Balu Mahendra, master of complex relationships

Last Updated: Mon, Feb 24, 2014 15:22 hrs

Balu Mahendra, one of Tamil cinema's greatest, passed away recently. He was a film-maker, cinematographer, screenwriter, and editor, who walked the precarious plank between commercial films and art films with courage and artistry. Much has been written about his work and the impact it has had on people's lives, both inside and outside the film industry. His passing leaves behind a vacuum that's hard to fill, for there are few film-makers who have it in them to stick their neck out and experiment the way he did.

Take Marupadiyum (1993). A remake from Mahesh Bhat's Arth, the story deals with a husband (Nizhalgal Ravi) who cheats on his wife (Revathi) and begs her to take him back when he realizes his folly. But the wife rejects him, posing a very rational question – if she had done the same, would he have taken her back? While the story isn't Balu Mahendra's own, he must nevertheless be given credit for choosing to remake such a film in the land of Kannagi, who is idolized as the 'perfect wife' in our culture. Not only does the wife reject the husband, she also chooses to remain single because that’s the life she likes. Thaali sentiment has always been a big deal in Tamil cinema (remember that hyperbolic scene from Andha Yezhu Naatkal in which Dr. Anand tries to snatch Vasanthi's thaali?) and to make a film in which a heroine spurns her 'reformed' husband is a gamble of sorts. But it was a gamble that paid off – the film won critical acclaim and was also a commercial success.

Balu Mahendra has dealt with the errant husband theme earlier. In his first film, Kokila (1977), Kamal Haasan plays the role of Vijaykumar, a bank executive, who cheats on the girl he's promised to marry. His fling with the housemaid results in a pregnancy and Vijaykumar ends up marrying her instead. Similarly, in Olangal (1982), the marriage between Radha (Poornima) and Ravi (Amol Palekar) is threatened when it comes to light that Ravi has had a child with another woman (Ambika) before marriage. Rettai Vaal Kuruvi (1987), remade from Micki and Maude, had Mohan marrying two women and having a child each with the two of them on the same day, same time! While the first two films explore the nature of human relationships in a serious vein, with protagonists who are not spotless god-like characters but flawed, ordinary humans, the last is a comic take on a two-timing husband who has to face the consequences of his actions. In the end, the husband seems to have gotten away with his misdemeanors but with both the women coming across as spirited characters throughout the film, the open ending still leaves us curious. Has he really made a clean escape, after all?

Sathi Leelavathi (1995) had Leelavathi (Kalpana) plotting to bring her straying husband, Arun (Ramesh Arvind), back to his senses. The circumstances are almost the same as Marupadiyum. The husband is smitten by a beautiful woman and he cheats on his wife. But while in the first film, the wife decides that she’s had enough, in the second, Leelavathi moves mountains to win her spouse back. But Leelavathi is no doormat. She plots, she schemes, she uses every trick in the bag to get what she wants. She points out that she became fat and careless about her looks only because she gave birth to Arun's children; she leaves the kids under his care, making him understand just how much of her time and energy she has given to the family. Her manipulations to save her marriage at all costs may not sit well with those of us who see no value in such a relationship but it must also be understood that Leelavathi is a woman with agency – she does what she does not because she’s out of choices but because she has made her choice.

Kalpana played a similar role in Chinna Veedu (1985) but as Bhagyalakshmi, she had only silence and 'self-sacrifice' as tools to make her husband come back to her. Leelavathi, on the other hand, is more like the Thulasi of Marupadiyum who stands up for herself and makes her own decisions. While Thulasi asks her husband if he'd have taken her back had she made the same mistake, Leelavathi convinces Raja (Priya's boyfriend) to pursue Priya (Heera) even though she has been with her husband. She says she knows it’s tough for a man to stomach the fact that the girl he likes has slept with someone else, but she’s taking her husband back, so shouldn't Raja also do the same if he truly loves Priya?

The theme of the errant spouse is no longer as popular as it used to be, with most of our love stories beginning in college and ending with marriage. Not many of the new films have looked at life beyond the 'm' word. Balu Mahendra’s understanding of complex relationships and his masterly portrayal of the human dilemma will be sorely missed in the years to come.

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Sowmya Rajendran is a children's writer who occasionally offers her words of wisdom to adults. She lives in Pune.