he would cast him in a role that would definitely net him an award and the director kept his word with Pithamagan.
Bala, who has been singularly unfortunate in the matter of getting his first choices for his films, had visualised Simran in the role of a ganja seller and bootlegger but the character was eventually played by Sangeetha.
Naan Kadavul had been written keeping Ajith Kumar in mind and Ajith had even given bulk dates to the director. He had also begun to grow his locks to suit the role but somewhere down the line, he had to be replaced by Arya.
Naan Kadavul based on the novel Ezham Ulagam by Jayamohan, who wrote the dialogues for the film, narrated the story of a young boy who flees from oppression and becomes an Aghori sadhu. He later comes back to town and takes on the might of the beggar mafia.
The film was in the making for well over three and a half years as producers flitted in and out but eventually made it to the screens. Bala had assembled a huge cast to play physically challenged characters for the film, including the heroine's role.
The villain Thandavanâ€˜s (Rajendran) cruelty towards the beggars, especially the heroine, was no play-acting as Rajendran confessed that the kicks and the punches were real and not faked.
In an effort to break away from serious films, Bala attempted a comic caper Avan Ivan but so shoddy was the treatment and so jejune the plot that the film ended up failing on all counts.
Arya and Vishal playing half brothers hammed their way through and the only redeeming features were a few scenes where the squint eyed Vishal presented the navarasas. The two female actors in the film Janani Iyer and Madhu Shalini ended up being mere props.
The directorâ€™s next film Paradesi was based on a script pertaining to the British Raj and narrated the story of bonded labourers exploited to no end by their masters. The film had Atharva, Dhansika and Vedhika in the cast and was a rustic tale realistically told. However, it received a cold reception at the box office.
Tharai Thappattai, his next, was released with a lot of fanfare as it was the 1000th film for which maestro Ilaiyaraaja had scored the music. Though the lyrics and the numbers were no great shakes, Raaja won a National Award for Best Background Score for the film.
The film had Sasikumar in the role of a nadaswaram vidwan who is also a talented folk dancer and Varalakshmi Sarathkumar as a folk dancer who has a soft corner for him.
The film had the villain carting away the female lead and eventually ambled to a tragic climax with a dead heroine and the hero walking away with her child. Melodramatic clichÃ©s proved to be the undoing of this film though the performances of the lead stars were above par.
Balaâ€™s eighth film, now on the floors, appears to be a heroine oriented subject if its title Naachiyar is of any indication The female lead is being played by Jyotika, who made a successful comeback to cinema with 36 Vayadhinile. Paradesi music director GV Prakash is playing the male lead.
Details of the film have been kept under wraps though the first teaser showed Jyotika giving a bath to an infant with Prakash hovering nearby.
Considering Balaâ€™s track record thus far, one can expect that this film too will cater to a niche audience and will not be mainstream fare. One is not sure whether Bala has developed a fanbase as yet, but his focus on the seedy side of life, the dark underbelly of society and his penchant for violence severely limits his reach and he may have to get out of the groove sooner than later if he is to survive.