K Balachander’s mise en scène

Posted on July 5, 2017


So this post began as a response to hidnana’s comment in the Anbanavan Asaradhavan Adangadhavan thread: “even BR was better to treat cinema as visual medium than KB.” (BR as in Bharathiraja.) Then I felt the topic deserved a mini-post (though it really deserves a book).

Yes, while scripting, KB thought like a theatre person — so if you subscribe to the theory that cinema should “show rather than tell,” then yes, you’re going to have issues with his filmmaking. But I’ve always believed that cinema is show and tell — and even in the midst of theatrical dialogues and stagey mise en scène (in the sense that you could sense the proscenium beyond the edges of the frame), KB always used the camera in very interesting ways.

Like I said, this subject deserves a book, but just off the top of my head, here are some images from Arangetram that sprang to mind.

This first one is from a scene where the sex-worker heroine’s orthodox parents discuss her behaviour in the previous scene, where she says she’s become numb to the presence of men. Note the staging. It could have just been the parents talking in the kitchen, but the camera is placed behind the shiny vessels bought for a family wedding with the heroine’s ill-gotten money. (And note the lighting. Long before PC Sreeram used light reflected off brassware in Nayakan and Agni Natchatiram, we see it here.) So it’s no longer just two people talking, but two people talking about the person whose beneficiaries they are. They are, in a sense, surrounded by her presence.

Now, these two images.

The first one: It’s a large family to feed, and note the “arrangement” of the people, the way they are crowded into the frame and the way the lines on either side extend almost till the bottom of the frame.

The second one: This is from when an aunt comes to stay with them. Again, see how depth of field is used to suggest the bigness of the family. The aunt in the foreground, the parents in the middleground, and two young women (cousins) in the background. The choice of a wide shot instead of cuts featuring just the people talking suggests a “cinematic” mind at work, even if the words we hear are pure “drama” (as in theatre).

Finally, this image, from the scene after the one where the heroine is given a new sari because the ones she wears are full of holes. Again, like the first image, the camera uses an “object” (the vessels earlier, the hole in the sari here) to comment on the conversation.

I could go on, but just wanted to quickly put in my two cents that KB was no slouch as a filmmaker. He was a unique combination of someone who came from the theatre, someone who thought a lot like a theatre person, and someone who slowly adapted to cinema. The mise en scène may not be elegant or sophisticated in the way we regard the staging in a Mani Ratnam movie, but KB was definitely up there.

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Posted in: Cinema: Tamil