In a career that spanned 50 years, he had contributed to nearly 100 feature films either as a screenwriter or director, thus becoming one of the most prolific filmmakers in the country. Known among his colleagues as a tough task master, he was credited with having nurtured numerous actors, notably Nagesh, Sujatha, Kamal Haasan, Rajinikanth, Chiranjeevi, Jayaprada, Jayasudha, Saritha, Renuka, Nassar, Prakash Raj, Ramesh Aravind and Vivek.
In his film career, Balachander had won nine National Film Awards and 13 Filmfare Awards. He was honored with the Padma Shri (1987), India's fourth highest civilian award, and the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, India's highest award in cinema.
He also made films under his production house, Kavithalaya Productions. Apart from Tamil, he made films in other languages such as Telugu, Kannada and Hindi. Towards the tail end of his career, he directed a few TV serials and made a few film appearances as well.
K. Balachander was born in 1930 into a Tamil Brahmin household, at Nannilam in the then Tanjore district (now Tiruvarur district), India. Balachander stated that, "From my eighth year I've been seeing cinema" and recalls that his earliest interest towards cinema grew after watching films of M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, then the Superstar of Tamil cinema. At the age of twelve he was drawn to theatre and drama, which eventually helped him develop an interest in acting, writing and directing amateur plays. His obsession towards theatre continued even while doing his graduation (in Zoology) at the Annamalai University, as he regularly took part in stage plays. After completing his graduation in 1949, he started his career as a school teacher in Muthupet, Tiruvarur district. In 1950, he moved to Madras (now Chennai) and joined the Accountant General's office as an apprentice clerk, and during this time he joined "United Amateur Artistes", an amateur drama company. Soon he formed his own troupe and it was during this time he came to prominence as an amateur playwright with Major Chandrakanth, written in English. As the scope of English was highly limited in Madras, he re-wrote the play in Tamil, which ultimately became a "sensation" among the people. Balachander's acting troupe consisted of people from the Tamil film industry such as Major Sundarrajan, Nagesh, Sreekanth and Sowcar Janaki. Sunderrajan appeared in over 900 films, Nagesh in over 1,000, Sreekanth in more than 200 films, and Sowkar Janaki appeared in more than 350 films. Other plays written by Balachander include Server Sundaram (Waiter Sundaram), Neerkumizhi (Water Bubble), Mezhuguvarthi (Candle), Naanal (Tall Grass) and Navagraham (Nine Planets). All these produced and directed by him, were received well by the critics.
Balachander while working in the Accountant General's office, was offered to write the dialogues for the film Dheiva Thaai (1965) by its lead actor M. G. Ramachandran. Balachander was initially reluctant, as he was more theatre-oriented, but on the insistence of his friends he decided to work on the film. By this time he was promoted as a superintendent in his office. Avichi Meiyappa Chettiar acquired the rights of his play Server Sundaram, and decided to make a film based on it. The film dealt with the story of a waiting staff at a restaurant had Nagesh playing the lead. The film was directed by the renowned duo directors, Krishnan Panju. It won a lot of accolades including the Certificate of Merit for the third Best Feature Film in Tamil and Filmfare Award for Best Tamil Film. During this time another play written and directed by him - Major Chandrakanth was adapted into a film in Hindi as Oonche Log. The film won a National Film Award. Balachander then made his directional debut through Neerkumizhi (1965) which in turn was based on his own play. The film's cast consisted of actors who were a part of Balachander's regular troupe. His following efforts included Naanal, Major Chandrakanth and Ethir Neechal, all based on his own plays. Major Chandrakanth was already filmed in Hindi as Oonche Log the previous year. The Tamil version Major Chandrakanth (1966 film) had Jayalalithaa playing the lead heroine role. In 1967 he made Bama Vijayam, a full-length comedy family drama film. Featuring an ensemble cast, the film was highly successful and remade in Telugu by Balachander himself. The success of both the versions prompted a Hindi remake titled Teen Bahuraniyan, produced by Gemini pictures. In 1969, Balachander made Iru Kodugal, a family drama starring Gemini Ganesan, won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Tamil.
During the 1970s, Balachander turned indie, making realist movies revolving around family and social issues. In 1971 he made four films.
In 1973, he made Arangetram, which dealt with poverty and prostitution. The film centred on the eldest daughter of a conservative Brahmin household who becomes a prostitute to settle her siblings and support her family. It was ahead of its time in Tamil cinema mainly because of the controversial theme. The film also had Kamal Haasan playing his first major role as an adult actor. The actor would go on to act in 35 films under Balachander. He made his directorial debut in Hindi films with the film Aaina starring Mumtaz and Rajesh Khanna in 1974, which was remake of Arangetram.
The same year, he made Sollathaan Ninaikkiren, based on a novel by Manian. The following year he made Naan Avanillai. He made the film on the insistence of Gemini Ganesan, who also produced and enacted the lead role. It is based on the Marathi play To Mee Navhech, revolved around a man who deceives and marries five women performing nine roles. The film met with commercial failure. However, Gemini Ganesan was adjudged the Best Tamil Actor at the following year's Filmfare Awards ceremony. Following that, Balachander's made Aval Oru Thodar Kathai (1974), his second female-centric film after Arangetram that dealt with the story of a working woman who hails from a middle-class family. Inspired by the 1960 Bengali film Meghe Dhaka Tara, it explored the emotions of a young woman who happens to be the sole earner for her family. He decided to cast an actress who worked as a child actress till then, as his film heroine with the film Mondru Moodichu and gave break to Sridevi. The film Aboorva Raagangal was an original story about an inter-generational romance involving two families. It marked the acting debut of Rajinikanth, who would go on to establish himself as a leading actor. It won critical acclaim in spite of its controversial theme; it won three National Film Awards including the award for the "Best Feature Film in Tamil".
During this period he made films mostly with Kamal Haasan as the lead actor. In 1976, he made three films: Manmadha Leelai, Anthuleni Katha and Moondru Mudichu. Manmadha Leelai explores the life of a womaniser, played by Kamal Haasan, who gets himself involved in affairs with women. Often considered ahead of its time, it achieved cult status and is considered a "trendsetter" in Tamil cinema. Anthuleni Katha, a Telugu remake of Aval Oru Thodar Kathai had Jayaprada in her first starring role. received equal acclaim in Andhra Pradesh as in the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu. Avargal (1977) follows the life of a divorcée as she traverses relationships in reverse, from divorce, to marriage, to falling in love. Varumayin Niram Sigappu (1980) was a drama that charts the travails and conflict of being unemployed in a bombastic and harsh city. 47 Natkal (1981) traces the adversities of a newlywed Indian woman living with an scurrilous, expatriate husband in a Parisian suburb. The film was a launchpad for its lead actor Chiranjeevi
Balachander re-entered the Hindi film industry after Aaina through Ek Duuje Ke Liye in 1981. He gave Rati Agnihotri her debut Hindi film with Ek Duje Ke Liye. The project was a remake of his own Telugu film Maro Charitra had Kamal Haasan repeating his role as a lead actor. The film marked the Bollywood debut of various artists including Kamal Haasan, Madhavi and S. P. Balasubrahmanyam. Like the original, Ek Duuje Ke Liye emerged as a major box-office success and earned critical acclaim. Balachander received the Filmfare Award for Best Screenplay, apart from two other nominations – for Best Director and Best Story. The song "Tere Meere Beach Mein" became so popular, eventually winning a Filmfare Award for Anand Bakshi and a National Film Award for Balasubrahmanyam.
He made Sindhu Bhairavi (1985), which is about the intellectual collision and subsequent romance between a lofty Carnatic musician and his ardent critic. He has worked with a variety of music directors like V.Kumar,M.S.Viswanathan,Ilaiyaraja,Maragathamani,V.S.Narasimhan and A.R.Rahman. The actors who were regular in his films in the period 1963 to 1990 were Gemini Ganeshan, Sowcar Janaki, Nagesh, Jayanthi, Sujatha,Rajnikanth and Kamal Hasan.
In 1998, he planned a film titled Thillana Thillana featuring Prashanth, Karthik, Meena and Simran in the lead roles, but the venture failed to develop. His later films include Parthale Paravasam (2001) and Poi (2006).
The period starting from the late 1980s till the late 1990s saw Balachander venturing into Television and making a number of Television series including Kai Alavu Manasu, Rail Sneham, Ramani vs Ramani, Oru Koodai Paasam, Kadhal Pagadai, Premi, Jannal, and Anni. Like his earlier films, most of his serials focussed on women, and portrayed them as strong personalities. In 2003, he made Sahana, that touted to be the sequel of his 1985 film Sindhu Bairavi. On venturing into Television, he noted "This medium helps to reach out to the public. That's why I am into making serials". In 2009, Balachander returned to theatre after a 40-year hiatus through the play Pournami, which had Renuka playing the lead role.
In 1956, Balachander got married to Rajam while he was working at the Accountant General's Office. The couple had two sons named Kailasam and Prasanna and a daughter Pushpa Kandaswamy, who is the chairwoman of their production house Kavithalaya Productions. Kailasam was an entrepreneur while Prasanna, a Chartered Accountant, is the managing director and CEO of a leading investment bank in India. Balachander's first son, Bala Kailasam, died on 15 August 2014 after contracting pneumonia. He was the head of the television production company Minbinbangal, and delivered memorable series in Tamil includes, Kaialavu Manasu, Rail Sneham, and Marma Desam.
Following a neurosurgery in November 2014, Balachander was admitted to a private hospital in Chennai on 15 December. Reports suggested that he was suffering from fever and from a urinary tract infection, but was recovering well. However, on 23 December 2014 he died due to complications from the urinary infection and age-related ailments.
Balachander is revered as one of the best directors India has ever produced. His ideas were original and his subjects were complex ideas expressed via art. He is also known for introducing new faces to the film industry. He has introduced over 100 actors in Tamil, Telugu and Kannada languages. Balachander had long associations with some senior artists in the South Indian film industry like Gemini Ganesan, Sowcar Janaki, Nagesh and Muthuraman. Even though he was not the one to discover them, he played a prominent role in shaping their careers.
Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth, two leading film actors in Tamil cinema, are often referred to as products of Balachander who has paired with each of them or worked with them as a trio in several films during the 1970s. Rajinikanth was chosen by Balachander to play a key supporting character in Apoorva Raagangal (1975) after noting that "there was something special about him". Sridevi, Srividhya, Jayapradha, Jayasudha, Jayachithra, Sujatha, Saritha were notable heroines that were introduced by Balachander. Nassar, Delhi Ganesh, Charlie, Madan Bob were some of the notable supporting actors introduced by him. After working in a few Kannada films, Prakash Raj was relaunched as an actor in Tamil cinema through his debut Duet (1995) and had also performed in some of Balachander's soap opera productions in the 1990s. Through Manathil Uruthi Vendum, Balachander launched Vivek as an actor, who initially worked with him as his assistant writer, and later went on to become a leading comedy actor. He also launched A.R. Rahman in the film Roja which was his production.
When the old era was dominated by commercial action films, Balachander directed socially themed films with women as protagonists usually centred on unusual or complicated interpersonal relationships and social themes. He portrayed women as headstrong, intelligent and independent people. Balachander revealed that many of his messages from his films, he has drawn inspiration from poet Subramaniya Bharathi whom he had admired since his childhood. Screenwriter Gopu (of Gopu-Babu) said that he used to begin his script from the ending and then construct the plot.