Full Biography of Director Balu Mahendra
Balanathan Benjamin Mahendran was an Indian filmmaker, screenwriter, editor and cinematographer. Born and brought up in Sri Lanka, Mahendra developed an early interest in photography, after his father presented him with a camera. After completing an honours degree London University, he enrolled himself in a cinematography course at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune. He passed out with a gold medal from the institute and started his film career as a cameraman for the Malayalam film Nellu in 1971. The film earned him the best cinematographer award from the Government of Kerala. Since then he has been chosen as the best cinematographer for many times in various Indian films. Mahendra has been lauded for his use of natural lighting as much as possible and was among the first to pioneer innovative camera style for colour in South India.
Making his directional debut in 1977 through the Kannada film Kokila, he went on to make over 20 films in Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu and Hindi. He is widely regarded as part of the first in a wave of directors and screenwriters from the Chennai film industry who revitalised Tamil cinema. As of 2013, Mahendra has won five National Film Awards—two for cinematography, three Filmfare Awards South and numerous state awards from the governments of Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Mahendra usually wrote the script for his films, handled the camera and edited the film himself, thus retaining a firm control over his creative output.
Mahendra was born in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka to a Sri Lankan Tamil family. His father was a professor. Mahendra completed his schooling at St. Michael's College, Batticaloa. At the age of 13, he got an opportunity to watch David Lean's making of The Bridge on the River Kwai during a school field trip in Sri Lanka. This eventually led him to develop an interest towards becoming a film maker. Mahendra joined the London University and completed a Bachelor of Science (Honours) degree, after which he joined the FTII, Pune pursuing a course in cinematography and passed out with a gold medal.
Mahendra got his first break in films when he was approached by Ramu Kariat for his film Nellu in 1974. Mahendra's work in the film was highly appreciated as he won the Best Cinematographer Award at the Kerala State Film Awards. He continued to work as cameraman for 21 films till 1976. He worked mainly in Malayalam with directors like K. S. Sethumadhavan, Bharathan and P. N. Menon during this period. The following year he made his directional debut through Kokila, a Kannada film, which earned him the Best Cinematography Award at the 24th National Film Awards. The film was highly successful and Mahendra received critical acclaim for his work. The films has the distinction of being the only Kannada film to complete 150 days in Madras. Following that, he decided make a film in Tamil. It was at that time he was approached by J. Mahendran who wanted him to be the cameraman for the former's directional debut Mullum Malarum (1978).
Apart from cinematography, Mahendra also assisted in script, editing and direction. After completing the film Mahendra decided to work on his second directional venture, this time in Tamil. He named the film Azhiyadha Kolangal (1979), which tells the story of three friends who are in adolescent stage. In Telugu, Mahendra worked for directors like Singeetham Srinivasa Rao, Bapu and K. Viswanath in films such as Tharam Marindi, Lambadolla Ramadasu, Sommokadidi Sokokadidi, Manavoori Pandavulu and Shankarabharanam. Of these, Manavoori Pandavulu fetched him a state award.
Though his films were oriented towards parallel cinema, he was also interested in Hollywood films and quotes Alfred Hitchcock as his favourite. This prompted to make him a film titled Moodu Pani (1980). Loosely based on Hitchcock's Psycho, the film saw Mahendra collaborating with composer Ilaiyaraaja for the first time; since then Ilaiyaraaja has been the regular composer for all of Mahendra's films till date. His fourth directional venture, Olangal (1982) marked his Malayalam language debut. Inspired from Erich Segal's novel Man, Woman and Child, the film had Amol Palekar in the lead. The same year he directed another film in Tamil, Moondram Pirai which had Kamal Haasan and Sridevi in the lead. It tells the story of a school teacher who looks after a girl suffering from amnesia. The film was a "blockuster" with Mahendra, Haasan and Sridevi receiving acclaim for their work. Haasan and Mahendra won National Film Awards in the Best Actor and Best Cinematography categories respectively. Mahendra won two Filmfare Awards in the year for Olangal and Moondram Pirai in the Best Director category.
He made his first Hindi Film Sadma,which is a remake of his own Tamil film Moondram Pirai with Kamal Hasan and Sridevi. This film is supposed to be one of the finest films made by him. The film superbly captures the emotions involved in the relationship between the two main characters. He made another Hindi film, Aur Ek Prem Kahani (remake of Kokila Kannada film), which was about the love affair between a young man and his maid, told in a realistic and simple manner.
The film director Mani Ratnam approached Mahendra to work on the cinematography of his first Kannada film, Pallavi Anu Pallavi. It has been reported that he almost refused to work with Ratnam whom he perceived as a novice at that time. He has since been quoted as admiring Ratnam for his "infectious enthusiasm". He never hesitated to work with Ratnam when Ratnam approached him. Instead he agreed to do the film enthusiastically when Ratnam met him and narrated the story to him.
Of late, his films have not clicked at the box office and his financial status too wasn't going great, which he had mentioned in an interview.
Following a cardiac arrest on 13 February 2014, Balu Mahendra was admitted to Vijaya Hospital in Chennai where he was declared dead.Directors Bala, Ameer and Ram visited him at the hospital before he passed away.
Mahendra was equally praised for his cinematography and directional finesse. He was among the first to pioneer innovative colour in south Indian cinema, and is considered to be "one of the few filmmakers in Tamil who believes in telling a story visually". Younger cinematographers like Santosh Sivan, Ravi K. Chandran, Natarajan Subramaniam, K. V. Anand have been inspired by him.
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