Padma Shri award winning director Bharathiraja, with no less than six National Film Awards under his belt, is considered one of the finest filmmakers of Indian cinema. Working mainly in Tamil cinema, and to a lesser degree in Telugu and Hindi films, he is renowned for his sensitive and realistic portrayals of rural life. Successfully bringing in a sea of change in the filmmaking standards in Tamil cinema, he is considered a pathbreaking filmmaker. Working with original ideas and complex subjects, he expressed them in a simple manner that could be understood by the common man. Making a splash with his directorial debut itself 16 Vayathinile (1977), the film marked the emergence of a novel genre of village cinema, and has gone on to be counted as a landmark in the history of Tamil cinema. He went on to direct several award-winning films including Seethakoka Chiluka (1981), Mudhal Mariyathai (1985) which he also produced, Vedham Pudhithu (1987), Karuththamma (1994), Anthimanthaarai (1996), and Kadal Pookkal (2001) which he also wrote. Among his memorable films are Muthal Mariyathai about the love story between a middle-aged village head and a poor young woman told with poetic touches, Alaigal Oiyvadhillai (1981) which took on caste and religious divides, Vedham Pudhithu (1987 ) which dealt with the caste issue in a strong manner, Kizhakku Cheemaiyile (1993) which depicted a sentimental story involving a brother and sister, and Karuththamma (1994) which brought female infanticide under the scanner. While rural themes were his forte as seen in the very successful Alaigal Oivathillai (1981), Mann Vasanai (1983) and Muthal Mariyathai (1985), Bharathiraja’s versatility has been amply seen in the experimental Nizhalgal (1980), the action thriller Tik Tik Tik (1981), the crime thriller Oru Kaidhiyin Diary (1985), and the female-oriented thriller Captain Magal (1993). Bharathiraja has also won four Filmfare Awards South, two Tamil Nadu State Film Awards and a Nandi Award. He was also conferred with the Doctor of Letters (honorary degree) from Sathyabama University. To him also goes credit for starting the trend of directors speaking to the audience with his famous line "En iniya Thamizh makkale” which translates as ‘My sweet Tamil people’.
Born Chinnasamy on 17 July, 1941 to parents Karuthammal and Periyamayathevar in Theni Allinagaram, Madura District, Madras Presidency, British India, he was huge fan of Sivaji Ganesan while growing up. He started his film career as an assistant to the Kannada filmmaker Puttanna Kanagal. He went on to assist other makers such as P Pullaiah, K S Sethumadhavan, M Krishnan Nair, Avinasi Mani and A Jagannathan. Penning the script of his debut film, he made a splash with his debut directorial, 16 Vayathinile. Meant to be a black and white art film produced with the help of National Film Development Corporation, the film turned out to be a commercially successful colour film which also launched several significant careers, including that of Ilaiyaraaja and Sridevi. More importantly, Bharathiraja is credited with establishing a new genre of rural cinema in Tamil cinema. Amidst the existing trend of films shot inside studios, he filmed at actual live locations bringing in a freshness and naturalness into his films. Bharathiraja also dispensed with the excessive make-up and fancy attire sported by the actors of the day, bringing in a more realistic simplicity. He also broke the convention of utilising fair-skinned actresses, opting for dusky female leads instead. His films moulded the existing melodramatic style into one based on rural folk traditions.
Bharathiraja is known for his direction of socially themed films, firm in his belief that films are not just a medium of entertainment but also tools for social reform. He addressed social evils like caste discrimination in his films, and also focused on women and complicated interpersonal relationships. His 16 Vayathinile focussed on the vulnerabilities of a 16-year-old schoolgirl Mailu played by Sridevi, earning cult status among fans for its rustic characters and theme. Sigappu Rojakkal (1978) was probably the first Tamil film to delve into the noir genre. Based on a psychopathic serial killer played by Kamal Haasan, the film was a thumping hit, though its controversial theme resulted in protests against it. The film was later remade in Hindi as Red Rose (1980). Alaigal Oivathillai (1981), was another pioneering attempt, dealing with the religious norms of the 80s which formed barriers in society. Mudhal Mariyadhai (1985) portrayed the love story between an old man and a young woman woven via subtle emotions. Vedham Pudhithu (1987) highlighted the rampant caste issues of the ’80s and was widely appreciated. Other notable works of the filmmaker include Karuthamma (1994), Anthimanthaarai (1996), Kadal Pookal (2001), Kizhake Pogum Rail (1978), Kizhakku Cheemaiyile (1993), Mann Vasanai (1983) and Kadalora Kavithaigal (1986).
To Bharathiraja also goes credit for introducing several new talents to the film industry. Among the actors he introduced are Karthik, Radha, Revathi Raadhika, and Vijayashanti, as well as supporting actors such as Janagaraj, Vadivukkarasi, Chandrasekhar, Pandiyan and Napoleon. An inspiration to many budding filmmakers, he also founded a filmmaking school, Bharathi Raja International Institute of Cinema (BRIIC).
Keeping abreast of changes, Bharathiraja modernised his filmmaking techniques according to the times. The commercial success of Kizhakku Cheemaiyile and the awards garnered by Karuthamma, which explored the issue of female infanticide, are further proof of his ability to engage younger audiences as well. His work continues to be awarded. Making his television debut with the series Thekkathi Ponnu, he went on to direct two other series Appanum Aathaalum and Muthal Mariyathai.
Among the many awards he has been conferred are the Filmfare Awards South’s Best Tamil Director for Sigappu Rojakkal, Best Tamil Film for Vedham Pudhithu, Best Tamil Director for Vedham Pudhithu, and Best Tamil Film for Karuthamma. He has won the Tamil Nadu State Film Awards’ Best Director Award for 16 Vayathinile, Tamil Nadu State Film Award for Best Film - Second Prize -Puthiya Vaarpugal (1979), Best Director Award for Alaigal Oivathillai (1981), Best Film Portraying Woman in Good Light for Karuththamma (1994), Tamil Nadu State Film Honorary Award- Arignar Anna Award, and the Best Film in First place for Eera Nilam (2003). He won the Nandi Award’s Best Director for Seethakoka Chiluka, and the Vijay Awards for Contribution to Tamil Cinema, and Best Supporting Actor for Pandiya Naadu (2013). He was also conferred the South Indian Film Technicians’ Best Technician Award for Kallukkul Eeram (1980).
On the personal front, Bharathiraja is married to Chandraleela and has two children Manoj Bharathiraja and Janani. Manoj is an actor, and is married to Nandana, an actress. Bharathiraja's brother-in-law Manojkumar is also a director, while his brother Jayaraj made his acting debut with Kaththukkutti (2015). Another relative, Stalin is a television actor.