K Balachander @ 90 – 5 Telugu films that showcase the storyteller’s genius

Srivathsan Nadadhur

Where do you begin by describing the genius of filmmaker K Balachander on his 90th birth anniversary? His massively wide repertoire that spans across languages, genres, storytelling media makes it humanly impossible for a writer to reduce his worth to a series of references in a 1000-word article. So, we at Klapboardpost.com, paying an ode to the writer-director’s contribution to Telugu cinema picked his five best direct-Telugu films that do justice to his versatility. Hoping we do justice, here we go…

Akali Rajyam

This is one Balachander film where the protagonist’s idealism is refreshing, given the fact that it is not merely used as a trope to idolise him. It’s effective also because it is not being preachy and gives a voice to the angst of every hot-headed youngster whose ideals confront the norms and hypocrisies within the society. The thematic relevance of the film, despite its coloured characterisations, only seems to be growing with time. Be it the ever-existent unemployment scenario, the scant respect attached to the study of history in the Telugu land, the continual confrontations with the Brahminical ideologies, Akali Rajyam remains as hard-hitting in 2020 as it was in 1980.

There are lovely, poignant artistic touches you expect from a typical K Balachander film too – like the artist who can’t speak and uses colours to communicate, the theatre backdrop where Sridevi is in conflict with her on-stage and off stage-life (it adds weight to the film’s thought that the ‘world is a stage’). With M S Viswanathan’s wondrous music (including a song completely written in Hindi), Ganesh Patro’s skilful dialogue and the likes of Sri Sri, Athreya adorning the songs, Akali Rajyam feels like a complete film with immense shelf life.

Anthuleni Katha

Anthuleni Katha has every notable cliché persistent in family dramas back in the 70s – a dysfunctional family, an ever-weeping mother, a wayward brother, a widowed sister, over-enthusiastic children who speak beyond their age -yet it is remarkable to understand how the filmmaker doesn’t let that hinder its part-realistic, part-dramatic treatment. Expectedly like most Balachander films, there’s no patriarch in the family. At a time when a headstrong woman’s character was a mere trope for other filmmakers to get the hero to tame her a.l.a The Taming of the Shrew, Balachander gave a valid reason for her arrogance, hinting at the hopeless situation back home that forced her to be the fiery figure.

Reminding us of his earlier film Aboorva Ragangal, there’s a scenario of the mother and daughter falling for the same man. Alike Idi Kadha Kadhu, he uses ventriloquism to convey the heartbreak of a protagonist in the popular song, Thali Kattu Subhavela. It’s great to think that the thespian saw the emotional strength in a barely 15-year-old Jayaprada to play a near-heartless protagonist who’s clearly frustrated with her life. This is also the film that gave the young Jayalakshmi a prefix with her popular utterance – Phataphat. In an eerie case of film foretelling reality, while it’s Jayalakshmi’s mother in the film who abruptly ends her life, though destiny had it that Jayalakshmi would end her life after a heartbreak when she was 19.

Rudraveena

One of the rarest occasions where Balachander decided to direct his story first in Telugu before he would do in Tamil, Rudraveena is an unlikely mix where classicality meets politics in (what’s essentially) a family drama yielding great results. The story originates from a deeply conservative Brahmin family, where a patriarch who considers himself to be a torchbearer of classical traditions has a problem with his son’s egalitarian outlook of life and music. This clash with the father is the starting point for a son who would eventually go onto challenge the system.

The song in the film, ‘Bilahari Neethone Aagena Sangeetham’ beautifully summarises the story of an ageing musician with a contrived view of the scope of music, while the film begins with a heart-rending lyric like ‘Chuttupakkala Choodara’ where the young son of a priest refuses to help a blind beggar searching for her banana. The use of Sri Sri’s Nenu Saitham couldn’t have been planned any better for a protagonist who genuinely comes with an intent to serve the people. The sensitive romance between Chiranjeevi and Shobhana, the terrific idea of a conversational song like ‘Randi Randi Dayacheyandi’ where the protagonist is welcomed to his would-be father-in-law’s house are lovely soft touches in an otherwise intense drama. It’s tempting to think how Chiranjeevi would have viewed his career differently had this film succeeded at the box office. Incidentally, this was Balachander’s last direct film in Telugu at a time when the industry was more or less moving out of Chennai.

Maro Charitra

A romantic tragedy, if a phrase like that exists, would suit Maro Charitra best. If there was any film whose tragic ending was remembered as much as Devadasu in Telugu cinema, it was indeed Maro Charitra. The film’s monumental success apart, it’s a climax that continues to be debated to date. Purely going by shock effect and impact, the death of the protagonists lends a sort of epic-ness to a love that overcomes all barriers – language, time and culture. Going purely by the story trajectory though, the ending feels forced and brutal. It’s hard to fathom why the much-in-love Balu and Swapna in the film lose hope to live together after going through such turbulence to keep their romance alive. For the uninitiated, the couple in the film is forced to abide by a pact where they would be married, provided they don’t meet for a year.

The film that made Kamal Haasan the apple of all eyes in the Telugu land, is set in a Vizag backdrop and revolves around the love lives of the children of two families in Tamil-speaking and Telugu-speaking families, who also happen to be neighbours. Balachander doubles the cliché yet again by construing this a clash between warring neighbours, providing a strong reason for the tension between the families to escalate.

There are lovely directorial flourishes – the use of the tube light as a tool of communication between the lovers, the romance in the lift with the couple mouthing a song out of all Telugu film titles, the dilapidated river house hinting at the couple’s fate besides the waters constantly indicating where they’ll eventually end their lives. It’s hard to ignore the fact that the foundation for a premise like Ye Maya Chesave was also laid by Maro Charithra. The film did well to reinforce the idea of beauty in Telugu films too, where a dusky Saritha won hearts.

Aadavallu Meeku Joharlu

The least dramatic and most simplistic Balachander film among the other mentions in this list makes the cut because of its inherent niceness, not the word one would associate with this filmmaker often. It’s another instance of an ideal protagonist written well and also with immense cinematic value. The story is told through the eyes of a top-notch business man’s daughter, a true advocator for minimalism. She lives a principled life on her merit, doesn’t ride on her privilege (a great example of an anti-nepotism candidate), has an identity of her own and prefers to use a cycle to commute over an expensive car.

When this sort of a protagonist heads to a village to teach an illiterate lot and even transform a wayward drunkard into a good-hearted man (who eventually becomes a minister), it’s the sort of the cinematic idealism and escapism that you’re willing to invest your time in. It also helps us understand the source behind the transformative protagonist in Rudraveena as well. It proves why the combination of Jayasudha’s understated acting and Balachander’s humanistic treatment works wonders in creating a captivating drama. The anti-hero image of Krishnam Raju is incorporated well into the film that surprisingly remains under-discussed in his filmography. There are not many sources of great conflict in Aadavallu Meeku… and the canvas in the film may be restrictive, but the story of transformation truly fills us with hope.

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