Balu Mahendra and the train to Ooty!

Kamal and Sridevi in Balu Mahendra’s ‘Moondram Pirai’                                                                                           Image Courtesy – Ytalkies
'Nilgiri Mountain Railway' Image courtesy of Stephan Niewolik / Wikipedia
‘Nilgiri Mountain Railway’
Image courtesy of Stephan Niewolik / Wikipedia

Moondram Pirai (The Crescent Moon in its third phase) is a Tamil film starring Kamal Haasan and Sridevi that was helmed by Balu Mahendra who donned the roles of the Cinematographer and the Director. It received the right mix of commercial and critical acclaim to be regarded as a mainstream movie rather than an art film. Kamal received his first National Award for the Best Actor and Balu Mahendra received the National Award for the Best Cinematography. The movie ran for well over a year in the cinemas and possibly buoyed by its success, it was remade as ‘Sadma’ in Hindi as well by retaining the key cast. It did not receive a similar resounding success but eventually both versions have become cult classics in Indian cinema.

It is a story of the innocent love that develops between Kamal, a mild-mannered schoolteacher from Ooty, and Sridevi, a child like woman who has lost her memory and has been rescued from a brothel. The story has a rather grim opening with the heroine being rescued by Kamal and then being attacked again by Gulshan Grover. Things look up eventually as the bond between the couple is shown to develop and many a viewer may have settled by now for the final happy ending. It is not to be one as tragedy strikes with Sridevi recovering her memory and forgetting her love for Kamal. The climax scene has a bruised Kamal tumbling into mud on the railway station as a torrential rain pours on while Sridevi is seated in the train and bemused by his antics. The sudden twist in the tale belies any logic but it sure struck an emotional chord with the audience and possibly that accounts for the movie’s success.

But for me the movie’s magic is in its cinematography – Ooty is a staple menu in Tamil movies and we have seen many a couples romance in the Nilgiris. But Balu showcased Ooty as no one else did – while watching the movie in my early teens I just wished to emulate Kamal and lead a simple life of a teacher in the hill station. Ilaiyaraja’s music was lilting as ever and ‘Poongatru pudhidanathu ..’ is unforgettable. A classic screen grab from the song will be ‘Kamal and Sridevi’ putting their ears to the railway track, trying to judge the arrival of the imminent train. I really enjoyed making the rail trips on the ‘Toy train’ from ‘Mettupalayam’ to ‘Ooty’ that still runs with a steam engine on the Metre Gauge track.

Not only his cinematography, Balu Mahendra had an unusual approach for direction as well. Unlike many other Tamil movies that were steeped in melodrama, his movies would be very true to life and devoid of hyperbole. He chose to use minimal characters and words to narrate his tale – the visuals will convey more than the dialogues, the silences were as evocative in communicating to the audience.

He repeated his trademark style in all movies but the other gems that I enjoyed in particular would include Veedu (a middle class young woman’s struggle to build a house), Sandhya Ragam ( the tale of an aged man who is lost after the demise of his wife), Mullum Malarum (the classic tale about the bond between a brother and sister), and Azhiyatha Kolangal (a typical coming-of-age tale in the village boondocks). Archana in particular became his famous muse after working with him Veedu and Sandhya Ragam.

One also enjoyed his other tales that were commercial in nature and did not appeal much to the aesthetics such as the delightful nonsensical caper like ‘Rettai Vaal Kuruvi’ or the popular comedy ‘Sathi Leelavathi’.

Balu Mahendra was a master behind the camera – it has always been a treat to watch his films again and to relish the visual feast that he served us rather indolently.


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