In Pithamagan, the protagonist was a cremation worker of bestial nature. Sethu gave Vikram -- then 33 -- a new lease of life, and made him a top star.
Bala rewrote the narrative and conventions as well. Pithamagan began with a graveyard scene that Tamil cinema had never seen before. What unfurled had to be seen to be believed -- Vikram's character, growled, grunted, even drank water like a dog. The characterisation was unparalleled, the narration unique.
Bala has also infused life into thousands of assistant directors in Tamil films. It was he who gave the confidence to assistants to dream big. Two of his assistants went on to make landmark Tamil films -- Ameer made Paruthiveeran, while Sasikumar filmed Subramaniapuram.
Says ace cinematographer K V Anand, "Bala is unique. He has blended parallel cinema with commercial ones. But he won't fall into any of those category. You can't compare him to anyone else. He was the one who made tragedy a success in films. Subhramaniapuram and Paruthiveeran happened because of Bala."
Call it tragedy or euphemistically, the story of fringe elements. If Bala's mind carved out quotidian characters from the edge of society, it is the artist (Bala is a painter) in him that frescoed stunning imagery on celluloid.
Comparisons with auteurs like Kim Ki Duk are inevitable. A painter himself, Ki Duk etches out characters from the margins of society -- what Bala did in Tamil. Both were mavericks, and each of them enjoys a cult following in South Korea and Tamil Nadu respectively.
Naan Kadavul has bowled over many hitherto Bala critics. Tamil writer Charu Nivedita, who disapproved of Bala's previous films, compares him to legendary Spanish director Luis Bunuel for his powerful depiction of the poor and fringe elements. Nivedita compares Naan Kadavul to no less a film than Akira Kurosowa's Lower Depths.
'It is a world-class film; many times better than Slumdog Millionaire. I have always criticised Bala, but this is really a masterpiece,' says the critic in a magazine article.
Next is what? Sitting on a mountain of offers, Bala is no hurry to sign up.
After Naan Kadavul, music maestro Ilayaraja asked him, jokingly, 'Where are you going? I wonder where you draw the line? Where is your limit?'
A scene from Naan Kadavul