Master Film maker Balu Mahendra passes away

Balu Mahendra
Ace director and cinematographer Balu Mahendra(74) passed away today (Feb 12) morning. He was admitted to the Vijaya Hospitals in Chennai after he suffered a stroke.

Balu Mahendra has been in the news recently for his critically acclaimed Thalaimuraigal. It is a film in which he acted in the pivotal role of a grand- father. The new generation directors in the industry like Bala, Ameer and Ram for whom he was a mentor has rushed to the hospital.

Balu Mahendra, a pioneer cinematographer feted for his use of natural lighting and film-maker who explored offbeat subjects using realistic portrayals, died at a hospital here on Thursday. Mahendra, who inspired and mentored a generation of directors, was 74. Doctors said he had renal problems and had suffered a heart attack.

Mahendra worked in all south Indian languages and created enduring works in each, as also in Hindi. His best known works include 'Moonram Pirai', 'Veedu' and 'Sandhya Raagam' (all in Tamil), 'Olangal', 'Oomakuyil' and 'Yathra' (Malayalam), 'Nireekshana' (Telugu) and 'Sadma' (Hindi).

Born Balanathan Mahendran to a Tamil family in Sri Lanka, he was drawn to cinema after watching the shooting of David Lean's 'The Bridge On The River Kwai' while on a school field trip. This inspired him to take a course at the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, where he earned the gold medal in the cinematography course in 1969.

Mahendra entered the film industry as a cinematographer at a time when studios were in decline and mainstream entertainment was being reinvented. He came into the spotlight with 'Nellu' (1974) directed by legendary film-maker Ramu Kariat, who saw his diploma film at the institute and was impressed. 'Nellu' fetched him praise and best cinematographer award at the Kerala state film awards.

"He had a knack of letting his visuals speak several emotions. His visuals could create more impact than any lines in a film," said director K Vishwanath, who had used him as cinematographer for Sankarabharanam.

Mahendra went on to handle the camera for landmark films before graduating to direction. Although he remained within the popular format of film-making, he attempted to subvert genres with his study of character and psychology. His film-making career began with 'Kokila' (Kannada, 1977), which won him the National Award for best cinematography and the Karnataka state film award for best screenplay.

His next venture was 'Azhiyadha Kolangal' (Tamil, 1979), a coming of age story of three boys that the director has said was autobiographical. It did well at the box office and he moved on to 'Moodupani' (1980), a psychological thriller inspired by Alfred Hitchcock's 'Psycho', which was also a huge hit.

But the film that brought him the most acclaim was 'Moonram Piram' (1982), which ran for almost a year in theatres and won him the National Award for best cinematography and best actor award for Kamal Haasan. It also won a host of Tamil Nadu state film awards and Filmfare awards. He remade it as 'Sadma' in Hindi the next year; it did not prove to be successful but attained cult status much later.

Not surprisingly, filmmaker Madhur Bhandarkar posted on social media on Thursday: "Sad to hear the demise of master of innovative camera style, natural lighting, maker of my favourite Hindi film Sadma. Balu Mahendra, RIP." Mahendra went on to make landmark films such as 'Veedu' (1988), which won the National Award for best film in Tamil, 'Sandhya Raagam' (1989), which won the National Award for best film on family welfare, and 'Vanna Vanna Pookkal' (1992), which won the National Award for best feature film in Tamil. Other notable films were 'Marupadiyum' (1993), an adaptation of Mahesh Bhatt's Hindi film 'Arth', and the rip-roaring 'Sathi Leelavathi' (1995), in which he proved that comedy was also part of his repertoire.

His later films - 'Raman Abdullah' (1997), 'Julie Ganapathy' (2003) and 'Adhu Oru Kana Kaalam' (2005) — failed to make much of an impact, which prompted him to turn to teaching. He began the Balu Mahendra Cinema Pattarai in 2007, offering courses in cinematography, direction and acting and mentored filmmakers, such as Bala, Ameer, Sasikumar, Vetrimaaran and Seenu Ramasamy who have won multiple National Awards between them.

But with 'Thalaimuraigal' (2013), a tale of an old man's relationship with his grandson, he sort of redeemed himself, with the movie coming in for praise from critics and audiences alike.

One of his biggest regrets was that though Tamil Nadu had many chief ministers who hailed from the film industry, none of them had taken an initiative to preserve cinema. At many forums, he lamented the lack of a archive for Tamil cinema after the negatives of his film like 'Veedu', 'Sandhya Raagam', 'Marupadiyum' and 'Sathi Leelavathi' were destroyed. It's time one of Mahendra's illustrious students takes up the task of preserving his memory.

We at kollyinsider offer our deep condolences to one of the legends of Tamil cinema


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