M for Manobala
Most of you would know him as that lanky uncle who is a staple comedian in every other movie. But there is more to this unassuming man – Manobala has been in Tamil movie industry for 40 years as an assistant director, writer, director, actor and producer. A painting graduate from Government Arts and Crafts college, he was part of the famed “Alwarpet group” consisting of Kamal, Mani Ratnam, Santhana Bharathi, PC Sriram, Robert-Rajasekhar and so on. Kamal’s house was their abode where they discuss and dissect movies. It was Kamal who introduced Manobala to Bharathiraja. He worked in 16 films with Bharathiraja and 23 movies as an independent director. He also directed about 19 telefilms and serials.
Manobala says that he entered into Bharathiraja’s office with a cigarette in hand and criticised ”Pudhiya Vaarpugal” story when it was narrated to him. He even suggested that Bharathiraaja should take back Bhagyaraj (they had a small rift) and make the screenplay better. The current version of the movie is what Bhagyaraj wrote in three days and also made him a hero. Manobala had a long run with Bharathiraja and instrumental in introducing many actors to the industry during that period. You should listen to his funny narration about how Bharathiraja identifies his lead actors.
Manobala debuted as a director with Agaya Gangai (1982), a movie that was written by Manivannan, shot by Robert-Rajasekhar and scored by Ilaiyaraaja. The culture of sharing scripts and technical brilliance was so prevalent that time (it’s coming back to Tamil cinema with new age directors). But Manobala’s big break came with Pillai Nila – a horror movie with Baby Shalini in an important role. Manobala never stuck to one single genre. He could make a masala fare like Oorkavalan with Rajinikanth but also make Vijayakanth act in a subdued role in En Purushanthan Enakku Mattumthan (the movie also took him to Hindi). He could make a female revenge story like Thendral Sudum (adapted from Return to Eden) and make a film about a womaniser in Mallu Vetti Minor. He was versatile and at the same time believed in his story and screenplays than the stars.
He directed 40 films and directed 19 serials and six teleserials including Annai and Siragugal. Although he acted in tiny roles in Bharathiraaja movies, his big break as an actor came in Natpukaga and he credits KS Ravikumar for his acting success. So far, he has acted in more than 575 films, and there is no movie without a role for Manobala. He became a producer with Sathuranga Vettai that launched director Vinoth and was a massive hit in 2014. His last film as a director was Naina (2002).
Break-out movie: Pillai Nila
Dolly is an independent but stubborn young woman, sister of a wealthy businessman, David (Jai Shankar). She meets Mohan, a poor but talented young man. Impressed by him, she gives him a job in her company and slowly falls for him. But Mohan marries the woman (Nalini) chosen by his mother. Dolly expresses her love after Mohan’s wedding, but he rejects her. Not able to face the rejection, she commits suicide, and at the same moment, Mohan’s wife gives birth to a girl child, Shalini. Years later, one birthday, Shalini sings the same song that Mohan sang to Dolly once.
Unable to accept that it’s a coincidence, Mohan tries to investigate but later realises that Shalini is possessed by Dolly’s spirit and she wants revenge. The rest of the movie is about how he saves his child and wife from Dolly’s spirit.
The movie was the first movie to portray a child as a ghost and Shalini shined in the role. There is a scene where she sits on an Easyboy and controls everything in the room. She shows anger, hatred and fury everything in her eyes. She has to act like an adult although she is a kid. I still don’t know how Manobala would have extracted such expressions from her and that’s why he was a master director. The other important aspect of the movie is the background score by Ilaiyaraaja, and he runs havoc during the final scenes of the film. It will stay as one of the haunting scores in Tamil cinema.
Manobala adores Ilaiyaraaja, and so he released the original score as an audio cassette for the first time. Needless to say, it sold like crazy as well as any song albums of Ilaiyaraaja. Manobala says that Kamal always chodes him for changing path as a commercial director and later as an actor. He shouldn’t have ended his directorial career to take up acting. But I am happy that he is producing some brilliant scripts.
Fun Trivia: Manobala’s birth name is Balachander but he changed his name as there were two Balachanders in Tamil cinema. Manobala is his pen name.