“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write things
worth reading or do things worth writing”.
Kailasam Balachander or KB as he has been popularly known will remain in the ‘memory of the world’ forever. KB achieved immortality by writing, directing, and producing 20 stage plays, more than 100 movies and 25 mega serials for TV. Together they formed a veritable source of his life’s work. People will continue to consume them for entertainment, enlightenment and emulation as far into future as one can think of. But his contribution doesn’t end with them. He had a rare ability to create characters of intrinsic value with massive appeal through his socially relevant stories. Equally important was his penchant for and proficiency in creating great stars out of his characters and stories.
KB was habituated to give a stunning entry for a number of artists including the two extraordinarily successful stars of Tamil Cinema: Kamal Haasan and RajiniKanth. Even those who didn’t debut in his films added newer dimensions to their careers after acting in his movies. No wonder he was reverentially called as ‘Pitha Magan’ in the industry. It would be illuminating to quote what his illustrious sishya Kamal Haasan had to say about his role in making him into what he is today. “People keep saying Balachander discovered me. I differ. He invented me. When a stalwart like him suggests that I act in films, who am I to refuse?”
KB’s contribution in these areas made him into a legend. He is widely-known for casting his characters in the mould of challengers of the status quo and changers of the situation for better. Of special significance are his women characters: They displayed enormous amount of grit and determination and succeeded against all odds. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that the Modern Women discovered by Maha Kavi Bharathi made an emphatic entry into KB’s movies. KB’s lead women characters symbolize that spirit.
Legendary contributors become one either by writing/directing/producing something to read/ see or by doing something great that merit writing about them as postulated by Benjamin Franklin. But a few people achieve ‘immortality’ through both the ways in their chosen areas of avocation. KB belongs to this rare category. This is an earnest attempt to sketch out his life and his work from a learner perspective. To be precise, the objectives of this piece are two-fold: To draw inspiration from the way KB lived his life of fulfillment and then to distil some learnable lessons by looking into the professional excellence he achieved in the chosen area.
PLAYING TO WIN
This is the title of a recent strategy book written by Roger Martin. Everybody in the business of life and life of business wants to win. Before everything else, one should have a right perspective of what ‘winning’ really means. KB understood that early enough. Life to him was all about following one’s passionate purpose and reaching the peak of excellence. If someone wants to compare life to a race, it can only be taken as a relay race of one generation passing it on to the next. Winning is not about reaching the honey spot or to be precise, money spot.
Therefore, starting or getting soon into this kind understanding is a precondition for a fulfilling life. Then one has to discover one’s purpose or calling in life. Abraham Maslow, famous for the Hierarchy of Needs Framework provided a right perspective on this. To quote him: “Musicians must make music, artists must paint, and poets must write if
they are to be ultimately at peace with themselves. They must be true to their own nature. This need we may call self-actualisation. It refers to man’s desire for him to become actually in what is potentially to become everything one is capable of becoming”. This could well be considered as a good starting point both for achieving one’s lifework and gauging one’s contribution to the society.
Like in the case of most great achievers, KB’s interest in drama didn’t happen all of a sudden. It evolved over a period of time. As a school boy, he started staging dramas on the ‘thinnai’ (patio) in his village home in Nannilam. But the blossoming of KB’s passion for stage drama took place while he was working at the Accountant General’s (AG’s) Office at Chennai. It gave him a wonderful platform for all his dramatic experiments. He staged his first drama, Cinema Visiri (Cinema Fan) at AG’s Office in 1950. Between 1950 and 1963, he staged a number of dramas with his friends honing his skills as a playwright and preparing to storm the world.
No wonder when his maiden drama of ‘Major Chadrakanth’ was staged in 1963, it became a huge success. With the title of ‘Major’ getting attached to Sundarrajan who donned that role, his creation work started in right earnest. KB quickly carved out a niche for himself as a dramatist with a societal concern. His successful stage drama ‘Navagraham’ was first written as a serial story in Kumudam magazine and created a great sensation among its readers. Later this success was replicated even in cinema after producing success on the stage.
But KB didn’t have to wait for long to graduate from drama to cinema. In 1965, KB entered the film world by producing the cinematic version of his theatrical success of Neerkumili. With this the great comedian Nagesh was born. KB’s momentous entry into the world of cinema heralded a new era in its history. Interestingly, much before producing his 100th film, KB made one more transition by getting into the small screen with a view to reach a wider audience. He went on to produce 25 mega serials for TV. Perhaps, KB would be the only one in the whole industry to straddle all the three mediums. And he made an indelible imprint in each one of them.
IBM and KB
It won’t be an exaggeration to consider KB as the IBM of the Tamil Entertainment industry. IBM is the only company to successfully operate in three platforms in the computing industry. Starting and dominating the mainframe computers with its iconic IBM 360, it got into the personal computers arena when it became necessary. Then it came out of personal computers to focus on cloud computing and positioned itself as a provider of smart services and solutions. IBM achieved this without compromising its core purpose.
KB’s case is intrinsically the same. Without compromising his ‘core purpose and values’ he navigated one platform to another and dominated all three different mediums at different points of time. Virginia ‘Ginni’ Rometty, the current CEO of IBM made this observation while talking about the legacy of IBM: “To be 100 years old, you can never define yourself by a product”. Likewise, KB’s creation can’t be confined to one form or film.
Even here, KB outsmarted the computer heavyweight in two distinct ways. One, in the case of IBM, transition was not spontaneous. The company was compelled by the technological shifts. KB on the contrary sensed and spotted opportunity in the new medium and effortlessly navigated from one platform to another. More significantly, IBM being a centenarian, the transition was spearheaded by at least four leaders in the capacity of its chief executive officers (CEOs). But KB achieved this great feat all by himself.
What strategy did KB adopt to achieve the success? Purpose provides a broad canvas for the twin strategic questions of ‘where to play’ and ‘how to win’, according to the author Roger Martin, mentioned earlier. Having decided on the purpose, the exact choice of strategy is a function of the assumptions on which they are based, formulated, and put into work. Roger Martin identified three assumptions that have a bearing on these choices. They are about: (a) the state of the world, (b) the state of competition, and (c) the state of technology. By looking at the storylines of the movies directed by KB in the backdrop of the above assumptions, one can detect the underlying strategy behind them all.
To appreciate the strategy adopted by KB better, it is worthwhile to listen to strategy guru, Michael Porter of Harvard Business School (HBS), the most influential strategic thinker and writer of the era. He observed: “Competitive strategy is about being different. It means deliberately choosing a different set of activities to deliver a unique mix of value. … The essence of strategy is choosing to perform activities differently than rivals do”. Another definition worth applying here is the one supplied by Roger Martin mentioned earlier. To Roger Martin, strategy is all about making and implementing two decisions. Martin considered: “strategy as making an integrated set of choices about ‘where to play’ and how to win’”. Both of them put together would give a good idea about KB’s strategy.
Closely related to the concept of strategy is the choice of a business model. Often they are used interchangeably. But they are two different things and can be treated as two sides of the same coin. Consciously or otherwise, every business uses a business model as well as a strategy. Through an examination of the story models of KB, one can understand not only the difference between strategy and business model but also the model or models where KB excelled.
Before moving further, a brief description about business model through a couple of definitions are in order. The first one is from Joan Magretta, a management writer of repute. In her article on “Why Business Models Matter” published in Harvard Business Review (May 2002), she argues that business models are “at heart, stories – that explain how enterprises work”. She elaborates further: “Creating a business model is, then, lot like writing a new story. At some level, all new stories are variations on old ones, reworkings of the universal themes underlying all human experience. Similarly, all new business models are variations on the generic value chain underlying all businesses”.
Stories are essentially about relationship. The relationship could be with one’s own self; with intimate ones; within the family; or with the society at large. Taking Steiner and Steiner (Business, Government, and Society) as a guide to the discussion, a society is nothing but “a network of relationships that includes three interacting elements: (1) ideas, (2) institutions, and (3) material things”. Like every other story teller, KB chose to focus on types which he wanted to and excelled in. This apart one has to look at his characterization plan, narrative style, etc.
One of the most successful story models in the Hollywood history is James Bond movies. Began as the cinematic versions of Ian Fleming’s novels, it has now more than 22. All of them are based on one common theme – a model – of detecting and acting on an engrossing plot. James Bond takes the role of a counter-spy carrying out some kind of a mission or other to prevent a criminal plot coming to fruition. One can discover a distinct pattern in KB’s stories as well. This can be amplified by comparing his model with that of Bharathi Raja or Mani Ratnam.
In the article, “How to Design a Winning Business Model” (HBR January-February 2011), Ramon Casadesus – Masanell and Prof. Joan Recart clarifies the difference between business models, strategies, and tactics. According to the authors: “Whereas business models refer to the logic of the company – how it operates and creates and captures value for stakeholders in a competitive marketplace – strategy is the plan to create a unique and valuable position involving a distinctive set of activities”. To sum up: “Business model refers to the logic of the firm, the way it operates and how it creates value for stakeholders. Strategy refers to the choice of business model through which the firm will compete in the marketplace. Tactics refers to the residual choices open to a firm by virtue of the business model that it employs”.
In today’s world where material growth takes precedence over everything else, not many get into the peak level of self-actualization. Distractions come in the form of many attractions, derailing people from getting into the peak of excellence. Instead of moving upward, they grow sideways in the form of augmenting what they have been doing all along often in meaningless and soul-less ways. But KB successfully “preserved the core while stimulating growth”. He was in the ‘zone’ and ‘flow’ by excelling in whatever he did till the last moment.
KB’s response to the prestigious Dadasaheb Phalke Award is typical of a self-actualized person. He said: “Now my life and work seem complete”. KB, not only became what he wanted to become but he went on to reach the zenith of that. Looking back, KB being conferred quite early the title of Iyakkunar Sigaram (Peak Director) appears to be an act of clairvoyance. He successfully transitioned during the first phase from stage drama to silver screen and in the final phase he straddled between the big screen and small screen. In the process he invented and reinvented Tamil Cinema. His timing and the way he made the transition is a study by itself.
All the great achievement made after 1970 is attributable to the inflection point he faced in his life. During the early face of his cinema career, he was working on three to four shootings per day. This excessive work load resulted in a health crisis in the form of a massive heart attack. This made him to take rest for six months and introspect a lot about what kind of films he must be doing, what kind of actors he should be casting, etc. In an interview given to Cinema Express (1-15 September 2011), he himself referred to Before the Attack and After the Attack in the vein of BC and AC. The film ‘Arangettram’ released in 1972, considered as a turning point in Tamil cinema also signaled KB’s new avatar in film-making. Then on he introduced empowered and intelligent women taking the centre stage and asserting their role like never before.
Growth achieved by KB can be measured in various forms. First and foremost is the size of his contribution in numerical terms. The second one relates to the number of mediums/platforms he traversed. Thirdly, in addition to Tamil, his movies extended to Kannada and Telugu and Hindi as well. Fourthly, the number of box office hits represents the commercial success. Fifthly, the awards given to him stand as an ample testimony to his towering contribution. Finally, the number of new faces introduced and their stature is the greatest contribution by far. All these stand in ample testimony to his accomplishment on both personal and professional fronts.