When elections were around the corner, a giant hoarding of Kalaignar Karunanidhi would greet the residents of Aminjikarai in Chennai. The street that led to Thiru Vi Ka Park would be lined with kolamavu. Red and black flags would dot the street. Above them, ardent party workers would try to hang photos of the rising sun. Bang in the middle of the road, a wooden stage would be built. Traffic would come to a standstill.
But nobody ever said anything. It was just the way things were.
Party workers would surround our home. They would sit on the pavement, interacting with the locals and sharing stories of the last big meeting they attended.
Often, the remnants of these meetings would live on for a few weeks. Streaks of kolamavu, battered pieces of the DMK flag.
That portrait of Karunanidhi would never be taken down. He would remain there through rains and sunshine, till the next meeting came by. Soon enough, he would become a landmark.
“Auto anna, pick me up from Karunanidhi banner,” was used quite often.
Kanimozhi introduced the concept of the Sangamam during Pongal, it was a fun way for the community to get together. For five days or so, we would all gather in the Thiru Vi Ka Park for an evening of cultural shows and traditional food. We would brain freeze ourselves with the Madurai Jigarthanda. And also buy enough kai murukku to last a couple of days.
And amidst all this, a watercolour portrait of Karunanidhi would beam down upon us like a kind old man who just happened to have a plethora of yellow shawls.
Whatever his politics maybe, the idea of Karunanidhi and the imagery around his life, was entrenched in my life. I grew up with tales of his machinations, praise of his ability to tie tongue twisters together to create lovely prose and poetry.
I was also of the generation that watched Iruvar, a film that is not based on ‘real people’, as the opening sequence so emphatically says.
I wondered if Karunanidhi brimmed with the same impatience that Prakash Raj’s Tamil Selvan did. Like a man who was destined to be great but first had to suck up to lesser mortals.
Nobody knows for sure.
To celebrate Karunanidhi is to acknowledge his immense contribution to Tamil Cinema. He wielded words like a weapon, striking down bias and superstitious beliefs with his prose. He realised the influence of the film medium and used it to propogate the ideologies of the Dravidian movement.
His work was often sharply critical of Brahminism and made a case for the abolition of caste based discrimination. As a result, many of the plays and films he wrote in his early years were heavily censored.
But the intrepid Karunanidhi found a way around this as well. In Panam, he makes heavy references to the DMK in dialogue as well as in song. Manthiri Kumari featuring MG Ramachandran and Thangarathnam espoused ideals of the Dravidian movement and their success gave the people a new social awareness.
Till then, films were purely intended as an escape from reality. Directors used Hindu mythology and local folklore to craft stories about kidnapped princesses and valiant heroes. CN Annadurai and Karunanidhi realised the potential for some subversive messaging through these tropes.
In time, politics summoned and Karunanidhi rose to the top. Even here, his wordplay endeared him to the people, some of whom would show up to hear him speak in flawless Tamil. In that way, Karunanidhi did much to make sure that the Tamil language was accorded a place of dignity and respect.
Karunanidhi continued to indulge his passion for writing till the end. He helped script a television series of Ramanujar and even wrote a few films including Ponnar Shankar, Penn Singam and Uliyin Osai. None of his later films earned the success that his first few did.
Tomorrow, the DMK will inaugurate an eight feet tall statue of Kalaignar Karunanidhi at the Anna Arivalayam. Crowds of supporters are expected at the scene as the new supremo Stalin helps unveil the statue. One wonders if the same kindly face that adorned all those posters and banners will make it to the statue as well.
Will he be stern? The protector of the Tamil language with the Thirukkural on one hand and a pen on the other?
Will he simply wave to the audience? A towering figure standing upright, erasing all those memories of his last few years in a motorised wheel chair?
Nobody knows for sure.
But if Karunanidhi were here, he’d damn well write about it. That much is for sure.