Tamil Interviews

Balki the filmmaker and other stories

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Currently shooting his third consecutive project with Amitabh Bachchan, Balki talks about being a fan on the sets; and why he would rather just watch movies than make them

Three things become evident about Balki when I talk to him (and even before).
a) He wants this interview over with. A grim “let’s finish this now” text from him – after a week of, let’s say…pursuing him – is enough to make me abandon my curd rice and (fresh) lemon pickle mid-way. I generally linger over my meal for a while.
Especially when it’s curd rice.
b) He is willing to talk about everything under the sun. Except the project that he is working on right now. With Amitabh Bachchan, Dhanush and Akshara Haasan, that is.
c) He loves to emphasise.
Sample this. “When Amitji asked me to reconsider my first draft of Paa, I was sulking and sulking…for a whole week.”
Or,
“Later, though, when I re-read the script, I realised it was such garbage…such garbage that I deleted it and wrote a new one.”

There are also things that are not so evident about Balki. Till he brings them to my notice. For instance, the fact that he never watches his movies or advertisements if he can help it. He admits to looking elsewhere when his ad comes on TV. And when he was “dragged to a screening of Paa”, he was, for the most part, looking at his feet. “I suffered through it,” Balki exclaims vehemently. And goes on to add that he has never watched Cheeni Kum in a theatre. “I was there with PC (Sriram) during colour correction and song-mixing. But I have never sat through the entire 2 hour 20 minute duration of the movie!”
Is it because he would want something done differently in those movies? “Change something about them? If I could go back, I would not have made them at all!”

It doesn’t end there. “I have this strange superstition as well,” he confesses in a low whisper. “Before a movie goes on floors, they break a coconut right? And distribute the pieces to everyone? I never touch them. Not that anything has happened to me after eating it; but the sight of that coconut coming towards me is something I find scary.” He also very candidly admits to not having eaten any fruit in his life. Ever.

Apart from this, Balki reassures me pleasantly, he’s no psychopath. “My wife (Gauri Shinde) thinks I’m quite abnormal though.”

So, meet R Balakrishnan; also known as Balki: Copywriter-turned-adman-turned filmmaker (“I also studied computer science for two years at Guindy Engineering College, before I was thrown out,” he says matter-of-factly), he describes himself as a Tamilian, born and raised in Bangalore.
“Wikipedia has got it wrong, you know, he adds. “I was not born in Kumbakonam! My grandparents are from there.”
Balki had what he calls an “ultra-normal” childhood. A copywriting stint and several years in advertising later, he became the Chairman and Chief Creative Officer of Lowe Lintas India.
Plus, a filmmaker to boot.
“My father let me do what I wanted. No major upheavals or drama,” he says. “That is why, I tend to look for abnormalities outside. If my life was abnormal, I would probably do a very normal movie.”

Having said that though, Balki also adds that he calls his mother… Bum. He still does, in fact. He doesn’t know why, he says. The name stuck. And that was the inspiration for Arundhati Nag’s monicker in the movie Paa. Auro affectionately calls his grandmother Bum. When you make a film, some part of you will feature in it, Balki explains. He never had a car of his own for a long time, and used to love taxis. And that’s what Balki made Amitabh do in Paa. “Amitji used to go, ‘arre yaar, why do you force your life on me? Just because you don’t like cars, I have to suffer – walk all over London’,” laughs Balki.
But he is also quick to add that he doesn’t try to portray reality in cinema. He doesn’t draw inspiration from real life. For him, it has already happened once. And he finds it laborious to recreate it again. His ideas are always “off the top of his head.” Every story is a lie. “Every story is something that you wish would happen, but never does. When I’m 64, I would want to have a romance like Amitabh Bachchan in Cheeni Kum. If I am 15, I would like to experience the childhood of Auro,” he says. Moondram Pirai, the Balu Mahendra flick starring Kamal Haasan and Sridevi in lead roles is what Balki quotes as example. “It was the greatest film ever made during my time. I was about 20-22 then. It made me want to go to a railway station and fall in love with a mentally ill woman. I wanted to experience sorrow. Balu Mahendra made sorrow look so desirable.” That, he adds, is the power of cinema.

Balki is primarily a writer, though. A “lazy” one at that, he chuckles. He doesn’t have a bank of stories. No drafts that would probably never see the light of day. No crumpled notes lying in his bin. Any story in his computer is something he has already done or is going to work on. “Writing is a huge task. You can’t write cinema and let it lie in the computer. It is too much of an exercise. If I have a concept, I bounce it off the people I want to work with and only if they are interested, do I begin the script.” That’s why, he says, he does films only once in 3 or 4 years. “Because it is more pleasant to just watch films than make them! I live with the idea for a while and wonder whether I should work on it.” He would then patiently wait for a calling. And when the moment – “oh god I have to do this” – arrives, he would “just get up and do it.”
Balki says he writes for himself. But he also knows that there is an unwritten set of rules to abide by. Especially when it concerns popular media. “All of it is not self-indulgence. People watch a movie only when they think, ‘hey this guy has something to say’.”
The real challenge about filmmaking, Balki continues, is to recall the first set of images that he had in mind while writing the script. “You write the movie a year before and when it finally goes on floors, you tend to lose perspective,” he adds.

Shooting is a breeze, though. And with high-calibre actors like Bachchan, there’s no need for words. We mainly communicate through gestures, he shrugs. And it is easier to work with the superstar as a fan. Not as a director.
As a fan, Balki enlightens, one can be more demanding. “When I want something done in a different way, I just say, ‘no Amitji, not like this. Then he would pull a face and say, like this? And I would go, yes! That!”

Suggestions and inputs come aplenty too, he says. Often, unasked for. “We are working with highly creative people. In fact, I thought the first script of Paa was fantastic. The concept and story were similar to the one you saw on screen. But it was pure comedy,” he recalls. When Amitabh Bachchan heard the script, he smiled. “He asked me whether I really wanted to go ahead with it. I said ‘yes, why do you think I have come here?’”
To which, Amitabh patiently explained the dramatic potential the script possessed. Why make a comedy when the scope for emotion and drama is phenomenal? “He didn’t tell me anything more. I was angry and was sulking and sulking for a whole week. Later, when I read the script, I realised it was such garbage; such garbage that I wrote a whole new one. Didn’t even retain a scene from the first draft.” This new version sat well with the senior Bachchan, who took to it at once. “I thought he was pompous. Like every writer, I was egotistic. I went all, actors know nothing and then later realised, Amitji was in fact talking sense.”
And anyway, Balki adds smiling, how can you fight with Amitabh Bachchan, yaar?

Production aside, what Balki loves best is “heading to the studio for background.”
For, that’s when he gets to work with Ilayaraja, whom Balki fondly refers to as the “south Indian Amitabh”. “Ilayaraja is a child at heart. A lateral mind who understands movies like the back of his hand. He is always experimenting. And you have to beg him to stop!” exclaims Balki. A massive fan of the veteran composer (music for Paa and Cheeni Kum was composed by Raja and from what we can surmise, the latest project is in his hands as well), Balki remembers the first time he listened to Ilayaraja’s music. “I was watching Pudhiya Vaarpugal in the theatre…starring Bhagyaraj and Rati Agnihotri…and this lovely number started playing…”
He hums. Thamthana..thamthana..thamthana…
(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ihgWYtDEGn8)
“Have you listened to it? The music was so beautiful that I instantly fell in love. That was the first time I listened to Tamil music. Later, I went and watched Bhagyaraj’s other films!”

Look out for
Coming up from him early next year is a yet-untitled Bollywood project starring Amitabh Bachchan, Dhanush and Akshara Haasan. And Balki claims to have written the script with Akshara in mind. “There are three main characters in this film and one of them is her…she is the perfect fit for it.” Prod him further and he clams up. “Can’t tell you more. I haven’t shot with Akshara yet. Will do so in a week.” He also describes Dhanush as a “fabulous actor; who will do well wherever he goes.”
Balki’s plan for the future doesn’t include Tamil cinema for now. “I just want to get this project over with and go back to watching movies!” So he isn’t likely to join the band of director-turned-actors? “What?” he exclaims in disbelief. “The camera will explode! It is made for more beautiful images!”

(R. Balki photo courtesy HT Photos, Prodip Guha)

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