It is a standard line which one hears when a celebrity dies. His or her death is a great loss to the nation or an industry. This may be bang on. But sometimes, it may not be so and could be mere lip service. But Tamil film writer, director and actor , J. Mahendran – who died in Chennai early on Tuesday morning – was a rare gem, whose glow helped others to shine. And, indeed, his death can be seen as a blow to an industry that is tottering in many ways.
Rajinikanth, who is adored like a demi-god in Tamil Nadu today, owes his success to Mahendran. His 1978 Mullum Malarum came as a breakthrough for Rajinikanth, who plays a delightful rogue there. It was one of those very few films where the Superstar was actually an actor, an actor par excellence.
Mahendran did not discover Rajnikanth -- the credit for this has to go to K. Balachander, whose early 1970s movies, like Apoorva Raagangal and Moondru Mudichu, put the actor on the path to fame. But in a way Mullum Malarum placed Rajinikanth on a firm pedestal.
In his later years, Rajinikanth certainly disappointed Mahendran, and I remember when we were together in Delhi on a Panorama Jury in 2009 to select titles for the International Film Festival of India – the director was clearly unhappy with the road the star had taken. “He was such a fine actor”, Mahendran rued over the fact that Rajinikanth had chosen to be a showman.
In Delhi, I could see that Mahendran was clearly a sad man, seeing the state of Tamil cinema, and the way it was relying on gimmicks to get footfalls into the cinemas. “Gone are the days”, he told me, “when movies were socially relevant. They spoke about the issues of the day, provoked you into thinking”.
Indeed, so. Films that men like Balachander and Mahendran made were powerful and punchy. They were great voices for the underdog, the downtrodden and, most importantly, women. Balachander's cinema had great women characters, and he along with Mahendran made the 1970s a fascinating time for Tamil cinema.
Today, except for a handful of movies (the ones that comes readily to my mind are Sarvam Thaala Mayam and Super Deluxe) which deal with subjects that have a bearing on what is going wrong with our society, the others are mere song-and-dance 'tamashas.'
But even during Mahendran's early life, cinema was a mish-mash of juvenile humour, propaganda and plain puerility. Mahendran, whose films may be seen as social documents (much like Aravindan's or Adoor Gopalakrishnan's or Girish Kasaravalli's works), once quipped to the media that it was his anger towards Tamil movies (similar to what Francois Truffaut felt towards French films of the 1960s) that pushed him to make a kind of cinema which was real, where people smiled and spoke normally, short of exaggerated mannerisms and gaudy grease paint.
But I wonder whether a Mahendran or a Balachander could have made the movies they believed in without political tolerance. In an interview with The Hindu he once said, “I got an opportunity to criticise Tamil cinema in front of M G. Ramachandran (who later became the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister). Later, he spotted me at a press meet, took me home and presented me with the volumes of Ponniyin Selvan (a Tamil literary classic) .This was the starting point of my journey as a screenplay writer.”
A Ramachandran, popularly called MGR, could accept a dissenting note. A Nehru could ask cartoonist Shankar to freely criticise him, and he even lambasted Panditji.
Mahendran, encouraged by men like MGR, began a voyage of discovery, a journey where he perhaps found himself and helped the community at large to look within and reflect. His 1979 Uthiripookkal was a ripping commentary on domestic violence and sadism, and is till today considered a landmark in cinema. The 1980 Johnny was yet another film which gave Rajinikanth an endearing status as an actor. As a petty conman, he was brilliant, every inch a director's actor.
However, in the evening of his life, Mahendran must have been a sad soul, seeing the decline and degeneration of a cinema which he and some others had helped build and shine. It is quite likely that in the absence of funding and sponsors for his kind of cinema, he turned to acting. I remember one role of his in particular. In Rajinikanth’s Petta, Mahendran essays a complex character, obsessed with caste and using his clout to further divisions. I wondered then the emotions that would have been playing in his head. Here was a Rajinikanth on a road so different from the one which men like Mahendran and Balachander guided the star to.
Well, time takes its toll, and the lyrics of a song in Guru Dutt's 1957 Kaaghaz Ke Phool seems so apt here: “Waqt Ne Kiya, Kya Haseen Sitam, Thum Rahe Na Thum, Hum Rahe Na Hum..."
Somehow, Mahendran did not let time take its toll on him. He remained steadfast in his commitment to meaningful movies, sensible and sensitive
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic)