Bold, beautiful, sensitive and sparkling, K Balachander’s heroines are a league of their own. Here, we look at some of our all-time favourites…

Mani Prabhu

1. Paru in Ethir Neechal (1968)

Played by: Jayanthi

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The concept of ‘psychologically challenged’ has rarely been dealt with sensitivity in our industry. No, this is not about the lead ladies with an IQ of 30 in many of our commercial cinemas. KB’s Ethir Neechal came at a time when the social stigma against anything preceded by ‘mental’ was at its all time high.  To have a woman rehabilitated from mental illness as the female lead, and also have prove her worth and save the day for the male protagonist needs someone like KB at the helm of affairs! A characterization which holds significance even in this modern era, Paru would never fade from the hearts of movie buffs.

2. Lalitha in Arangetram (1973) and  3. Kavitha in Aval oru Thodargadai (1974)

Played by : Prameela in Arangetram and Sujatha in Aval Oru Thodargadai

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In the former, KB tells the story of a young woman – the eldest daughter of an extremely poor and huge Brahmin household – who is forced to become a prostitute in order to support her conservative kinsfolk. In the latter, KB traces the life of a working class woman, who sacrifices her personal desires to support her large family. Both the ladies are strong, thinking women who take up jobs only as sacrificial lambs. They show neither the persevering drive nor the passion to strive harder for anything that could be called their own – leave alone, a career. They seem to be made a victim of harsh destiny way too conveniently. The former even goes on to lose her sanity. At first glance, all this might sound like sheer moralistic baloney.

But view it in the context of the time and the then-prevalent societal mind-set; you would see what the film-maker was doing! In an era, when hero-centric films preaching endless ways to keep the man happy without questioning him was the norm, KB attempted walking the tight rope between offering sensible, independent roles to his women on-screen and what was termed as ‘societal acceptability’ – in a medium which continues to be considered primarily as a  business model. These films, despite the tragic endings, made the audience sit up and take notice of the lead lady’s emotional intelligence, in addition to her IQ.  And through these ladies, KB tacitly touched upon issues like the parochial mindset towards women and the societal impressions of a rebel-girl.

In 2006, almost 32 years later, KB revealed that if he had the opportunity to make these two movies today, Lalitha and Kavitha would have lived happily ever after, with or without marriage.

4. Bhairavi and Ranjani in Apoorva Ragangal (1975)

Played by: Srividya and Jayasudha respectively

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A mismatched tale of a young man falling in love with an older woman, while the woman’s nubile daughter gets attracted to the young man’s father. Potentially incendiary stuff in the early 70s! Again, you could point to the convenient resolution at the end when the elder woman’s estranged husband turns up, only to perish, thereby dooming the older woman-younger man pair. But the very fact that KB brought two out-of-the-box lead ladies into the picture, and let us read through their complicated minds, is reason enough to celebrate the existence of this movie, and forgive the apparently pandering climax. Named after the ragas, the man also hinted their names to their screen-characters.

5. Selvi in Moondru Mudichu (1976)

Played by: Sridevi

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A woman caught between two friends – one who believes that his wealth would do the trick and the other who loves her sincerely. What if the former schemes the death of the latter? When confronted with a malicious, plotting and persistent suitor, what does a woman caught between the clutches of destiny do? If you are one of KB’s heroines, you might choose to turn the tables on the man who lusts after you by marrying his father. Many of us can judger her decision easily, but for that period, it was indeed a fitting slap to the wrongdoer- from both a traditional and radical point of view. Blending these two sensibilities was definitely KB for you.

6. Anu in Avargal (1977)

Played by: Sujatha

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Radical, thought-provoking and way ahead of time, KB in Avargal narrates the story of Anu, a free-spirited woman, who finds herself married to the wrong person. Before the marriage, she is a happy-go-lucky, cheerful girl – the one who makes you fall in love with her on first sight.  After an apparently failed romance, she accepts her colleague’s proposal and even confides to her about her past boyfriend. But soon after marriage, everything is taken away from her. Her happiness. Her freedom. Her self-esteem. But she doesn’t’ sulk, surrendering herself to the misery. She opts for a divorce. As she walks away from her sadist husband, she starts embracing her earlier ‘single’ self again. Yes, for a while, she becomes the ‘Anu’ she once was.

Anu is radical for her times, not because she chose to walk away, but because she wasn’t guilty or ashamed of her decision. Because she had no qualms in pursuing her lost relationship after her divorce. Because seeking companionship doesn’t resent her journey into a confident, independent woman. Because she chose to live life by her own terms. The climax, which sees her trying to reclaim what she chose to discard in the first place, is definitely a disappointment.

7. Thenmozhi in Achamillai Achamillai (1984)

Played by: Saritha

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In this political satire, KB tells the story of the lady who takes matters into her own hands, when her supposedly idealist husband slides down the slithery slope of political avarice and power politics after joining a political party.  Thenmozhi, the daughter of a freedom fighter marries Ulaganathan after being impressed with his integrity. They live happily for a while, but soon Ulaganathan’s atrocities go beyond her tolerance. She tries to drive some sense into him, but when all her attempts go in vain, she doesn’t create a scene. Veiled with a scarf, she just approaches him on one of his speech ceremonies, and stabs him to death. Another one of KB’s signature moments!

8. Sindhu in Sindhu Bharaivi (1985)

Played by: Suhasini

How often do we get heroines playing titular characters? In Sindhu Bharaivi,  Sindhu is portrayed as an emotionally complex and multifaceted character, who gives into an intellectual companionship with a gifted musician even after learning that her partner is married. KB narrates the intricate relationship problems arising out of this delicate situation in his own style, while holding on to the eccentric sensibilities of his leads. Sindhu succumbs to temptation as all humans do, but is strong-minded, standing by her decisions till the end. When the man goes spiraling down his career, she brings him around. Though she gets pregnant because of her intimacy to her partner, she refuses to marry him saying she doesn’t want to deny his wife her marital rights. However, she gives up her child to her partner’s wife in an act of defiance. Classic KB stuff.

9. Malini in Punnagai Mannan (1986)

Played by: Revathi

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In this film, KB brings to screen another unique female character – this time, a girl who is fun-loving, bubbly on the outside and unimaginably intense on the inside. Sethu meets Malini for the first time, when he is grieving his lover’s loss in a cliff where he had attempted suicide along with his girl friend. Initially he dismisses Malini as an immature girl, who is stalking him out of an infatuation. But Malini is no silly woman. A Sinhalese by birth, she falls in love with Sethu after knowing about his failed romance and the anticipated family friction.  And her love, just like her, is calm and resolute. Obstinately managing to convince Sethu and her father of her sincere feelings, she gets the wedding scheduled.  The couple would later go on to die in the same place where Sethu had unsuccessfully attempted suicide. KB had even shot a past love track for Malini in a flash back, but it was ultimately edited out of the film for unknown reasons

10. Gowri and Jyothi in Pudhu Pudhu Arthangal (1989)

Played by: Geetha and Sithara respectively

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Probably two of the finest heroines of KB, both of them are surprisingly strong and well-defined. As a rabid, over-enthusiastic fan that gets to marry the object of her desires, Gowri is understandably not able to deal with her celebrity husband’s female fans. She is scared that he would eventually cheat on her with one of the thousands of women throwing themselves at him wantonly – after all, he had slept with them before their wedding. Here is a lady who gets consumed slowly by her all-consuming love.  On the other hand, the carefree Jyothi, who is attempting to escape her confined, cruel world of marriage, develops a relationship with Gowri’s husband. As dictated by our cinemas, all things end well in the end with all of them realizing their mistakes, but the sheer audacity of the characterizations is what makes it one of KB’s most memorable films.