It is no news that Tamil Nadu houses a unique tradition where cine artistes are mostly assured of a career in politics. It is a convention that has been discussed to death when any film personality steps into politics, the latest being Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan. The most popular hero-turned-politician, as we all know, was MG Ramachandran. However, the credit for the tradition truly belongs to a few others, an important name being M Karunanidhi, whose fiery words and monologues were an important tool for the Dravidian movement.
Picking up the idea from his mentor Periyar and his treatment of stage plays, CN Annadurai and Karunanidhi were instrumental in politicising cinema with Dravidian ideologies. Karunanidhi’s political career and cinema career grew hand in hand. A teen activist, he joined Periyar during the anti-Hindi protests. Noticing his oratory and his flair for language, Periyar and Annadurai asked him to address gatherings and made him the editor of Kudiyarasu, also allowing him to write for theatre. Karunanidhi, who hadn’t passed tenth grade, was making a living by writing scripts for theatre groups. A writer known for his wit and political commentary, he quickly made a name with several powerful scripts that were aimed at catering to the mass audience.
His first film Rajakumari, for Jupiter studios, turned out to be a hit, also becoming a starting point for another influential figure in politics, MG Ramachandran. In fact, Karunanidhi’s politically charged stories found a good face in MG Ramachandran. In their next venture together, Abhimanyu, Karunanidhi is said to have made MGR (who played Arjuna) address the dying Abhimanyu as Anbu Tamizh Magane (Dear son of Tamil). However, two of the most memorable films from Karunanidhi had the face of Shivaji Ganesan. The 1952 film Parasakthi, also Shivaji’s debut, turned out to be one of Karunanidhi’s most popular work. From displacement to several other social issues faced by the state were talked about in the film. The film’s famous court sequence still stuns the viewer into silence, thanks to Shivaji’s performance and Karunanidhi’s lines. Another cult film from the Shivaji-Karunanidhi duo was Manohara. By this time, Karunanidhi had moved away from the Dravidar Kazhagam to the Dravidar Munnetra Kazhagam under Annadurai’s leadership. And Manohara was about a rebellious prince, who fights for his mother against a naive father. Coincidence?
There were several other films such as Panam and Malaikkallan which became vehicles for Dravidian ideologies. From a song indicative of the initials of the party to tackling adulteration, the prolific writer had infused his politics in cinema, setting some standards for the rest to follow. Karunanidhi was also the man behind MGR’s initial ‘saviour on screen’ image, which was later done by Kannadasan, followed by poet Vaali.
Karunanidhi wrote the screenplay for over 75 plays and even penned a TV series at the age of 92. Always known for his hard-hitting, sharp language, one could never deny the power of Karunanidhi’s language. Not even his rivals.