During a rare television interview, while Bala shifted in his seat, the interviewer noticed some strange beads around his neck. When questioned about it, Bala said, “It was given to me by an aghori from Kasi. They’re people who eat dead bodies but isn’t there an artist inside everyone? He eats one person every other day, collects a small piece of bone from each carcass, shaves it patiently into the shape of a skull and keeps it with him. Once he collected 108 such pieces, each from a different person, he strung it into a chain and gifted it to me.”
That’s filmmaker Bala for you. He began his career as an assistant to Balu Mahendra (the director of Sadma. We’ll delve into his films in a later article!). He went on to make his first film Sethu in 1999 and until today, in a span of 18 years, he’s made only 7 films. His fourth film Naan Kadavul earned him the National Film Award for Best Direction in 2010.
To understand Bala and his work further, here are two films you can begin with.
Naan Kadavul has two parallel story arcs that come together in the end. One is the story of Rudran, a boy deserted in Varanasi by his parents, who grows to become an aghori and returns to his native village in South India on the bidding of his guru. “You’ll know when it’s time to return,” his guru tells him. The other story arc is that of a blind beggar girl and her begging cohort, who’re kept enslaved in a dingy, underground den by Thaandavan.
Trivia: Rudran, the aghori played by Arya in the film, wears the same chain of skulls as Bala.
Pithamagan is the story of Chithan, an orphan who grows up in a graveyard and befriends Shakthi, who makes a living by selling petty items with cooked-up stories. There’s also a woman who sells drugs and a simpleton girl who gets easily duped. The film explores the bonds that form between these four misfits and whether Chithan can fit into normal society.
A song from Pithamagan gives you a beautiful snapshot of their relationship.
Watching these two films will give you a taste of Bala and help you easily identify five distinct tropes that make his films stand out.
From the plots of Naan Kadavul and Pithamagan, it must be apparent that Bala tends to focus on lives of people we brush aside out of fear or repulsion. His characters are people we rarely encounter or have no need to meet. They’re people who either step aside or have been forced to stand aside. Yet, when they appear on screen, they feel real and close to us. This realism is Bala’s biggest strength and has stuck on as his identity. Other Tamil filmmakers from the realism wave like Balaji Sakthivel, Vetrimaran and Manikandan present a carefully constructed and chiselled realism. Bala’s films meander with a certain unrestrained rawness, just like his characters. These rough edges around the corner make his films more realistic.
While portraying reality, he doesn’t pity his characters and neither does he want you to pity them. There’s no attempt to make realism seem poetic. Naan Kadavul nudges us to take notice of the world under our feet, the world we look away from as we saunter off after dropping the customary coin. In fact, in Naan Kadavul the beggars hate being pitied. You won’t notice a single shot in which Bala shows you the face of a person feeling sorry. You’ll only see coins dropping into bowls or legs walking past them. There’s even a moment when a beggar remarks, “These people who visit the temple believe dharma will save them and give us money. Let’s have some pity for them and accept their alms so they’re saved!”
Trivia: Anurag Kashyap felt inspired by the realistic portrayal of his hometown Varanasi in Naan Kadavul.
Each one of Bala’s films can be seen as an elaborate depiction of a living hell. Sethu was the story of a man, who escapes from a mental asylum after regaining his sanity, only to realise his lover is dead. Nandha is the story of a young boy who kills his abusive father, only to lose his mother’s love forever. In Paradesi, a bunch of people migrate to a tea estate in the hopes of improving their standard of living only to realise they’re hopelessly enslaved for the rest of their lives. His films keep revisiting the same point that life is an arduous, never-ending journey from one suffering to another. His characters are almost always like bugs caught within a glass jar with a flame burning at its centre. They keep trying to climb out of it but keep falling back into the fire. The netherworld-like underground den in Naan Kadavul is the perfect visual representation of Bala’s entire gamut of films. You walk down a few dark steps, enter this underground lair and you’ll find each of Bala’s characters down there, whimpering in their solitary hells.
Bala’s protagonists are almost always larger-than-life heroes. They have the traditional intro songs that are staples of a Vijay or Ajith film. For example, the lyrics of Rudran’s Om Sivoham or Chithan’s Piraiye Piraiye help us understand the background of these characters but also gives them ample hype. In fact, Om Sivoham’s lyrics are completely in Sanskrit, blaring out the supreme qualities of Lord Shiva! He doesn’t shy away from staging stunt sequences in a grand manner with camera angles carefully orchestrated to create whistle-worthy moments. He keeps his plots very simple, just like commercial films. Plot merely functions as a cloth that’s draped around his beautifully naked characters, almost like an afterthought. Vikram in Pithamagan and Arya in Naan Kadavul are classic masala hero template characters. Just like mass heroes nothing can shake them and they’ll go to any extent to have revenge upon the villain or kill the bad guys. They even assume mythic proportions as mentioned by Baradwaj Rangan in his review of Naan Kadavul. But, what fuels them is something different from a regular mass hero. Chithan’s strength is from the awareness that everyone ends up in the grave eventually. Rudran’s strength is from his transcendental spiritual enlightenment that he has no boundaries. The peculiar backgrounds of these characters make you believe that they possess superhuman strength. He makes you wish that the bad guys must be destroyed and that gives a satisfactory pay-off when they’re butchered in the climax.
While still being larger-than-life, Bala’s protagonists also break the stereotypes. They’re invariably misfits or outcasts. They’re shabby, rugged and don’t refrain from speaking coarse language. Rudran in Naan Kadavul doesn’t care about his weeping mother, which is usually a big no-no if you want to get female votes in a future election. Arya as Kumbindrensamy in Avan Ivan is the exact opposite, perhaps even a mockery, of the chocolate boy he’s played in other films. This celebration scene should give you a feel of his character.
Trivia: In an interview, Bala confessed that he realised much later after making Pithamagan that its plot closely resembled Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya – two characters meet in a prison, have an initial tiff, become friends, one of them is killed and the other takes revenge.
Ridiculing the absurdity of life
Bala’s films are usually classified as tragedies. But, it’d be more apt to classify them as “tragedy with a heavy dose of ridicule”. He makes us laugh at misery and wade through the absurdity of life with irreverence. That’s what the beggars in Naan Kadavul do. Making the beggars dress up as gods and rebuke each other was a riot. Even in Pithamagan when we laugh at Suriya’s antics in trying to sell all kinds of weird and wacky concoctions to unsuspecting customers, we’re laughing not at Suriya but at ourselves and our tendencies to be easily fooled. And in Avan Ivan, Walter Vanangamudi (Vishal) who calls himself an artist is taunted by his mother for being a hapless bumpkin who can’t steal to make a living. If you view Vishal’s character as representing a filmmaker who’s true to art and Arya’s character to be a commercial filmmaker who knows the tricks of the trade, then you’ll understand the depth of satire embedded in Avan Ivan’s narrative.
Trivia: When an interviewer asked Mani Ratnam why his films seem to portray only elite characters and not the underprivileged (kind of a dumb question), he retorted “Aren’t other directors like Bala doing that very well? Then why should I?” (The Mani Ratnam interview)
Traditionally, realistic films have always been mere reflections of society or about specific human emotions. But, Bala’s films portray realism while at the same time transcending it and speaking of an eternal agony that tortures the human soul. Let’s take the final pan shot of the tea estate in Paradesi’s climax. Here’s a man who’s wailing for his family that’s joined him in his misery and the pan shot is literally showing you his wail travel across the entire tea estate dotted with other workers. If you pause for a moment and consider the tea estate to be a metaphor for the human world, then the narrative assumes a much larger philosophical dimension. Bala has been adept at tucking hidden dimensions beneath the rug of realism in every film. On the surface, Thaarai Thappattai is a love story gone horribly wrong but it’s also an exploration of how each generation thinks its subsequent generation is a degraded version of itself. In Nandha, while there’s the story of a man yearning for his mother’s love at the forefront, there’s a woman refugee in the background with no place to call home. And the best embedded narrative is in Naan Kadavul. It raises the bigger question of who’s the real beggar. The lyrics of Pitchai Paathiram that metaphorise the human body as a begging bowl make the bigger point that all humans are beggars seeking divine deliverance. And in that grand scheme of things, the distinctions of pure, impure, rich, poor, well-built and handicapped crumble. It’s exactly what Rudran says in Naan Kadavul when a fellow accuses him of tarnishing fire. “Is there clean and unclean fire? Fire is just fire.”
Bala also tends to embed a variety of inspirations into his narrative. His first film Sethu was inspired from a Malayalam short story ‘Iruttinte Atmavu’ by MT Vasudevan Nair, a Tamil poem by Arivumathi and a real-life experience. Naan Kadavul is loosely based on ‘Ezham Ulagam’, a novel by Jeyamohan that details the lives of Pandaram, his family and begging cohort. The first couple of chapters of this novel will shock you with the portrayal of the lives of these characters but as you read further you’re drawn into their world. Naan Kadavul’s screenplay has a similar structure. There’s the initial jolt you feel when the camera first moves into Thaandavan’s den but you gradually begin to love the characters and enjoy their little moments of joy. Jayankanthan’s short story ‘Nandhavanathil Or Aandi’ deals with how a grave digger is not moved by deaths but when his son dies at a very young age, he’s completely broken. He’s tormented by visions of all the dead children he has buried, rising up from the graves and dancing in front of him. To find out how Bala adapts this scenario without resorting to outlandish visuals, watch the film!
Trivia: Bala is a graduate in Tamil literature from Madurai American College.
In a way, Bala’s films are like Buddhist tales from the past. These stories were always about people who were disillusioned and after some suffering invariably they’d end up at the feet of Buddha, become a disciple, meditate and attain nirvana. One such tale is that of Kisa Gotami. The distraught lady who went to the Buddha, begging him to bring her dead son back to life. Buddha asks her to fetch mustard seeds from a family where nobody had died. She searches far and wide and finally realises there’s not a single house that hasn’t known death. She returns to the Buddha with this realisation, becomes his disciple and attains nirvana. Had this been a Bala film, the story would pretty much be the same. Except that Gotami would still be searching for those mustard seeds, hoping she can revive her son, roaming the earth in eternal agony. And you’d watch his film, not because you can shed tears for Gotami, but because Bala will make you feel Gotami and you are one and the same.
Links to watch Bala’s Movies
Bala’s Interview on Puthiya Thalaimurai, in which he mentions the gift from an aghori
Bala’s BOFTA masterclass, in which he shares several insights on his films
Ezham Ulagam, the novel by Jeyamohan on which Naan Kadavul is loosely based
Nandhavanathil Or Aandi, the short story by Jeyakanthan that inspired Pithamagan’s Chithan character
My heartfelt thanks to my friends N Balasubramanian, Venkataraman, Ganesh Babu and Ajay Vignesh for their inputs that greatly inspired me in writing this piece.
An edited version of this piece can be found here.