“Deeply saddened on the demise of Balu Mahendra. The legacy of his creations Sadma and Moondram Pirai will live on. My condolences to the family.” Thus tweeted Sridevi after the brilliant cinematographer and filmmaker Balu Mahendra succumbed to a heart attack in Chennai on Thursday. He was 74.
Balu Mahendra’s legacy is not just restricted to the Kamal Haasan-Sridevi starrer Moondram Pirai or its Hindi remake Sadma. He was a profound influence on the great and the good of some of the brightest talents of Indian cinema. Born in Sri Lanka, Mahendra was a cinematography gold medalist from the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune. His debut as a cinematographer couldn’t have been with a better filmmaker, Ramu Kariat – the director who made Malayalam cinema’s all time classic Chemmeen. Mahendra shot Kariat’s seminal Malayalam film Nellu, which won the Kerala state award for best black and white photography.
Kariat was a proponent of natural lighting in cinema, compared to the garish excesses of his contemporaries. It was a style that Mahendra followed, perfected, made his own and imparted to a whole new generation of filmmakers. If Mani Ratnam learnt his story telling from Tamil great J Mahindran, he learnt the visual poetry that is his cinematography style from Balu Mahendra. He consented to shoot then rookie Mani Ratnam’s debut film, 1983’s Pallavi Anupallavi in Kannada, starring Anil Kapoor and Kiran Vairale.
Ratnam’s films that followed Pallavi Anupallavi, Unaru, Pagal Nilavu and Idaya Kovil were poorly shot compared to Balu Mahendra’s naturalistic genius. It is only after he forged a partnership with P C Sreeram for Mouna Ragam and went back to Balu Mahendra’s lighting style, did Ratnam find his feet in the language of cinema and has retained that method ever since.
Similarly, Balu Mahendra’s approach to cinematography also resonated with generations of directors of photography including Santosh Sivan, KV Anand, N Nataraja Subramaniam and Ravi K Chandran.
For the assistant directors who worked with him, Mahendra was no less than a university. Award winning directors from the Mahendra school include Bala, Ameer Sultan and Vetri Maaran.
Acting is something that people normally do not associate with Mahindra, but act he did in his very last film as director and cinematographer Thalaimuraigal, which released in December 2013 to considerable critical acclaim. In the film he plays a doyen who teaches his grandson the nuances of culture. It is perhaps appropriate that the last work of a master, Thalaimuraigal, translates as “Generations”, a fitting finale for a man who influenced generations.