K. Balachander


The rebels of Tamil cinema

K. Balachander’s heroines, and others from films in the 1970s and 1980s, played complex roles and scandalized the Tamil society of that time

Shoba Narayan


As someone who has watched and tracked Tamil movies all her life, one of the things I notice is the fall of the heroine. There are exceptions, but by and large, Tamil films these days are hero oriented, action films with a thin storyline. Women play the love interest, or dance an item number, with Rajnikanth’s Linga being the latest example.

It didn’t used to be this way. Directors like Balu Mahendra, Bharatiraja, Bhagyaraj, and most particularly, the late great Balachander, who died this week, made films that were centered around women. Where are those types of directors today?

Chennai in the seventies was a mixture of conservatism and oddball eccentrics. Girls couldn’t walk down the street in jeans without getting disapproving stares. But it was perfectly okay for a man to be married to two sisters. This triumvirate lived down the street from my aunt’s home in T. Nagar. It gets weirder. They had sublet their downstairs apartment to the milkman, who chose to house his buffaloes in the flat and live in his ramshackle hut. Balachander’s genius was to choose themes that were considered revolutionary for Chennai, yet ones that they could relate to. His movies mirrored Chennai’s fervid lust and shrouded hypocrisies.

Balachandar’s films were all women-centric; but his heroines weren’t doormats who served their husbands rasam-rice, and shrunk into the background. These heroines took charge of their destinies. In Arangetram, released in 1974, the heroine came from a large, poor, and conservative Brahmin family. She turned to prostitution to support her large clan. Sensitively and sympathetically told, the film simultaneously caused an uproar and raised questions about family planning. To have a young Brahmin girl support her family was novel enough; but to have her look the audiences in the eye and justify her choice of career upended everyone’s expectations of how a Brahmin girl ought to behave. The fact that the plot was believable made it critically and commercially successful. Balachander didn’t do fantasy. His women took their reality by the balls and shook it to suit their circusmtances.

In a 1976 film, Moondru Mudichu (three knots, traditionally tied during a marriage on a turmeric yellow mangalsutra or thread) Balachander gave a 13-year-old voluptuous actress named Sreedevi her first adult film role. She was the woman caught between two men (Kamal Haasan and Rajnikanth). The man she loves, Kamal Haasan, dies in a boating accident, engineered by the other, Rajnikanth. Freed of her lover, Rajnikanth pursues her and corners her in the belief that his wealth and power will make her marry him. What does Sreedevi do? She turns the tables on the man who lusts after her by marrying his father? As a stepmother, she is owed respect and has the power over her scheming ‘son.’ It is this facile use of specific cultural touchstones that gave Balachander’s movies their potency. Chennai audiences could relate to arranged marriages, even ones arranged by the woman in question. They could imagine a poor girl like Sreedevi marrying an older man as a marriage of convenience. To watch her arrive as Rajnikanth’s stepmother was the ultimate “up-yours” from both a traditional and feminist point of view. Marrying these two effects was Balachander’s forte.

Bhagyaraj was similarly effective in combining tradition and novelty. In Andha 7 Naatkal (Those 7 Days, made into Woh Saat Din in Hindi), a woman tries to commit suicide on her wedding night. Her husband discovers that she is pining for her lover and decides to find this man. By that time, the heroine has formed relationships with her husband’s child (he is a widower) and his aging mother. The climax has her clutching to her mangal-sutra and refusing to return to her lover. “My lover can become your wife, but your wife can never become my lover,” says the hero in the end.

Balu Mahendra cast Sridevi and Kamal Haasan in Moondra Pirai (Sadma in Hindi) where a young man looks after a mentally retarded girl. Sridevi, quite simply, stole the show, a far cry from the ‘thunder thighs’ roles that she essayed for Hindi movies.

Sridevi proved to be quite a muse for many of that era’s directors. Bharatiraja made his cult classic 16 vayadhinile (Solwa Sawan in Hindi), with her in the lead. Rajnikanth and Kamal Haasan played opposite her. Films such as these began their long tenure as leading men of Tamil cinema. Sadly, neither of them used their clout to encourage their female co-stars. Not then; and not later. Then again, it is no use blaming the heroes. Both Kamal and Rajni have two daughters each; and are ostensibly surrounded by strong women. Yet, women are marginalized in their movies; forced to conform to traditional roles that are almost like caricatures in today’s world. Rajnikanth’s current movies have forgettable women who are cast simply for the glamour quotient.

What Tamil films need are strong directors who are fascinated with women like those directors in the 70s and 80s. Balachander died on December 23, 2014. He will be sorely missed.

Shoba Narayan’s favorite Balachander film is Apoorva Ragangal.


  1. N.Subramanian and Shoba. I think the choice Sridevi made worked for me because of the casting of Calcutta Viswanathan as the suitor/ husband .( she was even ready to marry that spindly neighbour — I realise that.Still.)

    I then looked him up and realised he had done a role in a Satyajit Ray movie as well. he was the young eligible bachelor but he gets rejected there :).


    1. NS – First of all I respect your views and posts. My only intention is to express my view on some things where I feel the article is incomplete or incorrect in some way. OK, feminism (or Shoba’s choices etc etc) as you say are explored at length elsewhere, so fine point taken.

      But I also feel sometimes some of the articles paint men in an unfair light, articles to the effect of “look, men do this and look at the brave women who stoically suffer”. For example take the recent article on Chennai Music and Women. First of all, the article is slightly incorrect – it was the mridangam player, not the vocalist, who refused to play with a woman. Some more research reveals that this mridangam player has not accompanied female performers in many years because of his personal reasons. Neither Shoba’s article nor Ms Mohan’s article name these people or identify the reason or provide any other background. OK I’m not defending the guy, but understanding the reasons and background is what will ultimately help dispel some of his (and others’) notions and eventually bring women to the level play field they well deserve.

      I suppose like any other Indian/American I visit this blog, among others, to get briefed on various updates (cultural, Indian, artistic etc) I would like this blog to be well-informed, thoughtful/thought-provoking (after all Shoba had once written that she is not a housewife but a writer and columnist) and I hope my comments (along with other comments like yours NS) would nudge it in that direction.

      NS I could also respectfully ask you why you take it upon yourself to act as the marshal and defend Shoba? I mean, it is her blog, and if she intends to preserve and grow her readership with thoughtful and well-informed people (remember the old gang, Vinay, Naina, RG) then oughtn’t she respond with the sort of arguments you made? After all – if she has so often written about herself as a fearless and take-no-crap sort then surely she herself has good reasons to support and stand by her work???


      1. Kaushik: My takeaway from the above are two things and thanks for that.

        1. Watch how I paint men. Don’t mean to be unfair or not disclose the whole picture.

        2. Realize that a) people actually return to this blog and b) for cultural updates.

        Regarding the defense, it gets tiring Kaushik. I am happy– no, delighted– to hear other voices. So will let NS respond.


      2. Kaushik it appears you have taken my comments in the right spirit so thanks for that.

        I actually don’t intend to defend/speak for Shoba (which she can well do on her own), nor do I want to be the bailiff around here. But I do agree that this blog should continue to be thoughtful and well-informed, as I come here for the same reasons you do. My point was more focused on the “what’s new”. I guess corrections are okay but from a purely journalistic point of view remember that (a) Shoba’s original article only quoted Kalpana Mohan (i.e. comment about research and background should be directed there) and (b) Shoba’s article did include research i.e. comments from other well known personalities in the music world including the shunned woman violinist who refused to comment. So it is unfair to say that the article has poor background etc. Also remember that Shoba’s professional work appears in the professional space (magazines and columns) after review and edit, but this is her personal blog where she is at liberty to say whatever she wants and even edit or post unedited versions of past and future. We blog folk don’t buy “The National” either. So I don’t know if we can impose overmuch on Shoba’s personal time.

        Age is also an issue – in the past I have observed the younger blog folk (under 35, let’s say) – who somehow seem to have enough time to follow up and post critiques etc. But for us, the 40+, we have at least 2-3 full time jobs between regular work and kids and activities. I’d say (and this is my opinion only) this blog is for light and informative reading as in a coffee shop, not for deep protracted debates as in a bar over hard drinks. Even so there is not really anything new to debate anyway.


  2. Balachander will be missed for sure.

    But I don’t know how Arangetram or Moondru Mudichu form the basis for any feminist choices. A woman who has to turn to prostitution because she can do nothing else to uplift her impoverished family is the text book example of oppression, anti-feminism. And Sridevi in Moondru Mudichu, all of 18 years old, has no other choice but to marry the father so as to escape being raped by the son (remember he rips her blouse), is hardly making a feminist choice. It is somewhat of an idiot’s choice. So you’ll be able to torment the son somewhat, but your own life with your new 50 year old husband, is again in the kitchen and bedroom (argh). The son will eventually take over the family estate and, when the father passes away, he will have the last laugh. Both Arangetram and Moondru Mudichu are prime examples of self-sacrifice for survival, if anything.

    Balachander highlighted these social problems (which IMHO was his real genius) where ordinary characters are faced with difficult situations and make unconventional or hard self-sacrificing choices, but they can’t be called “feminist” choices in any sense.


    1. Hi Kaushik,
      OK you raise some valid points, but I am curious what you are doing over here? (Don’t get me wrong, you obviously appear quite smart and familiar with Shoba’s work, reason enough to be here.) But your posts seem to bait or poke at Shoba in some way. I am just curious why this is? FYI there are long posts elsewhere on those who, like you, have questioned a lot of Shoba’s choices, her views on feminism etc., so a lot of those topics are sort of done and over already. And as an old-timer in these parts I don’t see anything “new” on these subjects. Anyway I hope you take my question in the right spirit.

      To your point on Sridevi – well she made a choice, which may not be feminist (to the extent one wants), but there must have been something in her, all of 18 years old in the movie, to make that choice to secure her personal and financial future. So her new husband is 50+, but in 20 years when he passes on what’s to say she won’t remarry? Isn’t this a woman taking charge of her life in the circumstances and situation prevailing in those times? There might be a “modern” definition of feminism, but surely Cleopatra, who seduced the Roman Emperor, cannot be accused of anti-feminism or subservience? Anyway these are all arguments of “degree” which have been explored at length and put to bed.


  3. Thanks for the KB retrospective. My own favorite has to be Avargal.
    Sujatha played the divorcee Anu caught between her evil ex, past and present loves and chooses to
    remain alone in the end.I think she rejects the vibuthi-ed Kamal because he is nice and all but there is no chemistry between them.The woman who played her MIL was good, as was her friend at work — well-etched out characters.


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