Between Reviews: Full Moon Rising

Posted on April 11, 2009


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APR 12, 2009 – IN AN OFFICE WHERE WALLS OF MUTED GREEN set off the glint of photographs and the glitter of trophies, K Balachander reminisces about his roots in theatre. If there’s a gentle hint of irony in this reflection – the mode of expression being employed is, after all, the affectionate flashback, a cinematic trope with little currency on stage – the director appears unaware of it. He hasn’t directed a play since Navagraham in the late-sixties. Before that, however, there was an unstoppable train of blockbusters – Major Chandrakanth, Server Sundaram, Edhirneechal, Neerkumizhi, Naanal. The latter played out on a proscenium divided in two, the curtain descending on one half as the action shifted to the other. In sharp contrast to this vertical bisection was the horizontal rupture of the set for Edhirneechal, which took on the aspect of a two-floored tenement.

“This was the first of its kind,” Balachander states, coming off less like a superannuated mountaineer looking back, with entirely justified pride, at the conquests of several virgin peaks, and more like an amateur climber at base camp looking skywards, shiny-eyed at the prospect of conquering several more. “Whenever I went to see plays in the city, I returned with the urge to make a comeback to theatre.” And these cravings have resulted in Pournami (Full Moon), Balachander’s first play some four decades after Navagraham, after which a stupendously prolific film career left little time for the arduous logistics of mounting stage productions. “Pournami,” he clarifies, “is the name of the protagonist. Plus, the story takes place over a month, from one full moon to the next, under a set that depicts a pournami.”

That’s about all he’ll divulge about the play. As an afterthought, he adds that it’s something “fresh and contemporary,” and that it isn’t merely a couple of hours of wisecracks to alleviate the tensions from a lingering day of drudgery. And he hints that the play will be “ahead of its time,” the way Achamillai Achamillai was ahead of its time in depicting the criminalisation of politics, the way Avargal was ahead of its time in its treatment of divorce and the single woman, the way Kalki was ahead of its time in the casual candour with which it addressed surrogate motherhood. “It’s based on a small, poignant, powerful incident, and it will have my trademark controversial touch,” he concludes.

But at the same time, Balachander wrestles with the awareness that he cannot be too controversial. “The theatre audience primarily consists of sabha members, and I have to cater to their traditional views.” What he does promise is a modern touch. “When I watch some of my older films today, I want to hang my head in shame.” He singles out Iru Kodugal, exalted in its day for an exchange that revolved around the phonetic wordplay between “life” and “file,” and also Aval Oru Thodarkadhai, where an enraptured audience burst into applause over a line of dialogue that endorsed, before marriage, pride (garvam) but not pregnancy (garbam). “At that time, these dialogues were appreciated. But for today’s audience, they are too sentimental and melodramatic.”

That may not be entirely true. These punchy snatches of dialogue – they’re literally termed “punch dialogues” – still exist; it’s just that they’ve migrated from the heroine-oriented family drama to the hero-oriented action blockbuster, where their function isn’t so much to emphasise human conflict as extol the superhuman nature of the leading man. That’s something Balachander is extremely relieved about. “There is more freedom in theatre – fewer ills like fights and item songs and hero worship.” And though he regrets not having seen Bala’s Naan Kadavul – due to Pournami, rehearsals for which began on February 1; the play will debut on April 18 – he prefers Hindi films like A Wednesday and Taare Zameen Par. “These themes attract me. I think I should attempt such subjects in theatre.”

Even at 79, Balachander hasn’t begun to contemplate the well-deserved prospect of a life spent in serene repose. “I don’t have any friends. I don’t go to clubs or parties. I can’t even go walking because people catch hold of me and engage me for hours together.” So it’s work that keeps him going. And yet, he admits, “After three hours of rehearsal, the body becomes tired. After an hour of conversation, I begin to feel exhausted.” This confession is spurred, possibly, by the strain of shepherding the actors of today, whom he regards as “very different. They don’t have involvement. All this prompting of dialogues has killed the innate talent in Tamil cinema. It has become a mechanical affair, and in this environment, I feel like a fish out of water.”

Hence the stalling in his plans for the remake of his seventies’ hit Manmadha Leelai. He readily concedes there’s no one like Kamal Hassan today, and even if there were such an actor lurking in the fringes of the industry, he’d be terrified of being compared to the original. The other deterrent is the current working atmosphere. “Earlier, everyone owned the film. Today, people do their work and leave the rest to the director. That sense of collective proprietorship isn’t there anymore.” A politically correct corner of the mind informs Balachander that he’s been, perhaps, a little too forthright – but instantly, the elder statesman in him takes over. “I shouldn’t be saying all this, but if I don’t, who will? That’s why I have decided, more or less, to remain in theatre.” Then he adds, with the barest tinge of excitement, “I already have something in mind for my next play.”

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