At the very outset, it was a typical, conservative Tamil movie plot: three brothers coming home to attend their dear sister’s wedding. But, as it turned out, Parasakthi (The Supreme Power), a 1952 Tamil film directed by Krishnan-Panju and written by the then 28-year-old Muthuvel Karunanidhi, triggered a wave of radicalism in Tamil popular culture, thanks to harpoon-sharp dialogues that attacked casteism, religion, and social inequality, and scenes that sent shockwaves across the Tamil country.
The rest, as the cliche goes, is history. Legendary thespian Sivaji Ganesan’s debut vehicle made history and propelled the growth of the Dravidian ideology. Parasakthi hit the screens at a crucial juncture in Tamil history. Just three years prior, C.N. Annadurai, who had been a member of Periyar’s Dravidar Kazhagam (DK), established the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).
A brigade of young writers associated with the DMK, including Karunanidhi, charged by the ideals of Dravidian politics, had already embraced Tamil cinema. They engaged in direct political propaganda through movies such as Nalla Thambi (1949), Velaikkari (1949), and Manthiri Kumari (1950, story by Karunanidhi).
Even though Karunanidhi had worked as an uncredited dialogue writer in Marutha Naattu Ilavarasi (1950), it was Parasakthi that brought him acclaim. The film had several unforgettable dialogues and scenes, including the iconic temple scene where Sivaji Ganesan confronts a priest who tried to molest his sister, and, of course, the elaborate courtroom scene featuring a marathon monologue by Sivaji Ganesan, which played a significant role in defining and delivering Dravidian sentiments for the Tamil people across the globe.
Indeed, for most Tamilians of the generation, Parasakthi offered a masterclass on caste, class, religion, and gender: issues that continue to haunt popular culture and polity even today. As social scientist M.S.S. Pandian wrote in his Economic and Political Weekly article ‘Parasakthi: Life and times of a DMK film’, the movie was a “signboard” of the coming days of the “consensual politics” the DMK was “destined to play” in Tamil Nadu.
The DMK would foray into electoral politics in 1957, contesting the Madras Legislative Assembly elections. Evidently, the party’s electoral histrionics were driven by the enormous success of Parasakthi, which cemented its belief in employing cinema as a medium of propaganda and enabling social change.
Parasakthi set high standards for a propaganda film that still remain unmatched. According to Robert L. Hardgrave’s article published in Selvaraj Velayutham’s book Tamil Cinema: The cultural politics of India’s other film industry, S. Panju, one of the directors of the movie, said the movie was “designed to create havoc”. He added: “We were challenging the social law itself, the basic constitution itself.”
The Dravidian movement gained popularity and momentum with its unsparing criticism of religion, God, priesthood, religious scriptures, and upper-caste dominance. However, in later years, its shortcomings were clearly visible.
For example, Pandian, in his seminal work The Image Trap: M.G. Ramachandran in Film and Politics, calls out the “shallow and ineffective propaganda” of the Dravidian movement while talking about the “hysterical religious revival” that resulted when former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) was seriously ill in 1984. According to his estimates, 79,000 roadside temples existed until then, out of which 27,000 sprung up only when MGR fell ill. This event points to the mid-life crisis of the movement.
Even Parasakthi stopped short of suggesting any agenda of political reform. “They [Parasakthi and other similar movies] played the role of the gadfly attacking the establishment without offering an alternative political or economic ideology,” writes film historian Theodore Baskaran in The Eye of the Serpent: An Introduction to Tamil Cinema.
That said, no discussion of the political history of Tamil Nadu or the history of Tamil cinema can be complete without Parasakthi. The film, over the decades, is still viewed as the manifesto of the DMK.
Tamil Nadu continues to produce critical, ideologically sound, caste-sensitive, and gender-conscious films that are also popular. Mainstreaming vocalisation of politics in cinema was the Dravidian movement’s biggest success, although creating another Parasakthi in today’s political climate seems a big ask.