‘He loved Tamil, and Tamil loved him back’
Historians Mohan Raman and Sriram V trace the Dravidian movement and its impact on Tamil cinema through Kalaignar Karunanidhi
When the Dravidian movement was founded in 1925 by Periyar EV Ramasamy, Kalaignar Karunanidhi was just a year old. Little would the founder know that this man from Thirukuvalai village in Nagapattinam would be instrumental in popularising this movement through a medium few had the foresight to spot potential in. We are talking, of course, of cinema. Back during the 40s, cinema was still an art form thought of as an escape from reality. “Mostly, we got stories based on mythology. The stories were about kings and queens, and the dialogues weren’t much to write home about,” says city-based historian, Sriram V. “Then came CN Annadurai who transformed the scene overnight with his Velaikkaari (1949) and Or Iravu (1951). These films critiqued the social customs of the time and criticised caste oppression and class divide. It’s when these films were widely received that the party realised the power of cinema.” Some of the dialogues written by Annadurai are still remembered vividly — like the one in AVM’s Or Iravu (1952), which had screenplay by him. One memorable dialogue went, "Sattam Oru Iruttarai. Athiley vakkilin vaathamoru vilakku. anaal athu ezhaikku ettaatha vilakku. (The law is a dark room. The advocate is the bringer of light that is out of the reach of the poor.)” At least two other films have borrowed the first line as their title since. Karunanidhi wasn’t one to miss out on the film strides taken by his mentor.
Historian Mohan V Raman says that Parasakthi (1952) was the film that changed it all. "With that film, Karunanidhi's pen gave the impetus to the Dravidian movement's spread and reach far and wide across the State. The film took on organised religion and superstition, in keeping with the ethos of the party, but also challenged the establishment by announcing that cinema could be made without its support. The hegemony the studios had over cinema changed overnight and free enterprise became the norm. That change has been instrumental in the rise of every filmmaker since then — from K Balachander and Bharathiraaja to Mahendran, Mani Ratnam and now, Ranjith, filmmakers who have all spoken about politics through their films. Karunanidhi planted that seed. We must also credit the producer P A Perumal for his courage in producing the actual film.” Parasakthi wasn’t the first film to be written by Karunanidhi, but it was certainly the one that put him on the map. It’s also notable for being the film to mark the debut of actor Sivaji Ganesan and SS Rajendran.
Director Pushkar recognises Karunanidhi as the voice of Tamil cinema. "Cinema has a voice of its own when it talks about the society and politics of its times. I credit Kalaignar Karunanidhi in equipping our cinema with that voice,” he says. “The changes he has created are many. For instance, that we don't use caste names in Tamil cinema is largely on account of the Dravidian movement."
Sriram V picks out Karunanidhi’s Poompuhar – made a decade after Parasakthi – as an important film too. "I think it is one of the finest dramatic renditions ever and one of the best adaptations. The way his Tamil sparkled through the dialogues was something else entirely. People flocked to theatres when they knew Karunanidhi had written the dialogues." Mohan Raman also alludes to his style of writing as perhaps being his definitive contribution to art. "The alliterations he was a specialist in… He wrote prose but made it sound like poetry." Well after his political successes, he continued to write for films, even as late as in 2011 when he wrote the screenplay and dialogues for Ponnar Shankar, a film based on his own novel.
Mohan V Raman and Sriram V point out that irrespective of any differences people may have with the brand of politics espoused by the DMK patriarch, nobody can contest his contributions to Tamil literature and cinema. "He was an atheist but he read Kamba Ramayanam out of his love for Tamil. He wrote Ramanujar because he supported the abolishment of social evil. For someone to critique any work, one has to have a deep knowledge about it. Karunanidhi understood the fabric of Tamil language like no one else and at this point of time, I don't see anyone being able to fill the void he has left. He loved Tamil like nobody else and Tamil loved him back.”
Karunanidhi’s effort in bridging politics and cinema, as we can see, has hade more impact than even he may have envisioned, with cinema churning out more than one chief minister since, and actors continuing to step into politics. The man who breathed life into the idea, alas, is no more.