People from Kerala remember N L Balakrishnan1 mostly as a comedian, who with his huge physique easily portrayed the role of a giant with the heart of a child, arguably much more than they know him as a photographer, though he took still photographs for movies and had worked as a press photographer for a decade. In his period, considering that photography itself received only minor recognition and acceptance as a medium of expression from the Malayalam speaking crowd, whose psyche had accepted the language’s rich literature as well as its cinema to be their most influential creations, the treasured photographs of almost two generations of photographers here have gone unnoticed and unpreserved.
But before the time television found a place in our guest rooms, still photographs of cinema played an important role in the publicity matters, as posters on public walls and tea shops, magazines, and newspapers of that heroine rendered her all the more ‘seductive’ and the hero even more ‘heroic’.
Still photographs taken during the making of films were once celebrated throughout the world. Perhaps the most famous still photograph of a film would be that of a Smiling Marilyn Monroe in her billowing dress and her iconic pose, taken by photographer Sam Shaw for the film Seven Year Itch (1955) which went on to become one of the most renowned moments in movie history. Regardless of whether one has seen the actual movie, such images, re-staged or taken while filming, have become part of the collective memory and now play a dominant role in how these films are perceived.
While studying painting from Fine Arts College, Thiruvananthapuram, NLB made himself familiar with photography and darkroom processing from the studios there – Metro studio at Spencer Junction, Rooparekha, and Sivans being a few amongst them – following which he worked in Kerala Kaumudi for 11 years (1968-1979). Roaming around the capital city, sometimes alone and sometimes with M K Varghese, staff photographer of Malayala Manorama, NLB became more familiar with photography and the place. The photographs he took while covering the land struggle by A K Gopalan gave him much credits, regarding which he writes in his autobiography: “…as a photographer that day what I captured was not just an image but a historic landmark in the human struggle for freedom.”
The early 1970s witnessed a radical change in the perspective towards cinema by filmmakers as well as film viewers of Kerala. Adoor Gopalakrishnan with his classmates and friends established Chithralekha Film Society and Chalachithra Sahakarana Sangham; Chithralekha was the first film society in Kerala and it aimed at production, distribution and exhibition of films in the co-operative sector. The beginning of film society movement resulted in the exposure to world cinema, which helped a group of new filmmakers realise the uniqueness of the language of this medium, which till then was in the clutches of the forms used for theatre. In spite of a few ‘good movies’ from the 50s, which were born from the heavy influence of literature spearheaded by literary giants and the strong presence of playwrights, together with the uprising of Communist Party, all of which influenced the intellectual domain of the crowd here, the cinema couldn’t create its own “cinematic form”, it remained as onscreen novels and dramas.
In the 70s, the arrival of young filmmakers from the newly constituted Film Institute in Pune acted as a catalyst for this radical change. Influenced by the French and Italian New Wave, as elsewhere in India, a Malayalam New Wave was born. Solitary magazines such as Film Magazine and the generosity shown by producers as General Pictures K Ravindran Nair who came forward to produce ‘good cinema’ functioned as a catalyst for the movement.
N L Balakrishnan was a member of Chithralekha Film Society in its active days. Those were the times when he had started working as a still photographer in cinema. Film producer Sobhana Parameswaran Nair gave him his first chance to work as a still photographer, in the film Kallichellamma, which turned out to be a huge commercial success and received national recognition. Adoor, having acquainted himself with NLB through the film society, started calling him to take stills for his movies. The first time he had worked for Adoor was in a one hour docudrama conceived for UNICEF named Pratisandhi (1970), following which NLB worked for Swayamvaram (1972), Kodiyettam (1977), Elippathayam (1981) and Mukhamukham (1984) with Adoor. NLB has since remembered Adoor to have been a stickler for precision, a fact quite visible in the still photographs of these films, which point the viewer towards the view point from which the film itself was shot.
NLB worked as a still photographer in about 170 films and has been associated with other master directors including G Aravindan, John Abraham, Padmarajan, Bharathan, K G George, and many more. Aravindan was more than a friend to NLB – ‘Aravindettan,’ as he fondly remembers him, remained as a guardian who influenced him the most in his personal and professional life. Aravindan recalled NLB to be a hedonist, a joyful wonder, and once remarked that since NLB is a painter-turned-photographer, his colour sense, sense of tonality, and composition were unbeatable. The stills he took for Thampu (1978) as well as Chidambaram (1985) were widely appreciated. Aravindan’s movie sets and locations had an inseparable presence of greenery in it, which added to the beauty of the movie stills too. NLB took stills for all the feature films that Aravindan has directed.
The portraits of people in the movie set of K G George’s directional debut Swapnadanam (1976) taken in his medium format camera in a monochrome film roll don’t appear to be still photographs of a film but rather as documentation of an intimate moment of a very close friend who is lost in melancholy. That’s the magic of a film still photograph. It is impossible to predict whether the person in the photograph is acting or not! Is the director watching the actors as the camera is rolling or is he just lost in his thoughts?
The stills NLB took for Bharathan’s Thakara (1979) were also well acclaimed; Bharathan himself said once that the film was sold to the distributors not by showing the movie but the still photographs from the album. NLB recognises this as the greatest reward of his professional career.
The major development during the late 70s was the growth of another stream of Malayalam cinema, the ‘Middle Cinema’, which fused the artistic qualities of ‘Parallel Cinema’ and the popular form of the commercial Malayalam cinema. This resulted in the birth of a number of films with down-to-earth stories, but with most of them becoming commercial successes. NLB, being a part of the creative group behind this change, roamed freely in the shooting sets of these directors, and got the freedom to shoot the way he wanted rather than from the exact angle and position the director wanted. NLB was the first to take still pictures while the film was being shot. The practice till then was to pose after the scenes were shot by the movie camera. Photographer R Gopalakrishnan says, “He, Balakrishnan, was also the first one to take a picture without using the flash, and that made his stills natural. He also showed that better pictures could be taken using the 35mm camera, instead of the 120mm, which had been in vogue earlier.”
From 1986, he started his acting career too. As an actor, NLB has around 180 films to his credit. He worked and remained in the film industry till his last days. His views on cinema and still photography got moulded and remoulded over the years. As he writes in his autobiography, “One must know the film in its depth. And the stills are important aspects to release a film to the masses. The photographer should not stay exposed, the stills must sink into the inner melody and weave into its general fabric. The still photographs are not static, they are messengers, the message carriers, demonstrators and invitations.”
As he writes more regarding his life as a friend, photographer, and an alcoholic, at times, he explains his thoughts about photography.
More excerpts from his autobiography: “Does a photo carry a meaning? Like a memory which has a meaning, photo doesn’t in itself have a meaning. Stills don’t speak but they are not dead as such. They evoke memories and memory evokes the meaning behind the image.”
“There is a question of ethics in photography. Today we can convey our opinion of any incident or situation through photography. Even if anything happens, be it hideous, awesome or that should not have happened, that doesn’t have anything to us; but the world gets some more visual content. This is not my words but the self-critical anguish expressed by Susan Sontag. As a photographer, I totally agree. This is also my personal anguish even when the camera is near to my heart; I carry it with a guilty consciousness”
The curtain has long been drawn on the golden age of unit still photographs, as the age of photographs has itself half way left the stage. Rapid changes in technology are making their impact in the world of cinema with qualitative changes making possible dreamlike visuals. Cinema no longer purely depends upon its still photographs for selling it to distributers or promoting the essence of a movie star, and the movie stills from the past remain as historical documents in the hands of collectors and in archives. They constantly remind us of the poignant human reality in a space at a time and that too created by master minds in their creative explorations.