Na. Muthukumar 1Vamanan

‘Here lies one who sought to rescue Tamil cinema song from the clutches of cliché by embracing lyricism’ might as well be the epitaph to Na.Muthukumar. There was something in the song and personality of this utterly unpretentious song writer that seemed to bring a redemptive touch to film songs. Whether it was a father’s ecstatic outburst (‘Ananda Yaazhai Meettugiraay’) for his young daughter in Ram’s Thanga Meengal (2013), or a young girl’s dainty ode to beauty (‘Azhage Azhage Ellaam Azhage’) in A.L. Vijay’s Saivam (2014), Muthukumar’s sensitive lines seemed to be the silver lining to the ominous clouds of the Kolaveri season! Both ‘Ananda Yaazhai’ and ‘Azhage Azhage’ had fetched national awards for the poet, but his shockingly premature passing at the height of his creativity seems to have set the clock back decisively.

There was little of the grasping cinema upstart or social climber in Muthukumar’s rise. Despite  initial heartaches, his soaring career in the film world was informed by camaraderie. He had celebrated the warmth of family and friends in a series of articles titled ‘Anilaadum Munril’ (Squirrels in the Courtyard) in a popular weekly.  He hailed from a village near Kancheepuram and had fond memories of the bonds and affections of rural life and joint families despite having lost his mother as an infant.

Glued to books from childhood by the influence of his teacher father, Muthukumar completed his post graduation in Tamil in Chennai and even took up doctoral research into Tamil film songs. He later joined Balu Mahendra as assistant director.  As the Tamil tradition of keeping every occasion with song was ingrained in him, Muthukumar soon found his poesy getting the better of his love of film technique! He thought of himself as a sensitive poet who must keep the flag of creativity flying despite commercial cinema’s weakness for kitsch.

Not that Muthukumar didn’t have his moments of superficiality. He could sometimes lapse into juvenile joustings as in ‘Mutham Kodutha Maayakkaari, Un Lippu Enakku Paani Puri’ (Adhik Ravichandran’s Trisha Illainna Nayanthara), but could  add  fizz to a catchy bar song like ‘Vaada Va Machi’ (DeMonte Colony for composer Keba Jeremiah) with Omar Khayyam-like intimations of the desi variety. ‘As life is like a match stick that doesn’t gets lit when wet, make the most of every moment!’

In his first song for Yuvan Shanker Raja with whom he struck his most significant and prolific partnership, Muthukumar would plumb his knowledge of Tamil literary genres in ‘Oar Aayiram Yaanai Kondraal Parani’ (Nandha 2001), referring to the criterion of a king having to kill a thousand elephants in war for a war panegyric  (‘Parani’) to be written about him. Bala’s Nandha was a trenchantly tragic tale of crime and punishment, and one wonders how much of Muthukumar’s lines and their musical and vocal mounting measure up to it, but the lyricist’s distinctive approach is discernable.  A decade later, Bala had Muthukumar write all the songs for his quirky comedy, ‘Avan Ivan’.

In Selvaraghavan’s ‘Kaadhal Konden’ (2003), a love story teetering on the psychopathic, Muthukumar’s ‘Devadhaiyai Kanden’, again for Yuvan, imaginatively fleshed out the romantic fixation growing in the mind of a challenged introvert. In the same director’s 7G Rainbow Colony (2004), the visual of the tragic hero being a marginalised and devastated entity in his dead sweetheart’s funeral is matched by Muthukumar’s oxymoron ‘Nerungi Vilagi’ (close but apart) in ‘Ninaithu Ninaithu Paarthaen, Nerungi Vilagi Nadanthaen’. It is this uncanny ability to sum up life’s bitter ironies in simple day-to-day words that made Muthukumar a director’s song writer.  In his 16 year career of a reckoned 1500 songs, he found friends who would give him the opportunity to write freely. His ability to parse the ubiquitous and almost hackneyed used of romance in Tamil films with interesting colours and shades was one of the reasons for his success.

In ‘Papanasam’ (2015), Ghibran’s bouncy western projection notwithstanding, Muthukumar’s ‘Yeya En Kottikaara’, recalls Kannadasan’s hit, ‘Muthukulikka Vaariala’, if only in the use of regional dialect. In Kaakaa Muttai (2015), in ‘Po Po Vaazhve Kaakka Muttaithaan’, Muthukumar’s lines for G. V. Prakash’s chirpy number paint the triumph of the human spirit in the squalor of a Chennai slum. His nostalgic celebration of a rustic childhood spent playing in the sun, in Vasanthabalan’s Veyil, ( ‘Veyilodu Vilaiyaadi’, 2006) is a marvellous montage brilliantly marshalled. This is a facet that we see in his collections of poetry too.

Muthukumar would categorise songs and poetry as either emotional or intellectual saying that he always aimed at the former. And in keeping with the art of his role model Kannadasan, Muthukumar sought to express himself vulnerably in the most childlike words he could dredge into his consciousness. How Muthukumar longed to spread his lyrical wings like Kannadasan, whose ‘Ninaikkadherindha Maname’ and ‘Kanne Kalaimane’ brought warm tears of joy in his crystalline moments of inebriation! But though as a lyric writer Muthukumar had the sensitivity both to ideas and music to write memorably, he was functioning at a time when the lyric was only one more element in the musical ensemble, not the queen as in earlier musical dispensations. But despite that, Muthukumar managed to leave his individual stamp.

Muthukumar, who had the uncanny ability of dipping his poetic brush in the palette of life’s living moments, wrote in ‘Azhage Azhage’, that not only a blossoming flower but also a falling leaf has beauty. Leaves can fall in autumn, but why would life’s blossoming flower wither in springtime, and that at 41?

(An edited version of this article appeared in the Times of India, Chennai)



There are two things that the film world banks upon : luck, without which nothing succeeds, and talent, without which not a frame moves forward meaningfully. Panchanathan Arunachalam, popularly known as Panchu Arunachalam, had cartloads of luck for a great length of his career as a lyricist. which started in the early sixties, and as a script writer,  which kicked off in the early seventies.

panju arunachalam

Panchu – photo by Vamanan

For one, it was given only to him to open the doors through Annakili (1976) to the maestro of a thousand films and also benefit from the connection!  Again, it was given only to a very few like Panchu to make meaningful story-based films with Rajinikanth like Aarilirundhu Arupadhuvarai (1979) and Engeyo Ketta Kural (1982), as they were early birds in the latter’s skyrocketing career as a super star!

As for talent, Panchu had the ability to write successful screenplays for films covering a gamut of genres from comedy (Kalyanaraman 1979) to action (Murattu Kaalai 1980),  melodrama (Bhuvana Oru Kelvi kuri 1977) and crime thriller (Gayathri 1977). Novels, rarely known to translate into successful films in Tamil cinema, became money spinners when Panchu wrote the screenplay : Sujatha’s Priya (1978) is an example.  Incidentally, it was with Panju’s songs for Priya that Tamil cinema turned to stereophonic  sound.

Luck in fact, had ironically played truant in Panchu’s younger days. Panju’s father Kannappan, like the latter’s younger brothers film producer A.L.Srinivasan and Kannadasan, had been adopted by rich parents. But as destiny would have it, Kannappan’s foster parents died prematurely and he was deprived of his due by their scheming relatives.  Young and sensitive Panchu detested being treated as a poor cousin in the well-to-do Nagarathar community and was determined to succeed in life. His coming to Chennai to work in uncle Kannadasan’s publication,  ‘Thendral’ was the first step in that direction.

Playing amanuensis to Kannadasan as he fitfully did the rounds of film companies weaving masterful  lyrics even for pedestrian films, Panju imbibed the art of lyric writing. Panchu had some magical songs of his own like Manamagale Marumagale Vaa Vaa, which is sung in light music programmes in marriages to this day, as well as Ponnezhil Poothadhu and Pooppola Pooppola Pirakkum.  But Panchu’s native intelligence made him realize that with a colossus like Kannadasan around and Vali coming a close second, he would not go places as a lyric writer.

It was then that Panchu decided to market himself as a script writer banking  on his voracious reading of fiction and ability to spin believable stories.  A series of small budget films, either breezy comedies (Ungal Viruppam, 1974) or cautionary melodramas (Mayangugiraal Oru Maadhu) with catchy songs (Vijay Bhaskar) and likeminded technicians came as a whiff of fresh air in a scene dominated by Sivaji and MGR. Annakili was a dark horse that went on to hit the jackpot with the utterly uplifting musical magic of Ilayaraja. Panchu’s gambit of giving Ilaiyaraja his debut film had paid off!

Ilaiyaraja’s rise, which synchronized with a tidal change in Tamil cinema, meant that the Panchu brand was acquiring more shine. His songs were now ruling the waves (Kaatrinile Varum Geetham and Paruvame Pudhiya Paadal Paadu) and his screenplays were being lapped up. The prolific director S.P.Muthuraman swore by Panchu. With the AVM brothers raring to go after the pause created by the passing of Studio Patriarch A.V. Meiyyappan, Panchu (dialogues and screenplay) along with S.P.Muthuraman (direction) was in the cockpit to direct the course of the Studio’s films.

Panchu and Muthuraman, along with the AVM brothers would also play a crucial role in the marketing of  Rajinikanth and Kamalahasan as mass heroes in massive hits like Murattu Kaalai, Sakalakalavallan (1982) and Paayum Puli (1983). This period, which saw Panchu working for many Rajinikanth and Kamalahasan films,  also signalled his rise  as a successful producer with films like Thambikku Endha Ooru (1984) and Guru Sishyan (1988).

In 1987, Panchu sort of declared war on directors whom he charged with wasting time and resources without proper planning. He became his own director and wielded the baton for four films, of which  ‘Pudhuppaattu’ (1990) was under the Ilayaraja Creations banner. Panchu’s iconic P.A.Art Productions  shone again with his script for Rajinikanth’s ‘Veera’ in 1994. But as the years went by, the failures that came home to roost constricted his resources as well as his living style.


(The author is a Tamil film music historian and author of many books on Tamil cinema)

(A version of this article appeared in the Times of India, Chennai)


With the Vietnam war tearing up not only Vietnam but also public opinion in the US, it was to be expected that Vietnam became a synonym for discord and strife. But back in the late sixties, it was left to school drop out K. Sundaram to immediately tap the symbolism by naming his play on a family divided against itself as ‘Vietnam Veedu’! His audience in the amateur drama circuit in Madras consisted of the urban middle class who were avid newspaper readers bombarded by headlines of  the war in the Southeast Asian country.  In the event, the play and the film that followed were so successful that Sundaram came to be known as ‘Vietnam Veedu’ Sundaram!

There was something of the then smouldering Vietnam in Sundaram himself. Son of a lawyer in Tiruchi, Sundaram’s turbulent adolescence was marred by a disastrous academic record and dismally low self esteem. He once remarked that he had the appearance of a figure in a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Sundaram’s anxious mother took him to Reverend Lourdes Xavier of the Immaculate Conception church at Poondi, near Thanjavur. The latter’s assurance that the boy would make good though without any formal education came as some reassurance to both mother and son. Sundaram later returned the favour to the kind Padre with Gnana Oli, a stage play based loosely on Les Miserables and featuring Major Sundarrajan. Sivaji Ganesan played the protagonist in the celluloid version shot prominently in and around the Poondi church.

Sundaram’s chance entry upon his arrival at Mambalam, into Clubhouse, iconic haven of film world aspirants like Nagesh, Vali and Srikanth, was providential. His meeting with thespian Y.G.Parthasarathy, whose association stirred up his passion for the stage was equally serendipitous. After being asked to push Parthasarathy’s broken down car to his house, Sundaram returned on invitation in the evening only to become a junior member of his dramatic troupe!

Initially Sundaram had wanted to be an actor….perhaps a comedian in keeping with the mocking and dismissive disdain everybody treated him with. It was the veteran comedian T.S.Durairaj who identified Sundaram’s métier and asked him to concentrate on writing. Working night shifts as a tyre inspector in an industrial unit, Sundaram did the dramatic rounds in the day and soon caught the eye of none other than ‘Puratchi Nadigar’ MGR. Sundaram had written the play for the factory’s first anniversary which was presided over by MGR. The impressed star wanted the playwright to come on stage and not only predicted that he would go places but also recommended him to topnotch film companies like Devar Films and Padmini Pictures. Sundaram’s participation in the story department of such production companies improved his rock-bottom finances apart from teaching him how to write for films.

There is some fortuitousness again in the manner in which Sundaram’s Vietnam Veedu-tale based on his own father’s fixation for family prestige, reached the portals of Sivaji Ganesan, then a shining star whose name had become synonymous with histrionics. When Sundaram did really reach the Presence, Sivaji glanced at the youth and remarked, ‘Your shirt is bigger than your frame’.  Sundaram responded with, ‘’I am not the master of my own shirt, Sir’’ referring to the fact that the shirt in question was borrowed.

The scope for melodrama that Vietnam Veedu provided tickled Sivaji’s fancy as did the fact that he would be using the Brahmin lingo in a big way for the first time. The dollops of dramatic English lines that Sundaram had larded the dialogues with were an added attraction. Sivaji luxuriated in the glow of Prestige Padmanabhan, and his powerful, if mannered and quirky essay mesmerized stage audiences before holding cinema goers in thrall.

Sundaram’s Gnana Oli and then Gowravam,  part of whose storyline Sundaram had gleaned from Agatha Christie’s ‘Witness for the Prosecution’, gave ample scope for Sivaji to indulge his sweet tooth for grandiose melodrama provided by a megalomaniacal character whose tragedy could have been avoided with a little wisdom. Though he was more at home as a script writer than as a director,  Sundaram wielded the megaphone himself in Gowravam, fortified by Sivaji’s own preference as well as the guidance of ace camera director A. Vincent. Hugely effective songs from the MSV,Kannadasan,TMS combination (Devane in Gnana Oli; Neeyum Naanuma and Palootti Valartha Kili in Gowravam) heightened the tragic dimensions unfolded in Sundaram’s films. He wrote scripts and dialogues for many Sivaji starrers. Even as Sundaram basked in the limelight with his successes for Sivaji, he wrote for MGR in ‘Naan Yen Pirandhaen’ and ‘Naalai Namadhe’, a remake of Yadon ki Baarat.

Realising that he was caught in the image trap of the two titans of Tamil cinema, Sundaram sought some way out. He claimed to have begun the genre of ‘social mytholology’ by showing the workings of divinity in contemporary individuals and situations (Namma Veettu Deivam). Sundaram had a strong religious streak which came out in many films (Devi Sri Karumariamman, Aayiram Kannudaiyal and Navagraha Nayaki among others). But the cake goes to films like Payanam, with its interesting directorial touches, as wells as turns of dialogue and plot in etching the character of a motley assemblage of train passengers.

The small screen provided ample acting opportunities to Sundaram in the evening of his life. But he was also toying with a film based on his mother’s life. He had debuted with his father’s story and  would have come full circle if he had had his way.

(The writer is a historian of Tamil film music and author of several books on Tamil cinema) 

(The above article appeared in Times of India, Chennai edition)

The news of the Magsaysay having been conferred on T.M.Krishna came out this morning. Actually, one could not understand why in the world the award was conferred. He is a singer. If it is for that, then he is a rather very mediocre singer among those singing classical music in Tamil Nadu. No cutcheri of his is worth a second listening. He just delivers what he has learnt. Somewhat like a music instructor belting it out. He doesn’t even deserve to sit in a chair that Sanjay Subramaniam has gotten up from.

But it seems the award has been given for his ‘humanitarian’ activities. If one enquires about the nature of those ‘humanitarian’ activities, they point to his ‘progressive’ articles in the English daily, The Hindu. We are told that he attempts to take music to the poor and less privileged. Hasn’t this ever happened before? Has he made any lasting contribution towards this end? Krishna’s contribution, if any, is having written shallow and strident articles without any deep understanding, by picking up ideas opposed to tradition as well as ‘progressive’ slogans. Gnani’s superficial articles are any day many times better than what Krishna has turned out.

Generally, it is the wont of Brahmins to hop a few feet more in an attempt to mask or pass over their original identity. Those who secretly hide their Brahminism under their armpits generally make shriller sounds. As T.M. Krishna makes such blaring protestations, I have always distrusted him and his The Hindu-Iyengarish background.

Everything I happened to learn about him only reinforced that doubt. He is somebody who has no connection with Tamil cultural mores. He hails from a rich upper class family that has no introduction to Tamil literature and its artistic values. He is an empty vessel that makes noise in public space, in a politically correct vocabulary with an eye on sensationalism.

So, it is his The Hindu background alone that constituted the eligibility for the award. If not for this award, it wouldn’t have been necessary for a person of my calibre to even deign to comment on such an unbefitting person. The conferment of this award is wholly a case of the rich and powerful making internal adjustments to crown one amongst themselves. From here, he may go on to be conferred the Gnanpith for his naive articles. He has the money power and media power to make a bid even for the Noble. In recent times, this (the Magsaysay) has been a moment of much revulsion.


(Translated by Vamanan)

Tamizh Cinemavil Samskrita Ilakkiyam

Published in Dinamalai, Nellai 


He stood a hefty and towering six feet three and was better educated than four Tamil stars put together! But A.C. Thirulokchander M.A. carried himself with such ease – he had imbibed the deportmA.C.Thirulokchanderent by observing his role model  L.V.Prasad – that film stars looked upon him with favour. Even the usually interfering MGR allowed himself to be moulded in a completely different light under his baton in Anbe Vaa (1966).  Sivaji Ganesan, who addressed Thirulokchander as Mudaliar, considered him a close friend. In the event, he gave the latter the privilege of directing him in 25 films, the largest for any director in his stable of filmmakers.

Named after a Punjabi gentleman whom his father admired, Thirulokchander might have well become a bureaucrat if a year had not stood between him and the eligibililty to take the  IAS examination as his father desired. In the interregnum, he joined the veteran filmmaker R. Padmanabhan, a temperamental character whose capricious ways had become the talk of film circles, as his third assistant. Thirulok realized even at this stage that his physical stature and academic qualifications might put off film folk and learnt how to play them down! He struck it off well with MGR,  Padmanabhan’s sulking hero brought by court injunction to complete his Kumari (1952). MGR vibed with the young and well educated intern,  discussing politics with him at length.

Thirulok gleaned his knowledge and appreciation of film technique and grammar in Jupiter Pictures, watching directors like L.V.Prasad and working under S. Balachander. He would describe with awe how the ace cameraman Jiten Banerjee once unfolded 20 different opening shots for a scene. Banerjee had emphasized that the shot should be integral to story telling and have a close bearing to narration and character, and also taught Thirulok the importance of finding the best angle for a shot.

Inheriting his yen for voracious reading and story telling from his mother, Thirulok succeeded in selling his folklore stunt yarn (Vijayapuri Veeran 1960) to Joseph Thaliath of Citadel Studios and assisted him in making the film.  This was his ticket to AVM Studios where his instant rapport with AVM Saravanan, one the rising sons of Meiyyappa Chettiar found him scoring a double whammy.

First, Thirulok’s sensitive family drama based on the vicissitudes in the relationship of two men who had fought shoulder to shoulder in the army was picturised under Bhimsingh’s direction as Paarthaal Pasi Theerum (1962). Then,  another folklore stunt film, Veera Thirumagan (1962) was slotted for his own direction. The film which had beautiful music by Viswanathan Ramamurthy was not a success, but Thirulok’s meaningful camera angles can be seen in such evergreen hits as ‘Roja Malare Raaja Kumari’.  As the commomer hero   (Anandan) queries in song whether he can yearn for the hand of a princess, He is shown in a tell tale high angle shot, while the princess is picturised from a low angle shot as she answers in the affirmative from the vantage point of her royal status.

With the full backing of AVM (in Thirulok’s case this was Saravanan), Thirulok’s story telling and cine techniques found a place in a number of AVM films. Naanum Oru Penn, based on a Bengali story, and Ramu, re-crafted from Kishore Kumar’s Dhoor Gagan ki Chaao Mein not only met with success, but also earned silver medals as national awards for best regional film. The director’s mettle in the thriller genre was seen in  Adhey Kangal.

But it was Thirulok’s breezy romantic comedy for MGR, Anbe Vaa (1966) which marked the high point of his innings in AVM.  It was an uncommon triumph for MGR too, who had been figuring in a series of scrappily made cops and robbers flicks with a dash of ‘mother sentiment’ and romance thrown in.  Set in Shimla and shot richly in glorious colour, Anbe Vaa is an atypical MGR film structured as a Roman Holiday in reverse, being about a rich and overworked business magnate who finds love when he gets away to Shimla incognito. Thirulok’s versatile gifts as a film director which include fresh story telling, intelligent lines, good song positioning, and extracting creditable performances were at play in Anbe Vaa. The extraordinary finesse he brought to takings and editing was at its height in the evergreen hit song, Pudhiya Vaanam Pudhiya Bhoomi.

It’s ironical that despite Anbe Vaa’s extraordinary success, Thirulok never got to make another MGR film but became Sivaji’s favoured director and lavished his cinematic skills on the thespian, as for example in the latter’s triple role tour de force, Deiva Magan.  Sivaji’s forte in portraying tragic heros stood out in Thirulok’s Babu (remade from Malayalam Odayil Ninnu) and Avanthaan Manidhan (from Kannada).  The director’s skill in portraying national integration stood out in Bharata Vilas, while his yen for comedy was seen in Anbe Aaruyire. Thirulok’s Iru Malargal, a love triangle comprising Sivaji, Padmini and K.R. Vijaya that he directed for veteran sound engineer and studio owner Dinshaw Tehrani was eminently successful.

If Thirulok’s film career lasted more than three decades and spanned over sixty films, it is because he was swift to get inspired and swifter to execute.  Do Raha’s sensational success provoked him to come out with its Tamil version, Aval (1972).  As a producer himself (Cine Bharath), he was quick to realize Ilayaraja’s talent and employed his musical score fruitfully in his Bhadrakali (1976) which is chockfull with hits. After the tragic death of the film’s heroine Rani Chandra, he successfully used a dupe to complete the film.

Thirulok realized Rajinikanth’s promise soon enough by casting him in ‘Vanakkathukkuriya Kaadhaliye’, a film about a girl with ESP  His last film, Anbulla Appa (1987), which came a full 37 years after his entry as an apprentice in cinema, sank without a trace. After that he engaged himself in directing TV serials, and authored his rambling reminiscences apart from keeping in touch with old friends like Saravanan and under study S.P.Muthuraman.

(The writer is a historian of Tamil film music and has authored many books on the subject)

(A version of this article appeared in Times of India, Chennai)

Naan-Anaiyittal - Enga Veettu Pillai

MGR singing Naan Aanai Ittaal  — the black shirt and red carpet signify the DMK’s flag


Tamil Nadu in 2016 lives up to its well-earned if dubious reputation of being the place and point where the phenomenon of the interweaving of cinema and politics began.   A screenwriter who has been Chief Minister five times makes his final bid against a former glamour actress who is the incumbent Chief Minister and seeks to be elected for the fourth time. Both are challenged by a former action star of more than a hundred films.

Congress leader K. Kamaraj sounded the warning about this aspect a few years before climacteric 1967 by warning people about the ‘hunter’ on the prowl (‘Vettaikkaaran’ being the title of M.G.Ramachandran’s successful 1964 film). Kamaraj then enunciated a question pointedly, ‘Can actors administer a state ?’

He brought up this issue at a time when actors were pejoratively  called ‘koothadigal’  (street performers). His perception of the DMK was not just that of a party which used the popularity of actors and stars for its politics, not just a party with a preponderance of stars, actors, scriptwriters, directors and producers, but a party of actors per se.

It was Kamaraj’s political guru Satyamurthy, an amateur stage actor himself, who understood the value of reaching  people through the stage and cinema. At his instance, K.B.Sundarambal enlivened Congress meetings singing patriotic songs in her stentorian voice and was later inducted to the Legislative Council. Other artistes too made the stage, as well as the mass medium of cinema, reflect the ferment of the mass movement for Independence.

E.V.Ramasami Periyar’s  tirades against Brahminism and  religion were not far behind. They were getting traction among actors in drama companies and were beginning to echo in films too. Jupiter’s Chandrakantha (1936), which narrated the story of a wayward pontiff occasioned derisive comments against Brahmins in the streets. Bharatidasan, who had emerged as the poet of the ‘self respect‘ movement, was employed as a writer by Modern Theatre’s T. R. Sundaram and gave the antagonists of Puranic stories the aura of  Dravidian heroism. M.R.Radha brought an unbridled swagger and incredible gumption to his unconventional performances on stage, fighting pitched battles with the orthodox to mock and deride religious superstition and hypocrisy. N.S. Krishnan used humour and sarcasm to ridicule social prejudices.

In this background, C.N.Annadurai emerged as EVR’s chief lieutenant. An amateur actor and drama and cinema buff himself, he networked young actors and writers of the self-respect movement giving them a shoulder to boost their career or just to cry over. Even as a young actor called V.C.Ganesan was given the title ‘Sivaji’ by Periyar, N.S. Krishnan became ‘Kalaivaanar’, M.R. Radha ‘Nadigavel’, K.R.Ramasami ‘Nadippisai Pulavar’, D.V. Narayanasamy ‘Nadigamani’ and S.S. Rajendran ‘Ilatchiya Nadigar’.  M.G.Ramachandran, who had first met Annadurai in 1944,  joined the brigade charily in 1953. The future Puratchi Nadigar (Revolutionary Actor) would however worst every one of his histrionic rivals to emerge as the major face and force of the DMK that Annadurai formed in 1949 as a more inclusive, ambitious and flexible political force.

The film scripts of  Annadurai (Velaikkaari, Nallathambi, Oar Iravu) and Karunanidhi (Mandhiri Kumari, Parasakthi, Manohara) were dovetailed versions of their eloquent and alliterative oratory on stage, with the difference being that the latter took his career as film writer and producer more seriously and could make monetary sense of it. When the chips were down a few years after the demise of Annadurai, the duel was however between the wily script writer turned administrator Karunanidhi and the do-gooder celluloid idol MGR.

Veteran stage and film professionals like T. K. Shanmugam and A.P.Nagarajan believed  it was the end of the road for MGR as an actor and politician when he was thrown out of the party in 1972. Initially MGR too feared that he was finished. But the surge of mass support in the days that followed was only a sign that the larger-than-life image he had assiduously fashioned for himself was indeed more spectacular than life itself! In the event, Karunanidhi’s attempted projection of his own son Muthu as a young hero, as well as his cooption of actor Jaishankar pitifully fell by the wayside.

Comedian N.S. Krishnan had been a role model for MGR in public munificence and in the complete control he exercised over his cinematic elements –  story, dialogue, shots, lyrics, tunes and choice of supporting artistes.  But if NSK in real life seemed to be playing to a death-wish script, MGR’s script was working itself to apotheosis. Rather than being a mere conduit of the messages of the party, MGR towered over them as the messiah. Puratchi Nadigar therefore had an easy makeover as Puratchi Thalaivar – a delayed  answer of sorts to Kamaraj’s question on actors and government.

The seamless sync of MGR’s private, public and cinematic images left no room for doubt in the public’s mind who the real hero was in the dramatic clash between Karunanidhi and MGR. Even before MGR  named Karunanidhi as the Theeya Sakthi, manifold supporters of the party were certain who the villain in the drama of the party schism was. MGR had all along been subordinate only to the all-enveloping charisma of Anna, whom he invoked again and again in his films and who ultimately occupied pride of place in the name of his new party as well as its flag.

That MGR’s wife Janaki Ramachandran, herself a former actress was made Chief Minister after his demise, and that Jayalalitha, his leading lady in the most number of films in his career, categorically proved she is his political heir –underscore the fact that Tamil Nadu’s political fabric under the Kazhagams is impenetrably interwoven with cinema. It is a phenomenon inaugurated by Annadurai and pursued by Karunanidhi,  taken to its height by MGR and continued successfully by Jayalalitha. It has peaked and won’t be easy to replicate.

(A version of this article appeared in the Times of India, Chennai)

(The writer is a historian of Tamil film music and an author of several books on Tamil cinema)