Revisiting Parasakthi, the film that changed everything

Karunanidhi isn’t exactly subtle about infusing Dravidian pride into Parasakthi. He sets the stage, literally, very early, when an artist sings, “Valamaa enadhu Draavida naadu vaazhgave.” The lyrics also mention Telugu, Malayalam, and Kannada with pride, with special status, of course, accorded to Tamil.

Soon as the song ends, a character graces the stage to express sadness over Tamils languishing in countries like Sri Lanka and Rangoon. This is when you get the first example of Karunanidhi’s imaginative writing: “Kadal neer yen uppaaga irukku endru karpanaiyil sonnaalsondha naatile pizhaikaamalange vadiththa kanneeraal.”

Parasakthi is the story of a family whose lives become informed, and consequently enlightened, when they are pushed into poverty and suffering. This is especially true of Gunasekaran, played by Sivaji Ganesan with magnetism that belies his experience. It’s a story of how a man who enjoys the luxury of having bed coffee — “Thambikku sooryodhayam paakardhu pidikaadhe”  — realises how few people are fortunate to have that liberty, after fate deals him a disgusting hand. As the beautiful Pandari Bai puts it, “Ezhaiyaakka padavillai enraal, ezhai ulagathai ninaithu kooda paathirukka maataai.”

It’s one of many, many incisive lines in the film, and one of many, many instances when characters from speaking everyday Tamil suddenly switch to writerly Tamil. It’s how Karunanidhi makes his points, and it also serves to highlight his oft-professed love for the language.

In a song, a girl, while talking about her attraction to her beloved, says, “Kanivaana mozhiyil enna kavarndheere.” How wonderful to have a woman express that she is attracted to a man on account of his ability to communicate — not his physicality, not his good looks, not his fighting prowess, but the way he can string words together.

Karunanidhi writes some very interesting women into this film, and sidesteps several pitfalls. When a pregnant Kalyani’s father shares the desire that the child be a boy and that the parents have decided to name him Panneerselvam, his son-in-law quips, “Penn pirandhaa Nagamma nu theermanam pannirkom.” This 1952 film even features a femme fatale, who spikes Gunasekaran’s drink.

I also love it that it’s a woman, played by Pandari Bai, who opens Gunasekaran’s eyes to his selfishness. It is through her that Karunanidhi indicates that the need of the hour is a revolution: “Samudhaaya valarchikilayai aruppadhalla. Aani verai paerpadhu.”

It’s not hard to understand why this film’s dialogues are still thought of in awe. Karunanidhi hits top form once Gunasekaran and family hit rock bottom. And again, he isn’t exactly subtle about how he unleashes destruction on Gunasekaran’s family. Kalyani’s husband dies in an almost farcical accident. Her father learns of this and almost comically, dies of shock. You can see that it’s all just Karunanidhi getting people out of the way, so he can examine poverty and society’s reaction to it. In a way, a stranger’s words, in the beginning, foreshadows all these horrible occurrences: “Innum enna laam aaga pogudho.

Once Karunanidhi unleashes death and disaster on Gunasekaran’s family, his writing truly comes to the party. Kalyani, unable to manage a meal for herself and her infant, sings:

“Paravai koottil nee pirandhirundhaalum, pasi neengave unavum parandhodi vandhidum. Ooo, kodaana kodi ezhai maandhar vaadum, seemaangal vaazhum naatilpirandhaai.”

The description often explodes with imagination, like when Gunasekaran talks about how the poor have been neglected: “Gudhirai ku badhilaa narambu therikka therikka rickshaw izhuthu kooni poirukaane. Naayaipola surundu nadaipadhayil kudumbathoduthoongugiraane. Naalu kaal praaniyaai aaka patta manidhanai sonnen.

It’s suggested more than once that death is preferrable to a life in poverty. “Varumayil vaazha viduvadhu dhaan paavam,” says Gunasekaran. His sister, Kalyani, of course, eventually tries to commit suicide. The idea of death as the final solution brought in my head some visuals of Naan Kadavul’s climax. In that sense, a viewing of Parasakthi today constantly conjures up visuals of many other contemporary Tamil films.

When Gunasekaran first arrives to Chennai, the car he’s in gets surrounded by beggars. I couldn’t but get reminded of a similar scene in Rajinikanth’s Sivaji. Shankar’s Sivaji too is the story of a rich man who’s reduced to a pauper before he strives for the upliftment of the trampled. Perhaps that famous Rajinikanth dialogue — “Parasakthi hero da!” — could then be a lot more than just a punchline. Another scene that shows Gunasekaran opening a tap to get no water gets you thinking of that famous Vivek joke in Run.

Returning to the politics of this film, it’s hard to miss Karunanidhi’s not-so-nice portrayal of migrants in this film, especially those who are shown to speak Hindi or bastardised Tamil. A Hindi-speaking Tamilian gets rudely interrupted when he apologises: “Maaf karojiyaavadhumannaankatti karoji aavadhu.” In another scene, Gunasekaran’s begging a Marwari businessman to give him some money to aid his travel to Madurai. The latter responds, “Nimbal Bombaai poraan, Madurai poraan. Nambalki enna vandhaan?” You also spot the not-so-nice depiction of Brahmins in the film, who are mostly shown to be timid and malicious. The priest who attempts to abuse Kalyani is a shining example.

In a film about such serious themes, Karunanidhi’s humour makes some sparkling cameos. When Gunasekaran, who’s sleeping on the pavement, gets rudely woken up by a policeman who splashes water on him, he calmly asks for some soap as it’s been a while since he washed himself. It gets even better.

Policeman: Enna muzhikkara?

Gunasekaran: Thoongaravana ezhuppina muzhikaama enna panradhu?

Policeman: Pickpocket thaane nee?

Gunasekaran: Illa, empty pocket.

It’s hysterical, as is the scene where Gunasekaran steals murukku. Karunanidhi’s fiery lines benefit largely from the delivery by Sivaji Ganesan.

Karunanidhi’s atheism is a feature of his writing too. There’s constant mockery of god’s apparent inability to step in and save the situation. When Gunasekaran steals fruit and the hawker pleads to god, the former says, “Dheivam thaan kaekkaliye. Avar manasu thaankalla poche.” In a more famous scene, Gunasekaran dramatically steps out from behind the idol of a goddess by saying, “Ambaal endha kaalathil pesinaal?” The irreverence couldn’t be clearer. Karunanidhi also looks to expose the hypocrisy of seemingly noble believers whose actions indicate otherwise, when Gunasekaran questions the priest: “Parasakthi unakkuthaaiaanaal en thangai unakku dasi ya?” There’s further evidence of derision for rituals when a priest chants, “Om kreem kreem yung mung sing.

You also learn that Mahanaadu was the once-preferred word, not Maanaadu. Quite fittingly, it’s with a Mahanaadu that the film ends; a function that features visuals of Karunanidhi, Periyar, and Anna. Anna is referenced quite earlier on in the film when Pandari Bai’s character is asked how she became so literate and socially conscious. She says, “Elaam anna thaan, and goes on to talk about her brother.

This film though is all Karunanidhi. And so long as this film continues to remain relevant, the artist in Karunanidhi will continue to live on.

This column was written for Cinema Express, the cinema division of The New Indian Express. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to its page if you’d like to share it.

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