Where do I begin? Do I begin at the where?
Do I begin at the “Vaer (வேர்)”?
You know what I mean.
There was an audio cassette at home in the early 80s. It was titled “Crazy Thieves in Palavakkam”. And the only thing I remember from the audio recording of that stage play was the lead actor S.Ve.Shekher. It took a few years for me to learn more about the person behind the story of that stage play.
Rangachari Mohan, who went onto become “Crazy” Mohan.
Even though S. Ve. Shekher introduced me to Mr. Crazy Mohan, I moved onto Mr. Mohan for my Tamil humor soon after.
Many seeds of my humor were sown by Crazy Mohan. Even before I learned that there are specific terms called “wordplay” and “pun” for the kind of humor that came naturally to him, I was digging his humor, both knowingly and unknowingly. Crazy Mohan was original, authentic, and there was something childishly naughty about his humor, like he was always exploring. His humor was sometimes silly and sometimes profound. But always exploring. That made his humor work instantly as well as in a repetitive manner.
It was 1989, when Apoorva Sagodharargal was about to be released and I may have gone out for a game of cricket with my local friends. On our way back home, we walked past the theater where the movie was going to be screened in the next few days. A friend in our group, stopped us in front of a ‘wall poster’ of the movie and started talking about the crew behind this movie. Not actors or actresses. But the crew. He said how much he, an ardent Kamal Haasan fan was looking forward to his screenplay in this movie, how great a director Singeetam Srinvasa Rao was and why it was a big deal that he was part of the project. Then, he went onto talk about “Crazy” Mohan, and how this could be an interesting combination as he was new to the film industry (he had worked briefly on a K Balachander movie before that — “Poikkaal Kudhirai”). I certainly was familiar with Mohan through his plays, but had no idea what to expect from him through this movie. Somehow, this friend eloquently waxing about the crew of Apoorva Sagodharargal that day made a huge and a lasting impact on me.
So, right from that first big “Kamal Haasan – Crazy Mohan” combination, I was drawn to his style of writing, his genius wordplays, and his amazing chemistry with Kamal.
I do not intend to go on and on to talk about all the rib-tickling one-liners, and the mad rides he took us through in each film he did with Kamal Haasan in this post, but as I process the tragic news of his passing away today, I can’t but think of how much I owe him for all my laughter.
The only way one can pay tribute to the legend of a comedy genius like Crazy Mohan is by celebrating the abundance of humor that he has gifted us with.
So, I decided to start the day with the “Munnadi-Pinnadi” scene from Panchathanthiram and I probably will end the day with the “Mean/Fish (மீன்)” comedy from MMKR.
I mean..Is there a better way?
There has been no one who effortlessly made me laugh harder and louder through movies like Mr. Crazy Mohan did and for that I will always be grateful.
So long, and thanks for all the fish, Mr. ‘Crazy’ Mohan!!
A bumpy road to Freedom - From Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone
It’s all but a forgotten chapter in the North American history.
It’s yet another story of colonial manipulation.
It’s also a story of a few thousand black slaves, who had a chance for freedom, and an opportunity to exact revenge on their merciless masters.
But mostly, it’s a sad story of broken promises, the amount of sufferings one would voluntarily endure in order to find a better life, and the resulting racial discord that would resonate across 3 continents in various forms.
Have you heard of the Black Loyalists?
They were those black slaves who were promised freedom and free land, if they signed up to join the British army to fight against the American rebels during the revolutionary war. Not because of compassion but because the British needed manpower. But after the British lost the war and were forced to leave the American colonies, these loyalists got neither freedom nor land. They had to fight for it and go to extreme lengths to get freedom and the promised land eventually.
Here is what happened:
(If the above images are hard to read, please follow the timeline using the presentation mode available in this link.)
That’s how some of these loyalists ended up in Nova Scotia, while some in England and the rest in Sierra Leone.
Many American historians have tried to erase, rewrite, or revise their history. The myth of the black loyalists has to be burst open and their history needs to be understood for they certainly were not ‘fugitive slaves’ as claimed by Thomas Jefferson.
Today is the last day of Black History month in 2019.
A good day to reflect upon how far the country has come in terms of racial prejudices & injustices and also think about how little some things have changed.
Let me start with the music. Long before I knew anything about the movie or who the director was, or even who the lead actors were, I came across the first single of Gully Boy.
Asli Hip Hop.
And I listened to it on a steaming platform, which meant I didn’t have any video reference the first time around. I was instantly drawn to the energy of the song. I’ll admit, I am not the most proficient Hindi speaker and in general, unlike many music listeners, when I listen to the song for the first few times, I don’t instantly process the lyrics, even in languages that I am most comfortable with (English and Tamil). So, languages of songs have rarely been barriers for me in appreciating the music or the vibe that specific songs aim for.
Asli Hip Hop did something to me.
As soon as I had access to a computer, I searched for the YouTube version of the song and within a few minutes I learned as much as I could about the movie and knew right then that Gully Boy was going to be the first Hindi movie in 2019 that I was going to look forward to. Soon, Apna Time Aayega was released and I fell in love with the whole album even without listening to the rest of the songs.
Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy aims to deliver an underdog success story that would resonate with every moviegoer, irrespective of their natural liking for “rap music” or not. And therein lies those layers of deft decisions that Zoya had to make to keep the movie away from being like Eight Mile and steer to it being more like (albeit rather ambitiously), Million Dollar Baby or Rocky. As a filmmaker, if you could pull that off, given the premise of your story is “Hindi Rap or Hindi Hip-Hop counterculture”, a world not many people know much about, I mean, that’s not just a success, but a phenomenal one.
Listen to Gully Boy music here:
Take this scene as an example. A bridge on top of a “nala” (sewer) is one of the regular secret meeting points of Murad (Ranveer Singh) and Safeena (Alia Bhatt), and yet, you don’t see (or smell) the sewer or the ambiance around in a single scene. There is even an aerial shot of the bridge where you could clearly see the garbage floating around on both sides of the bridge, and you somehow are not taken through a sullen ride of sympathetic thoughts about the slum or its dwellers. Zoya and her cameraman (Jay Oza) had deliberately made an attempt not to dwell into the hardships of a slum life as primary reference points in a single scene, but instead focus on the characters and their stories. That is alright for you, as long as you are following the story arc while inside the theater, but as you walk out, you wonder why the whole rap counterculture, a world most of us don’t know much about, was not explored further. In other words, what makes these rappers write songs to express themselves in a particular manner? Where and how did they draw their inspiration from? Perhaps, that’s the story arc that would have taken the movie along the path of Eight Mile. As satisfied as I was with the movie as a whole, I felt a little inadequate walking out and would have wanted Zoya to explore that path a bit more, while still keeping her “sports movie” template. To offset, a part of the Sky episode could have been nicked.
Vijay Maurya (Murad’s uncle – also the movie’s dialogue writer), Vijay Raaz (Murad’s Father), and Vijay Varma (Moeen, Murad’s friend and his occasional savior) are the three Vijays who pretty much provide the most needed push (in a benevolent or in a malevolent manner) in Murad’s life when he needed them the most. Talking about the dialogues, even though I am not the best judge of “Mumbaiya”, the dialogues were so well penned that they brought out certain fresh dimensions to some scenes.
Murad doesn’t talk much. He writes and when he discovers he could perform after meeting his mentor of sorts, MC Sher (played brilliantly by Siddhant Chaturvedi), he raps or performs and continues to talk less. A tamed Ranveer excels in his role and it was simply amazing to watch him go through his road to his eventual success at a Rap Battle which would change his fortune for the better. Ranveer was Murad for the duration of the movie.
Is there a better female actor in Bollywood today than Alia Bhatt? My admiration for her started after watching Highway and it has only continued to grow since then. In this movie, Safeena is defined by that spunk, that firecracker attitude, and that boldness & possessiveness, all of which Alia absorbed and breathed out effortlessly. The first scene where Ranveer’s and Alia’s characters meet (how beautifully staged was that scene) presents you the entire character graph of Safeena, while Murad’s character continues to evolve throughout the movie.
Clocking at a little over 2 hours and 30 minutes (which didn’t bother me much, although I would repeat why I felt a good 5-10 minutes of the Sky episode could have been sacrificed), Gully Boy doesn’t pretend to be anything else.
It’s a story about dreaming big. It’s a story that questions the societal disparity but offers hope to the underdog who wants to give up fighting that disparity.
Unlike Eminem in Eight Mile, who even after that epic rap battle victory still walks away all broke and only with a smirk on his face and a jolt of confidence, Murad walks back to the slum as a local celebrity, 10 Lakh Rupees richer, and even gives away some cash to his grandma who once insulted him.
The fine line between an underdog success story that wants you to leave with a hope for tomorrow and an underdog success story that wants you to leave with the satisfaction of you achieving a dream today. That’s the fine line between what I expected and what I experienced.
Go. Root for this Gully Boy!
PS: Shoutout to the original Gully Boys – Naezy and DIVINE.
"Hello, Good Morning!
This is Ganpy.
It's 5:04 AM on Feb 2, 2019. It's a Saturday.
A big day for the Groundhog supremacists. The temperature outside is 4 deg F with a windchill of -1 deg F. It feels like spring already.
Meantime, the lab is ready and I think I am all set for my experiment. I am very excited about this. I hope I have all that I need with me. Will do one more scan of the lab with the checklist. At this point, am just waiting for the subject to arrive before I start the preparation."
"Hello. It's me again.
The subject has just arrived. Will complete pre-experiment preparatory steps soon. Shouldn't take that long.."
"I am sure you heard all that noise.
Morning hugs and licks exchanged. And I can confirm now that the subject is ready because she is in the most ideal position for the experiment.
Also..for the record, I didn't have to give any treats to the subject as part of this preparatory phase."
"Hello, We are ready to begin the experiment. Really anxious and am super excited."
The objective of today's experiment is to test Tayga's endurance level to belly rubs.
I will be studying the relationship between the applied pressure of my hands and Tayga's excitement level and will be measuring the variations of all these parameters over a period of time in order to find that exact threshold time period at which Tayga says 'Enough!! I am done with your belly rubs..'.
Because under normal conditions, these belly rubs last only 2-3 minutes and I don't get to see any change in her excitement level, there is no data available to determine at what point of time Tayga pushes my hands away and says enough.
I will be recording my observations over a period of time and the method I am going to use to measure her excitement level is simply visual and emotional.
Ok, here we go.."
"Hello! I am happy to report that the experiment is proceeding well. The subject has settled into a comfortable position and hasn't moved much in the past 20 minutes or so. Her eyes are partially closed. Like she is dreaming. There may even be a smile.."
A quick update.
Nothing much has changed since my last update. If this continues for another 30 minutes or so, I will have to switch hands. Also, in case this makes you happy, Phil didn't see his shadow and that according to Phil means spring is really coming soon.."
More than 2 hours since we started the experiment.
I had to get some water as I started feeling thirsty, which was something I didn't account for. But I had help and could get my drink without any interruptions to my experiment.
The subject is still holding steady and absolutely no variations. If any, there is more drool now.."
"Hello, this is me again.
I am at a point where I have to make a crucial change in the experiment.
I would like to make it on record that the objective of my experiment has been altered.
The objective as it stands now is to find that specific threshold time period, when Tayga opens her eyes, lifts her head, and rolls from one side to the other.
Also, I have asked my lab assistant to massage one arm while the other one is being used to conduct the experiment."
"I hate to admit. And I had not planned for this scenario.
My arms are beginning to hurt, in spite of all the help, I am getting through acupuncture and pressure point massages.
The objective has been slightly modified again.
As long as the subject opens her eyes, and even for a fleeting second gives me a wink that I understand as she telling me that she is done, I will take the measurements and stop the experiment.."
"My assist..err..hrr..re feeding me lunch.
Tayga still in same pos..I think I am getting dehydra..or cramp..it..hurts..ok..later.."
"I am abandoning the experiment.
This experiment has been abandoned.."
“It was truly a perfect match”, said Novak Djokovic as he described his seventh Australian Open win.
What a comeback and what a transformation in his game.
If Novak is going to keep competing at this level for the rest of the season, he can truly have many more perfect matches and by the power given by the tennis gods, he could very well win all four grans slams in a single calendar year, thereby making him win four consecutive grand slam titles twice in his career.
Given his unceremonious exit from Melbourne last year’s Australian Open after an elbow injury which needed surgery, to fancy a comeback like this needed a certain kind of arrogance. Or self-belief, depending on how you differentiate one from the other.
“I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I always believe in myself. I think that’s probably the biggest secret of my success, if I can say, or probably any other athlete, is self-belief, always digging deep in the moments when you’re facing adversity, digging those moments of complimenting yourself, visualizing yourself as a winner, trying to be in a positive state of mind. It’s much easier said than done, obviously.”
When asked about his chances of winning a fourth grand slam title in a row for the second time, he had this to say.
“Not impossible, but highly unlikely.”
Novak Djokovic is clearly on a high and also perhaps running a bit under the radar, given the focus Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer continue to get, even though he has won three grand slam titles in a row now for the third time in his career. As I started typing this, I even forgot momentarily, that he won the 2018 Wimbledon Championship.
True to his reputation, Novak kept his humor in tact, during the press exchange after.
If humor and a bit of arrogance carried Novak all the way to the championship in Melbourne, Naomi Osaka, the women’s champion, took a very contrasting route to the podium in Melbourne.
After the semifinal against Karolina Pliskova (who incidentally is from the same country as Osaka’s opponent in the final, Petra Kvitova) this is what Naomi Osaka said.
“But I felt like for me, there are certain things she’s better than me at, right? I felt like I have to keep pumping myself up. Every time there’s an opportunity, or something doesn’t go my way, I had to keep being very positive.”
And defeating Kvitova in what seemed like an emotional final for her, Osaka, the newly crowned champion, didn’t jump around the court or pump her fists. She walked to the net almost as if she was the one who lost the match, and offered her congratulations to Petra.
And then she said this during the trophy ceremony.
“I’m really honored to have played you in the final of a Grand Slam.”
Now, anyone who has followed Naomi from the US Open 2018 would remember what Naomi said during the Australian Open final were not all that different from how she conducted herself and what she said after the controversial ending in the final, where she beat her childhood idol, Serena Williams.
Naomi said this, wiping her tears off, in a very obviously apologetic tone.
“I know everyone was cheering for her, and I am sorry it had to end like this.”
I would like to know if you can point me at any tennis player who has/had conducted herself or himself in this manner. Tennis is a single player sport and not a team sport, one in which a certain amount of arrogance has always been accepted and expected.
But Naomi rightly or wrongly, inspires a dangerous amount of hope.
She is 21, young, charming, smart, funny, kind (she was thanking the ball kids and spectators who had to bear the heat during the tournament), interesting, and most importantly humble.
I say “dangerous” because we may never see another champion like Naomi, someone at 21, winning back to back grand slams, and becoming a likable star in a sort of unifying way, by sprinkling hopes for humanity, as the tennis world rejoices her humble persona. And it would be devastating to lose all that hope when another champion exuding the kind of humility that Naomi exudes never emerges.
For now though, dangerous or not, I will join the many tennis fans from all around the world in keeping my faith in the future of tennis and my faith in the future of tennis humanity.
What if the battle isn’t always between good and evil?
What happens when evil permeates into good and what’s left is only shades of evil?
In a movie based on an abrasive story about a family horrifically transformed after the death of its patriarch who is a wealthy gangster, the writers (Mani Ratnam and Siva Ananth) and the director (Mani Ratnam) adequately prepare you for the gory twists and turns the movie is going to take, after a shocking opening scene where there is a failed assassination attempt on the patriarch and his wife.
Chekka Chivantha Vaanam is a new kind of Mani Ratnam film. The ‘Mani-isms’ we are used to seeing perhaps have gotten a reboot. Mani’s treatment of songs has entered a completely new and a complex territory. There is less of poetry in any given scene, as the scenes are not dwelling on moments, instead they define phases of stories and hence Mani couldn’t afford to spend time on waxing poetry. There are many details, at first, seem untold. When I watched the movie the second time, I realized that they were not left untold, but were meant to be left intentionally open for audience’s interpretation, as the director wants to move the story forward in the quickest way possible. So, do these all make CCV a film that is very “Un-Mani-Ratnam”? The answer is yes, if you like to box creativity. The answer is no, if you believe in an artist’s creativity manifesting into different forms or in it simply evolving.
Arvind Swamy, Arun Vijay, and STR are three brothers. They play these characters that are your manly men, riding high on Testosterone with a capital “T”. They have strong women in their respective lives – Jyohika, Aishwarya, and Dayana. When their father, Prakash Raj and mother, Jayasudha, escape an assassination attempt on their lives, the brothers, two of them living outside the country, are forced to get together in Chennai. As they help comfort their parents, an opportunity to reassess their priorities arise, and along with it a suspicion on who could have tried killing their father creeps in. The stage is set for a power struggle, if and when a vacuum gets created after the father dies.
We are also introduced to an outsider, Vijay Sethupathi, a cop, serving suspension of his duties. He is a childhood friend of Arvind Swamy and is fully aware of the family’s criminal dealings, and is ok to share a plate of ‘upma’ or a cup of tea with them, without any guilt. The script sort of skates over these characters and their backgrounds unwaveringly, and yet, we don’t feel lost or disconnected. So, it’s left to the actors, then, to keep us close to the movie, and none of them shirks away from that task of injecting the needed intellect and emotion to the characters. AR Rahman’s powerful background score defines the underlying mood of the film, frame by farme.
I was quite unsure of my reaction to the movie the first time around because I was unsure if I had missed any character layering, given that the story is straightforward, barring the somewhat predictable plot twists. When I watched it the second time, I was able to appreciate the nuances of the characters much better. I could understand why Mani and Siva may have made some choices in their character portrayal. Given the nature of the “plot forwards”, and because of the deliberate attempt to downplay and not dramatize the bonding between the characters, there is very little emotionally, for the audience to latch onto, which works in the movie’s favor when it comes to the final act.
The final act of the movie is almost like a “purge”. A bloodbath of vengeance, shot aesthetically in a visually arresting landscape (Gandhikota Canyon in Kadappa district, Andhra Pradesh), set to hues of red, all over. From the phosphorus rich red soil to the bullfinch sky showcasing a sunset, from blood oozing out of dead bodies to the redness arising from anger, the director of cinematography Santhosh Sivan and Mani Ratnam, make sure that there is poetic justice meted out to the title of the movie. With AR Rahman’s guitar riff screaming to some powerful lyrics of Vairamuthu, one ends up walking out of the theater rooting for the right character…albeit as an afterthought. What if the battle isn’t always between good and evil?
What happens when evil permeates into good and what’s left is only shades of evil?
தப்பு தப்பா தப்புங்க செஞ்சு தப்பு அறிஞ்சும் தப்புங்க செஞ்சு செவந்து போச்சு நெஞ்சு [Conscious but repeated violent deeds Eventually result in bloodied souls]
John McCain and his move on tracks of ending lights
I have been an avid follower of American politics for 20 odd years now.
And John McCain has..I guess I should say “had”..had been in the list of Top 20 American politicians, who had consistenly and continually been a dominant figure in the past 20 odd years.
As I start writing about McCain and how his presence in politics affected me over the years, I realize that..
I am sad that we have lost John McCain, the father, the family man, and a decent human being.
I am sad that John McCain has lost his battle to cancer, a dreadful disease.
I am sad that we have lost John McCain, one of the last few politicians of a tribe, which believes in respectful statesmanship across the political aisle in Washington D.C., where partisan politics seems to be the norm these days.
And yes, I am sad that we have lost perhaps the last GOP senator, who at least had the courage to “tell” Donald Trump that he wasn’t afraid of standing up to his bullying.
John McCain has been hailed as a “war hero” by pretty much every one in the country.
Ok. One notable exception. But Donald Trump not calling McCain a war hero is for a totally different reason and a nonsensically petty personal one too.
Wars and Heroes.
I am not too naive to ignore the central role war plays in the American conscience. But I will never be able to understand the collective American sentiment around war in 2018, in spite of knowing fully well and being able to completely appreciate and be humbled by American history, which shows that America as we know it now, came into being through war.
War occupies a unique place in the American society. Unique place because it is celebrated with so much national pride, all the while, people acknowledging the tragedy, hellishness and evil that come with war. Unlike most other countries, Americans love war as an essential evil. This generally explains the mass sentimental reactions of Americans from all sides of the political spectrum, when we lose a “war hero”, and the way such news generates a similar chemical reaction inside most of us whose emotions get influenced by those of people around us, at tragic times like these.
As streams of encomia extolling John McCain and his virtues as a “war hero”, as an “America hero”, etc. surround as, as political leaders from across the spectrum and from other countries send their eulogies lavishly praising McCain for his independence, courage, and patriotism, John McCain’s family must prepare for the senator’s last journey. One we are told will have eulogies from Barack Obama and George W. Bush, two of his Presidental campaign opponents, who went onto beat him eventually in the general elections and primaries, respectively.
A “War Hero”. A “American Hero”. A “True American Patriot”.
What exactly makes one earn any of the above titles? I do not want to indulge my urge to analyze the above in this post, but instead I would just leave this as a thought, if you are ready to freeze your war fetish for a moment or two.
How can one be a war hero when one gets to kill thousands and thousands of innocent civilians??
And what makes anyone else less of an “American Patriot” or less of an “American Hero”??
Difficult questions to answer. Aren’t they? Especially if you have to take a neutral position, not yield to the temptatin of using our own coinage of this euphemisim called “collateral damage”, and then try to justify the above labels??
McCain’s experiences as a POW, no doubt bring chills to me, when I read about them. The torture, the pain, and his refusal for an early release — they all highlight the brave man he was. And more importantly, it also highlights how intellectually sharp he was even under distress.
Since the day he entered politics, McCain seemed to have found the right balance between statesmanship, words, and knowing how to deal with the press. He positioned himself as a “noble outsider” and that worked for him. He had the right sound-bites for the right moment with very little deeds to follow up. Not many politicians could have claimed to have been in McCain’s position for over three decades, get away with the kind of gaffes & issues like he did, and still be loved by majority of the media, public & majority of politicians from both the parties. Was it all simply because of his “war hero” and POW status? No doubt, he was always the courageous war hero who put his country above politics. But there was something more to him that gave him the unique position as a politician, of not being overly scrutinized and not being judged when his actions didn’t mach his words, the kind of stuff that is bestowed upon to only a very few politicians in Washington D.C.
McCain was an intellectually sharp man who had decided that he would serve America one way or the other after his Naval days and chalked out a long term plan. That he could never get to the Oval Office may have been his biggest regret, although he would have never admitted it. But he believed in giving the impression that he was fiercely independent and wasn’t afraid to break with the party, when he had to.
I will always wonder what was so “Mavericky” about McCain when his voting record shows that he voted pretty much along party lines for more than 85% of the time. But then, I am reminded once again of the fact that McCain was good at giving just the right sound-bites. He could get away with things even if his actions didn’t measure up to his words.
For example, even though he had said things about campaign finance reforms repeatedly & why he was all for it, thus earning many likes form the left, his voting records hardly show any proof of if he meant all of or if any of what he said. He was, at one point of time, in favor of turning Roe v. Wade, but eventually moved onto a more unconvincing middle ground, where he took an evasive “leave it to the states” position. This list goes on.
Here is a FiveThirtyEight chart of his voting record.
Yes, he is marginally better than those who voted 100% of the time along party lines.
But “Mavericky” enough? You be the judge.
There were two policy areas where he took firm positions, consistenly in the past two decades or so, for which I do have a lot of respect for McCain.
Torture and Climate Change.
That doesn’t make him ‘mavericky’ for me.
In these turbulent political times, one could argue that a man of his stature could have helped keep some check on the danegrous buffoonery coming out of the White House. But with very little support from anyone else in his party, even if he were to have become a real maverick and live upto his nick name, I don’t think he could have achieved much.
I think he knew that. He knew that sometime in 2017, when he learned of his terminal illness. So, instead of fighting a long battle against the far rightisms of his party, he chose to make a lasting impression on most of us through that famous last minute “thumbs down” vote to preserve the repeal of “Obamacare” in July 2017. A political genius of sorts by a man who knew how to use that one vote to define his legacy. A true politician!! (Some history: He had voted NO when the original Affordbale Care Act came to the senate in 2009 along with his party and between 2009 and 2011, he continued to vote in favor of repealing the act and partial amendments to the act to strip some protective regulations associated with the act.)
As the world mourns the death of a man who beleieved in independence, political camaraderie, decent statesmanship, and that rare quality of not shying away from truth, I cannot but stop thinking how such a man who was so vehemently opposed to torture, was ironically such a loud proponent of sending American troops in harm’s away, at every single opportunity he got??
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main….
…..any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
I was driving to Chicago (from Michigan) this past Saturday evening, when I learned of John McCain’s passing. The NYT Breaking News notification on my phone alerted me.
The dystopian song that was playing in my car at that very moment was “The Dead Flag Blues” by Goodspeed You! Black Emperor.
Three “K”s defined my childhood. To be specific, I used to famously refer to them as my three favorite “க”s. Given Tamil’s unique ability (or handicap) to handle multiple sounds from the Ka (Ka, Kha, Ga, Gha) family, through a single letter, it’s a coincidence that my three favorite “க”s were also three favorite “K”s.
Out of the above three, my liking for both Kamal Haasan and Kapil Dev came truly out of my following their work in their fields. Not surprising given that Cricket and Movies were very much an integral part of my childhood. But as for my liking for Karunanidhi ….I guess it was largely circumstantial. Technically, he was the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu when I was born, but that didn’t really mean much. By the time, I was old enough to know who he was, and when I really got introduced to him, a phenomenon called MGR had already arrived in the Tamil Nadu political scene and the force of that phenomenon was indomitable. So much so that by the time, Karunanidhi became the CM of Tamil Nadu again, it was literally after MGR’s death. So Karunanidhi was actually the fierce opposition leader during these formative years of mine, when I developed a liking for him. Looking back, I do not know why this man appealed to my boyhood political interests. But he did. And growing up in a small town in Tamil Nadu in the 1970s meant, you had only three political choices – MGR or Karunanidhi or None (no interest in politics).
My father had a huge collection of tapes with Karunanidhi’s speeches. These were mostly speeches from his political rallies. But boy..how much I loved listening to his speeches even as a young boy. A young boy whose knowledge of politics didn’t extend beyond being able to identify party names, symbols, and their flag colors. Looking back, I could recall how his speeches acted as the background score for my many cricket evenings or many indoor game days, that I used to play with my brother, as my father was completely absorbed by perhaps the last best orators to have come out of the Tamil Nadu political scene. If you do not understand Tamil and if you haven’t followed at least a couple of Karunanidhi speeches, you have no idea what you are missing. I cannot in any honesty equate his oratorial skills and his wit, elan, and mastery of the language, with any other politician from any part of the world.
Muthuvel Karunandhi aka M.K. Karunanidhi, better known as Kalaignar Karunanidhi was not just an orator par excellence. He was a literary stalwart. A playwright. A movie screenwriter. A true lover of the language, who pushed for Tamil Renaissance. He started as a journalist/editor at the age of 16, publishing his own handwritten magazine. One of the first essays he wrote at the age of 17, that made the Tamil literary world look at him was on “Widow Remarriage”, a true rebel of a thought in those days, leave alone what it meant for a 17 year old to pen a very well coherent argument in favor of letting a widowed woman lead a free life, by quashing centuries old traditions and superstitions.
He concluded thus in that essay.
“ஆகவே,செந்தமிழ்ச்செல்வா! மங்கையர்தான் நம் நாட்டின் பொக்கிஷம் என்பதை மறவேதே! அவர்கள் வாழ்வைக் கெடுக்காதே! மறுமணத்தை மறுத்து அவர்கள் இளமையைப் பலியிடாதே!”.
“My Dear son of the rich Tamil soil, Hence, please note that women are the only treasure of this country. Do not ruin their lives. Do not kill their youthhood by denying them their right to remarry!!”
Now, political opponents of the 21 century, especially those who seemed to have gained all their political knowledge through WhatsApp forwards and twitter, have a very narrow view of Kalaignar Karunanidhi. They know Kalaignar merely as this senile politician who sided with P. Chidambaram and encouraged his daughter to collude with a few prominent names in Delhi to make the most out of the now infamous 2G scam. This post is not about that shady side of Karunanidhi’s legacy and in my opinion, this doesn’t even begin to define Karunanidhi, the leader, the politician, the administrator, and the literary star he was. That shady sub-plot of his long career is a blotch, no doubt, but his contribution to Tamil Nadu is so huge that I would call you an ignorant student of Indian politics, if you insist on talking only about that to define him. Besides, I am writing this blog post only to highlight how his legacy impacted Tamil Nadu and in the process, attempting to outline my own understanding of his legacy.
When Karunanidhi first became the chief minister of TN in 1969, he had a strong Tamil identity platform to step on, well laid out by his mentor C.N. Annadurai. In combination with Anna’s platform and Periyar’s rational movement ideologies, Karunanidhi was able to create his own and unique voice in the TN political scene. A very different one from Kamaraj’s and a much stronger one than Anna’s.
In a long political career that followed, Karunanidhi established himself arguably as the most efficient administrator that Tamil Nadu has ever seen till now. He was efficient because his leadership style involved long deliberations, and not relying on instincts. He was ok to waver on his platform, if people around him felt that something was not the best decision. He was very different from MGR in that MGR ran a populist administration, very successfully. On the other hand, Karunanidhi tried to mix populism with his Dravidian ideologies while drafting his policies, keeping the need for Tamil Nadu to stand independent in his mind. Independent from the barrage of attacks coming from the “Hindi Nationalist” leaders from the center. His Tamil identity took front seat at all times.
Here is Karunanidhi after MGR’s death. Even an eulogy of a political rival sounded like a poetry when he spoke.
J. Jayalaitha, who became his arch nemesis for almost the next three decades or so after the death of MGR, proved to be a bigger challenge for Kalaignar to tackle, than what he may have anticipated in 1987 immediately after MGR’s death. Strangely, many political pundits dismissed Jayalaitha’s political stamina then, because she was sort of viewed as a misfit to the Dravidian movement as conceptualized by the likes of Anna and Karunanidhi. She was a movie star, who rode on her charisma and ego. Her close association with MGR helped her launch her career.
Everyone in Tamil Nadu was surprised to see that in no time, what an ambitious leader she turned out to be. So, Kalaignar was completely unprepared to handle someone like Jaya. He was used to handling someone like MGR, a peer, a respectable colleague, and someone who grew in his era of Dravidian movement. But Jaya didn’t have any of that background. She was a convent educated woman, who grew up in a tight shell with very little exposure to the real world. The battle was on. And these two established a sort of political rivalry for 20 odd years that probably no other Indian state may have seen and/or may ever see.
Till June 2001. When the world got to see how revengeful and vindictive Jayalalitha could be.
The midnight arrest of Karunanidhi, an ex-chief minster, along with two central cabinet ministers, in somewhat of an inhuman way was, notwithstanding the circumstances that led to the charges, completely authoritarian by any democratic standards. This incident definitely redefined the rivalry between KK and JJ. Since then, Jayalaitha continued to win more elections than Karunanidhi as long as she was alive. But purely in terms of the manner in which Karunanidhi continued to keep his political statesmanlike aura around him intact, all the way till he became physically immobile in 2016 or so, it was remarkable that only a handful of world..yes world…political leaders could have even dreamt of having.
Karunanidhi was a master politician. Not only at the local and state level, but most importantly in knowing how to work with the center. Barring once or twice, Karunanidhi always managed to come out as a winner in his negotiations with the ruling party in the center. This, in spite of his staunch anti-Hindi stance was something to be admired. Even though Jayalalitha showed how she could get her way with the center using more aggressive tactics, she didn’t earn the same kind of diplomatic respect that Karunanidhi earned over a period of time. Contrary to what people may believe, Karunanidhi was one of the least vindictive leaders I have seen in Tamil Nadu politics. I am not saying this with any bias. This was simply the case. Some people may call his non-vindictive style, political opportunism, but I think he understood the value of keeping his political enemies close enough so that he could make them his friends when the time came, which it often did.
As many superfluous and heartfelt tributes flood the pages of print, pixels of TV & internet, and every footstep & decibel of stage, his critics, of whom there is no dearth, will hurl insults on his lifestyle that openly included living with two wives, one of whom, he sometimes referred to as the “mother of my daughter”. The truth though, is that not many could have had the courage and the openness with which he embraced living with two families, leave alone breaking the societal taboo associated with it all.
With a potential leadership battle awaiting to disrupt the stability of the party, Karunanidhi’s legacy alone may not be enough to anchor the political future of DMK.
Five decades of party leadership is a unique feat that no other political leader in India could claim to have achieved.
All roads end somewhere. And this is where Karunanidhi’s ends.
When the sun rises tomorrow without the last of the pillars that held Tamil Nadu upright till now, Karunanidhi’s legacy would have become that of the past.
A legacy like none other’s.
And many will continue to hear echoes of him saying “என் உயிரினும் மேலான அன்பு உடன்பிறப்புக்களே.” in his unique scratchy voice.
எப்போதும் சிரித்திடும் முகம் – எதிர்ப்புகளை எரித்திடும் நெஞ்சம்!
இளமை இளமை இதயமோ இமயத்தின் வலிமை! வலிமை!
தமிழர் வாழும் நிலமெலாம் அவர்தம் மனையெலாம் தன்புகழ் செதுக்கிய செல்வா – எங்கு சென்றாய்?
Loose Translation of the above lines:
An ever smiling face A chest to withstand adversities
Young at heart With a strength of the mightiest of the mountains
Where is that man who carved his fame in Every household and every land inhabited by Tamilians..? Where did you go?
(Above lines are Karunanidhi’s. Written after the death of Tamilselvan. How apt that I get to use these lines now!)