Karunanidhi on cinema

Cinema for a cause

Print edition : August 31, 2018

September 27, 1998: At a function in recognition of his 52 years of service to the industry, representatives of the South Indian Film Industry presenting M. Karunanidhi a life-size silver statue and a 52 sovereign gold chain. Karnataka Chief Minister J.H. Patel, Pondicherry Chief Minister R.V. Janakiraman and Tamil film thespian Sivaji Ganesan look on. Photo: PTI

With M.G. Ramachandran in Salem Modern Theatres, Salem. Karunanidhi joined Modern Theatres in 1949 on a monthly salary of Rs.500. Photo: The Hindu Archives

With Sivaji Ganesan on the sets of "Rangon Radha". Photo: The Hindu Archives

The article M. Karunanidhi wrote for the Frontline issue dated October 18, 2013, commemorating 100 years of Indian cinema.

THE topic “Tamil cinema in the past 100 years” takes me back 70 years to an era of transition from “silent films” to “talkies”. The “silent films”, in which actors did not have any spoken dialogue, had moved to the next level, where a person delivered the dialogue, with the help of a microphone, in synchronisation with the scene that was being screened. What kind of scenes were they? [They were mostly like that of the sage] Narada with “tambura” in hand, pacing about in the presence of danseuses in the king’s durbar. Narada would pair up Velan (Karthikeya) with Valli. He would create a misunderstanding between Siva and Parvathi and then mediate between them to solve it.

Or, the scene would be of a heartbroken Chandramathi [the legendary king Harischandra’s wife] wailing, or a Draupadi, being disrobed, rolling on the floor in agony. The camera that panned a divine world such as this later started taking pictures of mortals. With the waves of renaissance, stories that dealt with youthful subjects swept away the old order. The renaissance brought about many changes in the film world. Newness and modernity flowered not just in acting, composing of the scenes and shooting of the film but in screenplay, dialogues and songs as well.

In those days, neither were theatres air-conditioned nor did they offer filmgoers comfortable viewing. I am not speaking of villages [where the situation was worse]. A carpet of sand was spread over an area for the audience to sit and watch the film. Even as the film was screened, the person sitting next to you would chew betel leaves and arecanut and spit them on the ground. He would then scoop up some sand from around him and bring it in a heap over the spittle. Imagine the plight of the one who comes to watch the next screening and turns over that heap! This was the “wondrous” situation that prevailed in cinema halls at that time.

I am 90 years old today, but you can say that my political career is 76 years old and my film career spans 66 years. At the instance of Thanthai Periyar [E.V. Ramasamy], I was working for the Kudiyarasu magazine in Erode when I got a request from the director A.S.A. Sami in Coimbatore to write the dialogues for a forthcoming film. I went to Coimbatore along with my friend Muthukrishnan and learnt the details from Sami. I was asked to write the dialogues for the film Rajakumari, produced by Jupiter Pictures, Coimbatore. I informed Periyar about this. He said, “Au revoir.”

I told Sami that I would pen the dialogues for the film provided it did not interfere with my political activity. Sami agreed to it. It was the first film in which M.G. Ramachandran acted in the lead role. Although MGR had acted in a few films before that, he had not acted in the lead role until then. That was also the time of an emerging friendship between me and MGR, who was a “devotee” of Mahatma Gandhi. I would give him books of Anna [C.N. Annadurai, Karunanidhi’s mentor] and MGR would give me works of Gandhiji. There would often be discussions between him and me. As a result, he later joined the DMK [Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam].

My wife Padma and I had rented a house for Rs.10 in Coimbatore. The volume of written work I produced from that “sparrow’s nest” was stupendous. I got an opportunity to try out a new style of dialogue for a mythological film called Abhimanyu. When the film was first screened, I took my wife and friends to the theatre. But the credits did not have my name. The next day, I left my house in Coimbatore and returned to my home town, Tiruvarur.

I engaged myself in addressing political meetings and in writing during my stay at Tiruvarur. My friend, the poet K.M. Sharif, was at that time writing songs for films produced by Modern Theatres, based in Salem. Sharif came to Tiruvarur and told me that T.R. Sundaram, proprietor of Modern Theatres, appreciated my style of writing and wanted me to write dialogues for his films. He took me to Salem. I joined Modern Theatres in 1949 on a monthly salary of Rs.500. It was here that the poet Kannadasan became my friend.

When T.R. Sundaram wanted to make a film of my play Manthiri Kumari, I agreed to the suggestion and wrote the screenplay and dialogues for that film. It was directed by the talented Ellis R. Dungan, and when it hit the screens, it created a revolution in Tamil Nadu. Casteist forces attacked it, and there was an onslaught on it at public meetings from rival political parties.

Marudha Nattu Ilavarasi, for which I penned the dialogues and in which MGR played the lead role, was a tremendous hit. ‘Kalaivanar’ N.S. Krishnan, who watched the film at Palace Theatre in Salem, praised my work in the film. Krishnan insisted that I write the story and the dialogues for a film he was to produce. That is how I agreed to do Manamagal (The Bride). Manamagal and Devaki, the two films whose stories and dialogues I wrote, were released in 1951. It was in Manamagal that the sisters Lalitha and Padmini had full-fledged roles and started acting in Tamil films. Udumalai Narayana Kavi wrote the lyrics for the songs in that film.

Perumal (P.A. Perumal Mudaliar) of National Pictures, who was interested in the rationalist movement, was keen that I write the screenplay and dialogues for the film Parasakthi. Its directors Krishnan and Panju, who showed undivided affection towards me, also insisted that I do so. The “singing actor” K.R. Ramasamy was to play the lead role in that film. But since he had other commitments, Sivaji Ganesan was contracted to take up the role of Gunasekaran in Parasakthi.

The film was jointly produced by AVM Productions and National Pictures. When A.V. Meiyappa Chettiar of AVM Productions watched a couple of scenes Sivaji Ganesan had acted, he was dissatisfied with what he saw and was adamant that the actor should be changed. Perumal, the directors and I were not willing to go by his assessment. We told him categorically that we should not be hasty in our decision and lose a marvellous actor. As a result, Sivaji Ganesan acted as the hero in Parasakthi. The film attracted a large audience, created an awakening among the masses and ran to packed houses all over Tamil Nadu.

After Parasakthi, I scripted the stories and dialogues for Panam (Money), Naam (We), Thirumbi Paar (Look Back) and Raja Rani (King and Queen) in 1953. Of these four films, Sivaji acted in three and MGR in one. In 1954, I wrote the screenplay and the dialogues for Rangon Radha, Manohara, Malai Kallan (The Robber from the Hills) and Ammai Appan (Mother and Father).

I devised my work in films in such a way that it amounted to only a leisure-time activity in the midst of my full-time political work. Even then, I used films to spread rationalist ideas among people. My objective in writing for films was to avoid obscenity and highlight the principles of the Self-Respect Movement and thereby appeal to the intellect of the viewers. The film Naam dealt entirely with the aspirations of the working class. A conversation from that film shows how deeply the lofty ideals of the communist movement were entrenched in me even when I was young. In the film, MGR picks an argument, on behalf of the proletariat, with a zamindar. This angers the landlord, who asks MGR, “What, how dare you put an exclamation mark?” MGR replies, “Yes, zamindar, if the exclamation mark bends a little, it will become a question mark. You should remember that there is not much difference between a sickle and a question mark.”

Through the character of Pathanjali Sastri in Thai Illaa Pillai (The Motherless Child), I portrayed how casteist feelings, age-old customs and rituals and superstitious beliefs had been deeply entrenched in the human psyche for generations. Through the dialogues in many films, I drove home the ideals of Anna and the facts about him. Indeed, I titled one of the films Kanchi Thalaivan (The Hero of Kanchi). [Kancheepuram was Annadurai’s home town.] Penn Manam (The Mind of a Woman), written by the popular novelist Lakshmi, metamorphosed into a screenplay in my hands, and the film was given the title Iruvar Ullam (The Heart of the Two).

My involvement with cinema continued even after I became Chief Minister in 1969. Films such as Engal Thangam, Pillaiyo Pillai, Pookkaari, Anaiya Vilakku, Vandikkaran Magan, Aadu Pambe, Maadi Veetu Ezhai, Nenjukku Needhi, Thookku Medai and Marakka Mudiyuma, whose stories I wrote, hit the screens. In my 90 years, I have written stories and dialogues for 75 films. In some films, I have composed the songs too. I have a lot of friends in the film world. The memories of the days of my friendship with them flood my mind. Even though politics is my primary vocation, I have utilised films to assist my political activity. I have used my career in films to dispel ignorance among the people in the lower rungs of society, to light up their lives, to remove inequities in society, to spread socially reformative and progressive views and to make Tamilians aware of the antiquity, the sweep, the grandeur and the richness of their language.

The film world has now passed into the hands of a youthful generation. A lot of youngsters have become film directors. They make excellent and remarkable films. I appreciate and convey my good wishes to all of them through this write-up. My best wishes to Indian cinema, on the occasion of its reaching 100 years, to prosper and boom with the stamp of modernity.

Translated from Tamil by T.S. Subramanian.