If cinema and politics are intertwined in Tamil Nadu, then Kalaignar Karunanidhi’s family continues to be immersed in both with great rewards. This is due to the patriarch’s path-breaking venture from films into politics in the past
Today, June 3rd is the 99th birth anniversary of Muthuvel Karunanidhi, the former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, the closest Indian state to Sri Lanka both geographically and historically.
Karunanidhi, who passed away on August 7, 2018, was the leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) for nearly 50 years. His son M.K. Stalin is the incumbent Tamil Nadu Chief Minister.
Official Birth Centenary celebrations of the versatile Karunanidhi commencing today and culminate next year with the construction of a gigantic mid-sea pen monument off the Marina beach in the State capital Chennai.
The birth centenary monument was designed in the shape of a pen to denote and honour the multi-faceted writing skills of Karunanidhi.
The multi-talented Karunanidhi was widely known as ‘Kalaignar’ (artiste). He was referred to respectfully as Kalaignar more than as Karunanidhi in later years. In his eventful life, Kalaignar was a journalist, editor, dramatist, stage actor, film scriptwriter, short story writer, novelist, literary commentator, poet, lyricist, film producer and TV channel proprietor.
This column focuses this week – with the aid of earlier writings – on Kalaignar Karunanidhi’s immense contribution to Tamil movies in a cinematic career spanning more than six decades of his life.
It has been the practice for this column to devote the first Saturday of each month to an article on films, film personalities or film-related matters.
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 masses of Tamil Nadu.
Kalaignar made a name for himself in films as a screenplay and dialogue writer. It was basically as a film scriptwriter that he rose in politics eventually ending up as Chief Minister. The film script writer was Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu for a total of 19 years. He was Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu five times from 1969-71, 1971-76, 1989-91, 1996-2001 and 2006-11. No other Tamil Nadu Chief Minister has been in office as CM for so long.
Born in Thirukkuvalai
Karunanidhi and MGR
Karunanidhi was born on June 3, 1924, in the village of Thirukkuvalai, what was formerly the Thanjaavoor (Tanjore) District of the 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 Tamil Nadu’s greats in the spheres of music, dance, drama and cinema hail from this caste group. A few of these illustrious artistes include Thiruvaavaduthurai Rajarathinam, Kaarukkurichchi Arunaasalam, Valangaimaan Shanmugasundaram, T. Balasaraswati, M.S. Subbulakshmi, M.L. Vasanthakumari, T.K. Ramamoorthy, T.R. Rajakumari, T.R.Ramanna 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 Maanava Naesan (Student Friend). Later he started the Murasoli (Drum Beat) which remains the DMK flagship newspaper. Karunanidhi quit his secondary school studies and became a political activist while working freelance in newspapers and contributing articles.
He also became a stage actor and playwright. 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 scriptwriter. Soon he excelled as a film scriptwriter through his rich prose, brimming with vitality. This brought him much recognition and more remuneration which helped him greatly to carve out a name for himself as a politician. Kalaignar Karunanidhi’s remarkable rise in Tamil cinema is best described in his own words.
India celebrated its cinema centenary in 2013. On that occasion, Karunanidhi issued a special statement in Tamil that was translated into English by journalist T.S. Subramanian and published in the news magazine Frontline.
In that statement, Karunanidhi briefly outlines his entry into films as a scriptwriter and 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:
The INR 81-Crore Pen Monument, standing in the Bay of Bengal 360 m from the coast, was proposed by the Tamil Nadu Government last year, and is expected to become a Chennai landmark on completion. The monument will be 42 metres tall and 2.60 metres in diameter, and will be accessible by a lattice bridge
“I am 90 years old today, but you can say 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 was asked to write the dialogues for the film Rajakumari, produced by Jupiter Pictures, Coimbatore. I informed Periyar and 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. 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].”
“I engaged myself in addressing political meetings and in writing. 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, 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. Indeed, I titled one of the films Kanchi Thalaivan (Kancheepuram was Annadurai’s home town). Penn Manam, written by the popular novelist Lakshmi, metamorphosed into a screenplay in my hands, and the film was given the title Iruvar Ullam.”
“In my 90 years, I have written stories and dialogues for 75 films. 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.”
These sentiments expressed by Karunanidhi encapsulate what he thought of himself and his mission in movies as a scriptwriter. There is no denying that the scriptwriter engraved a lasting imprint on Tamil cinema through his dialogues.
Kalaignar Karunanidhi developed a writing style for cinema that was flowery and alliterative (Adukku Mozhi) and soon became very popular. Courtroom 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 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, Maran and Kannadasan, etc. – but Karunanidhi was the master in that genre surpassing even his mentor and leader Annadurai.
Karunanidhi has written the screenplay and dialogues for 64 films. He has written the story or screenplay without dialogues for 11 other films.
The first two films he wrote scripts for were Rajakumari and Abhimanyu. However, Karunanidhi was not credited for those films. It was his third film Marutha Naattu Ilavarasi released in 1950 for which Karunanidhi was first credited as a scriptwriter in the titles.
Among the films scripted by Karunanidhi are Manthiri Kumari, Parasakthy, Manamahal, Panam, Manohara, Thirumbipaar, Malaikkallan, Pudumaippithan, Kuravanji, Raja Rani, Arasilankumari, Iruvar Ullam, Rangoon Radha, Pudaiyal, Kaanchi Thalaivan, Poombuhaar, Poomaalai, Avan Pithanaa, Marakka Mudiyumaa, Pillaiyo Pillai, Paalaivana Rojakkal, Uliyin Oasai, and Ponnar Shankar. It is said that he received 300 Rupees for work on his first film. In later years he got up to 75 lakhs of Rupees to script a film.
Kalaignar also 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. Maran took over the company.
Karunanidhi was also involved with three other film production companies. Altogether Karunanidhi has produced or co-produced 29 films. In addition to being a script writer and playwright, Karunanidhi has also written film songs. He has written around 35 to 40 songs for different films.
Family’s Film Links
Interestingly Karunanidhi’s family has had and continues to maintain close links with the Tamil film industry. Apart from Karunanidhi, his nephew (Elder sister’s son) and former Cabinet Minister M.K. Maran – who is no more – was also a former film script writer. Maran’s brother Amirtham was a cinematographer. Another brother Sornam was a film writer and director.
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 political heir M.K. Stalin too has dabbled in acting, as the hero of two TV serials Kurinji Malar and Surya.
Stalin had some cinema experience by acting in the films Ore Raththam and Makkal Aanayittaal in 1988.
In 1978 Stalin produced the film Nambikkai Natchathiram in which his elder brother MK Muthu was the hero. Karunanidhi’s eldest son M.K. Muthu had a short-lived film career as an actor-singer. He acted in films such as Pillaiyo Pillai (Oh, What a Son!) for which his father wrote the screenplay and dialogues
Stalin’s son Udhayanidhi is also a successful film producer as well as an actor who is playing the hero in many Tamil films. Udayanidhi also set up a film distribution network named Red Giant that has a virtual monopoly on films screened in Tamil Nadu.
Udayanidhi, who contested and won elections in 2021 was recently appointed a Minister in his father’s Government. Thereafter Udayanidhi stepped down and his wife Kiruthiga took over Red Giant. She is a filmmaker in her own right and has directed three films so far.
Karunanidhi’s youngest son Thamizharasu’s son, Arulnidhi, has made his mark as a lead actor in some films. Kalaignar’s elder son Azhaghiri’s son Dayanidhi was until recently a film producer and distributor.
Moreover, Karunanidhi’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 Lok Sabha MP was until recently the co-owner of Kalaignar TV.
Cinema and Politics Inter-twined
If cinema and politics are intertwined in Tamil Nadu, then Kalaignar Karunanidhi’s family continues to be immersed in both with great rewards. This is due to the patriarch’s path-breaking venture from films into politics in the past.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com