Many years ago, someone asked the legendary film director, Girish Kasaravalli, the secret behind his youthful good looks. “The magic of cinema,” he quipped with a smile. I think he was spot on. Movies have this fantastical, magical quality that enraptures just about everybody who watches a film – often with wide-eyed wonder.
And it is this mesmeric magic which politicians have, over the years, used to win over the teeming millions. In the days of the great war, both Hitler and Mussolini, took recourse to cinema to spread their brand of Fascism – which eventually destroyed millions of lives and messed up global politics.
But in India, in a remote Tamil village of Thirukuvalai, just a nodding distance from Thiruvarur, that famous seat of Carnatic music, Muthuvel Karunanidhi was born some 94 years ago. A couple of decades later, he would understand the power and significance of what Americans first called 'motion pictures'. But unlike European dictators, Karunanidhi – five-time Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and a man who fought the elections no less than 13 times and never lost any – took the help of cinema to spread the egalitarian message of Dravidian ideology.
Karunanidhi did not find Dravidian politics. That credit goes to Periyar E V Ramasamy, who tired of Congress favouritism towards Brahmins, formed the Dravida Kazhagam in 1944, not only to fight political prejudice, but also societal inequities. Soon after Dravida Kazhagam split, and C. N Annadurai, one-time Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, formed the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, a radically different organisation which attracted men like Karunanidhi.
Karunanidhi was a great orator, a brilliant writer of prose and poetry (a quality his daughter and Member of Parliament, Kanimozhi, has inherited), and he could with a flourish of his pen pull carpets off to reveal the dirt that lay beneath. And when he began writing movie stories and scripts, Tamil cinema glowed as never before. Although even Annadurai was an excellent writer, it is generally believed that Karunanidhi's scripts had far mightier punch.
Karunanidhi -- who died after a valiant 11-day battle on August 7 in a Chennai hospital at the age of 94 -- was that one man, who used the medium of moving images to propagate the fascinating philosophy of Dravidian culture, whose greatest highlight was ensuring a sense of justice and freedom for society's underprivileged sections and respect for the Tamil language. If he cried for the betterment of Dalits, who had for decades been subjugated by the higher caste Hindus, he was also a fierce proponent of Tamil. His fight against the imposition of Hindi is legendary, but that it made generations of Tamils Hindi-illiterate is another story!
Interestingly, the films he wrote not only addressed caste inequality, but also disturbing social impediments like widow re-marriage and so on. His writings – deeply socio-historical in tone and tenure – spread the rationalist ideals of the Dravidian philosophy which questioned blind beliefs, superstition and even the existence of god. He, in short, proved to be a fantastic soldier for a social crusade which leaders like Ramasamy and Annadurai started.
Karunanidhi was a very young man when he began writing screenplays, and what power-driven stuff they were. Some his movies were Rajakumaari, Devaki, Thirumbi Paar, Naam, Manohara, Malaikkallan, Rangoon Radha, Kuravanji and Kaanchi Thalaivan. He virtually ruled the Tamil film industry since his first hit script in 1952, Manthira Kumari.
In a writing career that spanned many decades, he penned superhot screenplays, powerfully advocating widow remarriage (remember those were times when women who had lost their husbands were treated as outcastes and were not even allowed to step out of their rooms, let alone attend social gatherings and religious functions), and abolition of untouchability as well as ‘zamindari’. He was livid over religious hypocrisy, and his words sliced through such human behaviour like a sharp-edged knife. His prose was brutally honest.
His 1952 script Parasakthi remains one of the high points of Tamil cinema, one of the most enduring contributions from Karunanidhi. Actor Sivaji Ganesan's climatic monologue in a court of law is etched in memory, an unforgettable exercise in dramatic excellence. A brilliant artist, Ganesan talks of the travails of displaced Tamils, corruption and societal irrationality.
Although Ganesan was the lead actor in Parasakthi, Karunanidhi's favourite star was M G Ramachandran, who later became the chief minister of Tamil Nadu. Debuting in the 1947 Rajakumaari (penned by Karunanidhi), Ramachandran was Karunanidhi's closest political ally and muse – till the time the two parted. Ramachandran formed his own outfit, Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, now with an added prefix, All-India.
Karunanidhi's second film after Rajakumaari came in 1949, Abhimanyu. Based on the Mahabharata, Karunanidhi used in his dialogues a Tamil which was not Sankritised, hence Brahminical. It was his first attempt to wean Tamil society away from Brahminical influences and also to establish a link between politics and cinema.
Karunanidhi's Panam, in 1952, was a stinging satire on money-based politics and the greed of the rich. The movie narrates the story through a wealthy man, whose avarice destroys his son's life. Through wit, Karunanidhi poked holes in the political canvas of the day. Ironically, Indian politics today is rife with money power and other forms of corruption.
His Manohara, which came in 1954, traced his divorce from the Dravidar Kazhagam movement of Ramasamy, and the efforts which went into the formation of his own party, DMK. The story of a righteous and rebellious prince fighting for the cause of his pious mother tongue (Tamil) against a misled, naive father was much more than a subtle metaphor. It was a daring lambast.
Such daring was seen even in a teenager Karunanidhi: Once he barged into the room of a school headmaster in Thiruvarur, and demanded a seat for himself. The boy told the elderly man that he could not possibly go back home without an admission. The courage moved the headmaster, and the boy got his seat!
Karunanidhi's cinema had such brave idealism. His Malaikkallan (1954) had Ramachandran playing a rich Robin Hood, who turns into a robber by the moonlight. The money he loots is distributed among the poor. This was one of the first attempts to propel Ramachandran as a Good Samaritan – a role reprised by dozens of movie heroes. Malaikkallan was remade in Hindi as Azaad (1955), starring Dilip Kumar, Meena Kumari and Pran, and became a huge hit.
Karunanidhi's film scripts were flowery, erudite and elaborate. His words had poetry in them, but they could sting and sting hard when they had to.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic who has been writing on Indian and world cinema close to four decades)