How Kalaignar changed the idiom of Tamil cinema


By Kavitha Muralidharan

Five years after CN Annadurai launched the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (1949), the film Parasakthi (1952) was released. Fifteen years later, in 1967, the DMK came to power in Tamil Nadu. In a sense, Parasakthi was germane to the idea of a Dravidian government. Its inimitable screenplay writer Muthuvel Karunanidhi effectively used Parasakthi and many films he had worked on to fuel the idea of a Dravidian rule.

Parasakthi, no, doubt would have run into trouble if it had been released today. “When has the goddess ever spoken?” debutant Sivaji Ganesan asks a temple priest in a scene. “It is mere stone. If it could talk, wouldn’t it have when you tried to rape my sister? Why do you seek human help when your goddess has the weapon?” This scene, along with an elaborate court scene, remains celebrated in the history of Tamil cinema.

“Parasakthi’s story is very ordinary,” says V Madhimaran, a Dravidian writer and orator. “It is about a family that returns from Rangoon and faces a mishap en route; a girl is orphaned. It was the screenplay and dialogues that gave it a cult status. Kalaignar’s words made a revolution out of what could have been a miserable melodrama.”

Madhimaran points out how Parasakthi’s heroine Vimala (played by Pandari Bai) remains perhaps the most progressive heroine Tamil cinema has ever seen. “She is more intelligent than the hero, guides him on some occasions and is seen romancing him at midnight. And Kalaignar showed all this in 1952. Tamil cinema is yet to see another heroine like her.” Ironically, Sivaji Ganesan would later act in a movie titled Arivaali (1963) where he would “tame a headstrong heroine” into submission.

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Manamagal (Bride, 1951), which again had screenplay and dialogue by Karunanidhi, was also path-breaking. The title role was played by Padmini, who walks out on her abusive, lecherous husband to marry her boyfriend. Exactly three decades later, Tamil cinema had its regressive moment in Antha Ezhu Naatkal (Those Seven Days) — which was remade in Hindi as Woh Saat Din. Bhagyaraj tells Rajesh, who has married the former’s lover Ambika, “My lover can become your wife but your wife cannot become my lover.” “That,” he says, “is our culture.”

In 1988, Karunanidhi tried to redress it somewhat in Niyaya Tharasu (Scales of Justice, story by MT Vasudevan Nair) for which he wrote the screenplay. The protagonist Radha puts her ideology above relationships. A Naxalite on parole, Radha is drawn to a journalist who manages to get her remission, but she goes back to jail after killing the rapists of her classmate.

In many films scripted by Karunanidhi, women challenged norms in their own ways. From Manohara (1954), which had actor Kannamma deliver some fiery dialogues, to Paasa Paravaigal (1988) where Radhika’s compelling performance as a lawyer earned her accolades, Karunanidhi allowed women to find and have their own voice. In Poompuhar (1964) — adapted from Silappathikaram, one of the five great epics in Tamil —Vijayakumari, who plays Kannagi, pulls off a stunner as she seeks justice for her husband Kovalan. Poompuhar was to Vijayakumari what Parasakthi was to Sivaji Ganesan. Poompuhar remains the best illustration of Silappadhikaram in popular culture —something that has been made possible by Karunanidhi’s searing dialogue.

“Karunanidhi had a penchant for classical literature and, if I am right, he had written screenplays for all the five epics. But he also made sure that he incorporated modern rationalist thought in all that he wrote,” says T Kulashekar, filmmaker and writer.

In Panam (Money), released as early as 1952, a song by Kannadasan has Madhuram questioning gender inequality. The film, directed by NS Krishnan and written by Karunanidhi, was another propaganda vehicle for the DMK and has many lines that questioned social evils and espoused radical changes. Karunanidhi effectively used his dialogues in Thirumbi Paar (Look Back, 1953) to take a dig at the Congress (the then ruling party in Tamil Nadu then) and its policies.

Among the few songs he had written, some were deeply philosophical and almost all were blatantly political. “He wrote very few songs, not more than 10-15. For him, it was a challenge — to prove that he was also capable of writing songs,” says TK Kalapriya, a Tamil poet. In a hit song from the movie Marakka Mudiyuma? (How Can We Forget?, 1966), Karunanidhi writes: “There is no place for the poor to live, there is no god in any temple.”

Old-timers recall Karunanidhi’s presence of mind in some tough situations. “He wrote Vaazhkai ennum odam (Canoe called life) for the movie Poompuhar at the spur of the moment when the lyricist had not turned up,” says Kalapriya. While working on the song, Karunanidhi realised that popular singer KB Sundarambal had refused to sing a particular line that questioned the existence of God. In no time, he changed the line from “Where did the God go” to “The God has now come”. Only his close friends knew that the “God” he referred to was Kannagi.

“He was always fascinated by cinema,” says Kulashekar. Karunanidhi loved watching movies and wrote scripts even when he was busy as chief minister. A case in point will be Karunanidhi’s call to director Ameer after watching his Paruthi Veeran in 2007. Karunanidhi wanted to know the details of a village in the movie that seemed to have no electricity.

He was 92 when he chose to work on the script of Ramanujar that was serialised in Kalaignar TV till he turned inactive.

Not just in politics, in Tamil cinema too he was nonpareil. He showed new directions in Tamil cinema. Sadly, not many who came later had the courage to tread the same path, rues Madhimaran.

The author is a journalist based in Chennai





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