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Saturday, January 18, 2020

The irony mask

Cho Ramaswamy’s play ‘Saraswatiyin Shapatam’ is a caustic comment on our passivity and denial

Written by Jaithirth Rao | Published: January 14, 2012 3:08:11 am

Cho Ramaswamy is known to TV audiences as a political commentator who untangles for distant observers the inner drama within the political parties of Tamil Nadu. He has had a successful career in drama (playwright,director and actor),in cinema,in journalism (both as a columnist and as an intrepid editor). My focus is on one of Cho’s early plays — ‘Saraswatiyin Shapatam’ — a play that captures the spirit of irony embedded in Madras (as it was then called),a play that describes the making of cinema in India with a detached sense of humour,a play which in many ways is a commentary on the messy country we live in. ‘Saraswatiyin Shapatam’ did not get the same popular acclaim as his other plays like ‘Madras by Night’ and ‘Tughlak’. It is subtler and the wit has a characteristic interiority which ensured it got less attention.

The principal protagonist in the play is the writer of a film script. The writer’s chosen pseudonym is “Dasanu-dasan”. The part was usually played by Cho himself. The unusual name is brilliantly explained by Cho as arising from the need to imitate and pay homage to great Indian writers all the way from Kalidasa to Kanna-dasan (a well-known Tamil lyricist). Since these appellations connote servitude to the Goddess Kali and to Lord Krishna (Kannan being the Tamil word for Krishna),our own friendly script-writer decides to call himself Dasanu-dasan,which literally means the “slave of slaves”. At first,this seems nothing more than an innocent pun,imitative of the frequent usage of alliterations by Tamil public speakers. (Cho has successfully spoofed these habits of alliteration by the choice of names of his characters in different plays,names such as Adayar Arumugam,Manadaveli Mannaru,Royapettah Royappan and Jam Bazaar Jaggu). It is only as the play unfolds that the full range of the hidden meanings of “Dasanu-dasan” unfolds. The script-writer in Indian movies is not a free creative spirit. He is the slave of the producer,the financier,the director,the hero,the heroine and above all,of a fickle audience that would as soon reward the moronic as the intelligent offering.

Dasanu-dasan has written a “serious” script. And then along comes the financier — who prefers a comedy. What does the slavish writer do? He goes along. The script is converted into a comic one. How is this done? Very simply,of course. In the first scene of the movie,the hero had walked in with great seriousness and sobriety. Now,he just trips and falls as he enters. That makes for comedy! The argument is brutal: an Indian film has the flexibility of a writhing,spineless snake. The writer continues to comply with all the petty and idiotic requirements of the financier,who for good measure,is a rich and successful pepper merchant. Why “pepper”? This is the typical Wodehousian touch Cho specialises in. Just as we will never know why Freddie Threepwood’s father-in-law is a dog biscuit millionaire,not just any millionaire or for that matter,not just a biscuit millionaire,we will never know why this particular low IQ pepper merchant decides to finance a movie. Out of the blue,a suggestion is made that the film needs a sequence in Ooty. This was before Indian film-makers discovered the beauties of Holland and Switzerland. There is no good reason (at least going by the original story) for having a scene in Ooty. But that is easily rectified. The decision is taken that a doctor will recommend a trip to Ooty as necessary for a character to recuperate from an unspecified illness. Now comes another objection: there is no doctor in the story. How does one introduce a doctor? No problems. Someone will just say “Here comes the doctor”— and a doctor will materialise. The doctor feels the pulse of the patient for all of five seconds and recommends a trip to Ooty. Issue resolved.

At the end of the play,the characters in the script come to life and take the writer to task for portraying them in such an implausibly absurd manner. The new film script,they argue,is an insult to doctors at the very least. Cho’s defence is the one all of us in modern India use in one context or the other. “What can I do? I did not want to do it. It was forced on me.” We have all had occasion to meet powerful officials,public figures,strong personalities who will claim they want to do good,but are powerless. If a senior official,top politician or rich businessman is powerless (as they all claim),then what is a humble Dasanu-dasan (one whose very name proclaims his humility) to do? This,then,is Cho’s message — well-hidden within the interstices of slapstick situations and alliterative mockery — the Indian movie holds a mirror up to the country itself. We all walk away from our responsibility as citizens,claiming compulsions. How many times have we not heard senior politicians say in public that we cannot be prosperous and efficient like China because we are a democracy? In recent times,the most powerful among our leaders have sought to excuse their failures as happening on account of “coalition dharma” — the latest expression in a long list that helps all of us — financiers,script-writers,doctors and plain citizens — deny our own innate human agency and seek to explain our inadequacies as due to factors beyond our control.

My brother thinks of Cho as the Tam-brahm equivalent of Woody Allen (there is,after all,some resemblance between New York Jews and Madras Tam-brahms!). I remain intrigued as to how he has transcended geographic and ethnic limitations to hold a mirror up to contemporary India using admittedly a very prismatic,refractory mirror. We are all Dasanu-dasans in small or large measure!

The writer is chairman of the Nasscom Foundation

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