"He had a knack of letting his visuals speak several emotions. His visuals could create more impact than any lines and words in a film," Veteran filmmaker K Vishwanath, who roped in Balu as a cinematographer for Sankarabharanam, told IANS.
Balu died following a heart attack at a private hospital here on Thursday, leaving behind a visually rich filmography and an era of realistic cinema. He was 74. He is survived by his wife and son.
Born in a Sri Lankan Tamil Christian family as Balanathan Benjamin Mahendran, his passion for images started at a young age. He plunged into the world of films as a cinematographer and went on to become one of the finest filmmaker, screenwriter and editor known for his distinct style of visual storytelling.
After completing his schooling in Sri Lanka, Mahendra enrolled into a cinematography course at the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune. In 1974, he started his career as a cinematographer in award winning Malayalam film Nellu.
His work as a cinematographer will also be remembered in films such as Sankarabharanam, Prayanam and Mullum Malarum.
In 1977, Balu called the shots for his debut film Kokila (Kannada), which featured Kamal Haasan and Mohan in the lead roles. A runaway success, the film cemented the auteur's career as a director.
But it was National Award winning Tamil film Moondram Pirai, later remade as Sadma in Hindi, that catapulted Mahendra as one of the influential filmmakers of the country.
The film's story was inspired by Balu's own relationship with late actress Shoba, whom he married for a brief time before she committed suicide.
Moondram Pirai earned Kamal Haasan his first National Award.
Another path-breaking film in Balu's career was Tamil drama Veedu, about the plight of a middle-class family trying to construct a house. Drawing inspiration from the life of his mother, the National Award winning film is still considered as one of his finest works.
In his over three-decade-long career, Balu directed 21 films across all southern languages. He won two National Awards for cinematography for Kokila and Pirai.
As a director, he pocketed three National Awards for Veedu, Sandhya Raagam and Vanna Vanna Pookal. He also won three Filmfare awards for his work in Moondram Pirai and Olangal.
Balu believed in having an emotional as well as intellectual connect with his audience.
"It's a misconception that art films have to be slow and unemotional. Most of my work has been labelled as art, but as a filmmaker I have always strived to entertain my audience with work that will appeal to them on an emotional as well as intellectual level," Balu Mahendra had told IANS.
While most of his work was labelled as art films, Balu will be remembered for one of the best Tamil comedies "Sathi Leelavathi", starring Kamal Haasan.
Another fascinating aspect of Balu's life is his association with music maestro Illayaraja, who has composed tunes for all his Tamil films since Moondram Pirai.
Their collaboration resulted in several memorable chartbusters that will ring in the ears of his fans till eternity.
Balu's Thalaimuraigal incidentally had no songs, but it was lauded for Illayaraja's background score.
His legacy continues in Tamil cinema in the form of his pupils - most of his students such as Bala Pazhanisaamy, Vetrimaaran, and Ameer Sultan have won the National Awards.
"The first National award I won is on the wall of his office room. I had given it to him as gurudakshina. Had it not been for Balu sir, I wouldn't be here making films. I owe my career to him. It's not just me, all his students would echo the same if you ask them," director Bala Pazhanisaamy, who won the National award for Tamil film "Naan Kadavul", told IANS.
Balu Mahendra's unfulfilled wish was the archiving of Tamil films.
In a casual interaction with IANS, he had said: "So many rare Tamil films couldn't be restored. You can't make such films again. I wish to see that we take up archiving seriously and restore as many films as possible."