K. Balachander meant many things to many folks. First and foremost he was a wonderful storyteller and a director par excellence. He was also a social commentator who tackled such diverse and controversial topics as prostitution, political corruption, sexual infidelity and cross generational romance. He was a stickler for detail, down to the last cobweb, as he recreated real life on screen to transport the audience into his world and his stories. In the
kollywood of yesterday where dialogues were predictable, characters were stereotypical and song and dance sequences and cameo actors carried a film, he brought nuanced dialogues, de-glamorised the protagonists by infusing them with complexity and conflict and brought out the acting talent in all. He was the thinking person's filmmaker and yet through his sheer genius he became populist quite like Woody Allen, also extremely prolific and versatile as the latter. He made the transition to TV quite seamlessly and gained even wider appeal through this medium.
I felt a peculiar closeness to him for two tangential reasons. One, he bore a striking physical resemblance to my dad. There have been occasions when my dad received a celebrity's reception, when, mistaken for KB, he was escorted to a front row seat at an event. Two, my father and he wrote to each other over several years. My father who could not accept anything but the best from KB was quick to point out flaws in his work through long eloquent letters. To KB's credit he responded to each one in great detail giving as good as he got. Even though the letters smacked of egotism and his desire to be right, they spoke to his enduring passion for storytelling and film-making.
Time to go back and watch his films starting with my most favourite "Thaneer Thaneer" - where a villager famously describes the plight of people in his drought ridden village with the words "k**ndi kazhava kooda thanni illai" ( no water to even wash one's a*se"") - pretty refreshing and controversial for celluloid of his era!