Mahendra was born in 1939 into a Sri Lankan Tamil family in the village Amirthakali near Batticaloa, Sri Lanka. Born to a professor father, he did his schooling at Methodist Central College and St. Michael's College, Batticaloa. Right from his childhood, Mahendra was interested in fine arts and literature. Upon completion of school, he joined the London University and graduated with a bachelor's degree (honours) in science. After his graduation, he returned to Sri Lanka and worked in Colombo as a draughtsman in the survey department for a brief period during which he edited a Tamil literary magazine titled Thyen Aruvi. In Colombo, he worked as an amateur drama artist with Radio Ceylon and got acquainted with the Sinhala theatre groups. He was married thrice. He was first married to Akhileshwari with whom he had a son. His relationship with actress Shoba ended in 1980 after she committed suicide following their marriage. In 1998, he married another actress Mounika and declared their marriage publicly in 2004.
Following a heart attack on 13 February 2014, Mahendra was admitted to Vijaya Hospital in Chennai where he was declared dead after six hours of cardiac arrest. Shortly after the news of his death, members of the Indian film industry posted their condolences in Twitter and Facebook. The Tamil film fraternity mourned the death and paid homage to him at his "film school" in Saligramam, Chennai, and decided not to work on the following day as a sign of respect. The last rites of Mahendra were performed at Porur crematorium on the same day.
Despite being a Tamil, it was not until 1978 he worked in a Tamil film when he signed up as the cinematographer for J. Mahendran's directorial debut Mullum Malarum (1978). Apart from handling the cinematography, Mahendra involved himself in other aspects such as screenwriting, casting, editing and direction in the film.] After completing Mullum Malarum, Mahendra decided to work on his second directorial venture, this time in Tamil. He named the film Azhiyadha Kolangal (1979), which according to him was "partly autobiographical". Inspired from the 1971 American film Summer of '42, Azhiyadha Kolangal was a coming-of-age film that dealt with the story of three adolescent boys who are in the awakening of sexuality. Although it was controversial for its theme, it was a box-office success. During this time he did the cinematography of K. Vishwanath's Telugu film Sankarabharanam (1979) which turned out to be a major critical and commercial success.
As a photographer, Mahendra was inspired by the works of French New Wave cinematographers such as Néstor Almendros and Michael Chapman. Among his contemporaries, he admired the works of Ashok Kumar. Mahendra believed a "well-photographed movie is that which is very close to the script". As a film-maker, he claims himself as belonging to the realistic way of story-telling devised by Satyajit Ray and Vittorio De Sica. Mahendra was drawn towards realistic cinema after watching Ray's Pather Panchali (1955). He is credited as being one among the earliest filmmakers to bring "naturalism" in Tamil cinema in the 1970s. He usually photographed, scripted and edited all his films. His films were characterised by strong "visual appeal" and minimal number of characters. A majority of his films centre on the complexity of human relationships and are known to portray women as strong characters. Although influenced by realism, his films Moodu Pani, Rettai Vaal Kuruvi and Julie Ganapathi heavily borrowed from American cinema.
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