He was more than a statesman...

His thoughts were profound, his command of language absolute, and his dialogues fiery. Five-time Tamil Nadu chief minister Muthuvel Karunanidhi was an outstanding administrator, leader, rationalist, and a brilliant author. But more importantly, he was also a gifted dialogue and screenplay writer, whose phenomenal contribution to Tamil cinema can be described as being nothing less than epic.

Karunanidhi began his career as a screenplay and dialogue writer. He wrote for theatre groups and eventually bagged his first film in the year 1946, where he wrote dialogues for Rajakumari. From that point on, he would go on to write dialogues and screenplays for over 40 films, many of which would go on to become classics in Tamil cinema. Parasakthi, Manthiri Kumari, Manamagal, Poompuhar, Manohara, Abhimanyu, Marudhanaattu Ilavarasi, Vandikaran Magal and Paasa Paravaigal are some of his renowned works.

Parasakthi, in particular, was phenomenal. The film stood out for two reasons — Karunanidhi’s fiery screenplay and dialogues, and Sivaji Ganesan’s fantastic dialogue delivery. In fact, old-timers say that there used to be arguments amongst film buffs of the period as to which aspect of the film was more outstanding than the other. The film was a comment on the judicial system that had comfortably turned a blind eye to the suffering of the common man. It discussed class, religion, judiciary and society as a whole, fearlessly pointing out the problems in each of these segments. Needless to say, it was a blockbuster despite there being calls for its ban. It had a phenomenal run of 175 days, making it an iconic film. 

As actor Sivakumar points out, “Kalaignar was a trendsetter. Until Parasakthi released, the normal climax in a Tamil film would have MGR and P S Veerappa having a fight or MGR and Nambiar having a fight, with eventually the villain losing. This was changed with the release of Parasakthi, which had a court scene as its climax. There was no fight in the film. What they said in the entire film of two-and-a-half hours was summed up in a matter of just four-and-a-half minutes in the climax. The dialogues were a big hit and people began playing them on gramophone records. The dialogues were enjoyed by people from all walks of life, including those in the villages, across Tamil Nadu.”

While the writer was known for his exceptional screenplays and dialogues, he was also considerate about actors who did not possess that level of proficiency. To help them, he would often give alternative suggestions. It is said that MGR would often request Karunanidhi to give him dialogues that were not lengthy. Karunanidhi, they say, obliged and would give short dialogues that had the same punch the lengthy dialogues would have had.

Producer-actor Radhika, who played one of the leads in Paasa Paravaigal, said, “I was someone who did not even dream I would act in a film that had screenplay and dialogues by Karunanidhi. I had Sivakumar anna, who is an expert in Tamil literature and Karunanidhi’s works, and Lakshmi as my co-stars. Sivakumar anna can reel off several pages of dialogues written in classical Tamil at one go. It was at this time that Selvam sir would encourage me. He would say, ‘No, you try speaking.’ He would come in the morning with my dialogue sheets and help me learn. My head would spin as he read out my lines to me. Once, when I was reading my pages, I found written below the lines, a note by Karunanidhi, ‘If Radhika finds these dialogues difficult to deliver, change them.’ I thought I would deliver those lines no matter what, for I realised that those lines were a gift I had got in life. I cannot forget those lines.”

Seven-time National Award-winning lyricist Vairamuthu, in a tribute to the leader, said, “Only Brahminical dialect was used in Tamil films initially. When Tamil cinema arrived in the 1930s and 40s, the screenplay writers were mostly people from the agrahara. For instance, there was a film called Sakuntalai. In it, a Kshatriya character called Dushyanthan says, Oru pakkam rishigalin aagnyaai, innoru pakkam thaiyaarin aagnyai, neku enna panradhunne theriyala.’ (On the one hand, I have orders from the rishis, and on the other, I have instructions from my mom, I do not know what to do.) The Tamil dialect spoken here is Brahmanical. It is spoken by a Kshatriya character. So, even Kshatriya characters were made to speak Brahmanical Tamil because most screenplay writers in Tamil cinema then were from the agrahara. It was Kalaignar who made Kshatriya characters speak Kshatriya Tamil.”

In all, with the great script writer’s passing away, Tamil cinema has lost a legend. But Tamils all over the world will continue to remember him for the great classics he has given them, and continue to derive joy from the masterpieces he has left them with.

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He was more than a statesman...

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