Celebrating 100 years of Kalaignar: Transforming cinema and politics

Kalaignar changed the manner of speaking Tamil in cinema, brought in ease of language fluency, and used cinema as a tool of communication.

BySujatha Narayanan

Published Jun 03, 2024 | 12:48 PMUpdatedJun 03, 2024 | 12:56 PM

Celebrating 100 Years of Kalaignar M Karunanidhi

The year was 1952. The film was Parasakthi.

“We had known only paattu puththagangal (lyric books) till then. It was only after Parasakthi and Kalaignar’s dialogues that vasana puththagangal (dialogue books) also became popular,” says Raghavendra Cavale (Rao), veteran political journalist and ex-editor of both Vikatan and Kumudam groups.

Such was the impact of this one film. The audience, press, and even the censor board, at that time, couldn’t complain because the writing, direction, and acting blended in so well; from the movie marquee shadows emerged a stellar literary icon and Dravidian leader—Muthuvel Karunanidhi.

Even though Karunanidhi had a few hits with MG Ramachandran before he wrote Parasakthi, the reach of the courtroom scene with Sivaji Ganesan soared above all his previous outings.

As we celebrate 100 years of Kalaignar today, it’s important also to hark back to the kind of person Karunanidhi was when he began a career as a screenwriter in Tamil films.

Kalaignar used cinema as a tool of communication and set a trend

Kalaignar used cinema as a tool of communication and set a trend. (X)

“Kalaignar was innately sharp, witty, intelligent and resolute. He was a man who liked to keep his appearance and his surroundings in an orderly manner, like how he kept his thoughts perhaps,” says Rao.

Rao has had over 40 decades of experience in interacting with Kalaignar, right from 1969 when Karunanidhi first became Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister, up until mid-millennium.

Rao says that Kalaignar changed the manner of speaking Tamil in cinema—he made it conversational, even colloquial if the character demanded it. He also brought in ease of language fluency that didn’t refer to a character’s caste (Iyervaal, Chettiyaarval, and so on, used to reference characters would say in Tamil films pre-50s).

Soon after Parasakthi was released, youngsters would learn the lines by heart and keep reciting them in school and college competitions.

For many actors who are now in their 60s and 70s, the dialogues of Karunanidhi as recited by Sivaji Ganesan were part of their auditioning practice.

Parasakthi also heralded a superstar actor called Sivaji Ganesan, who along with his senior in cinema—MG Ramachandran, spoke Karunanidhi’s lines with much fervour.

But in my view, Sivaji Ganesan surely took giant strides as an actor and took Kalaignar’s feisty dialogues that espoused both Periyarism and social standards sans discrimination, to its peak heights.

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Kalaignar—A trendsetter

Karunanidhi with MGR on the sets of a film in 1969

Karunanidhi with MGR on the sets of a film in 1969. (X)

Before the era of MGR and Sivaji Ganesan Tamil cinema’s superstars were both singing heroes.

MK Thyagaraja Bhagavathar and PU Chinnappa were more famous for their singing and not acting skills. Their films reflected the more conservative society that was in existence then.

But once Sivaji Ganesan stormed the silver screen delivering the fiery Tamil sentences of Karunanidhi, the entire landscape for how a Tamil film hero should be also changed.

MGR had also by then created a niche for himself, by starring in movies penned by Karunanidhi, who wrote his first film titled Rajakumari (1947; starring MGR and TR Rajakumari) at the age of 20.

The legendary hits like Manohara (1954) and Manthiri Kumari (1950) followed. And, Karunanidhi ensured he successfully brought in Periyar’s rationalistic ideologies and Annadurai’s Dravidian philosophy into a mass medium like cinema.

Anna also had his film hits and super successful novels and plays.

One can say that Kalaignar further used cinema as a tool of communication and set a trend that’s in vogue even today, where film heroes and film talents want to be in politics and politicians want to have something to do in cinema.

Rose his voice against social evils

Kalaignar Karunanidhi, Periyar, and Annadurai

Kalaignar Karunanidhi, Periyar, and Annadurai. (X)

Legend has it that a Tamil film that should have been hailed for its writing as much as Parasakthi and Manohara is Kuravanji (1960). The movie stars Sivaji Ganesan and Savitri but they weren’t the initial choice of actors who shot for the film.

Kuravanji‘s original cast had SS Rajendran, Vijayakumari, and Rajasulochana, who had refused to say the dialogue, “Kadavule unakku kann illaiyaa?” (Oh God, don’t you have eyes?)

Karunanidhi, in turn, refused to alter his writing for an actor’s beliefs. Due to added trouble with the lead pair, the film stood half-done. So, Karunanidhi called his close friend Sivaji Ganesan to step in as a lead actor.

In an unprecedented gesture of friendship, Sivaji Ganesan agreed and also roped in Savitri to finish the film and that’s how Kuravanji was made.

The Tamil movie stands as testimony to how much Kalaignar stood for anticaste discrimination, which is as much of a cause for divide today as it was then.

“Kalaignar was firm in giving his actors pertinent lines to speak that drove home the point of how the Dravida Kazhagam stood against a lot of existing ills of society then,” says Rao.

Such was Kalaiganar’s power that his words echoed beyond movie halls and went deep into an audience’s psyche!

Kuravanji is a film that spoke vehemently of inter-caste marriages with the hero of the film bellowing, “Parambarai soththa alladhu padaiyeduthu vandhavargal konduvandhu puguthiyadha?” (What is this thing called caste? Is it our heirloom or is it something our conquerors left us with?)

One wonders if such lines would be allowed in our films now but Kalaignar never shied away from writing powerful, impactful lines that reflected current affairs.

He is touted to have had more than one run-in with the then Censor Board and had won those arguments also with his clever replies.

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Karunanidhi, a terrific writer

The actor was a creative master of language

M Karunanidhi was a creative master of language. (X)

Contrary to his political writing in films, Kalaignar was also known for his epic monologues on screen, which Sivaji Ganesan delivered with ample ease and grandeur.

The one-act play on the life of Socrates in the film Raja Rani (1956) is a treatise in philosophy that flowed from Kalaignar’s learnings perhaps.

In my very first celebrity interview, I had the opportunity to meet Sivaji Ganesan, who recounted the Socrates play in Raja Rani.

He recalled how he had an assistant director read out the whole script while doing makeup and he closed his eyes concentrating on how Karunanidhi would’ve wanted him to underline a few words and delivered them in that manner, which was appreciated by Kalaignar later.

An example of how well Kalaignar gave life to a pre-written story in a social setting has to be Iruvar Ullam (1963).

Writer Lakshmi’s popular novel became a film helmed by the great LV Prasad. The movie boasts a superb star cast led by Sivaji Ganesan, Saroja Devi, SV Ranga Rao, and MR Radha.

Kalaignar’s dialogues were contemporary, modern, and conversational. This ability to adapt to changing times and someone else’s story is something he displayed in the 80s also when he wrote the screenplay and dialogues for Palaivana Rojakkal (1986) starring Sathyaraj, Prabhu, Lakshmi, and Nalini.

Directed by Manivannan, this film is a political satire (but of course) and was a commercial success as well.

Paasa Paravaigal (1988) starring Sivakumar, Radikaa, Lakshmi, and Mohan is another Tamil film about a brother and sister who were pitched against each other in an emotional courtroom drama.

Kalaignar’s writing always shimmered with the following qualities.

He would use Tamil words that denoted more than one meaning (social and political). For example, the very title of the film Kanchi Thalaivan (1963; starring MGR) was a reminder to voters of Annadurai who hailed from Kanchi.

In Manohara, Sivaji Ganesan would be brought in chains to the king’s court, the king being his father.

When this scene of Manohara was being filmed, Karunanidhi was in Trichy Jail serving a sentence for the Kallakudi demonstration.

When Sivaji Ganesan tells the king that he didn’t (send word) to bring him he was instead brought here (like a prisoner).

“Azhaiththuvara sollavillai, eezhuththu vara solliyirukkeergal” also spoke of a “man being chained because of his ideals”, which is the situation Kalaignar was in then.

Of course, the historical fiction setting also ensured Kalaignar could play around with the lyrical quality of Tamil in all its glory, filled with alliterations and metaphors.

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A creative master of language

The actor also served as the chief minister of Tamil Nadu

The actor also served as the chief minister of Tamil Nadu. (X)

Conversational Tamil that conveys emotions that were devoid of any political messaging also flew effortlessly from Kalaignar’s pen.

His collaboration with many an important studio and director of the late 50s and 60s proves how open he was as a creative master of language.

In Iruvar Ullam, the way Saroja Devi rebukes a rich, privileged Sivaji Ganesan by stating that while he may have the riches of the world, he didn’t have the character to protect it all. So, how could she entrust her life to a man like him?

The tone and manner of the writing were entirely new from Karunanidhi’s repertoire until then. But director LV Prasad already knew Kalaignar’s versatility from the Manohara days and insisted he should write the dialogues.

The sure-footed manner of using language supremacy to sell an ideology.

For example, “Kovilai thaakkinen, kovil koodaadhu enbadharkaaga alla.. adhu kodiyavargalin koodaramaaga aagividakoodaadhu enbadharkaaga…” A defiant and rebellious Sivaji Ganesan defends the Dravidian ideal of not attacking a temple because he was an atheist but because a temple should not become a den for criminals.

The way an entire scene can be interpreted (manipulated to suit the writer’s narrative) can be seen in the way Kalaignar propelled MGR as the future “hope” of Tamil Nadu when their friendship was strong.

It came through with much force in Manthiri Kumari (historical fiction) when the chief guru of the kingdom Nambiar tells the Commander of the Army MGR, “Indha naatai aalakkooda unakku urimai undu.” (You have the rights to even rule this land).

MGR and Karunanidhi’s legendary friendship and break-up was captured effectively in Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar (1997), which also remains a testimony to how much Dravidian politics and its leaders had influenced modern creators as well.

“Kalaignar would always keep himself open to new possibilities and alliances and that perhaps came from his days in cinema where he had to work with multiple talents and balance his writing between twin forces like MGR and Sivaji Ganesan,” points out Rao.

“But never did he sell his talent short of anyone else. His ability to traverse eras and genres and storylines has made both cinema and literature that much more rich and interesting,” concludes Rao.

Kalaignar was certainly a multifaceted mind that laid the foundation of a political party that to date stands as a mighty opposition to the right wing.

One young man from the Thiruvarur district thought he could change the world and left a legacy that proved, on many an occasion, that his pen was indeed mightier than the sword.

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