Scripting Dravida cinema

M. Karunanidhi had a 70-year-long successful run in the film industry. His excellent screenplays and fiery dialogues, driven by his deep commitment to the Dravidian ideology, are unmatched in Tamil cinema.

Published : Aug 17, 2018 11:00 IST

Karunanidhi, the young writer.

Karunanidhi, the young writer.

A YOUNG MAN LED A FRAIL OLD MANto a cinema hall in Tiruvarur, a town in the erstwhile Tanjore district of the Madras Presidency, to watch a movie. The year was 1947; the film, Rajakumari . Jupiter Pictures of Coimbatore had produced the film and M.G. Ramchander (as M.G. Ramachandran was known then)had made his debut as hero in it. The young man, Muthuvel Karunanidhi, had written the film’s script, and he wanted to fulfil his father Muthuvelar’s wish to “see” it. Muthuvelar’s failing health had impaired his vision; so he had to be content with the possibility of “hearing” the movie, that is, its dialogues. This act of “hearing” the dialogues in a significant way symbolises the Dravidian cinema, which reverberated in the Tamil cinematic space and the Tamil public sphere for the next few decades and went on to become the soul of Tamil cinema and the Tamil people. The champions of resurgent Dravidian nationalism, who had captured the imagination of the masses with rhetorical discourses delivered from make-shift stages in street corners, had now moved to the screen space. The timing of the move was spectacular.

The film scholar Rajan Kurai Krishnan shows in his article “From songs to speech” ( Seminar , June 2009) how the transition from song to speech was effectively handled by C.N. Annadurai (Anna), M. Karunanidhi and other Dravidian scriptwriters. This he has done by delineating the complex movement image and time image concepts of the French philosopher Giles Deleuze.

Rajan Kurai Krishnan writes: “While the DMK used its powerful new rhetoric in writing, public speaking and in drama, the use of the rhetoric in cinema had an enhanced value for politics owing to the nature of the film sign.”

The possibility of theatre and cinema being potential tools of propagation of political ideas and programme is quite old and was handled by Congress nationalists right from the stage song drama days and in cinema when it “started speaking”. But the methods they adopted and their artistic skills were uncouth and unenviable. The sight of a man wearing a Gandhi cap roaming around in Devendran’s celestial court and breaking out into a “Kanada raga” song praising Mahatma Gandhi was the best they could come up with. We cannot blame them because most of the films then were amateur attempts by artists themselves or commercial gimmicks of producers. Even Thyagabhoomi (1939), often referred to as a nationalist magnum opus penned by the literary giant, ‘Kalki’ Krishnamoorthy, was no exception. Although it was a better attempt than the rest of the films of the time in narrating the Gandhian programmes, the outcome was just the rendering of songs by Papanasam Sivan, a classical composer who doubled as the lead actor as well. The Dravidian counterpart that followed almost a decade later demonstrated the possibility of artistic intervention that changed the very face of Tamil cinema forever.

It is hard to tell when exactly the artist in Karunanidhi, who came to be known as “Kalaignar” (meaning artist), blossomed. The only son of a nadaswaram artist and guru, his growing up years were filled with song and dance. He was also initiated into the learning of nadaswaram but evinced little or no interest in the musical instrument. Instead, he forayed into theatre forms, or drama, as it was known then. The dramas enacted in cow sheds were penned by Karunanidhi when he was just 12 years old. More stunning is the fact that Dravida Nadu , a journal edited by Annadurai, the then general secretary of the Dravidar Kazhagam (D.K.), published an article written by Karunanidhi when he was just 14. Karunanidhi was hardly 20 when he sold his first play, Palaniappan , for Rs.100 to the Nagapattinam Dravida Nadigar Sangam. He did this to meet the expenses of a meeting of the D.K. he had organised in Tiruvarur.

Unique politics & persona

The active participation of students, from school days, marked the emergence of the Dravidian politics and reflected the mood of the general public, especially the underprivileged and oppressed classes. The Siruvar Seerthirutha Sangam (Boys Reformation Forum) and Tamil Manavar Manram (Tamil Students Forum) that Karunanidhi ran reflected the larger political climate of the time. But the episodes involving Karunanidhi—organising student forums during his school days, participating in political rallies and editing the print magazines, Manavanesan and then Murasoli (which still remains the official organ of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam)—speak volumes about the young man, who went on to shape 70 years of Dravidian politics and 50 years of governance, which brought the politics of social justice to centre stage.

The persona of Kalaignar is unique but the pattern involved in his making was the inner design born out of the social awakening championed by the Self-Respect Movement of Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, and his assiduous, determined campaign against the brahminical caste hierarchy. Periyar’s target was annihilation of caste and he was convinced that the Hindu religion and Manuvadi-backed caste hierarchy were inseparable and that its guardians and beneficiaries were the Brahmins. Hence, he devoted every waking second to the act of destabilising and unseating both Hinduism and the brahminical hierarchy. The space was filled with open, unambiguous calls to action and the youth responded with alacrity and promptness. Social commitment was the hallmark of the D.K. and the warriors of the Self-Respect Movement. The movement motivated and energised youths to volunteer and act. The spirit was so overwhelming that from youths in schools to unlettered village elders, all took the cause unto themselves. This, in fact, was evident from the numerous publications that sprouted all around.

The activism invariably involved organising party programmes, staging plays and publishing party propaganda journals carrying a variety of write-ups, short stories and poems.

One may be struck by dismay and disbelief on reading Karunanidhi’s autobiography, Nenjukku Neethi (which literally translates to “True to Conscience”), which narrates in detail the travails of a man born in a social setting oppressed by social discrimination/stigma and economic penury. The burden of early marriage drove him to ensure a regular income but the young man was not to be cowed down by the need to hang on to routine odd jobs. He chose acting as a career but that did not last long. The yearning to be an active political activist and writer never died down. In the midst of all the struggles, the young man juggles politics and films. From drama theatres in Villupuram and Pondicherry, he moves to Erode to work in Kudiarasu , a party journal of the D.K., under the tutelage and watchful eyes of Periyar. Of course, his close association with Periyar must have had such a deep impact on him that he imbibed the great social reformer’s idea of social justice. This found expression in his writings, especially in his film scripts.

The script writer, who was rudely shocked by the denial of due credit for his second film, Abhimanyu, quit Jupiter Pictures and moved back to Tiruvarur and to party activity. But that is not the end of the story for he was to make it big in the film industry soon. The invitation from and contract with T.R. Sundaram’s Modern Theatres, Salem, gave him a momentous new beginning.

In 1952, Chief Minister C. Rajagopalachari’s office received a letter written by one “Tamilan”, demanding that the film Parasakthi be banned. It said: “I witnessed there (Ashok Theatre, Madras) such scenes which I have never witnessed so far. My age is 25. Like animals, people have been expending great efforts trying to enter the narrow stairs. All this under jostling by the police. Bhagiradha wouldn’t have suffered so much to bring Ganges to the earth.” This letter is cited by M.S.S. Pandian in his article titled “Parasakthi, Life and Times of a DMK Film” ( Economic and Political Weekly , March 1991). As Pandian observes, Parasakthi , which ran to packed cinema halls, went on to become “The DMK film”.

Dinamani Kathir , a Tamil magazine, in its review of the film Manohara , wondered why people were cheering loudly on the exhibition of the title card for the dialogue writer. The magazine could not understand how somebody other than the lead actor could be so popular among the movie-going masses. These were the objections or rather complaints raised against the passionate popular endorsements received by one dialogue writer, that is, Mu. Karunanidhi, who by then had become one of the frontline leaders of the DMK and a much sought after script writer of that era of the Tamil film industry. Karunanidhi was not yet 30 and had penned the script for almost 10 movies. The fact remains that Karunanidhi had become an instant success. The early impediments and ignominy he had to face were short-lived. The disappointment caused by the denial of credit for Abhimanyu, not an unusual practice then, was to pass quickly. His contract with Modern Theatres, a sort of breeding ground of talent in the Tamil film industry and of Dravidian artists in particular, stood him in good stead. Quite a lot of Dravidian celebrities were associated with it, and the fact that Bharathidasan, the much-celebrated poet of the Dravidian movement, was there will suffice to support the fact. Kannadasan was Karunanidhi’s associate at Modern Theatres. Karunanidhi left Kudiarasu with Periyar’s permission and moved on to pursue his ultimate passion. His first project with Modern Theatres was Manthiri Kumari .

Karunanidhi wrote the film script based on his own stage play of the same name, which he had adapted from Kundalakesi , one of the five Tamil epics. Manthiri Kumari was the last directorial assignment the great Ellis R. Dungan handled in the Tamil film industry. In fact, after a stint in Hollywood, he came back and directed Ponmudi , written by Bharathidasan for Modern Theatres, and then came Manthiri Kumari . The credits for Manthiri Kumari claim that the movie was co-directed by T.R. Sundaram and Ellis Dungan. On Karunanidhi’s recommendation MGR was cast as hero in the movie. By then Karunanidhi and MGR had become great friends and their association continued for three films.

After Rajakumari and Abhimanyu , both of which had MGR in a lead role, Karunanidhi “doctored” the script of Marutha Nattu Ilavarasi (this film had MGR and his future wife V.N. Janaki in lead roles), as the producers were not satisfied with the script and, as a consequence, held up the production. This act of “doctoring” the script become a talking point in the industry and played a role in Karunanidhi getting an invitation from Sundaram.

Two aspects of Karunanidhi’s script writing need to be analysed in detail to understand his skill. The first was the transformation he made in the basic stories handed out to him and the second was the “Dravidian pattern” he employed to make them different. The Dravidian pattern he employed was the product of his skilful working on the pattern practised on drama stages by his forerunners such as Bharathidasan and Annadurai. Manthiri Kumari, Parasakthi, Manohara, Malai Kallan, Raja Rani and Poompuhar are some of the striking examples. These films do not fall into a single pattern; each one of them had elements that made them work. The methods employed had patterns and subtle variations. The basic shift was from mythological to historical.

Manthiri Kumari had a good king, a villainous raja guru, a heroic army chief ( thalapathy in Tamil) and a more villainous son of the raja guru. It needs to be noted that the raja guru as villain is a familiar pattern found in Dravidian drama, which he introduced into cinema in his very first movie for which he wrote the story, screenplay and dialogue. The raja guru was to represent the brahminical ritual supremacy that dominates the Hindu religion. The raja guru’s misdeeds and his crooked methods mislead the king and cause misery and suffering to the people. More important is the character of thalapathy , who on most occasions comes from among the ordinary people and from life lived away from centres of power. The thalapathy always enters as a valiant soldier not in pursuit of power. He gets entangled in the power conflict in his attempt to alleviate the misery of the people. For the adherents of Dravidian politics, the real time thalapathy was none other than Annadurai. He was the thalapathy of Periyar and he was addressed as such on Dravidian platforms and in journals and magazines of the Dravidian movement. This filmic thalapathy had multiple manifestations; in cases where the thalapathy happens to be a ruthless villain who keeps the king under his thumb, then the entire story would revolve around his replacement/destruction/reformation. This, of course, is achieved by a new common man thalapathy who puts things in order. This common man thalapathy invariably wins the heart of the princess as well and the common man suitor of the queen-to-be may ultimately end up as the new ruler. But it was not the case always for that ascending of the throne required a flashback story to connect the common man to the royal heritage. When the DMK went into election mode, even the regal heir apparent who unseats the illegal forces in power in his films chose to renounce the crown and proclaim people’s rule. These historical or costume dramas, mostly handled by Karunanidhi, came in handy when he wanted to express his political views and criticise the party in power.

Screenplay effect

A critical examination of three film scripts will make evident the methods employed to bring about a desired effect in the screenplay. Two of them were successful stage plays adapted to screen and went on to become the legends of Tamil cinema. They were Parasakth i and Manohara . Parasakthi was a play written by Pavalar Balasundaram. It narrated the travails of a family caught in the Burmese conflict, which inflicted a deep scar on the psyche of Tamils. When A.V.M. Chettiar, in association with P.A. Perumal, planned to produce a movie, that story was close to his heart for the Chettiar community suffered a lot in the Burmese conflict. Karunanidhi was asked to write the script for the film. His script turned out to be a milestone in the annals of Tamil cinema. The suffering and pain of the family depicted in the film were deftly transferred to the Tamils at large. The narrative employed never deviated from the basic structure. The skilful transformation had a magical touch. In his essay, Pandian places the film “in the history of the Dravidian movement and analyses the ideological trends it encapsulated/represented”.

Manohara was written by the doyen of Tamil theatre, Pammal Sambantha Mudaliar. The story revolves around the life of a king who submits the crown to a young woman whom he was passionate about. The selfish intent of the paramour queen causes great distress to the people and the family. The screenplay written by Karunanidhi transcended the particularity of the plot to enter the realm of politics. Vasanthasenai (the paramour queen) became a metaphor for villainous women in political discourses forever. The fiery speech of Prince Manoharan in the court became immortal. Humiliated by the actions of the dubious people in power, he often requests the queen mother’s permission to act ( aanai idungal thaaye, meaning “command me mother”), but is pacified by her. When Vasanthasenai’s cruelty exceeds all limits, the mother reaches the court, and, on finding her son in chains tied to a pillar, orders him to rise up and act ( poruththathu pothum pongi ezhu) . The speech of a raging Manoharan (Sivaji Ganesan) sent the audience into raptures. The rhetorical, alliterative, emotive dialogues of the young scriptwriter had a special significance right from Annadurai’s Velaikkari . As Rajan Kurai Krishnan observes in his essay, the language itself was designed with so much of embellishment and poise that such speeches transcended the film space and reached the general mass with clarity and deft artistry.

Raja Rani stands out as an example of an excellent piece of screenplay. Karunanidhi combined his skills in handling socials and historicals to create the screenplay for this film. The story revolves around mistaken or forged identities. One does not know whether Karunanidhi was familiar with William Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, but the film reminds one of that classic English play. Raja, an affluent young man (played by Sivaji Ganesan), interested in theatre activities, falls in love with Rani, a poor girl (played by Padmini) posing as a rich girl who left her family. Babu (S.S. Rajendran) who is aware of this, plays the spoilsport. As all the characters are involved in theatre, drama enactment becomes an integral part of the film, which opened up the possibility of writing historicals. The famous Cheran Senkuttuvan play in the movie, which ran as a single shot play for more than five minutes, was received with excitement. Sivaji Ganesan’s five minute non-stop dialogue delivery, with nuanced punctuation and stylisation, made history. The Socrates play enactment in the film turned out to be another great piece of monologue. Here, Socrates is portrayed as the Periyar of Greece. The closure of the film and the play within it was a masterstroke and proved Karunanidhi’s deft handling of the screenplay. When “hemlock” is handed over to Socrates, he finishes his monologue in all seriousness. Then comes the wild twist. N.S. Krishnan, the legendary comedian of Tamil films (who in the film happens to be the brother-in-law of the negative character, Babu), who presides over the play, is overwhelmed by emotion. He wants to stop the execution of Socrates and save him; he enters the stage, interrupts the scene, plucks the cup filled with poison (the villain fills the cup with real poison instead of honey) from the hands of Socrates, and asks the villain to drink it, which resolves the knot. A film based on comedy of errors and mistaken identities involving a theatre group was something revolutionary those days.

Sivaji and MGR

The most important contribution of Karunanidhi happens to be the creation of or designing of the “Two Faces” of the Tamil film industry, MGR and Sivaji Ganesan. These two faces represent quite a lot of aspects of Tamil life, especially the politically vibrant yesteryear and after. Their presence had two diametrically opposite positions in the cultural space, right from fan following to political ideologies. These two, who dominated and controlled the film industry for more than 25 years, carved out a niche for themselves and operated in opposition to the ideas and programmes that Karunanidh stood for. But that does not erase the existence of their launching pad.

Sivaji Ganesan achieved super stardom overnight through Parasakthi . This actor par excellence, who is still celebrated, was a successful film personality and had shifted his allegiance to the Congress camp. In politics, he was just a novice and his ambitions never materialised. MGR had been a sidekick for more than a decade. Although his association with Karunanidhi started with Rajakumari (1947), he was launched into stardom with Manthiri Kumari (1950), which was his first assignment as an independent hero. This was made possible through Karunanidhi’s intervention. The credit for the success of Manthiri Kumari goes to Karunandihi, who shouldered the burden of the story, screenplay and dialogue. MGR was catapulted to superstardom with the magnum opus Malai Kallan (1954). The Robin Hood/good Samaritan image that was attached to him went on to do wonders to MGR’s career and he never wanted any damage caused to that tag. He nurtured the image carefully, and in the 1960s, when the DMK was moving closer to state power, he chose to tread a path that struck a careful balance between party policy programmes and his personal image. That, of course, is a long story, which culminated in Karunanidhi and MGR doing politics from opposite camps, the legacy that continues to date.

It never mattered to Karunanidhi whether he was in or out of power. His passion for art and literature seldom dried up. The association of the five-time Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and DMK president with films never ceased. The last film for which he penned the script was released in 2016 and it vouchsafes the fact that he is the greatest ever to have had a 70-year-long career in filmdom. Maybe the one and only to do so in the subcontinent. That he was able to meet the demands of the day and was able to communicate in the vocabulary of the day speaks volumes about the constant updating of his knowledge and technology he did. He experimented with all forms of film-making, and even succeeded in the format of television serials. His critically acclaimed Ramanujar, the man who revolutionised religion, is still on air. The unflinching/uncompromising atheist, had a mission. In a political space filled with fanatic Hindutva agenda spearheaded by the ruling forces, he chose to counter the same with an alternative narrative. The depiction of Ramanujar as the man who revolutionised a society otherwise steeped in hierarchy, that is Muthuvel Karunanidhi. His undying spirit, ever vigilant on social issues and vibrant in active response. The history of Tamil film will be incomplete without a place for him in it, for he was one of its greatest men, who set the course for it in the modern era.

V.M.S. Subagunarajan is a film critic and researcher/theatre person, and Dravidian research enthusiast.

(The author is grateful to Rajan Kurai Krishnan, Associate Professor, Ambedkar University, Delhi,   for reading and giving his comments on the article.)

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment