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December 10, 1998


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One for the masses!

V Gangadhar recalls A S A Swamy, the Celyon-born director whose film Velaikari set the tone for Tamil Nadu's Dravidian politics.

A Chennai newspaper recently carried news of the death of Tamil director A S A Swamy who made a string of hit films in the late 1940s and 1950s. These included Rajakumari and Velaikari; he followed these with other hits, Marmayogi, Arasilankumari and Thanga Pathumai.

Velaikari (maidservant), which I saw in Madurai sometime in 1949, was a significant film because it reflected the caste conflict of those days. The Dravidian parties were emerging from the shadows and increasingly vocal. Their leaders spoke loudly about the ill treatment of the lower castes by the Brahmins and extremists from among them ridiculed the Vedas, ideal worship and rituals, which were dear to the Brahmins.

Velaikari dealt with a poor young man whose father committed suicide because he could not repay debts to the local landlord who belonged to a higher caste. Swearing revenge, the young man goes away to distant places and amasses wealth. Returning to his home town and disguising his identity, he succeeds in marrying the daughter of the rich man.

His strategy for revenge included harassing the pampered daughter, who loves him deeply and puts up with all kinds of humiliation. The hero treats her like a Velaikari, and hence the title. The rich father grieves over his daughter's fate, realises his mistakes and reforms.

C N Annadurai
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A thin theme, but one penned by C N Annadurai who later founded the DMK and became chief minister of Tamil Nadu. Annadurai was one of the best Tamil writers of his day and the plot of Velaikari offered him enough scope to produce fiery dialogues attacking class distinctions, exploitation of the poor and superstition. The dialogues consisted of thinly-veiled attacks on Hindu gods and goddesses, who, according to the film's hero, always sided with the rich and the orthodox members of the community.

Velaikari became the rage of Madurai. I was eleven years old and did not know much about caste or religion. But several of my classmates, even at that age, were ardent followers of the Anna philosophy and hated the higher castes, particularly Brahmins. Mind you, they had nothing personal against me. But I was a member of the hated caste and hence unable to form friendships.

The Dravida Kazhagam and later the DMK subtly used the screen and stage to mould the minds of youngsters. Many of them belonged to poor families, but somehow found the money to watch movies and plays. My classmates watched Velaikari seven, eight, even ten times. They could repeat the dialogues verbatim. During the breaks between classes, we were subjected to passionate outbursts of the most fiery dialogue from the film.

The film world influenced students so much that after watching every film, my classmates wrote reviews and distributed it among themselves. It was amazing to watch young boys going around the class comparing their respective reviews. The reviews lavished praise on the 'committed' films produced by DK and DMK sympathisers and writers like Anna and Muthuvel Karunanidhi, currently Tamil Nadu chief minister, whom incidentally A S A Swamy introduced as a dialogue writer in the movies.

Looking back, I realise the tremendous impact these films made on Tamil youngsters who believed they had received a raw deal from society and were prepared to fight for their rights. Writers like Anna and Karunanidhi had magic in their pens. Their fiery dialogues aroused the dormant passions among Tamil youth. Some of my classmates quoted line after line from Velaikari to attack the upper castes. At times, it was embarrassing to listen to them, particularly when I was totally free of caste prejudices.

Velaikari was not a great film, but it had tremendous appeal for certain sections of Tamil society. The hero, played by K R Ramaswami, was, as usual, too loud. In fact, Annadurai had written Velaikari for the stage where the impact was stronger and more direct on the audience. Ramaswami was a veteran stage actor and repeated the same techniques on the screen. But the fiery and passionate dialogue sent shivers up one's spine.

Even I wanted to bash up the rich man who was responsible for the death of the hero's father. V N Janaki, who later married M G Ramachandran, was the film's heroine and adequate in the role. Velaikari was not so much a film for the stars. It was a 'message film' and the message was clear. It was time to put an end to the exploitation of the upper castes.

Cinema in Tamil Nadu was much more effective than the machinations of present-day Dalit leaders like Kanshi Ram and Mayawati. It united the underprivileged sections of Tamil society and brought them under the DK and later the DMK banner. Very soon, Anna became the most important leader in the state and led his party to victory in the polls. The 1965 anti-Hindi riots which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people in Tamil Nadu sealed the fate of the Congress. The Congress had never held power in Tamil Nadu since. Tamil and Tamil pride ruled the roast.

There were rumours that the Madras government would ban the film in view of the fiery dialogues which denounced God and religious bigotry. This speculation added to the film's commercial success; everyone rushed to watch it before it was banned. The next time I visit Chennai, I shall try to get a video-cassette of Velaikari. It will be interesting to find out if it holds the same kind of impact for me now as it did nearly half a century ago.

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