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Muthuvel Karunanidhi may have been a politician for the bigger part of his life, but his moniker was “kalaignar,” artist. He started out as a screenwriter, and many of his early films (Rajakumari, Abhimanyu, Marudhanattu Ilavarasi) featured the man who would become his political rival: MG Ramachandran. But it’s easier to compare Karunanidhi to MGR’s screen rival, Sivaji Ganesan. What Sivaji was to the delivery of a certain brand of rhetoric, Karunanidhi was to its creation. Words flowed out of his pen with the force of wild mountain rivers, and to modern-day audiences, used to brevity, these stacks of dialogues can sound almost as untamed. His films set records for speeches, most famously the court scene from Parasakthi (1952), the fiery drama that launched Sivaji Ganesan as an actor.

In this nearly-five-minute scene, there is but one interruption of a few seconds by the prosecution lawyer. The rest is all Sivaji, all Karunanidhi. The film conforms to the nineteenth-century literary tradition of interrogating the hierarchies of society through the perceived “crimes” of someone clinging to its lowest rungs (Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, Anton Chekhov’s A Malefactor) – and this proved a stunningly effective framework for propagating the ideals of the Dravidian movement. Propagandist? Most certainly. But it was also a kind of poetry. Note the alliterations in this speech (Koyil kodiyavargalin koodaramaaga…). The different types of rhymes (pirakka oru naadu, pizhaikka oru naadu… / panjam, manjam, vanjam). The calculated repetitions (akkarai… yaarukkum illadha akkarai…). The metaphor of the fish that cleanses the lake by eating dirt. The bardic imagery of a long-suffering man who, instead of caressing the breeze, has had to leap over flames. The melodramatic equation of a name (Kalyani, meaning auspicious) with the woman who bore that name but whose life was anything but auspicious. 

And then, the political tones. The startling marriage of peace-apostle Gandhi with an act of violence. The gradual delineation of the plight of Tamilians – especially Tamil women – leading to this breathtakingly visual image of a helpless woman running away from predators (rich men, lustful Brahmin priests) till she has reached the very edge of life. Odinaal… odinaal… You can almost feel the sentence come alive, as though it had raced to the edge of a cliff and stopped suddenly, sensing the sheer drop. 

Karunanidhi transformed this sentiment – this sense of the destitute being hounded by fate – into a lyric in Marakka Mudiyumaa? (1966), directed by his nephew, Murasoli Maran. It’s a classic weepie. Mother dies. Father turns blind and flees. It’s now just the heroine (the protagonist) and her two brothers, one of whom ends up in jail. So on, so forth. The unrelenting tear-jerking is something of a chore to sit through today, but this chilling song (tuned by TK Ramamoorthy, after his split with MS Viswanathan) is a beauty, and Karunanidhi evokes the heroine’s plight thus: Kaagitha odam / kadal alai meethu / povathu pole / moovarum povom. The plight of the siblings is compared to a paper boat navigating the ocean. Midway, we get some patented philosophy: For the poor, there are no places to live / And in the temples, there are no gods that give. Simple. Effective. Powerful.

Rangoon Radha (1956) – inspired by Hollywood’s Gaslight – is notable for one of Sivaji Ganesan’s slyest early performances, but its writing credits are equally impressive. The story is by SN Annadurai, founder of the DMK, and screenplay is by Karunanidhi, who would eventually take over the leadership of the party. The dialogues in this film are a superb example of a floridly theatrical style that no longer exists, where characters would converse “normally” (i.e. colloquially) at times, but switch to senthamizh (pure, i.e. grammatically and phonetically correct Tamil) when the oratory becomes heightened. Note, for instance, in the scene that starts from the 1:50 mark in the clip below, how the Bhanumathi character hints at the latter parts of the plot by begging her husband not to treat her like a worm – for even worms, when stamped on repeatedly, can turn into tigers. If you think this sounds funny today, then remember, so does Shakespeare – until you teleport yourself to his times. 

By the time Poompuhar (1964) was released, Kalaignar Karuninidhi was a bona fide marquee name. The director of this adaptation of Silappidhikaram, one of the five epics of Tamil literature, is P Neelakantan, but the advertisements screamed: “Mekala Pictures presents M Karunanidhi’s Poompuhar.” (In other words, as a writer, Karunanidhi found his name on the posters of his films long before Salim-Javed did.) What’s more, the film opens with his narration – not just his voiceover (introducing Poompuhar as a city located where “the Kaveri kisses the sea”), but his presence. After some scene-setting, we cut to Karunanidhi at his desk, taking us further into the importance, the relevance of this story. Despite an odd edit (which cuts too quickly, when Karunanidhi shifts his eye line to another camera), he seems at ease. And he positions himself aptly: as a lover of Tamil, as a protector of Tamils, as someone whose only purpose in life is to serve the language, as a writer who sweetened the juice from the ancient text with his honeyed imagination. The last stretch sounds awful in English, which is why you should listen to it in Tamil. It’s honey, alright.

Finally, let’s look at Palaivana Rojakkal (1986), “the most sensational movie from the mighty pen of Kalaignar Karunanidhi.” This political drama, directed by Manivannan, is a rock-solid example of Karunanidhi’s ability to adapt and localise. You could argue that he’d done this earlier, with Rangoon Radha, but it was Annadurai who adapted Gaslight into a story. Whereas, here, Karunanidhi took on the Malayalam hit, Vartha, and transformed it into a Sathyaraj-Prabhu crowd-pleaser. Like Parasakthi did over three decades earlier,  Palaivana Rojakkal took on the times – only, the villains, now are politicians. Rarely – if ever – would we see, again, an honest politician in Tamil cinema. But what about the writing? “The film is rife with contemporary references to corruption,” The Indian Express wrote in its review, published on November 7, 1986. But the reviewer was less kind about the wordplay. “One sees the Kalaignar’s stamp in the hyperbolic references to the pen being mightier than the sword, and in certain needless other literary allusions, but these however, are not too long or too frequent to detract from the value of the film.” The style, in other words, was beginning to lose its sheen. Even Karunanidhi’s opening monologue (see the first few minutes of the clip below) doesn’t appear as inviting as the one from Poompuhar. He is older, less mobile, his voice more gravel-coated. But his words still pack a punch: Idealists may die. But ideals never do. He could be speaking about himself.

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