When the legendary thespian ‘Avvai’ T. K. Shanmugham came to preside over one of Cho Ramaswamy’s early plays in the fifties, he advised the amateur playwright and actor not to give English titles to his Tamil plays. Cho, who had till then come up with ‘Why not?’, ‘Wait and see’ and ‘What for?’, soon responded with ‘Quo Vadis’ which is Latin for ‘Where are you going?’ and ‘Sambhavaami Yuge Yuge’ which is, of course, a Sanskrit phrase from the Bhagavad Gita!
Irrepressible, unpredictable and with a mind all his own, Cho would in later life narrate with glee that K. Balachander threw up his hands in despair at having to direct him on stage! It was not given even to the most reputed stage director of his time to be able to tame Cho, the enfant terrible of the amateur Tamil stage. Cho would later go on not only to portray the controversial and enigmatic Muhammad Bin Thuglak on stage and cinema, but also make the ‘Pagla Sultan’ his mascot and the name of his influential magazine on political affairs! While taking a decisive stand on many issues based on threadbare argument and logical acumen he would also ensure that he caught the eye mainly because of his devil-take-the-hindmost Thuglakian style.
There was something of this quixotic gambit in the way he forced himself on dramatist Koothabiran as an aspiring actor threatening to walk into every scene of the latter’s ‘Thaenmozhiyaal’ if a meaningful role was not written for him. Koothabiran decided discretion was the better of valour, but did not know how to name the character, an interloper into his script! Cho was generously willing to share his own name, with the result being that he was rather well noticed by audiences! While he could be self-deprecatory and dismissive of many of his achievements — the title card of Muhammad bin Thuglak, his first bid at direction says ‘Trying to learn direction:Cho’ — he was never the one to shrink from the limelight.
Viveka Fine Arts, the amateur drama group whose most famous writer and actor Cho became, was actually formed by his brother Krishnaswami aka Ambi and three of his friends. The thrill of performing on stage as well as the joy of meeting friends was what brought together the gang. Cho was not only the prolific playwright of the group but its stormy petrel who would fearlessly cock a snook at the powers that be. One of Cho’s lifelong regrets in this regard would be his petulant public reaction to Kamaraj’s impatience at his derisive attacks on the Congress government of the time. While he began to adore Kamaraj in the seventies as an incorruptible leader dedicated to the welfare of the people, he could not bear to think how flippant he had been at the start of his dramatic career in responding to the great leader. As for any fireworks against his plays by the Kazhagam malcontents, or any move for a ban, Cho welcomed them as more publicity! Chief Minister Karunanidhi even tried writing a rebuttal play but soon gave up that line of attack. In the event, Cho would become MGR’s favourite comedian, and act in Karunanidhi’s home production, Engal Thangam, pulling off a marvellous performance as an avid MGR fan! But later on, reviews of MGR films in Thuglak would jeopardize Cho’s role as a comic sidekick of MGR!
But after the success of Thuglak on stage and screen, and the launch of Thuglak as a fortnightly early in 1970, Cho’s dialogues in every film began to centre on politics. There were a few films here and there that made it seem that Cho would take portrayal of characters seriously, but he was more into playing himself again and again as a cynical critic of the political system. No role would be complete without a reference to his role as a commentator on political events. In ‘Aarilirundhu Arupadhu Varai’, while playing Rajinikanth’s understanding friend quite well, he quips as an aside, ‘What do we have to do with politics?’ Rajini responds with, ‘Look who is saying this…’ and Cho blushingly agrees that sometimes he says such misleading stuff!He would lament that he had written only four or five political plays but they overshadowed his other plays. His ‘Saathiram Sonnadhillai’ dealt with caste prejudice trenchantly. ‘Is God Dead’ focussed on the dearth of values and ethics in various segments of society. ‘Yaarukkum Vetkamillai’ exposed the hypocrisy of society on prostitution. Cho directed his plays like ‘Unmaiye Un Vilai Yenna’ and ‘Yaarukkum Vetkamillai’ on celluloid but was not happy with the result. He would make no bones in confessing that he had not been able to make the transition from stage to cinema smoothly. He envied K.Balachander on that score but made no effort at averting staginess on screen.
Cho took himself seriously, at least in the later part of his life, as an interpreter of Hinduism both through the printed word and television serials. He even questioned the demonization of Brahmins by the Dravidian ideologues. He could take very conservative viewpoints on the epics and puranas but he himself was disruptive in his individualistic plays. In his scripts, more often than not, Hindu gods lose out in the face of contemporary society’s crassness and corruption. While even god’s avatars cannot rid us of corruption, the heavens turn topsy turvy on the introduction of our ‘democratic’ practices and even Saraswathi, the goddess of learning is confounded by the values of our writers!
(The writer is a historian of Tamil cinema and an author of many works on the subject)