Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Earthy but Worthy – A piece on Balakumaran’s writing in Tamil Cinema

Disclaimer – this is not meant to be an exhaustive, analytical piece on Balakumaran.  It is an attempt to capture a few facets of his writing that I have enjoyed and admired.

I may sometimes be tardy in paying our monthly gas and electricity bills. (No, it has not gotten to the point when connections have been turned off!) But part of my unerring monthly routine is watching at least a few scenes from Nayagan.  During one such recent viewing, I reduced my treadmill speed – yes, I was probably exhausted too! – to rewind a few seconds to watch a conversation again.  It is between the two kids, one played by the young Kamal Haasan.  The kid has just lost his father, avenged the latter’s death and has arrived in Bombay sans any support system.  He is sipping on hot tea while his new friend is inquiring the reason behind him escaping from Thoothukudi.  First things first – the kids in this scene are remarkable actors.  There is not an ounce of inauthenticity or cinematic precociousness.  What makes them shine even brighter in this scene are the marvelous lines rooted in the local milieu, penned by the late Balakumaran.  I especially love the colloquialism on display – “paritchai-la giritchai-la fail aaytiya?”…“panam ginam thirudiniya?”  Now, you don’t have to be ‘Senthamizhan’ Seeman to know that “giritchai” and “ginam” are not Tamil words.  But is that not how we speak.  That is the nativity and realism that Balakumaran, at his best, brought to screenwriting. 

There are filmmakers – the great Mani Ratnam included – who can sometimes get carried away by cinematic technique, to the point that the writing seems to be given short shrift.  But as Kamal once noted, Mani Ratnam was secure enough to surround himself with “strong collaborators” like Balakumaran.  Very few directors like Shankar (Gentleman, Kadhalan and Jeans), Suresh Krissna (Baasha), Durai (Mugavari) and Selvaraghavan (Pudhupettai) have utilized Balakumaran well.  But when they did, with an understanding of what truly made him tick, the results were there to see. 

To me, Balakumaran’s strengths as a screen writer were twofold – authenticity and profundity.  He was an expert at getting into the skin of the characters and explaining their motivations in a way that felt completely in sync with the character.  The motivations may not always be ‘right’ or reasonable but the way he could pen the lines, we could totally see the character speaking that way.  Take Gunaa for instance.  There is, of course, the oft-cited monologue in the doctor’s office – it is an amazing stretch of dialogue, no doubt.  One that is masterfully delivered by Kamal.  But I like Roshini’s lines in the ‘wedding’ scene equally well, if not more.  She has fallen in love with someone whom she knows is besotted with her for reasons that might go beyond the realm of normal man-woman relationships.  Yet, the purity of his emotion has consumed her.  In the scene, when Kamal states that it is not full-moon yet, she responds, “Nila agasathulia iruku?  Manasula iruku.  Manasu than nila.  Neranja naaL...manasu neranja naaL...Kattu…”  (The way Saritha, who dubbed for Roshini, modulates the delivery of these lines is quite special too.)  As poetic as the lines are, they ring very true coming from a girl who has experienced emotional fulfillment in a way that she never had previously. 

If these lines from Gunaa were gentle and poetic, the lines he penned for Radhika in Jeans were sharp and vitriolic.  In one of her great performances, the monstrously talented Radhika tore into the part with relish, delivering Balakumaran’s lines with amazing vitality, her diction being spot on.  One of the stinging lines in this segment was, “Vevaram kettavanuku pondaati-ya irukardha vida vela therinjavanuku vepaati-ya irukalam!”  There is zero political correctness in this line.  But you could totally see the Radhika character speak this way.  In fact, it seemed like the only way she would speak!

Another example of his lines shedding light on the inner workings of a character is from the famous “avana nirutha sol…naan nirutharen” scene from Nayagan.  A gangster and his peace-loving daughter are at loggerheads with one another, unable to strike any common ground.  There are two lines that especially sizzle with power.  When an irate Kamal barks at Karthika, “Engendhu vandhichu indha kai neetra pazhakkam?”, his Man Friday Janakaraj aptly responds, “Namma kitte irundhu than!”  And recollecting his violent ways, Kamal says, “Thirupi adicha than adi-lendhu thappikka mudium…katti adicha than uyirode iruka mudiyum.”  These are intense, violent thoughts but when they are uttered by a feared don, they sound just right.

The other strength he possessed was an uncanny ability to deliver profound thoughts in a very accessible manner.  Mugavari was quite an amazing film at the time of its release.  It was not the kind of mainstream entertainer that Ajith was dishing out during his wave of success post Vaali.  It was a quiet tale of struggles faced by an aspiring music director, played with utmost conviction by Ajith.  Raghuvaran’s advice to him in the terrace scene is one where Balakumaran’s lines, underscoring the importance of hard work and persistence, were crisp yet memorable.  Apart from the lovely 'Gold at 10 feet' story, I especially like this line – “Inge jeikaley-na makku-nu solluvange.  Jeychitta luck-unu solluvange!” 

As I wrote earlier, there are some filmmakers that can get obsessed with form while sacrificing content.  While it is laudable that our cinema is moving away from excessively talky dramas that lacked finesse in craft, it is equally important to do the write...err...right thing and strike a balance.  Fine writers like Balakumaran and Sujatha are no longer with us.  But as we turn to their chapters in the history of Tamil cinema, we realize that the imprints left by their pen are indelible.  May budding filmmakers who aspire to stamp their impact on the medium take a leaf out of these chapters that were penned by these immortal authors. 

Continue to rest in peace, Balakumaran...