IF YOU ARE FROM THE NORTHERN PARTS of the nation, or if most of the movies you watch are in Hindi, you may not have heard of K Balachander. You may have seen the films he made in Hindi, though—Aaina, Zara Si Zindagi, Ek Nai Paheli, and, almost certainly, Ek Duuje Ke Liye, which was one of the biggest blockbusters of the 1980s. Then as now, a filmmaker from Chennai did not usually find himself splashed across entertainment columns, though Balachander did see his name in national papers when he won Indian cinema’s highest honour, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, for the year 2010. I thought I would write a book about him. After all, this was the man who launched Rajinikanth’s career. He shepherded an adorable child actor named Kamal Haasan into adult roles. And yet, despite the ubiquity of stars in his movies, South Indian audiences went to see “a K Balachander film”, which was often about women, often about tangled relationships. The director was the draw. He was an auteur in the truest sense, leaving his unmistakable stamp all over his creations. From the way, for instance, he handled his heroines, you could make a case that he was as drawn to the feminine mystique as he was repelled by it. He had to enshrine women. He had to punish them. I felt he deserved documenting.
Publishers, however, felt differently. I kept running into various versions of the same four words: “This book won’t sell.” The reason? Not many, up north, have heard of him, and as the population that reads is even scantier than the population that watches non-Hindi cinema—so the argument went—the book was simply not viable. I protested that mainstream publishers had brought out excellent books on, for example, Helen and Leela Naidu, neither exactly a household name in the South. For that matter, even in the North, how many Hindi-film watchers had heard of an actress named Leela Naidu? Or was the book pitched at those who wanted dish on Dom Moraes’s wife? As for Helen, would the audience who whistled at her moves on screen be just as interested in a well-researched book about her life? Why, I wondered, couldn’t these publishers see what I did: that the Tamilians and the Kannadigas and the Telugus and the Malayalis, both here and abroad, could easily make up in numbers for the supposedly uninterested readers north of the Vindhyas?
These publishers could just as easily have been newspapers or magazines or television production houses, reacting to a writer or a documentarian trying to pitch a long essay or a series about K Balachander’s career since his first film in 1965 (or his successful theatre career from even earlier). Stray too far from Bollywood and you hit a brick wall. It was inevitable, therefore, that the celebrations of Indian cinema’s centenary would turn out to be all about Hindi cinema. The recent compilation of Indian cinema’s 100 greatest scenes in Time Out magazine’s Indian editions featured 10 scenes from Tamil cinema (some of which were my contributions), nine from Bengali, two each from Malayalam and Marathi, and one from Kannada. The rest—76, if you care to count—were selections from Hindi films. In over 90 years of existence and with nearly as many releases per year as Hindi and Tamil cinema (the annual output of these three industries constitutes nearly 50 per cent of the films released per year in India), Telugu cinema, apparently, hasn’t produced a single scene worth singling out—not even in Pakkinti Ammayi, the Cyrano de Bergerac-like 1953 comedy based on the Bengali story “Pasher Bari”, where one man’s voice is assumed to belong to someone else. The list did, however, find a place for Padosan, which was made from the same material 15 years later.