Tamil Nadu, since independence, has been infamous for the Hindi agitation; the Kaveri river water dispute, and the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi – all these to protect the so-called ‘Tamil culture’. However, this region is famous for its vernacular Tamil cinema. The medium of cinema is an important tool, and Tamil cinema has produced thousands of movies with a particular genre. It has churned out a considerable number of politicians as well. The comedy track 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 criticizer 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 the late 1960s due to the change of political authority from the Congress party to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). It was considered 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), attained in 2017 the credit of uninterrupted rule of Tamil Nadu for 50 years. Though both DMK and AIADMK are political rivals, they have the same pedigrees from the said Dravidian movement. It is a known fact that 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. Among these political developments, particularly in the late 1960s and early 1970s, arose Cho Ramaswamy.
Cho has scripted nearly 23 stage plays, and all were mega hits. The formula of his plays is straightforwardly 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. His Manam Oru Kurungu was based upon Pygmalion, and Vande Mataram is 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 scenario.
His venture into Tamil film as a comedian was incredible, and he acted in nearly 200 films. Cho has accepted that he is not a good actor despite working in the movies directed by K. Balachander, the doyen of Tamil filmdom. But for a while, he was a famous comedian and his comedy was limited to very few films; however, his political satire did well in some movies. His ‘Muhammad bin Thughlak’ (1968), a classic satirical play, was his magnum opus and smashing success that later made a popular movie. 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 excellent appreciation. Apart from expressing personal views, only a few writers in Tamil Nadu mock society to make people understand their mistakes, and Cho is among them. His intelligence and humour make the audience laugh and ponder deeply about humanity. 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 severe criticism against the Emergency period and exposing the corruption of Karunanidhi. His perseverance made Thuglak magazine an institution.
As a political commentator, his views are sharp and to the point. His opinions are not easily changed. It is to be highlighted that all his political comments were expressed 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 the 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, he entered into conflict with her due to political differences. 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, he became associated with its top leaders. He was the first 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 commoner can easily see him. As a Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi has attended several Thuglak magazine annual reader’s meetings, which were an unprecedented editor-reader interface. In one of his addresses, PM Modi stated, “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, 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.
December 7th 2022, marks his sixth year of Memorial Day.