Karunanidhi: The leader who scripted Tamil Nadu's destiny
History is replete with men who used cinema for the most ingenuous of purposes. Muthuvel Karunanidhi was one among them who took the help of motion pictures to create a wave of change in the Tamil community. A writer in native Tamil, his prose par excellence ripped apart falsities with a flourish. With the push of his pen, he pulled off the carpets to show us the kind of dirt that lay hidden beneath.
Karunanidhi was the very last symbol of the fast fading Dravidian politics in Tamil Nadu. If he was an astute politician for almost half a century, nobody, just nobody can deny the fact that he – along with the erstwhile chief ministers of Tamil Nadu, C N Annadurai and M G Ramachandran – literally gave rise to a profound social movement through their Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which fought, among other issues, deep-rooted and extremely cruel caste prejudices . This political party was essentially founded to bring about a sense of balance in the state's caste dynamics that had for centuries witnessed a dominance by upper caste Hindus.
And Karunanidhi used cinema to propagate his power-driven political ideology, writing stories and scripts which were highly insightful and poked relentlessly at societal oppression. His films not only addressed caste inequity, but also social roadblocks 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 men like Periyar E V Ramasamy and Annadurai started.
Karunanidhi was barely 20 when he began writing screenplays, and 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 script in 1952, Mandirakumari. In a writing career that spanned many decades, he penned 75 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.
The 1952 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.
Though Parasakthi had Ganesan in the lead, Karunanidhi's favourite actor was Ramachandran, who debuted in the 1947 Rajakumaari (also written by Karunanidhi) . He remained Karunanidhi's closest political muse and movie buddy. It is, of course, another story that the two parted later, with Ramachandran forming his own political organisation, Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, now with a prefix, All India.
Karunanidhi's second film after Rajakumaari came a year later in 1949, Abhimanyu. Based on the Mahabharata, Karunanidhi used in his dialogues a Tamil which was not Sankritised. It was his first attempt to wean Tamil society away from Brahminical influences and also to establish a link between politics and cinema.
However, it was Parasakthi that cemented all these with a superb dialogue delivery from Sivaji – who went on to become renowned for his cinema of theatrics.
Ironical as it may seem in today's times of political corruption, Karunanidhi's Panam, also 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.
His Manohara, which came in 1954, traced his divorce from the Dravidar Kazhagam movement of Periyar, 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.
Karunanidhi's 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 film heroes. Malaikkallan was remade in Hindi as Azaad (1955), starring Dilip Kumar, Meena Kumari and Pran, and became a huge hit.
If Karunanidhi was an ace politician, he was also a fascinating writer whose words flowed with poetic beauty, but like the proverbial thorn in the rose, stung where it had to.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic who has been writing on Indian and world cinema for close to four decades)