- Karthik Narasimhan
Bala's singularly original Pithamagan was one of the better Tamil movies last year. It is about a young man brought up by an undertaker. He lives all his life in a cemetery, becoming an undertaker himself when his foster dad dies. He lives his life in isolation, with almost no contact with civilized society, ‘cept when burning their corpses. He is unfeeling and callous, his demeanour the same whether he is burying a child or watering a plant. His vocabulary is limited: all that he does is bray a weird song loudly when burning corpses. What happens when this “child of God” tries to enter civilized society in the company of an assortment of fringe characters?
Pithamagan is also an illustration of how one great artist can inspire another. Bala is a confessed Jayakanthan fan, and it is no surprise that the lead character in Pithamagan draws some inspiration from a Jayakanthan short story: ‘Nandavanathi Oru Aandi' – which is about an undertaker living in isolation, considered “mad” by society because of his quirks, who is unfeeling and callous and happens to sing a song every time he buries a body. The similarities end there, but the source of the character is unmistakable.
Bala is quite possibly the best young director in India today. On second thoughts, I think I'll get rid of the qualification and state simply: Bala is the best young film maker in India today. I say young, because he is only three movies old. All three of his movies are morose and inward-looking. Almost all the scenes fill you with a strange foreboding, even the funny ones. When I watched Mystic River, I was reminded of Nanda – not because the two movies were similar, but because they both made you feel the same way.
Bala is commercially successful without making what lesser directors refer to euphemistically as “compromises.” He dares to pick unconventional subjects and works hard on them. He chooses his actors after he has written the move – an unbelievably hard thing to do in Indian films. His films don't preach – Bala understands that the role of art is to reflect life, not to change it. I hope he goes far.
PS : Bala wrote a wonderful series of autobiographical articles in Vikatan (paid registration required) that go some way in explaining what makes him tick: he writes candidly about being an academic failure and doing drugs; how his life changed after coming across works by people like Jayakanthan and Balu Mahendra among others. Here was a wastrel who used his love of art to rescue himself from obscurity. A filmmaker who reads. Another reason to hope he goes very far.