Parasakthi: A look back at a revolutionary moment in Tamil cinema

The iconic film that catapulted Sivaji Ganesan and Mr. Karunanidhi to stardom turns 70 on October 17.

At the very beginning, it was a typical, conservative plot of a Tamil film: three brothers returning home to attend the wedding of their dear sister. But, as it turned out, Parasakti (The Supreme Power), a 1952 Tamil film directed by Krishnan-Panju and written by then 28-year-old Muthuvel Karunanidhi, sparked a wave of radicalism in Tamil popular culture, thanks to cutting dialogues that attacked caste, religion, and social inequality, and scenes that sent shockwaves through the Tamil country.

The rest, as the cliché goes, is history. Legendary comedian Sivaji Ganesan’s first vehicle made history and propelled the growth of Dravidian ideology. Parasakti on the screens at a crucial moment in Tamil history. Just three years earlier, CN Annadurai, who had been a member of the Dravidar Kazhagam (DK) of Periyar, established the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).

A brigade of young writers associated with the DMK, including Karunanidhi, charged with the ideals of Dravidian politics, had already embraced Tamil cinema. They engaged in direct political propaganda through films such as Nalla Thambi (1949), Velaikkari (1949), and Manthiri Kumari (1950, story of Karunanidhi).

Even though Karunanidhi had worked as an uncredited dialogue writer in Marutha Naattu Ilavarasi (1950), it was Parasakti who cheered him on. The film had several unforgettable dialogues and scenes, including the iconic temple scene where Sivaji Ganesan confronts a priest who tried to assault his sister, and, of course, the elaborate courtroom scene with a marathon monologue of Sivaji Ganesan, who has played a significant role in defining and delivering Dravidian sentiments for the Tamil people across the world.

Indeed, for most Tamilians of the generation, Parasakti offered a masterclass on caste, class, religion and gender: issues that continue to haunt popular culture and politics even today. As social scientist MSS Pandian wrote in his Economic and political weekly article ‘Parasakthi: The Life and Times of a DMK Film’, the film was a ‘panel’ for the coming days of the ‘consensual politics’ that the DMK was ‘destined to play’ in Tamil Nadu.

The DMK would make a foray into electoral politics in 1957, contesting the Madras Legislative Assembly elections. Clearly, the party’s electoral agitation was motivated by the enormous success of Parasaktiwhich cemented his belief in using cinema as a means of propaganda and enabling social change.

Parasakti set high standards for a propaganda film that still remain unmatched. According to Robert L. Hardgrave’s article published in Selvaraj Velayutham’s book Tamil cinema: the cultural politics of the other Indian film industry, S. Panju, one of the film’s directors, said the film was “designed to create havoc”. He added: “We were challenging the social law itself, the basic constitution itself.”

The Dravidian movement gained popularity and momentum through its ruthless critique of religion, God, priesthood, religious scripture, and upper caste rule. However, in the following years, its shortcomings were clearly visible.

For example, Pandian, in his seminal work The image trap: MG Ramachandran in cinema and politics, denounces the “superficial and ineffectual propaganda” of the Dravidian movement while referring to the “hysterical religious revival” that resulted when the former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu MG Ramachandran (MGR) was seriously ill in 1984. According to his estimates, 79,000 roadside temples existed until then, of which 27,000 only came into being when MGR fell ill. This event points to the midlife crisis of the movement.

Same Parasakti refrained from suggesting a program of political reform. “They [Parasakthi and other similar movies] played the role of the gadfly attacking the establishment without offering an alternative political or economic ideology,” writes film historian Theodore Baskaran in Eye of the Serpent: An Introduction to Tamil Cinema.

That said, no discussion of the political history of Tamil Nadu or the history of Tamil cinema can be complete without Parasakti. The film, over the decades, is still considered the manifesto of the DMK.

Tamil Nadu continues to produce critical, ideologically sound, caste sensitive and gender conscious films which are also popular. The integration of the vocalization of politics into cinema was the greatest success of the Dravidian movement, although it created another Parasakti in today’s political climate seems like a big ask.

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