The Kalaignar who inspired generations
Cinema Express speaks with new-age directors who share how M Karunanidhi’s contributions have inspired their works profoundly
While M Karunanidhi, who served the state as Chief Minister five times, was predominantly known for his Dravidian politics, the late veteran also contributed immensely as an artist, so much that his sobriquet is Kalaignar (artist). As a screenwriter, he was known for his strong social messages, which have resonated over the years and spilled over to the ideologies of new-age filmmakers.
Lokesh Kanagaraj (Maanagaram)
For me (and multitudes of directors in Tamil cinema), it all started with Parasakthi. I first watched that court dialogue and then watched the full film. I was completely in awe of the topics he’d handled and was like, “Appove idhellam pesitaangala?” I adored his screenwriting process and my two favourite works of his would be Parasakthi and Thirumbi Paar.
Rahul Ravindran (Chi La Sow)
Hands down my favourite film of Kalaignar’s is Parasakthi. The kind of revolutionary ideas in the film, and the number of traditions and existing social norms that he questioned, lambasted and successfully managed to overthrow with it are astounding. Parasakthi starts with a Tamil Thaai Vanakkam and the film is all about Tamil identity. It questions caste and religious customs. These were controversial things to take on during at that time, and he had the guts to do it. Regardless of whether you agree with the ideology of the film, there’s no denying it’s power and effectiveness.
There are two types of films with social messages — the first kind provokes thought, but the second are films which are so good with propaganda that they just completely change your mindset, without you even realising it. The latter kind are the ones Karunanidhi wrote; that’s the power of his writing.
Every single film is political, even the most mindless ones. The political beliefs of the director or writer will somehow be reflected on screen. Even Chi La Sow has a lot of political commentary about gender discourse. Political doesn’t always mean electoral politics; I am more interested in socio-political commentary.
Nithilan (Kurangu Bommai)
Remember those times when we used to sit in front of Doordarshan waiting to watch the 4 pm films? That was my introduction to black and white films. I didn’t know technical details of filmmaking back then, but Parasakthi was a clear starting point once I decided to enter cinema. After that I saw 10 more films of his, including Manthiri Kumari and Marudhanaattu Ilavarasi. I adored his writing style and the way he balanced that with the Dravidian colour in his films. Writing la oru thimiru irundhuchu. I still have his Thirukural thelivurai with me, and I am proud to have this conversation about him.
Karthick Naren (Dhuruvangal Pathinaru)
Regarding his screenwriting, I remember watching a show marking the 50th anniversary of Sivaji sir in cinema. He recalled an instance where Karunanidhi sir swapped a series of dialogues meant for SS Rajendran sir with his part and rewrote a fresh draft within half an hour. For any writer, presence of mind is really important. Writing a dialogue or a part of the screenplay within that short a span of time is really difficult. I’ve always admired this particular quality of his.
Pushkar (Vikram Vedha, Va, Oram Po)
He was a rationalist. My wife and I strongly subscribe to those ideologies. Growing up, we have watched a lot of his films and they have shaped our political ideas, which in turn have transferred to our film aesthetics.
Arun Prabhu (Aruvi)
I would like to mention two instances of Kalaignar’s influence in my life. Firstly, I used to stammer a lot, and I gradually got rid of it by practising his dialogues from Parasakthi and Raja Rani. And secondly, my film, Aruvi, is nothing but a modern version of Parasakthi. In Paraskathi, three people — a rich man, a priest and a landlord — hinder the peaceful life of Kalyani, when she decides to lead a life on her own. If you remove the brother character played by Sivaji, that is essentially the story of Aruvi. We just had to replace the courtroom with a TV program’s stage to adapt to the modern changes. Even Aruvi’s monologue before the interval is a recreation of Sivaji sir’s climax dialogue in Parasakthi. In media, there is a theory called magic bullet theory — a good message told through a film will hit the audience unawares. Whatever had to be conveyed to the people through cinema has been done and dusted by him. New filmmakers like us have nothing left to do.
Gopi Nainar (Aramm)
As far as Dravidian politics is concerned, the works of Periyar, Annadurai and Kalaignar are very important. While the trio worked closely with the people, Kalaignar alone took the route of films through which his ideologies were conveyed. He changed the face of Tamil cinema and if you ask me whether we’re done with films such as his, I’d say we need them even more in the current times. His contribution to Tamil cinema has been immense and he will be deeply missed.
(With inputs from Navein Darshan)