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M Karunanidhi (3 June 1924 – 7 August 2018): The scriptwriter of Tamil politics

The playwright, poet and five-time chief minister of Tamil Nadu died in Chennai of multiple organ failure.

Shriram Iyengar

Death finally prevailed over Muthuvel Karunanidhi after 10 days of a seesaw battle. Doughty as ever, the 94-year-old was unwilling to part company with a life that had achieved so much.

With Karunanidhi gone, Tamil Nadu has lost the last of its leaders to emerge from the crucible of the Dravidian movement led by EV Ramasamy 'Periyar' and his Justice Party. He leaves Tamil politics and literature in a state of flux.

Born in Thirukkuvalai village of Tanjore district in Madras Presidency (now part of Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu), Karunanidhi was always drawn to literature and drama in school. But it was through politics that he truly shaped his craft of words.

At the age of 14, a mere schoolboy, Karunanidhi became a part of the Justice Party’s youth arm. Writing pamphlets and slogans, he caught the eye of CN Annadurai, a rising sun of the Dravidian movement.

When Annadurai broke with Periyar in 1949 to form the political party Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, he brought Karunanidhi along. The party would become Karunanidhi’s own fiefdom from 1969 till his death.

While Karunanidhi's writing was sharpened by the politics of his time, and his fight against the growing attempts to impose Hindi on the entire country, particularly the South, it was the world of cinema that truly gave it voice. In the early 1950s, Karunanidhi joined several DMK leaders who were writing dialogues and scripts for Tamil films.

It was Kannadasan, a key member of the DMK and foremost lyricist of the time in Tamil, who said of the ruling Congress party's distaste for cinema, "They decried it. We used it."

Into this world was introduced Karunanidhi through the film Rajakumari (1947). He wrote the dialogues, in stylish Tamil prose, for another rising star, MG Ramachandran. The friendship that developed between the two would shape Tamil cinema and politics well into the 1970s. It would also inspire Mani Ratnam to use it as the subject of his examination of power and cinema in Iruvar (1997).

In many ways, Karunanidhi brought to Tamil cinema a sense of social responsibility. Like Khwaja Ahmed Abbas in Hindi cinema, he spoke of issues that plagued the country's social systems. Superstition, communalism, greed, capitalism earned the wrath of his words through cinematic dialogues. 

Films like Abhimanyu (1948), Manohara (1952), Panam (1952), Pudhumai Pithan (1957) and Poompuhar (1964) were examples of this. 

But the film that marks the perfect amalgamation of his political ideology and cinematic prowess is Parasakthi (1952). The debut of a great actor, Sivaji Ganesan, the film told the tale of a displaced people (Tamils) struggling in their own land that is consumed by religion, greed, injustice and oppression. 

Sivaji's five-minute-long monologue is one of the key moments of Tamil cinematic history and became a benchmark for writing and acting. 

A writer and scriptwriter of great skill, Karunanidhi understood the value of drama as few others did. In an archived interview, he said, "We say that art should be for propaganda — for the people and for society."

By 1957, his political career began to take precedence over propaganda. Having won his first assembly seat from Kulithalai, he went on to become treasurer of the DMK in 1961. After Annadurai's death in 1969, he took over as head of the party, a position he held until his last breath.

A five-time chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Karunanidhi will, perhaps, be remembered more for his political ambition and achievements. A tireless politician, he shaped and reshaped the function and power of Tamil Nadu in national politics. 

But his contribution also lies in creating the interminable ties between cinema and politics in the state. After Karunanidhi, MGR and, later, Jayalalithaa entered politics with great success, though both became his bitter rivals. Among them, the trio ensured 50 years of rule by parties born from the Dravidian movement, without any influence from Hindi belt politicians.

It would be impossible to mention the legacy of M Karunanidhi without mentioning the presence and influence of MG Ramachandran. Having started together as comrades in the DMK, they became the voice and the face, respectively, of the party. While Karunanidhi’s words captured the imagination of the Tamil people, MGR provided them with hope and aspiration.

In a culture where titles matter, it is no coincidence that Karunanidhi chose the title of ‘Kalaignar’ (artiste) while MGR went with ‘Puratchi Thalaivar’ (revolutionary leader). While the latter spoke of one-man leadership, Karunanidhi’s title refers to the centuries-old legend of Sangam Sabha, a legendary Algonquin table of Tamil literature.

Two of Karunanidhi's greatest contributions to the Tamil landscape are the statues of Kannagi and the saint Thiruvalluvar installed at Kanyakumari. Another remarkable icon of Chennai, the Valluvar Kottam, a chariot inscribed with the verses of Thirukkural, was a product that combined his populist and ideological urges. It is here that his title of Kalaignar seems most fitting.

MGR and Karunanidhi fell out in 1972, leading to the former setting up a breakaway party called the Anna DMK (the 'All-India' would be added to the name later, during the Emergency). Thus began two of the key rivalries in the writer-politician’s life. MGR’s rise to the post of chief ministership in 1977 left Karunanidhi in the opposition for the next decade. But he never vanished into insignificance. Indeed, he returned as chief minister in 1989. 

Then began the battles with Jayalalithaa. From the day of her infamous insult in the Tamil Nadu assembly to the night of Karunanidhi’s midnight arrest, the two indulged in what came to be known as ‘vendetta politics’.

Flowery though he was as a writer, the DMK chief was a hard-boiled veteran of politics. This was why he remained unshakeable as DMK president despite opposition from without and within.

While Karunanidhi's writing contributed a social and very rooted angst against those in power, his career in politics produced mixed feelings. Though he will always be hailed for transforming Chennai into a modern urban centre and for bringing Tamil Nadu into national relevance, the charges of corruption, nepotism and power-mongering will always be levelled against him.

But there is no questioning the status he enjoys in the history of Tamil culture and politics. Author of more than 100 books of prose and poetry, he was key to the continuation, if not resurgence, of Dravidian ideology into the 21st century.

With his death, Tamil Nadu has been thrown into chaos yet again. Till a new leader rises, uncertainty will remain. After all, that is what happens to any story when the writer leaves it incomplete.