He is widely regarded as one of the most influential and prolific filmmakers of Malayalam cinema and directed more than 50 movies in multiple languages. He was born at Engakkadu near Wadakkancherry, in present-day Thrissur district of Kerala, India.
After completing his diploma from the College of Fine Arts, Thrissur City, Bharathan entered the world of Cinema as an art director for Vincent, an accomplished director of the time and the movie was Ghandarva Kshetram. He got the inspiration from his uncle, P. N. Menon — a veteran film director. After working as an art director and assistant director for a few movies, he made his directorial debut in 1974 with Prayanam, based on Padmarajan’s script. It also marked the rise of two early proponents of middle-stream Malayalam cinema.
Bharathan's films were well known for their realistic portrayal of rural life in Kerala. Melodrama and escapism, often an integral part of mainstream cinema in India, were usually absent in his films. He also managed to steer clear of the "star-centric" culture, prevalent in Indian cinema, throughout his career. His later films did involve major movie stars but usually without compromising on plot or narrative. Bharathan, along with Padmarajan and K. G. George were largely responsible for introducing a counter culture of meaningful mainstream cinema which often tread the middle path between art-house and commercial cinema. This movement was often called the "middle of the road cinema". Bharathan's films were known for their visually appealing shot compositions. His background as a painter enabled him to create frames that were often credited for their visual beauty. Natural props and nature itself often became important characters in his films (like the railway track in Palangal, or the sea in Amaram). Bharathan is one of the few Indian directors known to use an elaborate story-board system for filming. He also often designed the posters for his films.He etched a separate cult of movies which had a typical "Bharathan touch".
Several of his early films were known for their bold portrayal of sexual themes.His films often defied social conventions and norms about man-woman relationships. Rathinirvedam was the sexual-coming-of-age story of the relationship between a teenager and an older woman while Chaamaram dealt with the tumultuous affair between a student and his college lecturer. In Kattathe Kilikkoodu an elderly, married Professor falls for his student. Kaathodu Kaathoram was about the social ostracism of a woman who has an adulterous relationship.
The latter half of Bharathan's career saw a distinct change in film making style characterized by a wider canvas, more attention to detail with more distinct focus on narrative style (e.g., Vaishali, Amaram, Thaazhvaaram, and Thevar Magan). Some critics argue that this quest for technical excellence was at the expense of the quality of thematic content. Films like Vaishali and Amaram (where he collaborated with acclaimed cinematographer Madhu Ambat) set a new benchmark for cinematographic excellence in Malayalam and Indian Cinema. Thaazhvaaram was stylistically inspired by classic Hollywood Westerns though the theme and backdrop were distinctly original.
His last few films (Manjeeradhwani, Devaraagam and Churam) were received moderately by critics.
The director showed a penchant for brilliantly portraying rustic life in rural Kerala.
Bharathan directed over 40 films in Malayalam and Tamil. Starting his career in 1975 with Prayanam, Bharathan rode to fame with his off-beat Thakara, a film about a dumb-witted central character who falls in love with the village beauty. Some of his other memorable films include Rathinirvedam, Chamaram, Paalangal, Amaram, and Vaishali.
He displayed a rare talent in treating sex without falling into vulgarity which was to later became the trademark of the so-called "Bharathan touch." His association with Padmarajan was the beginning of a golden era in Malayalam cinema. A few more films came out from the duo's partnership before Padmarajan became an independent director himself. Rathi Nirvedam and Thakara were the most noted among them with latter being considered one of his best.
Rathi Nirvedam was a sensitive treatment of teenage sexual angst. In Thakara, he deals with life and longings of a mentally retarded youth and his association with the society.
In the early 1980s he made several notable movies like Chaamaram, Marmaram, Paalangal, Ormakkayi, Kaatathe Killikoodu, and many more. They did well in theaters and set the trend for meaningful mainstream cinema. Other noted directors followed suit. It was the romantic era of Malayalam cinema.
Not all of Bharathan's films skirted with bold themes and controversy. In Oru Minnaaminunginte Nurunguvettam (1987), he tells the poignant story of a childless couple in their post retirement life. It deals with the isolation and loneliness that comes with old age. The film was a departure from Bharathan's usual style and proved to be a major commercial hit while garnering critical acclaim, too.
His Vaisali (1988) is widely regarded as a modern-day masterpiece in Malayalam cinema. Scripted by the iconic Malayalam novelist M. T. Vasudevan Nair, it was an adaptation of a sub-story told in the epic Mahabharatha. Another movie born from their association was Thazhvaramwith versatile star actor Mohanlal. The subject was revenge, a theme quite uncharacteristic of Bharathan movies. The style was inspired by classic Westerns with a brooding, reticent central character and expansive shots of barren landscape.
Even though he was not known to cater to the star-centric system, Bharathan was instrumental in bringing together the two screen icons of Tamil cinema Sivaji Ganesan and Kamal Hassan in the Tamil film Thevar Magan which won critical acclaim and box office success. Sivaji gave an uncharacteristically restrained yet brilliant performance. The movie won several national awards and was remade into many regional languages (most notably Virasat in Hindi).
His more experimental films include Aaravam, more an arthouse than commercial venture, and Nidra, about the plight of a woman who is in love with a mentally deranged man. His film "Nidra" is remade by his son , film director Sidharth Bharathan. "Rathinirvedam" originally directed by Bharathan, which was a noted film is also remade by another famous director T K Rajeev Kumar with Swetha Menon in the lead.
His creativity was not confined to film direction. He also wrote lyrics and tuned songs for his films. (e.g., Keli; “Thaaram Valkannadi Nokki…"; or title song for Kathodu Kathoram). He associated with writer P. R. Nathan in his Keli.
Bharatan died at a private hospital in Chennai on 30 July 1998 at the age of 52 following prolonged illness. His dead body was taken to his native place Wadakkanchery and was cremated at the premises of his home with full state honours. His last film was 'Churam', released a year before his death.
Bharathan was married to noted theatre and film actress K. P. A. C. Lalitha with whom he associated in a lot of films before and after marriage. It was on the sets of Rathinirvedam (1978) that he proposed to Lalitha and they got married soon after the shooting of this film. Bharathan's own dream home was an amazing, artistic palatial house based on Kerala architecture.It was in K.K.Nagar Chennai.Bharathan's son Siddharth Bharathan is a noted film actor, director and scenarist. Having made his debut as an actor in the 2002 film Nammal, Siddharth went on to act in a few more low-budget ventures before he made his debut as a director by remaking Bharathan's 1981 film Nidra into a film with the same title in 2012.1992: National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Tamil – Thevar Magan