Tamil Nadu since independence has been infamous for the Hindi agitation; Kaveri river water dispute; and the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi - all these to protect the so-called ‘Tamil culture’. However, this region is also famous for its vernacular ‘Tamil’ cinema. The medium of cinema is an important tool and Tamil cinema has produced thousands of movies with a peculiar genre; and has churned out a considerable number of politicians as well. The comedy tract of Tamil films finds an important place and comedians have been enjoying Tamil people’s patronage. One such Tamil film comedian was ‘Cho’ Ramaswamy.
Srinivasan Iyer Ramaswamy (1934 - 2016) popularly known as ‘Cho’ was a man of versatility: lawyer, political satirist, editor of a popular Tamil magazine, powerful orator, playwright, theatre and cine comedian, author and parliamentarian and in short “a persistent criticiser of political authority and their misdeeds.” As a man of a creative artist, Cho pitched against the rigid policies of the Congress, Communists, Socialists and the Dravidian ideologist of Tamil Nadu.
Tamil Nadu encountered a makeover in politics in late 1960s, due to the change of political authority from the Congress party to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and it was considered as a triumph of the Dravidian movements. The two major Dravidian political parties of Tamil Nadu namely the DMK and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) have attained in 2017 the credit of uninterrupted rule of Tamil Nadu for 50 years. Though, both DMK and AIADMK are political rivals however, they have the same pedigrees from the said Dravidian movement. It is a known fact that basically the champions of Dravidian political parties are promoters of language politics in the name of social justice which is in some respects against national integration and regional unity. Amid these political developments, particularly in the late 1960s and early 1970s, emerged Cho Ramaswamy.
Cho has scripted nearly 23 stage plays and all were mega hits. The formula of his plays is very simple and related to mundane subjects such as caste issues, prostitution, truth vs. money or muscle power and bribery or corruption. He was a fan of western writers such as Bernard Shaw and Charles Dickens basing some of his plot points and characters on their novels especially his Manam Oru Kurungu was based upon Pygmalion and Vande Mataram related to Tale of Two Cities. Some of his dramas like Washingtanil Nallathambi and Coovam Nathi Karaiyinile are without strong plots but are based on the current political scenarios.
His venture into Tamil film as a comedian was equally incredible and acted in nearly 200 films. Cho himself has accepted that he is not a good actor despite acting in the movies directed by K. Balachander, the doyen of Tamil filmdom. But for a while, he was a popular comedian and his comedy is also limited to very few films however, his political comedy did well in some films. His ‘Muhammad bin Thughlak’ (1968) a classic satirical play, was his magnum opus and smashing success that later made a popular movie as well. His political magazine, Thuglak (1970), was named after this play, which became a classic of modern literature for political satire, writings, editorials, essays, and cartoons.
His journalistic assignment deserves great appreciation. Apart from expressing personal views, there are only a few writers in Tamil Nadu who mock the society to make people understand their mistakes and Cho is one among them. His intelligence and humour make the audience not only laugh but to ponder deeply about society. Through his Thuglak magazine, Cho vehemently criticised the implementation of the Emergency rule and Dravidian political parties especially the former chief minister of Tamil Nadu Karunanidhi and his corruption. During the Emergency period, Thuglak magazine got censored and when it resumed its publication, it was dared enough to publish the issue with just a black front cover as a mark of protest. It is surprising to note that he was neither arrested nor put in jail despite his continued severe criticism against the Emergency period and exposing the corruption of Karunanidhi. In fact, his perseverance made Thuglak magazine an institution.
As a political commentator, his views are very sharp and to the point. His opinions are not easily changed. It is to be highlighted that all his political comments were expressed them with good humour. He had great respect for Kamaraj, the former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and according to Cho the Kamaraj period of Tamil Nadu was the golden age. Cho was the only journalist who mentioned the terrorist activities of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and he rightly predicted that the Tamil Tigers would not let the Rajiv-Jayawardene accord go through. Though he had a cordial relationship with Jayalalitha later on due to political differences he entered into conflict with her. To oppose Jayalalitha he supported DMK and Tamil film superstar Rajinikanth.
When the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) emerged as an alternative to the Congress Cho become associated with its top leaders and he was the first person to propose Narendra Modi as a prime ministerial candidate. From his point of view, the BJP will be good if it comes to power because Modi has made Gujarat a corruption-free state. There is a lot of growth there. A common man can easily see him. As a Chief Minister of Gujarat Modi has attended a couple of Thuglak magazine annual readers meetings which were an unprecedented editor reader interface. PM Modi in one of his addresses stated that “I’m a fan of Mr Cho. I heard his name during the Emergency when he stood for democracy, he fought for democracy. My colleagues were giving me information during those days because I was underground at that time. I was also fighting for democracy.”
Overall Cho was a great scholar more particularly a prophet in politics. He will be remembered as a playwright, and as a courageous political satire. Yet, the void he left in the Tamil intelligentsia remains gaping and stark.
Manuvelraj Ponnudurai is an independent researcher based in Delhi who obtained his PhD degree in Art History from the School of Arts & Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.