After working in over 20 films as a cinematographer, Mahendra made his directorial debut in 1977 with the Kannada film Kokila. Since then, he directed over 20 films in a span of 36 years. Along with P. Bharathiraja and J. Mahendran, he is regarded as a trendsetter in Tamil cinema. During the tail end of his career, he established a film school in Chennai, which offers courses in cinematography, direction and acting. Following a brief phase of poor health, Mahendra died of cardiac arrest in February 2014.
Widely regarded as an auteur, Mahendra usually scripted and edited his films apart from shooting them. He was the recipient of six National Film Awards (including two for Best Cinematography), three Filmfare Awards South and several state government awards.
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 fresh graduate from the FTII, Mahendra's early attempts to enter 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. Though the filming of Nellu began in 1971, production delays postponed its release for three years. Meanwhile, Kariat signed up Mahendra for another film titled Maaya which released in 1972. However, P. N. Menon's Panimudakku (1972) got released before Maaya, thus becoming Mahendra's first release. He continued to work in Malayalam films such as Sasthram Jayichu Manushyan Thottu (1973), Kaliyugam (1973) and Chattakari (1974).
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. The following year he made his directorial debut with Kokila. Made in Kannada, the film was a "triangular love story". In addition to a Best Screenplay award from the Karnataka government, Mahendra won his first National Film Award for Best Cinematography for the film. The film was both critically acclaimed and commercially successful. It was equally successful in the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu and has the distinction of being the only Kannada film to complete 150 days in Madras (now Chennai) as of 2014.
Despite being a Tamil, it was not until 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. He named the film Azhiyadha Kolangal (1979), which according to him was "partly autobiographical". Inspired from the 1971 American film Summer of '42, Azhiyadha Kolangal was a coming-of-age film that dealt with the story of three adolescent boys who are in the awakening of sexuality. Although it was controversial for its theme, it was a box-office success. 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.
In 1983, Mahendra entered Hindi cinema with Sadma, a remake of Moondram Pirai, with Kamal Hasan and Sridevi reprising their roles. Mahendra received a Filmfare nomination for Best Story and became a well-known director with the Hindi audience with the film. The same year, he worked as the cinematographer of the Kannada film Pallavi Anu Pallavi, Mani Ratnam's debut film. During this time, he made his second film in Malayalam titled Oomakkuyil. Unlike Olangal, Oomakkuyil failed to create an impact among the audience.
During the mid 1980s, Mahendra concentrated on mainstream films. The first of which Neengal Kettavai (1984) was labelled an outright commercial picture. Later Mahendra noted that he made the film with a sole intention to prove critics that he could make commercial films. The following year, he collaborated with Rajinikanth to make Un Kannil Neer Vazhindal which turned out to be a commercial failure. He then worked on the Malayalam film Yathra (1985) with Mammooty in the lead role as a forest officer. Made with "artistic values" the film earned ₹1.9 million (equivalent to ₹20 million or US$310,000 in 2016) and was the highest-grossing Malayalam film that year. By this time, he declined an offer to direct the Kannada film Malaya Marutha (1986). As a director who is known for making intense films, critics were surprised when he made Rettai Vaal Kuruvi (1987), a full-length comedy film. Closely based on the 1984 American film Micki and Maude, the film is regarded as one of the best comedies ever made in Tamil cinema during the decade. The film would serve as a base for his future films Marupadiyum (1993) and Sathi Leelavathi (1995) which explored similar themes.
Towards the end of the decade, Mahendra made two low-budgeted films—Veedu (1988) and Sandhya Raagam (1989). While Veedu focused on the life of a lower middle-class urban woman and her struggle to build a house, Sandhya Raagam dealt with "old age". At the 35th, Veedu won two National Film Awards—including one for Best Regional Film—and Sandhya Raagam won the Best Film on Family Welfare two years later. According to Mahendra, both the films were a tribute to his mother and father respectively. He named these two films as his best works as they were made with fewest mistakes and compromises.
In 1992, Mahendra made Vanna Vanna Pookkal which was produced by S. Dhanu. The film had a 100-day run and won the award for the "Best Regional Film" at the 39th National Film Awards. During this time M. Night Shyamalan, then a newcomer, approached Mahendra to be the cinematographer for his directorial debut Praying with Anger to which he refused. The next year, he remade Mahesh Bhatt's Arth in Tamil as Marupadiyum. Mahendra made the film as he felt it was close to his personal life. He then came up with a full-length comedy Sathi Leelavathi in 1995 which was produced by Kamal Haasan. The following year, he made a comeback in Bollywood through Aur Ek Prem Kahani, a remake of his Kannada film Kokila. He then made Raman Abdullah (1997), which deals with a friendship between two friends belonging to different religions. The film's shoot became the epicentre of a dispute that arose between the Tamil Film Producers Council and Film Employees Federation of South India (FEFSI). It was reported that members of FEFSI had stopped the filming of Raman Abdullah as Mahendra was engaging outside cast members in the film. This led FEFSI to go for an indefinite strike which affected to the delaying of several Tamil films. The film received negative reviews and failed at the box-office.
After Raman Abdullah, Mahendra took a break from films during which he made Kathai Neram, a television series based on different short stories, mostly by Sujatha. It was aired in Sun TV during the early 2000s.
Following a five-year sabbatical, he returned with Julie Ganapathi (2003). The film was based on the psychological thriller novel Misery by Stephen King. According to Mahendra, Julie Ganapathi was made on the lines of his previous films Moondram Pirai (1982) and Moodu Pani (1980). A review from Rediff.com stated, "Balu Mahendra has kept the flag of sensible cinema within the commercial format once again in his latest offering Julie Ganapathy" and rated the film as one of the best thrillers ever made. In spite of being a critical success, the film turned out to be a commercial failure. For his next film Adhu Oru Kana Kaalam (2005), he decided to cast Dhanush in the lead role. Initially he stated that the film to be an extension of his 1979 film Azhiyatha Kolangal. However, he ended up making a different film. The film was loosely based on his own Malayalam film Yathra released in 1985. When asked about the difference between the two films, he said "Yat[h]ra was the love story of two adults, this is the love story of two adolescents." Shobha Warrier of Rediff.com wrote that the film was "extremely disappointing".
In 2007, he started a film school named "Cinema Pattarai" in Chennai. The institute offers courses in disciplines such as cinematography, direction and acting. After a brief hiatus from films, he made a comeback through Thalaimuraigal (2013), which marked his acting debut. Apart from acting, he also scripted, directed, edited and served as the cinematographer of the film. The film was about the relationship between an ageing man and his grandson. The film received positive response with Mahendra's acting being well acclaimed. Malathi Rangarajan of The Hindu stated, "If Mahendra's aim was to make a film that can compete on a global level, Thalaimuraigal is a concrete step in that direction." Despite being critically acclaimed, the film was a commercial failure. At the 61st National Film Awards, it won the Nargis Dutt Award for Best Feature Film on National Integration.
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 (lit. 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.
Following a heart attack on 13 February 2014, Mahendra was admitted to Vijaya Hospital in Chennai where he was declared dead after six hours of cardiac arrest. Shortly after the news of his death, members of the Indian film industry posted their condolences in Twitter and Facebook. The Tamil film fraternity mourned the death and paid homage to him at his "film school" in Saligramam, Chennai, and decided not to work on the following day as a sign of respect. The last rites of Mahendra were performed at Porur crematorium on the same day.
As a photographer, Mahendra was inspired by the works of Néstor Almendros and Michael Chapman. Among his contemporaries, he admired the works of Ashok Kumar. Mahendra believed a "well-photographed movie is that which is very close to the script". As a film-maker, he claimed himself as belonging to the realistic way of story-telling devised by Satyajit Ray and Vittorio De Sica. Mahendra was drawn towards realistic cinema after watching Ray's Pather Panchali (1955). He is credited as being one among the earliest filmmakers to bring "naturalism" in Tamil cinema in the 1970s. He usually photographed, scripted and edited all his films. His films were characterised by strong "visual appeal" and minimal number of characters. A majority of his films centre on the complexity of human relationships and are known to portray women as strong characters. Although influenced by realism, his films Moodu Pani, Rettai Vaal Kuruvi and Julie Ganapathi heavily borrowed from American cinema.
Mahendra was equally praised for his cinematography and directorial finesse. Described by the media as "one of the finest cinematographers of Indian cinema", he was among the first to pioneer innovative colour in South India. Subrata Mitra, the cinematographer of Ray, presented a viewfinder to Mahendra acknowledging his talent. Fellow cinematographer Madhu Ambat described that it was Mahendra who gave "fame" to those cameramen who came out of the FTII, and further noted that he was one of the few film-makers who effectively used romantic realism. Lauded for usage of "natural lighting", Mahendra was considered as "one of the few filmmakers in Tamil who believes in telling a story visually". Kamal Haasan described that he was one of the few directors who balanced between art and popular cinema. As a film-maker, he inspired contemporary actors and film-makers such as Mani Ratnam, Kamal Haasan and Sripriya, He has mentored next generation film-makers including Bala, Ameer, Vetrimaaran, Ram and Seenu Ramasamy. Cinematographers like Santosh Sivan, Ravi K. Chandran, Natarajan Subramaniam and K. V. Anand have taken inspirations from him. The negatives of his acclaimed films—Moodu Pani, Veedu, Sandhya Raagam, Marupadiyum and Sathi Leelavathi—are lost.Kathai Neram (2000)