Pen Pals

Posted on August 11, 2011

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Friends and writing partners for almost forty years, Suba trace their journey from stories to screenplays.

One balmy morning at Presidency College in the early nineteen-seventies, two students of Physics stood up in class and looked at each other as if for the first time. It was the look that, in all likelihood, lit up Stanley’s eyes upon encountering Livingstone, Holmes’ on running into Watson, Viswanathan’s on discovering Ramamurthy – the look of someone who has discovered, at long last, a kindred spirit and the promise of a profuse partnership. The Tamil teacher had just announced the results of a recently concluded exam – Suresh and Balakrishnan had tied for first place. “We hung out with different groups till that day,” says Suresh, a soft-spoken man who does most of the talking as Balakrishnan looks on. “Our mutual love for Tamil brought us together.”

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They became friends. They spoke about writers they liked. They spoke about writing. By the time Suresh graduated from school, he’d already had a few short stories published in magazines like Kannan (from the Kalaimagal group), the first one being about a man hunting for a house to rent. Balakrishnan, however, had no such results to show for his interest in Tamil writing. He says he didn’t know how to approach publications and was content to admire the writers, who he thought had descended from the heavens to spin their stories. Suresh responds dryly, “He must have thought I too was from heaven.” When a friendship has run a forty-year course, you can afford to ground, unceremoniously, your partner’s flights of fancy.

After college, they decided to submit an entry each for a short-story competition announced by Kalki. “The time was right to go into writing,” says Suresh. “I wrote a story. He wrote a story. But just before sending these stories, we decided not to compete against each other.” That’s when they became Suba, a portmanteau pseudonym derived from the first syllable of each name. “Instead of one story from Suresh and one story from Balakrishnan, we sent two stories by Suba.” One of those stories won the prize and resulted in two angry families, who couldn’t see their sons in a profession like writing, which they deemed had no future, no money.

A barely burgeoned partnership was thus sundered. Suresh took up employment at Bank of India, Chennai, and Balakrishnan at Bank of Baroda, Perundurai, near Coimbatore. But their communication, far from ceasing, simply assumed another form. “Almost every day, we used to write a letter to each other,” says Suresh. “If I came across an incident, I had to share it with him and suggest that it could be made into a story.” Entire evenings would be spent on these letters, which would run to several sheets of foolscap paper. Now that they were employed, their families could not oppose their writing, and Suba was soon a permanent fixture in the in-trays of magazine offices, both old (Kalki, Anandha Vikatan) and new (Kungumam, Saavi, Ashwini).

Reeling from a number of rejections, Suresh was on a bus one day, on his way to work, when he glanced at the magazine in the hands of the man in the next seat and saw the page turned to a story by Suba. “I was thrilled,” says Suresh. “I got down at the next stop, ran to a store and bought the magazine, Dinamani Kathir.” He went to the post office to send a congratulatory telegram to Balakrishnan. He then went to his office and received information from his mother that a telegram had reached his home. It was, unsurprisingly, from Balakrishnan, who’d seen the magazine in Perundurai and hurried to congratulate his friend and writing partner on the publication of their story, Avargal Vayadhukku Varavillai. The next week saw the publication, in Saavi, of Saakkadai Sannidhanangal. “That was the beginning,” says Suresh.

A little later, Balakrishnan transferred to Chennai, and the reunited duo devoted their evenings to writing. They sacrificed promotions because these might come with transfer orders. They’d even stay back at the office long after closing because secluded bank counters are, as Suresh says, “a great place to write.” They were, by now, married, and to the question whether their wives did not mind coming second to their first love – writing – Suresh simply says, “They slowly began to understand that this is who we were.” Short stories were followed by serialised novels (beginning with Mele Sila Kazhugugal) and pocket novels (branded as “Super Novel”), the first of which was tantalisingly named Andha Udhadugal Marubadi Vendum. Suba found their fame cemented through their stories for Super Novel, which earned them more than their bank salaries.

The director Sundar C was a Super Novel fan, and he invited Suba to write the dialogues for Naam Iruvar Namakku Iruvar, which was released in 1998. Suba, subsequently, worked on Chanakya and Rendu and some serials for television. The opportunity to write for films had presented itself much earlier, when Suba were writing about films for Kalki and had thus interviewed K Bhagyaraj, who was preparing Dhavani Kanavugal. “He wanted us to quit and join him full-time,” says Suresh, “but we were married and from middle-class families and we wanted the security of a regular pay cheque.” But those sessions with Bhagyaraj instilled in them a sense of writing for the screen. “In a short story, a man can come in a ship and leave in a plane in the same paragraph, but you cannot do this in a movie.”

Their most successful stint at the movies (Kana Kanden, Ayan, Ko, the under-production Maatraan) has come through collaboration with the cinematographer-director KV Anand, who, in his earlier life as still photographer, used to take photographs for Suba’s Super Novel covers. “We wanted the covers to be totally different,” says Suresh. “So we thought of using photographs with models instead of just illustrations by artists. Anand took a lot of photos for us and he ended up with more fans. That’s how we became close.” Suba attribute their success to their engagement with all genres – sci-fi, thriller, the domestic drama. “We wrote all kinds of stories. This background was useful in tackling cinema.” They co-wrote the recently released 180 with Jayendra and are writing the dialogues for the Vijay-starring Velayudham.

They still write stories but they don’t have time for novels any more, though the latter – over 400 in number – are being reprinted and made available for a new generation. Suresh and Balakrishnan are now full-time writers, having retired from their respective banks a little after beginning to work on Naam Iruvar Namakku Iruvar. That could almost be the title for a story about their friendship – they even live opposite each other, on the same floor of the same building. Suresh insists that they have no major disagreements. “We decided to work together because we share the same taste, the same frequency. We complement each other. This is not a partnership. It’s a friendship. Arguments certainly come up in our discussions but one of us always manages to convince the other.”

Balakrishnan, who has so far been content to sit silently and smile at the memories dredged up by Suresh’s narration, speaks up suddenly. “I certainly don’t expect him to say the sun rises in the west. So there are no ego problems.” To the question whether it is possible for two creative artists to be entirely egoless, Suresh replies, “We have individual egos but that doesn’t interfere with Suba. When you bump into a chair and experience pain, what’s the use being angry with the chair? You should have the maturity to let it go.” He says that being angry with his partner is like being angry with himself, that their wives are friends, their children are friends, they are practically family. To the observation that this sounds like something right out of a Bhimsingh movie, they laugh. Suresh says, “We are always asked how we have remained friends for so long. I find the question ridiculous. You only do something in order to break a friendship. You don’t have to do anything to maintain it.”

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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Posted in: Books, Cinema: Tamil