Parasakthi: What You Need to Know About Karunanidhi’s Anti-Establishment Film


Parasakthi: What You Need to Know About Karunanidhi’s Anti-Establishment Film

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Like a lot of Tamilians, the late Muthuvel Karunanidhi was a man of many epithets. The patriarch of the popular Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the first party besides Congress to win fully independent majority in a state election, and five-time chief minister of Tamil Nadu. But perhaps most memorable was the affectionate sobriquet used by his supporters: Kalaignar.

Kalaignar is a Tamil word which translates to “scholar of the arts”, and it’s apt for the man whose roots were deeply set in tradition. A screenwriter, poet, author, orator, he forayed into the field of arts in his early teens and did not give up until the very end. Soon after he joined the DMK, he started a party newspaper called Murasoli, which circulates to this day. Karunanidhi was only 18 at the time.   

It’s impossible to divorce his prolific political career from his status as a scholar of the arts. Today, the term is often associated with “worthless” BA students, or uttered in hushed tones to describe a cousin who is a university professor. You might as easily replace it with “stick-up-the-ass bookworm”. But in Karunanidhi’s time, he brought meaning to the idea of art for the people of Tamil Nadu.

One of his greatest accomplishments was making the classic Tamil ethics text, the Thirukural, more accessible by interpreting it into couplets. And this emphasis on access would come to define his activism – just as his activism would consistently define his art. The Thirukural, for instance, is also known as the Tamil Veda, making it a touchstone for cultural unity.

In 1952, just 10 years after he founded Murasoli, Karunanidhi’s first DMK-inspired film released. Parasakthi (The Goddess), often dubbed as the most important film in his career as a screenwriter, democratised the DMK’s message of Dravidian ideology, bringing it into the space of a cinema hall, in a medium that didn’t discriminate against those who were illiterate or of any caste other than Brahmin.

But Parasakthi was more than a propaganda film – it revolves around a divided Tamil family left broken and destitute by the events of World War II. They ultimately come together in a courtroom, where the titular Parasakthi is forced to be judged by her brothers, who finally acknowledge what an unjust society has done to them all. In an industry that relied on family-friendly mythological tales and songs, Parasakthi was a smash hit and a triumph of anti-establishment art, making a scathing and deliberate critique of a sexist, casteist society.

How would such a film fare today, and would a modern Kalaignar be able to write it at all?

Karunanidhi became a political activist as a teenager, carrying the cause of an independent Dravida Nadu that would be free from the shackles of Brahmin supremacy – and of the Republic. If a modern Kalaignar were going to college, he would already be considered a Person of Interest, right up there with Kanhaiya Kumar.

As for Parasakthi, it would likely have been snipped within an inch of its life by the censor board and the Centre before being shut down altogether by theatre riots. After all, even a song that accidentally offends the BJP must now be rewritten in praise of the party. In its time, the controversial film was in danger of being banned, but ultimately was given a release. With Parasakthi, Karunanidhi originated the decades-long tradition that continues to tie the Tamil film industry with the region’s government, paving the way for cinema icons like Jayalalithaa and MGR to become state leaders.

But can you imagine the crowd-pleasing Rajinikanth asking, as Karunanidhi once did about Ram Setu: Who is this Raman (as Lord Ram is referred to in Tamil)?

More recently, Rajinikanth has made the leap from silver screen to ballot box, and his politically-charged Kaala was modelled along the lines of Karunanidhi’s Parasakthi. With a populist narrative and an emphasis on the issue of caste, Kaala served as an announcement of Rajinikanth’s policies just as the 1952 film did for Kalaignar. But can you imagine the crowd-pleasing Rajinikanth asking, as Karunanidhi once did about Ram Setu: Who is this Raman (as Lord Ram is referred to in Tamil)? In which engineering college did he study and become a civil engineer? When did he build this so-called bridge? Is there any evidence for this? Rajini is more at home siding with governments that resort to violence to quell protests.  

Karunanidhi’s passing shows us why the Kalaignar, far from being a loafer or a head-in-the-clouds dreamer, is necessary and valuable. Who else will hold a mirror up to society, however harsh the reflection looks? Who else will bring lofty words and ideals to the level of the people they serve?

I wonder how the Kalaignars of the future will make themselves heard through the fog of indifference toward censorship and the roar of resistance against uncomfortable ideas. With Karunanidhi gone, many more will be needed to lift this weighty mantle.