Muttuvel Karunanidhi, known to the Tamil-speaking world as “Kalaignar” (artiste),passed away at the age of 94 in Chennai on 7 August. Karunanidhi had been Chief Minister of India’s Tamil Nadu state for a total of 19 years. Hewas Chief Minister of Tamil Nadufive times from 1969-71, 1971-76, 1989-91,1996-2001 and 2006-11. No other Tamil Naduchief minister has been in office for so long.
Another record was that of being party leader for nearly 50 years. He was the undisputed leader of the DravidaMunneraKazhagham (DMK) since 1969,leading the party through thick and thin for 49 years. The Dravidian patriarch was first elected to the State legislative assembly in 1957 and has not lost an election he contested personally since then. Few Indian politicians can boast of such an unbroken record.“Kalaignar” Muttuvel Karunanidhi was no ordinary politico but a veritable political institution.
‘Spotlight’ however does not intend to beam on Karunanidhi’s politics at this juncture.As is well known this column focuses on films, film personalities and film related matters. This column however would be focusing on“Kalaignar” Karunanidhi’s immense contribution to Tamil movies in a cinematic career spanning more than six decades of his life.
As stated earlier, Karunanidhi was widely known as “Kalaignar” or artiste. He was referred to respectfully as Kalaignar more than as Karunanidhi in later years.
Karunanidhi was a versatile, multi-faceted personality.In his eventful life “Kalaignar”was a journalist,editor, dramatist, stage actor, film script writer,short story writer, novelist, literary commentator, poet, lyricist, film producer and TV channel proprietor.
Cinema and Politics
It was Karunanidhi’s entry into filmdom which brought him much recognition and more remuneration in early life despite his lack of tertiary education. His rise in cinema helped him greatly to carve out a name for himself as a politician too. Although Karunanidhi was very correctly recognised and respected as a political leader, there is no denying that it was his association with films that gave him the necessary popularity with the people of Tamil Nadu.
This is due to the peculiar course of politics in Tamil Nadu where the influence of cinema on politics has been of a phenomenal nature. Popular film personalities engaging in politics have enjoyed great support among the masses. Tamil Nadu film personalities served as an integral component of their parties.
Significantly, from 1967, most chief ministers in Tamil Nadu have had connections to the silver screen – Annadurai,Karunanidhi, M.G.Ramachandran, Janaki Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa Jayaram. The exceptions have been the current Chief Minister Edappaadi Palaniswamy and earlier O. Panneerselvam nominated as “caretaker” CM on three occasions.
With a population of more than 70 million, Tamil Nadu has the third highest literacy rate among the states of India. The role of cinema in the political history of Tamil Nadu provides interesting insights into present-day developments. The politics of Tamil Nadu for the past 75 years has been pervaded by notions of the Aryan-Dravidian divide. This concept itself is not very scientific and has been greatly mythologised. Nevertheless, this Dravidian consciousness and ideology has helped politicise significant sections of the Tamil people and has sustained whole political parties and movements. The DMK led first by Annadurai and later by Karunanidhi has played a crucial role in promoting Dravidianism.
The DMK was born in post-independence India. The parent Dravidian movement of the DMK was the Dravida Kazhagham (DK) founded by E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker known as “periyaar” (great person) was opposed to participation in electoral politics. It was also very much under his autocratic control.
A group of dissidents, including Karunanidhi, revolted under the leadership of Conjeevaram Natarajan (CN0 Annadurai and formed the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (DMK) in 1949. Starting out as a social reform movement, the DMK later decided that change was impossible without capturing political power through democratic means. The DMK Captured state power for the first time in 1967. “Kalaignar”Karunanidhi’s ascendancy in politics basically corresponded with that of the DMK’s rise in Tamil Nadu.
Karunanidhi’s Early Life
Karunanidhi was born on June 3rd 1924 in the village of Thirukkuvalai in what was formerly the Thanjaavoor (Tanjore)District ofthe Old Madras Presidency. Today it falls within the Nagapattinam District of Tamil Nadu. Karunanidhi’s parents Aiyathurai Muttuvel and Anjugam were of Isai Vaelalar stock.
The Isai Vaelalar community has been historically a talented artistic community. Some of India’s greats in the spheres of music, dance, drama and cinema hail from this caste group.Some of these illustrious artistes include Thiruvaavaduthurai Rajarathinampillai, KaarukkurichchiArunaasalam, Valangaimaan Shanmugasundaram, Vazhuvoor Dhandaayuthapaanippilaai, Chidambaram Jayaraman, T.Balasaraswati, M.S.Subbulakshmi,M.L.Vasanthakumari, T.K.Ramamoorthy, T.R.Rajakumari , T.R.Ramannaa and E.V.Saroja.
Karunanidhi’s given name at birth was Dakshinamoorthy. He later changed the ‘Sanskrit-sounding’ Dakshinamoorthy to the more ‘Tamil-toned’ Karunanidhi.
His foray into active politics was in 1938 when he participated in an anti-Hindi agitation at the age of 14. Karunanidhi formed a student political organisation while a high school student and started the journal ‘MaanavaNaesan’ (Student Friend).Later he started the ‘Murasoli’ (Drum Beat) which still remains as the DMK flagship newspaper.
Karunanidhi quit secondary school studies and became a political activist while working freelance in newspapers and contributing articles. He also became a stage actor and playwright. The first drama he wrote was “Pazhaniyappan” that was first staged in 1944. Karunanidhi has written 21 plays in all and acted in a few too. It was the well-known actor M.R. Radha who bestowed upon him the title “Kalaignar”(artiste) when the drama ‘Thookumaedai’ (Gallows) was staged for the 100th time. Karunanidhi wrote and acted in the play. Later Karunanidhi ventured into films as a script writer. This brought him much fame and public recognition which helped him greatly to carve out a name for himself as a politician.
Entry Into Films as a Scriptwriter
Karunanidhi was working as assistant editor of “Kudiyarasu”(republic) newspaper run by DK leader “Eevaeraa” Periyaar when he got an opportunity to write the screenplay and dialogues for the film “Rajakumari” produced by Jupiter Movies. He was however not credited in the titles and was mentioned as assistant to A. S.A. Saamy who directed the film and was also credited as being responsible story,screenplay and dialogues. Karunanidhi next wrote the screenplay and dialogues for “Abhimanyu”. In this case his name was completely omitted in the titles.
The third film for which Karunanidhi wrote the screenplay and dialogues was “Marutha Naattu Ilavarasi” released in 1950. This was the first film for which Karunanidhi was credited in the titles as script writer. This was followed by “Manthiri Kumaari” in the same year. Thereafter Karunanidhi wrote scripts for films like “Ponmudi”, “Manamagal” etc. Then in 1952 came the path-breaking “Paraasakthi”. With that film he established himself as the foremost script writer of that period. “Kalaignar “Karunanidhi became a household name “Kalaignar” Karunanidhi developed a writing style for cinema that was flowery and alliterative (adukkuMozhi), which soon became very popular. Court room scenes, inquiries in royal courts in historical movies and short dramas introduced into films that had a modern setting, provided ample scope for Karunanidhi’s powerfullly captivating prose.
His reputation had producers advertising their movies by proclaiming, ‘Story and Dialogue by Kalaignar Mu. Karunanidhi’. When film titles were projected in the cinema halls, his name would be shown ahead of the stars and greeted with applause. There were others to follow Karunanidhi in both content and style from the DMK camp — Aasaithamby, Krishnaswamy, Maaran and Kannadasan, etc. – but Karunanidhi was the master in that genre surpassing even his mentor and leader Annadurai.
Prolific Script Writer
Karunanidhi has written the screenplay and dialogues for 64 films. He has written the story or screenplay without dialogues for 12 other films. Of these six are Telugu films for which he wrote the story only. The first film “Rajakumari” for which Karunanidhi wrote the screenplay and dialogues was released in 1947. The last film for which Kalaignar wrote the film script “Pnnar Shankar” was released in 2011. It is said that Karunanidhi received 300 rupees for work on his first film. Thereafter he worked on a monthly salary of 500 rupees to write scripts for Studios like Modern Theatres and AVM. However in later years he got up to 75 lakhs of rupees to script a film.
Among the films scripted by Karunanidhi in the 64 year period from 1947 to 2011 are‘ManthiriKumari,’‘Parasakthy,’‘Manamahal,’‘Panam,’‘Manohara,’‘Thirumbipaar,’‘Malaikkallan,’‘Pudumaippithan,’‘Kuravanji,’‘Raja Rani,’ ‘Arasilankumari, ’‘IruvarUllam, ’‘Rangoon Radha,’ ‘Pudaiyal,’ ‘KaanchiThalaivan,’ ‘Poombuhaar,’ ‘Poomaalai,’‘Avan Pithanaa,’‘MarakkaMudiyumaa,’‘Pillaiyo Pillai’, ‘UliyinOasai’ ‘PaalaivanaRojakkal, ’ and ‘Penn Singham’.
The films “Manthiri Kumaari”, “Paraasakthi”, “Manohara”, “Thirumbip Paar”,”Malaikkallan”, Kuravanji”, “Kaanchith Thalaivan” and “Poompuhaar” are widely acknowledged as being the finest among film scripts written by Ksarunanidhi. His Magnum Opus “Poompuhaar” is based on the Tamil epic “Silappathihaaram”. Karunanidhi wrote the script in prison when he was jailed for engaging in a political protest demonstration.
The film scripts written by Karunanidhi were published in booklet form and sold like hot,hot “Vadai” in those days. A number of Tamils in their boyhood – including this writer – took great pleasure in memorising and delivering those lines.His dramas within films like “Cheran Senkuttuvan”,”Socrates” and “Anarkali-Salim” were re-enacted by many students in school concerts.
Karunanidhi wrote film script for films starring the leading actors of Tamil Cinema including N. S.Krishnan, K.R. Ramasamy, Narasimha Bharathy, M.G.Ramachandran,Sivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganesan, S. S. Rajendran, “Valaiyaapathy” Muthukrishnan etc. He wrote film scripts for 8 films starring Sivaji Ganesan and 9 films starring MG Ramachandran. However it was the Sivaji Ganesan – Karunanidhi combination that was the most successful in Tamil films. Sivaji could deliver the powerful prose of Karunanidhi with great conviction and style.
The big break in Sivaji’s career came in 1952, when he acted as the hero in ‘Parasakthi,’ a film directed by Krishnan-Panju. The dialogue, written by M. Karunanidhi in fiery and flowery prose with a surfeit of alliterations, the hallmark of Karunanidhi’s style, came powerfully alive in a stunning performance by Sivaji, unparalleled in Tamil cinema. The monologue uttered as an address to Tamil Nadu in the earlier scenes and the courthouse speech in the closing stages of the film were classic instances of delightful oratory. The Karunanidhi-Sivaji duo made an explosive impact. The writer’s rich prose, brimming with vitality, was given emotive and impressive expression by the actor. Every film in which they collaborated was a success. Notable among them were Parasakthi, Thirumbi Paar, Manohara, Kuravanji and Iruvar Ullam.
Sivaji had an extraordinary flair for dialogue delivery. He pioneered an exquisite style, diction, tone and tenor in voicing Karunanidhi’s dialogues.Soon personal differences arose between Sivaji Ganesan and Karunanidhi, and the actor crossed over to the Congress party . To make up for Ganesan, Karunanidhi, whose dialogues were increasingly getting political, weaned an actor from the Congress camp into the DMK fold. This was M.G. Ramachandran, until then a popular hero mainly playing swashbuckling action roles.
The popularity of MGR within the party and state caused major convulsions. In a bid to counteract the phenomenon, Karunanidhi now encouraged his eldest son M.K. Muthu to enter movies. The father, while in office as chief minister, wrote the story and dialogue for Muthu’s first film Pillaiyo Pillai (Oh, What a Son). Muthu Fan clubs were set up overnight, with father Karunanidhi’s backing. MGR, realising what was in store, engineered a split within the party in 1972 on the grounds of corruption charges against the incumbent regime. He formed the AIADMK which captured power in 1977. Karunanidhi and MGR became arch political rivals. The DMK – AIADMK rivalry continued after galamorous actress and MGR’s paramour Jayalalithaa Jayaram succeeded MGR as party leader.
“Murasoli” M. K. Maaran
In addition to his literary flair and political acumen Karunanidhi also possessed a shrewd business sense. Kalaignar a formed a film company called Mekala Pictures in partnership with others and produced several films. Later his nephew and former Indian Cabinet minister “Murasoli” M.K. Maaran took over the company. Karunanidhi was also involved with three other film production companies.
Altogether Karunanidhi has produced or co-produced 29 films. Later on Maaran’s sons Kalanidhi and Dhayanidhi set up the Sun TV Network and Sun films production company. Karunanidhi’s daughter Kanimozhi established the Kalaignar TV Network.
Apart from being a script writer and playwright, Karunanidhi has also written film songs. He has written around 35 to 40 songs for different films. Some of the more popular film songs written by Karunanidhi are “Poomaalai Neeyae”, “Ilvaalviniley ” -Parasakthi;”Vaazhkkai Ennum Oadam”- Poompuhaar;”Velha naadu”-Kaanchith Thalaivan;”Kannam,Kannam” – Poomaalai,”Manippuraa”-Raja Rani and “Kaagitha Oadam” – Marakka Mudiyumaa.
Kalaignar Karunanidhi’s swansong in script writing was a TV serial. In spite of being an atheist and rationalist Karunanidhi wrote the script for Vaishnavaite spiritual sage Ramanujar when he was a nonagenarian. 433 episodes of “Ramanujar” were aired on Kalaignar TV from June 2015 to January 2017. It was praised highly y viewers and also enjoyed the highest ratings among TV serials in that period.
It could be seen therefore that the [political phenomenon Karunanidhi owed much to the Tamil film industry where he made his mark as a script writer,producer and lyricist. Interestingly Karunanidhi’s family too has had links and continues to maintain close links with the Tamil film industry. Apart from Karunanidhi, his nephew and former Cabinet Minister M.K. Maran– who is no more – was also a former film script writer and producer-director. Maran’s brother Amirtham was a cinematographer.
Family’s Film Links
Maran’s sons Kalanidhi and Dayanidhi are co-owners of the ‘Sun’ group TV network. They also produce films under the banner ‘Sun Pictures’. Karunanidhi’s son and heir apparent M.K. Stalin too has dabbled in acting, as the hero of TV serials ‘Kurinji Malar’ and “Surya”.He has also acted in the films “Orae Ratham” and “Makkal Aanayittaal”.. Stalin’s son Udhayanidhi is both a successful film producer as well as actor who has played the hero in many Tamil films. His wife Kiruthiga directs films.
Karunanidhi’s younger son Thamizharasu’s son, Arulnidhi, has made his mark as lead actor in some films. His elder son Azhaghiri’s son Dayanidhi is a film producer and distributor. Karunanidhi’s first born M.K. Muthu also had a short-lived film career as an actor-singer. He acted in films like “Pillaiyo Pillai”, “Pookkaari” and “Samaiyalkaaran”.
Moreover, the DMK Chief’s “second wife” Rajathi was also a stage actress who got involved with Karunanidhi as his “Thunaivi” when acting in dramas penned by Kalaignar. Their daughter Kanimozhi who is a Rajya Sabha MP is the owner of ‘Kalaignar TV’. If cinema and politics are intertwined in Tamil Nadu, then Karunanidhi’s family seems to be immersed in both.
India’s Cinema Centenary
India celebrated her cinema centenary in 2013. On that occasion Karunanidhi issued a specialstatement in Tamil that was translated into English by journalist T.S. Subramanian and published in the newsmagazine ‘Frontline’.In that statement Karunanidhi briefly outlines his entry into films as a scriptwriter and of his experiences and what he sought to achieve through his screenplays and dialogues. This fascinating account is rather illuminating and provides a vivid insight into the man and his message.Here are a few relevant excerpts:
“I am 90 years old today, but you can say that my political career is 76 years old and my film career spans 66 years. At the instance of Thanthai Periyar [E.V. Ramasamy], I was working for the Kudiyarasu magazine in Erode when I got a request from the director A.S.A. Sami in Coimbatore to write the dialogues for a forthcoming film. I went to Coimbatore along with my friend Muthukrishnan and learnt the details from Sami. I was asked to write the dialogues for the film Rajakumari, produced by Jupiter Pictures, Coimbatore. I informed Periyar about this. He said, “Au revoir.”
“I told Sami that I would pen the dialogues for the film provided it did not interfere with my political activity. Sami agreed to it. It was the first film in which M.G. Ramachandran acted in the lead role. Although MGR had acted in a few films before that, he had not acted in the lead role until then. That was also the time of an emerging friendship between me and MGR, who was a “devotee” of Mahatma Gandhi. I would give him books of Anna [C.N. Annadurai, Karunanidhi’s mentor] and MGR would give me works of Gandhiji. There would often be discussions between him and me. As a result, he later joined the DMK [Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam].”
“My wife Padma and I had rented a house for Rs.10 in Coimbatore. The volume of written work I produced from that “sparrow’s nest” was stupendous. I got an opportunity to try out a new style of dialogue for a mythological film called Abhimanyu. When the film was first screened, I took my wife and friends to the theatre. But the credits did not have my name. The next day, I left my house in Coimbatore and returned to my home town, Tiruvarur.”
Salem Modern Theatres
“I engaged myself in addressing political meetings and in writing during my stay at Tiruvarur. My friend, the poet K.M. Sharif, was at that time writing songs for films produced by Modern Theatres, based in Salem. Sharif came to Tiruvarur and told me that T.R. Sundaram, proprietor of Modern Theatres, appreciated my style of writing and wanted me to write dialogues for his films. He took me to Salem. I joined Modern Theatres in 1949 on a monthly salary of Rs.500. It was here that the poet Kannadasan became my friend.”
“When T.R. Sundaram wanted to make a film of my play Mandiri Kumari, I agreed to the suggestion and wrote the screenplay and dialogues for that film. It was directed by the talented Ellis R. Duncan, and when it hit the screens, it created a revolution in Tamil Nadu. Casteist forces attacked it, and there was an onslaught on it at public meetings from rival political parties.”
“Marudha Nattu Ilavarasi, for which I penned the dialogues and in which MGR played the lead role, was a tremendous hit. ‘Kalaivanar’ N.S. Krishnan, who watched the film at Palace Theatre in Salem, praised my work in the film. Krishnan insisted that I write the story and the dialogues for a film he was to produce. That is how I agreed to do Manamagal (The Bride). Manamagal and Devaki, the two films whose stories and dialogues I wrote, were released in 1951. It was in Manamagal that the sisters Lalitha and Padmini had full-fledged roles and started acting in Tamil films. Udumalai Narayana Kavi wrote the lyrics for the songs in that film.”
“Perumal (P.A. Perumal Mudaliar) of National Pictures, who was interested in the rationalist movement, was keen that I write the screenplay and dialogues for the film Parasakthi. Its directors Krishnan and Panchu, who showed undivided affection towards me, also insisted that I do so. The “singing actor” K.R. Ramasamy was to play the lead role in that film. But since he had other commitments, Sivaji Ganesan was contracted to take up the role of Gunasekaran in Parasakthi.”
AVM Productions and National Pictures
“The film was jointly produced by AVM Productions and National Pictures. When A.V. Meiyappa Chettiar of AVM Productions watched a couple of scenes Sivaji Ganesan had acted, he was dissatisfied with what he saw and was adamant that the actor should be changed. Perumal, the directors and I were not willing to go by his assessment. We told him categorically that we should not be hasty in our decision and lose a marvellous actor. As a result, Sivaji Ganesan 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.”
“After Parasakthi, I scripted the stories and dialogues for Panam (Money), Naam (We), Thirumbi Paar (Look Back) and Raja Rani (King and Queen) in 1953. Of these four films, Sivaji acted in three and MGR in one. In 1954, I wrote the screenplay and the dialogues for Rangoon Radha, Manohara, Malai Kallan (The Robber from the Hills) and Ammai Appan (Mother and Father).”
Objective in Writing for Films
“I devised my work in films in such a way that it amounted to only a leisure-time activity in the midst of my full-time political work. Even then, 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.”
” The film Naam dealt entirely with the aspirations of the working class. A conversation from that film shows how deeply the lofty ideals of the communist movement were entrenched in me even when I was young. In the film, MGR picks an argument, on behalf of the proletariat, with a zamindar. This angers the landlord, who asks MGR, “What, how dare you put an exclamation mark?” MGR replies, “Yes, zamindar, if the exclamation mark bends a little, it will become a question mark. You should remember that there is not much difference between a sickle and a question mark.”
“Through the character of Pathanjali Sastri in Thai Illaa Pillai (The Motherless Child), I portrayed how casteist feelings, age-old customs and rituals and superstitious beliefs had been deeply entrenched in the human psyche for generations. Through the dialogues in many films, I drove home the ideals of Anna and the facts about him. Indeed, I titled one of the films Kanchi Thalaivan (The Hero of Kanchi). [Kancheepuram was Annadurai’s home town.] Penn Manam (The Mind of a Woman), written by the popular novelist Lakshmi, metamorphosed into screenplay in my hands, and the film was given the title Iruvar Ullam (The Heart of the Two).”
“My involvement with cinema continued even after I became Chief Minister in 1969. Films such as Engal Thangam, Pillaiyo Pillai, Pookkaari, Anaiya Vilakku, Vandikkaran Magan, Aadu Pambe, Maadi Veetu Ezhai, Nenjukku Needhi, Thookku Medai and Marakka Mudiyuma, whose stories I wrote, hit the screens. In my 90 years, I have written stories and dialogues for 75 films. In some films, I have composed the songs too. I have a lot of friends in the film world. The memories of the days of my friendship with them flood my mind.”
Make Tamilians Aware
“Even though politics is my primary vocation, I have utilised films to assist my political activity. I have used my career in films to dispel ignorance among the people in the lower rungs of society, to light up their lives, to remove inequities in society, to spread socially reformative and progressive views and to make Tamilians aware of the antiquity, the sweep, the grandeur and the richness of their language.”
The above -mentioned sentiments expressed by Karunanidhi encapsulate what he thought of himself and his mission in movies was as a script writer. There is no denying that the renowned film script writer “Kalagnar” Karunanidhi has engraved a lasting imprint onTamil cinema through his dialogues.
(D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
This article was written for the “Spotlight” Column appearing in the “Daily FT” of August 18th, 2018. It can be accessed here: