Bengaluru: Karunanidhi was 14 when he entered Tamil Nadu politics. When he became chief minister for the first time, in 1969, Nixon was the president of the US and Mao was the chairman of the Chinese Communist Party. He became chief minister for four more terms, and in his close to six-decade long political career he was the chief of his party for almost 49 years, putting him in close contest with Cuba’s icon Fidel Castro for being the world’s longest-serving leader of a political party.
Karunanidhi laid the foundations of this—what could be a politician’s dream career—in welding considerable influence in popular culture throughout his adult life, which earned him the sobriquet ‘Kalaignar’ (artiste).
Before he turned a colossal political figure, he was a major figure as an essayist, a sought-after public speaker, and the writer of over 50 movie scripts and about seven plays. Even now a serial written by him, Ramanujar, is on air.
“Arivu akilathinu anayatha jyothi (knowledge is a lamp that never fades in the universe)," said Chennai-based Sampath Kumar, who can go on for hours recollecting and reciting such dialogues peppered with alliterations from Karunanidhi’s oeuvre of movie scripts. Kumar, who hosted a popular arts and culture series for BBC in Tamil, says at one point in Tamil Nadu, people loved to see films because of Karunanidhi’s dialogues.
“He did not complete even his 10th standard. But he had an astounding knowledge and grip on literature," says Kumar. “In fact, I should say I grew up, my love for Tamil grew, because I listened to him." He joined Dravidian politics under social reformers such as Periyar, and took his energy from a lot of anti-agitations going on at the time- anti-caste, anti-superstition and anti-Hindi, anti-North and so on.
His dialogues introduced stalwarts in Tamil society like M.G. Ramachandran and Shivaji Ganesan. His biggest hits, consciously laced with political messages of his party DMK, are credited to have played a crucial role in taking Dravidian movement to power.
In that, he also combined the beauty of the language- in rhyming, long, rhetoric dialogues- which made them so popular that the printed copies of the scripts, pirated or otherwise, were sold in thousands in Tamil Nadu. The story is one publisher got a copper block for the cover page to withstand large-scale printing of one such dialogue-book.
“A lot of these films, even the historic ones, like Manohara, or sociological films like Parashakthi, you see a political element. He was very skillful in using language, in a way you enjoy both the beauty in the way it is written and a lot a power it transfers," says Chennai-based critic Baradwaj Rangan.