Far Away & Long Ago | The Tamil attitude to films

Unlike messages in Hindi films, Karunanidhi’s Tamil cinema carried messages of hope for the oppressed masses of Tamil Nadu

The passing of M Karunanidhi earlier this month got the mind ticking about the DMK’s (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) idea of using cinema to communicate with its constituency, that is, the teeming majority of perpetually deprived Dalits of Tamil Nadu, brutally kept down by a microscopic elite minority – the Brahmins. It was Karunanidhi’s mentor, CN Annadurai, who first understood what his callow, young protege was capable of doing as a script and dialogue writer for Tamil films. The Dravida Self-Respect Movement, led by Periyar EV Ramaswamy, certainly gained momentum, thanks to the script and dialogue writing skills of Karunanidhi, then a rising, young politician with a finger on the pulse of the people.

A film one saw recently is what got me thinking about the socio-political messaging in our cinemas. On Independence Day, 15 August, one saw, alongwith colleague and co-author Arvindar Singh, the recent Bollywood film Gold. It was about the glory days of Indian hockey, spanning 12 years from 1936 to 1948. The British-Indian team had won the Gold medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, defeating both Germany - much to the fury of Adolf Hitler, the Fuhrer of fascist, ruthlessly anti-Jew Germany - and Great (Imperial) Britain quite easily. The coming decade was witness to the second world war, which was followed by the partition of India. The team that went to the 1948 London Olympics was representing a Free India, one without some of its most gifted Muslim players who had migrated to Pakistan. In the 1948 final, India beat Great Britain by a thrilling 4-3 margin. Gold was not a covertly political film. It contained within it many deceptive messages such as the need to follow the team mentor blindly, and staying together to win despite caste, religious and class differences (echoing thus, Nehru and Gandhi) and of course, winning against all odds, as in the 1948 final even without one’s star players, who were representing Pakistan in the same tournament - a sentiment that would be milked to the full by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Tamil cinema did not muck about with sentiments which would principally benefit the microscopic ruling elite, which would then exhort the downtrodden masses to uphold clichés like national unity and team spirit. These, in principle, are fine, but aren’t if the rulers use them to ruthlessly exploit the ruled.

The films for which he (Karunanidhi) wrote the screenplay, dialogues and occasionally lyrics, may not have amounted to great cinematic art but they certainly became messages of hope for the oppressed masses of Tamil Nadu

To quote Karunanidhi from an article he wrote in the October 18, 2013 issue of Frontline magazine about his involvement with Tami cinema: “When T. R. Sundaram wanted to make a film of my film Manthiri Kumari, I agreed to the suggestion and wrote the screenplay and dialogues for that film. It was directed by the talented (American) Ellis R. Dungan, and when it hit the screens, it created a revolution in Tamil Nadu. Castiest forces attacked it, and there was an onslaught on it at public meetings from rival political parties.”

Popular Hindi cinema, from Acchut Kanya (Harijan’s Daughter) onwards in 1936 to Mother India, whose predecessor, Aurat, an even better film (the last two were both directed by Mehboob Khan) may have made for highly emotive cinema, but did not influence public opinion against tyranny and oppression in any way because it addressed a very large, pan-India audience, comprising people from varied religions, castes and economic backgrounds. Mehboob may have had social reform at the back of his mind but his ‘amorphous’ viewership only went for a good cry and to escape the drudgery of everyday life.

Tamil cinema, helmed by Karunanidhi in the 1950s, served a clear social purpose - which was to awaken the deprived masses. Sivaji Ganesan, arguably the most important, dramatic actor of his generation, 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. Indeed Sivaji Ganesan and MG Ramachandran were the two enduring stars of Tamil cinema, who owed their respective careers to Karunanidhi. He wrote in the same article for Frontline: “After Parasakthi, I scripted the stories and dialogues for Panam (Money), Naam (We), Thirumbi Paar (Look Back) and Raja Ran (King and Queen) in 1953. Of these four films, Sivaji acted in three, MGR in one.” He further explained: “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.”

Karunanidhi’s ideas for Tamil cinema were purely didactic and proved to be highly effective. The films for which he wrote the screenplay, dialogues and occasionally lyrics, may not have amounted to great cinematic art but they certainly became messages of hope for the oppressed masses of Tamil Nadu.

Popular Hindi films, including the ones with (covert) artistic aspirations sell only dreams that turn sour for the average viewers given the socio-political conditions that have prevailed for a very long time, and are likely to prevail despite the daily tall claims made by the current bigoted political dispensation about removing poverty and its attendant ills.

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