Name: Balanathan Benjamin Mahendran
Born On: May 20, 1939
Born In: Batticaloa,Sri Lanka
Career: Cinematographer, Screen Writer, Film Editor and Director
Spouse: Ahileshwari, Late Actress Shoba and Actress Mounika
Balu Mahendra started his films career as a cinematographer in the year 1970 by the Malayalam film ‘Nellu’ released in the year 1974 which got him the ‘Kerala State Award for the Best Cinematographer’. He became a director in the year 1977 by his Kannada Film ‘Kokila’. Balu Mahendra started his films career in Tamil from the year 1978.
Mahendra was born in 1939 into a Sri Lankan Tamil family in the village Amirthakali near Batticaloa, Sri Lanka. Born to a professor father, he did his schooling at Methodist Central College and St. Michael’s College, Batticaloa. As a teenager, he was drawn towards films by his class teacher. It was during this time he happened to see Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Battleship Potemkin (1925). When he was at the sixth grade, he got an opportunity to witness the making of David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (shot in Sri Lanka) during a school field trip. Inspired by Lean’s personality, Mahendra determined to become a film-maker.
Right from his childhood, Mahendra was interested in fine arts and literature. Upon completion of school, he joined the London University and graduated with a bachelor’s degree (honours) in science. After his graduation, he returned to Sri Lanka and worked in Colombo as a draughtsman in the survey department for a brief period during which he edited a Tamil literary magazine titled Thyen Aruvi. In Colombo, he worked as an amateur drama artist with Radio Ceylon and got acquainted with the Sinhala theatre groups.
Mahendra’s passion for cinema prompted him to leave for India and join the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune in 1966. He had to take up cinematography as he could not gain admissions to other disciplines. At the institute he was exposed to world cinema as he got an opportunity to watch films made by François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, both associated with the French New Wave movement. In 1969, Mahendra graduated from the institute with a gold medal.
As A CniematoGrapher
As a fresh graduate from the FTII, Mahendra’s early attempts to enter Sri Lankan Tamil cinema were unsuccessful. He got his first break as a cinematographer in 1971 in the Malayalam film Nellu. Ramu Kariat, the director of Nellu, was impressed by A View from the Fortress, Mahendra’s diploma film at the FTII.
Nellu, shot in colour, won the Kerala State Film Award for Best Cinematography after it was released in 1974. Mahendra had continued successes with films such as Prayanam (1975) and Chuvanna Sandhyakal (1975), both fetching the state award for best photography to him for the second consecutive time. Between 1971 and 1976, he worked in about 20 films—mostly in Malayalam—as a cinematographer.
In 1978, he worked in a Tamil film when he signed up as the cinematographer for J. Mahendran’s directorial debut Mullum Malarum(1978). Apart from handling the cinematography, Mahendra involved himself in other aspects such as screenwriting, casting, editing and direction in the film. After completing Mullum Malarum, Mahendra decided to work on his second directorial venture, this time in Tamil. During this time he did the cinematography of K. Vishwanath’s Telugu film Sankarabharanam (1979) which turned out to be a major critical and commercial success.
Mahendra’s third film as director Moodu Pani (1980) was loosely based on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho. Moodu Pani saw Mahendra collaborating with Ilaiyaraaja for the first time; Ilaiyaraaja was Mahendra’s regular composer since then. In 1982, Mahendra made Moondram Pirai which had Kamal Haasan and Sridevi in the lead. The film told the story of a school teacher who looks after a girl suffering from amnesia. It had a 300-day run in the theatres and was labelled a “blockbuster”. The film fetched two National Film Awards including an award for cinematography for Mahendra. The same year he made Olangal (1982) which marked his directorial debut in Malayalam. Inspired from Erich Segal’s novel Man, Woman and Child, the film was a critical success. At the end of the year, Mahendra won two Filmfare trophies for directing Olangal and Moondram Pirai.
Mahendra was married thrice. He was first married to Akhileshwari with whom he had a son. His relationship with actress Shoba ended in 1980 after she committed suicide following their marriage. Upon her death, the media speculated that Mahendra was responsible for her death. Following that, Mahendra wrote a series of “sentimental musings” in the Tamil magazine Kumudam under the title Shobavum Naanum (Shoba and me). Their relationship was explored by K. G. George(Mahendra’s junior at the FTII) in his 1983 Malayalam film Lekhayude Maranam Oru Flashback. When the film was released, Mahendra said that the film had nothing to do with him and has not discussed about it with George. In 1998, he married another actress Mounika and declared their marriage publicly in 2004.
- Kerala State Film Award-Best Cinematography (Colour)- for Nellu -1974
- Kerala State Film Award-Best Cinematography (black-and-white)- for Prayanam and for Chuvanna Sandhyakkal (Black-and-white) -1975
- National Film Awards-Best Cinematography (Black-and-white) and Karnataka State Film Awards Best Screenplay-for Kokila -1977
- Nandi Awards – Best Cinematographer for ‘Manavoori Pandavulu’ -1978
- National Film Awards – Best Cinematography (Colour)-for ‘Moondram Pirai’ and Filmfare Awards South -Best Director Tamil and Best Director-Malayalam-for Olangal -1982
- Nandi Awards-Best Cinematography for ‘Nireekshana’ -1986
- National Film Awards-Best Feature Film in Tamil-for ‘Veedu’ -1987
- National Film Awards-Best Film on Family Welfare-for ‘Sandhya Raagam’ -1989
- National Film Awards-Best Feature Film in Tamil-for ‘Vanna Vanna Pookkal’ -1991
- National Film Awards-Best Feature Film on National Integration-for ‘Thalaimuraigal’ -2013
- 61st Film Fare Awards South-Lifetime Achievement Award – South -2013
- 1978: Mullum Malarum
- 1979: Azhiyadha Kolangal
- 1980: Moodu Pani
- 1982: Echchil Iravugal, Moondram Pirai
- 1983: Urangatha Ninaivugal
- 1984: Neengal Kettavai
- 1985: Un Kannil Neer Vazhindal
- 1987: Rettai Vaal Kuruvi
- 1988: Veedu
- 1989: Sandhya Raagam
- 1992: Vanna Vanna Pookkal
- 1993: Marupadiyum
- 1995: Sathi Leelavathi
- 1997: Raman Abdullah
- 2001: En Iniya Ponnilave
- 2003: Julie Ganapathy
- 2005: Adhu Oru Kana Kaalam
- 2013: Thalaimuraigal
- 1972: Panimudakku, Maaya, Nirthasala
- 1973: Sasthram Jayichu Manushyan Thottu, Kaliyugam, Chukku
- 1974: Nellu, Rajahamsam, Chattakari, Jeevikkan Marannu Poya Sthree, Makkal
- 1975: Raagam, Prayanam, Tourist Bunglow, Chuvanna Sandhyakal, Anuraagaalu, Cheenavala
- 1976: Missi, Ponni, Chennaaya Valarthiya Kutty,
- 1979: Ulkatal
- 1982: Olangal
- 1983: Oomakkuyil
- 1985: Yathra
- 1973: Abhimanavanthulu
- 1976: America Ammayi
- 1977: Tharam Marindi, Panthulamma
- 1978: Lambadolla Ramadasu, Manavoori Pandavulu
- 1979: Sommokadidhi Sokokadidhi
- 1980: Sankarabharanam, Kaliyuga Ravanasurudu
- 1982: Nireekshana
- 1977: Kokila
- 1983: Pallavi Anu Pallavi
- 1983: Sadma
- 1996: Aur Ek Prem Kahani