The imprint of Periyar is visible in the evolution and the trajectory of the Dravidian Cinema, particularly during its most significant period of the decade after India’s Independence when films like Nalla Thambi (dir. Krishnan-Panju, 1949), Velaikkari (Maidservant, dir. A.S.A. Samy, 1949), Manthiri Kumari (Minister’s Daughter, dir. Ellis R. Dungan-T.R. Sundaram, 1950), Parasakthi (Goddess, dir. Krishnan-Panju, 1952), Thirumbippaar (Look Back, dir. T.R. Sundaram, 1953), Rangoon Radha (dir. A. Kasilingam, 1956), and Annayin Aanai (Mother’s Command, dir. Chitrapu Narayana Rao, 1958) redefined Tamil cinema through the work of Dravidian ideologues like C.N. Annadurai, M. Karunanidhi, Murasoli Maaran, Asai Thambi, and Udumalai Narayanakavi, among others. Nalla Thambi, written by Annadurai, focuses on undermining superstition and the significance of science, particularly through the song “Vignanatha Valarakkaporendi/I will nurture science,” written by Udumalai Narayanakavi and composed by C.V. Subburaman, advocating for health and happiness rather than destruction through (atomic) science in the aftermath of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings.
Velaikkari, written by Annadurai, revolves around the predicament of the titular character of the maidservant at the intersection of class/caste and undermines the superstition surrounding faith in the backdrop of the temple as a space of exploitation. Three years later, in 1952, Parasakthi, with dialogues by Karunanidhi, further expands on the dismantling of blind faith by positing temple and the sanctum sanctorum as the space devoid of sanctity as the priest tries to rape a desolate and helpless Kalyani, the unfortunate sister around whom the narrative revolves. Concomitantly, Kalyani’s character also epitomizes the women on the fringes who, though forsaken by the apathetic state and a virulent patriarchal society, refuse to give up their dignity and fend for themselves: Kalyani, who runs an “idlikkadai” or the sparse idli shop/café, is representative of the indomitable spirit of hundreds of such women who dare to survive, despite the constant impediments and threats from men regarding perceived licentiousness of women in public sphere, apart from the harassment of the state and its (corrupt) cops of the small businesswomen/entrepreneurs.
However, coexisting with the trope of the abalaippen or the desolate woman that sheds light on the abandoned and excluded women is the persona of the princess who learns to fence and follows her heart and falls in love with a swashbuckler (Maruthanattu Ilavarasi, The Princess of Maruthanadu, dir. A. Kasilingam, 1950; written by Karunanidhi). The film ends with the newly crowned king who proclaims himself as the servant of the people and announces the end of monarchy and the beginning of democracy. The year after, in 1951, the princess of Maruthanadu transforms into the suffering wife who tends to her sick husband in Devaki (dir. R.S. Mani; written by Karunanathi). The titular Devaki prefigures Kalyani of Parasakthi by opening a diner, which later grows into a restaurant. But after recovering his health, when Devaki’s husband suspects her chastity and tortures her, it is Devaki’s sister Leela who brings him to his senses. Leela, played by the iconic Madhuri Devi is a “London-returned” educated woman who boldly refuses her father’s choice of a “suitable boy.” Leela is portrayed as an independent woman with a mind of her own, and her persona/costume reminds us of Periyar’s claims regarding the space of women and their freedom to choose. Leela’s characterization is unique in the Tamil cinema of the 1950s for not mocking but providing agency to a young, bold, and educated/westernized woman.
The year after in 1951, in Manthiri Kumari, Madhuri Devi will play the titular role of the tenacious minister’s daughter in her career-defining role of an indefatigable woman who tries to mend the ways of her wayward and crooked husband. However, during the climactic moment when she senses her husband’s plot to kill her by pushing her down a hill, on the pretext of circumambulating around him, as a traditional mark of respect/the last wish of a wife, she pushes him down the cliff. More important, Manthiri Kumari, which draws from the Tamil classic Kunadalakesi for its climax, ends with a song where the surviving characters sing the praise of her ability to withstand and challenge the machinations and onslaught of patriarchy.
This image of the marginalized woman, despite the class she comes from, is reinvented in Poompuhar (dir. P. Neelakantan; dialogues by Karunanidhi, 1964) to address the predicament of the iconic Tamil woman Kannagi who challenges the king for having charged her husband with the theft of the queen’s anklet unjustly. Eventually, Kannagi burns Madurai, the capital of the Pandya king. The film extols the virtue of Kannagi’s karpu/chastity, as in the original epic Silappathikaram, and the closure conforms to the diktats of Tamil mainstream cinema in coopting/appropriating Kannagi’s rebellious spirit as that of the fidelity of the wife of a markedly unchaste husband. Here the divergences of the narrative from Periyar’s ideology should be noted, in particular his mockery of the patriarchal concepts like chastity, primarily designed to keep the desire of women, especially those of widows and spinsters, in check. Later in Poomalai (dir. P. Neelakantan; written by Karunanidhi, 1965) the issue of rape is addressed. However, the resilient victim follows and gets married to the perpetrator-hero, thus prefiguring the more nuanced narrative ploy of rape to affirm patriarchy in the adaptation of the iconic Tamil writer Jayakanathan’s famous novel Sila Nerangalil Sila Manithargal (Sometimes, Some People, 1977).
Nyaya Tharasu (The Scales of Justice, dir. K. Rajeshwar; dialogues by Karunanidhi, 1989), adapted from an M.T. Vasudevan Nair script of a Malayalam film (Panchagni/Five Fires, dir. Hariharan, 1986), however, pushes the envelope further by having the protagonist, the activist and Naxalite Bharathi, killing the landlord Paramanandham–the rapist/murderer of a tribal woman. Later, when she is on parole from jail, she is ostracized by society. Towards the end, Bharathi is forced to encounter the rape of her dear friend at the hands of the latter’s own husband and his friends. Bharathi has no choice but to kill again, this time her dear friend’s husband, to save her friend from debauched degenerate men—the scale of her dread and violence increasing with the proximity of the perpetrator who, unlike the earlier landlord, is quite familiar. Nyaya Tharasu, although inspired by the original script of Panchagni, which was loosely based on the events from the life of the Naxalite K. Ajitha, the iconic rebel of the 1960s noticeably differs in its climax: the victim of the gang rape in the original is the amiable and benevolent adolescent maidservant of the friend who also helps the protagonist’s bedridden mother. The gun in the climax of Panchagni also transforms into a revolver in Nyaya Tharasu: the relative realism of the Malayalam film paves the way for its dramatic climax through the aesthetics of the mise-en-scene and politics of underscoring the class divide.
Nyaya Tharasu could be argued to be topical, yet continuing the legacy, reflexive of the compromises needed for consensual electoral politics by affirming the status quo through the safeguarding of the chastity of the wife-figure. Nonetheless, as I have argued elsewhere, the singularity of Dravidian cinema lies in its intervention in mainstream cinema: “Parasakthi was released on Deepavali Day — October 17, 1952. It ran for a minimum of 50 days in all the 62 centers it was released, and in Ceylon, it ran at the Mailan Theatre for almost 40 weeks. The huge success of Parasakthi attains significance in the context of the stiff competition Tamil films faced from Hollywood, Hindi, and Telugu films in the 1950s” (Madras Studios, p.123). The critically acclaimed and commercially successful Parasakthi’s trenchant subnational subtext, which recalls the preoccupations of the Third Cinema practitioners and politically-driven art cinema auteurs, remains unequaled in the mainstream studio-era cinema.
Nonetheless, the legacy of Periyar in Tamil cinema is not restricted to the decade after India’s Independence and could be traced from a much earlier to the later period. As the Tamil cinema historian Theodore S. Baskaran has pointed out, there was the progressive but hegemonic outlook of upper caste (Gandhian) filmmakers regarding the “upliftment” and accommodation of “Harijans” and widows, as emblematized by films like Balayogini (1937), Sevasadanam (1938), and Thyaga Bhoomi (1939) of director K. Subramanyam. Parallel to those social-reformist films from the top were the films foregrounding the predicament of the non-Brahmin others from below. Consider, for instance, the authorship of Kalaivanar N.S. Krishnan. His balancing act of combining comedy with a social message remains unparalleled in its success in the history of Indian cinema, as exemplified by his role of the lewd Brahmin priest in Uthamaputhiran (The Noble Son, 1940). Through the portrayal of the prurient priest who keeps chasing a Dalit (washer)woman, N.S. Krishnan, known for writing/improvising the comedy scenes with his fellow-actors, questions the stupidity and hypocrisy surrounding purity/untouchability.
Additionally, through the sequence of appeasing the dead parents/ancestors by offerings (thevesam), N.S. Krishnan and his team point to the exploitation at the hands of a priest, who exploits death/grievance in the name of religion and ritual. Thus, Krishnan’s parallel text of comedy directly invokes Periyar and contemporary ground reality even in a period melodrama like Uthama Puthiran, which was inspired by James Whale’s Hollywood version of Alexandre Dumas’s The Man in the Iron Mask (1939). It would be worth our while to reread the melodrama-inclined Tamil cinema through the lens of caste, just as Linda Williams has astutely and provocatively read The Birth of a Nation (dir. D.W. Griffith, 1915) and Gone with the Wind (dir. Victor Fleming, 1939) as a/effectively playing the “race card.” The specter of caste as it haunts the Tamil psyche cannot be understated. So also, the continuing relevance of melodrama to address issues related to caste and its inhumane oppression, not just in the above-mentioned films of the Dravidian ideologues but also in the contemporary Dalit cinema, spearheaded by Pa. Ranjith.
However, the melodramatic aesthetics of the rhetorically driven Dravidian cinema of the 1950s is unique. It uses the sentimentality and excess of melodrama not only to intensify its plot progression but also in its utilization of an ornate/florid style of language that is littered with alliteration, while marking its disjunction with the archaic usage of Tamil in its distinctly Sanskritized and literary form of an earlier cinema. It also uses the pathos surrounding the abalaippen and the melos/music to engage the audiences both with the narrative and its ideologically imbued lyrics, enabling the dissemination and entrenchment of ideas through repetition/reiteration. More importantly, it marked its protagonist, the voice of rebellion and sub-nationalism, as the antihero. If the hero of Parasakthi (1952) is shocked and dismayed to be engulfed by beggars on his arrival from the war-torn Rangoon to an Independent India, the protagonist of Thirumbippaar (1953) is a plagiarizer and philanderer who in a drunk and disoriented moment would solicit his own elder sister, prefiguring such a climactic moment in Ritwik Ghatak’s immortal Subarnarekha (Streak of Gold, 1965). As the retort of the Dravidian ideologues, Thriumbippaar mocks at Nehru’s response of ‘nonsense” to the secession and autonomy of the Dravidanadu/Dravidian Nation: the hero Parandhaman not only wears the Nehru coat sporting a rose but also keeps responding with a curt “nonsense” repeatedly during significant moments in the film.
The philanderer becomes a cunning scoundrel who abuses and tortures his ingenuous and graceful wife, in Rangoon Radha (1956), which loosely borrows its plot from Gaslight (dir. George Cukor, 1944). The manipulative protagonist in the Tamil version not only holds his wife as a captive to his evil designs of projecting her as delusional to the society at large but also, on the pretext of her insanity, tries to usurp the wealth of her family by forcing her sister-in-law to marry him. The scenes surrounding the warding off of the ghost/spirit from the possessed wife offered the space for the (Dravidian) critique of superstition and blind faith and the disavowal of reason/science. Thus, one could see a (cinephilia-driven) link between the story writer Arignar Anna’s self-confessed predilection for classical Hollywood, particularly his investment in recycling/appropriating the narratives for their melodramatic potential, and the screenplay/dialogue writer Kalaignar Karunanidhi’s penchant for the specificity surrounding the local, in terms of the discourse surrounding bigamy, possession, etc.
The unprecedented approval and acclaim of the Tamil audiences for films like Velaikkari and Parasakthi had an impact that spilled over beyond the circle of the closely-knit Dravidian ideologues of the DMK (Federation for the Progress of Dravidians), as could be seen in films like Andha Naal (That Day, dir. S. Balachander, 1954), produced by the Congress Party enthusiast/supporter A.V. Meiyappan of AVM Studios. Andha Naal, which had the hero of Parasakthi and Thirumbippaar, Sivaji Ganesan playing the dark antihero Rajan further pushed the envelope by marking its protagonist as the antinational Japanese spy, with his locked room and espionage (radio) gadgets for secretive long-distance communication. It is a milestone in Indian cinema in having the hero vehemently challenging the idea of a coherent nation, in the aftermath of the Independence, which, according to him, has led to a dystopia by denying him (equal) opportunity to grow and flourish. His destructive impulse aids the Japanese bombing of Madras, despite his Gandhian wife, who is a Congress party sympathizer, trying in vain to stop his falling into the dark abyss. Unlike in Parasakthi, the intransigent antihero, who is eventually shot dead by his wife, disallows his cooptation into society till the very end. On the other end of the spectrum, the Tamil cultural unconscious’s misogynist strand reaches its fruition with Annayin Aanai (Mother’s Command, dir. Chitrapu Narayanamurthy; dialogues, Murasoli Maaran, 1958). Sivaji Ganesan’s dark persona as an antihero is further pushed to the limit in an oedipal drama wherein to honor his (dying) mother’s command regarding avenging his father’s murder by a cruel business partner, he marries the daughter of the murderer and holds him captive right in his basement, thus torturing his wife and her avaricious father and seeking revenge.
Any discussion of melodrama in Tamil cinema would be incomplete without the mention of director K.S. Gopalakrishnan and his canonical films like Karpagam (1963) and Kaikodutha Deivam (The Benevolent Savior, 1964). K.R. Vijaya, one of the rare actresses to have consistently acted in significant roles over five decades in the male-centric Tamil cinema, not only made her debut in Karpagam under Gopalakrishnan’s stewardship but also had him as the director for her 100th film, Nathayil Muthu (Pearl in the Snail, 1973). They had collaborated on Kurathi Magan (Kurathi’s Son) the year before. Both these films are significant for naming the (oppressed) caste of the main characters: if the nomadic Narikurava community occupies the center stage in Kurathi Magan, the heroine Chellamani is from the Dalit community and is married to a Brahmin in Nathayil Muthu. Tamil cinema has been notorious for erasing the caste of its characters, particularly if they are Dalits or belonging to other communities on the fringes. Although occasionally condescending in tone, Kurathi Magan and Nathayil Muthu openly acknowledge the Gandhian ideals of its maker, for instance, overtly through the song Ragupathi Raghava Raja Ram during the climax of Nathayil Muthu. Nevertheless, the one sung by the “Harijans,” Nillappa Konjam Nillappa, points to the affirmative action policies of the state from 1967 onwards, and the need to avail and grow.
Earlier, the lyricist Vaali also wrote a song, Nanga Pudhusa Kattikitta, where the protagonists, as the newly wedded couple, imagine themselves to be the free-spirited Narikuravas and dance with abandon. The song references their Seerthirutha Kalyanam/reformist marriage, which eschews the traditional (Vedic) rituals and pomp, as advocated by Periyar. Oli Vilakku (The Shining Lamp, dir. Tapi Chanakya) just a year after the DMK came to power in 1967. Vaali’s lyrics allude to Dravidian ideologues’ glorious legacy as poet/lyricists, including the preeminent Bharathidasan, who penned the inaugural song Vazhga Vazhgave in Parasakthi that was a paean to Periyar’s envisioning of the Dravidanadu. Even Tamil cinema’s most famous lyricist Kannadasan, who had a tempestuous relationship with the DMK, celebrated the unconquerable Dravidanadu in his critically acclaimed anti-colonial period drama, Sivagangai Seemai (The Sivagangai Province, 1959): … Veerargal Vaazhum Dravdanattai Vendravargal Kidaiyathu/Dravidanadu, the land of the brave, is unconquerable.
To conclude, I would like to acknowledge my own cinephilia and investment in the 1950s and 1960s Tamil cinema, which has helped sketch one of the many possible trajectories of Periyar’s legacy in Tamil cinema and summarize my presentations on the studio era Tamil cinema in many conferences over the last decade. The other major trajectory I am invested in is the ideologically permeated imbrication between the politically driven theater and cinema, particularly in the works of the preeminent Periyarist M.R. Radha. Many of his roles on stage and cinema continues to haunt the Tamil psyche, even after four decades of his passing away, as could be seen in every young actor/villain trying to mimic him to varying degrees at key moments. His provocative and controversial star text also adds to his enigma as an iconoclastic rebel. Raththakkanneer (Bloody Tears, 1954, dir. Krishnan-Panju) could be argued, despite its misunderstanding and misinterpretation of a debilitating disease, as a profound meditation on oppression and abjection. Based on Radha’s most successful play, written by the Dravidian ideologue Thiruvarur Thangarasu, the film continues to be successful in questioning the status quo and its scathing critique, in the Periyarist mode, of the passivity of the Tamil populace and its indiscriminate acceptance of tradition.
(I am grateful to my friends Prof. Ram Mahalingam for his response, and filmmaker Amshan Kumar, and writer/critic Yamuna Rajendran, Prof. Ma. Senthilkumar, and editor Nizhal Arasu for sharing some of their insights.)
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Swarnavel Eswaran is a graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India, the premier film school in Asia, and the prestigious film studies program at the University of Iowa. His documentaries include Nagapattinam: Waves from the Deep (2018), Hmong Memories at the Crossroad (2016), Migrations of Islam (2014), and Unfinished Journey: A City in Transition (2012). He is currently an associate professor in the Department of English and the School of Journalism at Michigan State University, and his research focuses on the history, theory, and production of documentaries, and the specificity of Tamil cinema, and its complex relationship with Hollywood as well as popular Hindi films. His books include Manudamaum Mandiyiduthalum (Parisal, 2019), an anthology of essays on cinema and Madras Studios: Narrative, Genre, and Ideology in Tamil Cinema (Sage Publications, 2015). His fiction feature Kattumaram (Catamaran, 2019), a collaboration with Tamil’s cinema’s leading director Mysskin, is currently on the film festival circuit.