I had to chop off over 50 per cent of the text from the Take Two between filmmakers Hariharan and Balu Mahendra for the paper due to space constraints. Here is the unedited transcript. Mr.Hariharan, apart from my professor Rakesh, is the one who taught me quite a bit of what I know about filmmaking.
They both started out at the Film and TV Institute of India, Pune. One went to be a legendary filmmaker whose distinct style of filmmaking is today considered to be a school in itself. The other went on to make socially relevant award-winning films, is among the best film theoreticians in the country and also the Director of the L.V.Prasad Film and TV Academy.
When Balu Mahendra met K.Hariharan on Sunday at the Green Park Hotel, they started one of the most insightful conversations Sudhish Kamath ever eavesdropped into.
Hariharan: I recall when I made my first film ‘Yezhavathu Manithan,’ Balu Mahendra was an icon. We were overawed because while we were shooting, we used to listen to songs of ‘Moonram Piram’ on the radio, and say, that is where we should reach. You had reached a certain peak for us all. You don’t know about it but there are a lot of stories floating around about you. We would hear that Balu Mahendran would shoot only from 6 a.m. to 8.30 a.m. He would only take the early hours.
Balu: Oh my God. It was never like that. Being my own cameraman, I had this luxury of deciding what scene to take where, which is not possible for some other director. So I decide when to stop, go to the shade and do the next shot.
Hariharan: So you were not waking up at 8.30?
Balu: No, no… no way.
Hariharan: (laughs) Another myth was that you hated make up. Every morning you would come to the location and say: Take that make up off…
Balu: Even today I don’t use make-up on any artiste. In the sense that no grease-paint to cover the human skin. I had a serious problem with the make-up department and they were up in arms against me. I was basically a cameraman… These people we looked up in awe, people like Ranga Rao, Anjali Devi, Sharadha, Krishnam Raju, all these Telugu artistes, they just couldn’t gel what I was trying to do without make up. It was a serious problem. So I had to say put my foot down and say, “Mr. Ranga Rao, Please go wipe and come back. Have a soap wash.” The old man used to get very annoyed. Another problem was that I used to use very minimum light. That also, they could never understand. That time there was 500 ASA was not available, only 400 ASA… So after I would finish lighting, he used to say: “This is all?” “Yes, Mr. Ranga Rao… This is all.” That was the sort of beginning… But somehow I had the courage and guts to stick to whatever I wanted. Even today, if I need blood or moustache to be pasted… then the make-up man comes in. But even today, they are imposing this make-up man in my unit… whether you use it or not is a different question. So you have to engage a make-up chief and an assistant and a third assistant… So these three guys come in and I pay them for being in the hotel when I go out for shoot.
Hariharan: There’s been a sea change between 1970s and what we are seeing now. I still remember that the director and technician were very important people. To such an extent, that even now when your name comes on the screen, there’s silence. All background music comes to a complete halt…
Balu: It’s not for the anticipated claps from the audience… But wherever I’ve left it silence, it is because the picture would start with a song and if there was music on my name, the music would have no relevance to the song.
Hariharan: Today the stars seem to dominate, how are you handling this situation?
Balu: Till my last film, Athu Oru Kana Kaalam, it was Dhanush who wanted to do a film with me and not the other way. So when a situation like that comes, there’s no question of Dhanush telling me what I should do with his call-sheets. So I have never faced these problems with stars. I have worked with Kamal Hassan, Rajnikant, Amol Palekar, Sridevi and all these people. Even when we were shooting in Ooty for Moonram Pirai with Kamal, 6.30 meant 6.30 in the morning on the spot. We were shooting in December. I was there at 6.25 and they respected my requirements and it went on like that.
Hariharan: How has this changed?
Balu: Nowadays, I hear that the producer and director are both selected by the actor. This is a very sad changeover that has come. The reason for this is that the new directors who came after us, they don’t go tell the story to the producer. They tell it to the actor. The story is so fabricated to suit the actor turning into Superman. When an actor decides to do this, you give the reins to him. If a new director convinces a star, he doesn’t have to bother about finding a producer, which is a major hassle… Finding a producer for the kind of films we want to make was a major hassle in those days…
Hariharan: That’s why I’ve never worked with a film star in all my eight films. I’ve always worked with actors and technicians with whom I could correspondent perfectly. For me, the logic of making a film with a small budget with a lot of creative inputs was primary. So I just ruled out working with a star. The only star person I’ve worked with was Raghuvaran, who I introduced, who later became a star. But I always wanted to do a film with a star but mentally, I was always checking myself and say: Will it all go berserk? Therefore, I turned into other kinds of films… what they call socially purposeful films…I made films like Yezhavathu Manithan or Current, Dubashi, which had strong social themes, rooted in the problems of the nation and the society. That seems to be virtually missing in many films. You’ve attempted some films like that.
Balu: I did two films like that. But to be honest, I did not start off by saying to myself I’m going to make a socially relevant purposeful films. I just wanted to make a film which would also be socially relevant. Two films I can say I made, without any hestitation whatsover, are ‘Veedu’ and ‘Sandhya Raagaam’ … my other films, they had tremendous commercial compromises… If you take ‘Moonram Pirae,’ that Ponmeni Uruguthey song was absolutely unnecessary. I just put it there because Silk Smitha was there and she looked terrific those days. That kind of compromise you make when you make a film for the mass audience.
Hariharan: Right, but the minute you call that a compromise, then mentally you are already accepting it as a lost cause. Supposed you had not taken that as a compromise but taken it as a challenge to make it more creative, what would you have done?
Balu: Even today, I have this problem. Even today, that song in ‘Julie Ganapathy,’ the Ramya Krishnan song… though I am very happy with the way I’ve shot it, a compromise is a compromise… I look at this way. Either do it with this song in or you are not allowed to do it… So between of stale bread and starving, I will have stale bread.
Hariharan: But, for many who look upon you…
Balu: I feel flattered…
Hariharan: Yes, but don’t you feel you are letting them down?
Balu: I know yes. But Hari, in one of my interviews earlier this year, I said: If any film from a younger director who has come after me, is going to be respected and called as a good film, that film is going to have Balu Mahendra’s impact or influence… That is what I’m leaving behind… Not my films. I would love to say I’m leaving behind ‘Veedu’ or a Sandhya Raagam… not the other films I did. These two films had the least number of compromises… Do you think one work in creativity, either be a painting, cinema or a short story can ever be called absolutely original? Because the person concerned, the artiste functioning, is one small portion of one long, long chain that probably started in the caves. I can’t say this came only from me. This came from the caves. I’m only a part of a little bit of the chain which will continue even after me. So if you are going to respect my work as an absolutely original work, I think it’s about that work that ahs the least number of identifiable influences.
Hariharan: You don’t agree with me when I say that cinema is a team effort. Every member is equally and solely responsible for ultimate creation of the work. If everybody starts respecting each other… In your case, you have become a one-man show… But one area I think we lack is the area of script writing. The writer has disappeared from our films…
Balu: In Tamil cinema, we never ever had a writer. Like Malayalam cinema, there’s no equivalent of an M.T.Vasudevan Nair or a Padmarajan here in Tamil Cinema.
Hariharan: Why is it that there with so many great writers, there’s a whole new literature movement…
Balu: All the writers, they look at films and only criticize…
Hariharan: That it’s a cheaper art form…
Balu: It’s a horrible situation… Unless, the writers also come inside. So nowadays, when any respectable writer criticizes the film from outside, I tell them: Why don’t you come in and try writing once and then you ll know what it is function in this chaos?
Hariharan: Both of us have come from the same film Institute … Do you think it’s the serious agenda of the film institute to have develop script writers…
Hariharan: Rather than technicians… How would you do it, if you were to start all over again?
Balu: In my case, I was a writer. Before coming to films, my short story and poems were respected. So that was an advantage. Then and now. Now I write my scripts because I’m very close to literature. I keep myself updated, at least Tamil. Whatever is going to be acclaimed tomorrow, I would have read it. That’s what I tell my assistants, to make it a point to read at least one short story a day.
Hariharan: This is the right time for people like you to set up a script clinic… Do you think there’s room for that or are you cynical?
Balu: It is possible, when you guys were discussing my ‘Julie Ganapathy’ in class yesterday, I was thinking that: “My God, if I had gone to Hari with this script before making the film, I might have just included one or two suggestions he made…” One or two strong suggestions… So now I m having this idea of inviting writers, people like Prapanchan, Thilakavathy and Sujatha, who himself is a scriptwriter… and conduct a workshop for them on what is required for cinema…
Hariharan: I think it’s crucial…
Balu: We should do it in our Academy…
Hariharan: It’s interesting that we began with the same institute and now, we’re back into another Academy, at L.V.Prasad Film Academy, where you’ve been such an inspiring force and at the same time been humble enough to say that: Ok, I’m willing to learn from you guys…
Balu: I didn’t say that to be humble. I really meant. When I came to class and sat there, the first day. It’s a long process of learning. Anything that stagnates, stink. This is what I told the students yesterday. If you are a film student, you are always a film student. So many things happen around the world… You need to keep on updating yourself. The passion for cinema needs to be sumptuously kept alive. Don’t let that fire go out.
Hariharan: In a situation where its growingly becoming consumerist and globalised, filmmaking seems to becoming very trivial, the consumption..the product is becoming more important… the money is becoming more talked about than the concept…
Balu: When people talk about huge money, I get scared…
Hariharan: I believe cinema exists when it is made with intimacy, small budgets…
B.M: I completely agree… When money starts to talk in the cinema…that too crores
Hariharan: The artiste begins to keep quiet…
Balu: Very rightly said. It’s going to be a hard way ahead. Even in the class, we see people who want to make blockbusters… We have nothing against that kind of expenditure and canvas… We both love Sholay… But at no point…
Hariharan: Should we let the artiste get lost…
Balu: Or disappear into the canvas…
The conversation sounded very “concerned” and “responsible”. I’ve never heard of Mr. Hariharan. Which movie of Raghuvaran’s is he talking about?
Did the conversation actually take place in english?
cant believe u remembered every bit of wot u heard, line by line, word by word!!!.. newayz.. this is th most boring mssage i hav ever read in ur blog.. by th way, why dont u update ur he syas, she says blog..
hariharan is the best in the country as far as film theory goes… if you’ve studied a film course in any reputed university in India, chances are he would have taught there.
he’s also winner of a national award for his film Ezhavathu Manithan, which made Raghuvaran popular…
it came out years ago.
anonymous mo fos:
these days, there’s something called an audio recorder… its in built in my laptop… so it just grabs every sound byte… and if you thought this was boring, go get yourself some shakeela flicks…
yeah…dis uncut 1 is better…speaks more abt hariharan too…
We dont have exclusive writers just for screenplay/scripts in cinema.
The other day I was watching “Nenjil oru Aalayam”. And was discussing about “Kaadhalikka Neramillai” wit my friend.
Those movies had subtle love story and drama with good music and most important of all.. good lyrics. And actors who complemented the story. And their screen prescence, dialogue delivery ..so powerful.
Exaggeration in those days, in expressions are understandable, owing to theatre.
Our own tamil cinema standards were very high.
Even hindi one’s for that matter..
I can still recall some shots from “Madhumathi”, “Hum dono”..
And now.. *sigh*
How does the reproduction of this interview in you blog ? Is this come under the ownership of ‘The Hindu’ and do you need to have their permission ? or does this belong to both you and ‘The Hindu’ ?
btw, I do hope you publish all the uncut versions here of your Hindu articles.
1 dollar saint:
yes, after all he raised all the questions… what wud i do if not for the blog… I hope Im absolved of guilt of chopping off the story cuz of space constraints.
screenwriters are not given the importance they deserve… like the interview tells us, today anyone who is able to convince the hero of packaging him as a stud is the writer, director and also, future hero…he he! i bet perarasu will soon launch a film with him as the hero. thank god tirupathi flopped.
as long as i carry it here after publication, my office doesnt care… its my personal space and ive given a disclaimer up there that says it has nothing to do with the organisation or its views.
nice to see hariharan speak abt something other than three point lighting and shot scene cut blah (college used to play ancient ftii video on filmmaking where he’s the `explainer’)
the uncut version speaks volumes about the passion that these two ppl have for their movies… it made for great reading.
Nice post….good read….moreso cos its uncut. Keep it going.
Forgot 2 ask – have u ventured into film making?
My First comment on this blog,
A vey concerned discussion, the most interesting of the Take 2s that I have read in THE HINDU. I am very happy that genuine concerns are getting raised and something action is resulting out of it. Like the two people say, Cinema is more like an Investment business, so there is no room for experimentation….just follow the formula for success,lest you fail, and get ridiculed…thats where the original script writers have got obscured into oblivion.
my 2 cents,
Thanks Sudish for posting this!
You’ve an immortal line in here:
“When money starts to talk in cinema (BALU)…the artist begins to keep quiet (HARI)”