The return of Karna
This article originally appeared in centreright.in. CRI content has now been subsumed in swarajyamag.com. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of swarajyamag.com

On a hot as usual summer day in Chennai last year I found myself on a suburban train travelling from one dirty locality to another equally dirty locality. As is usual in Chennai suburban trains there were one or two old and tired blind people soliciting alms moving from one compartment to another at every halt. Somewhere between Saidapet and Nungambakkam I found an old Tamil Brahmin (you can tell!) trying to hand out a few rupees to one of the blind buskers who had moved away some distance from us. Not so well educated in the intricacies of Karmic book keeping and intending to help the aged I took the money from the old Brahmin and put in the vessel the busker was carrying.

No sooner had I done this I was reprimanded in a jovial manner by the old Brahmin for intervening in his Karmic transaction and taking away that little bit of good karma, his punyam, as commission for facilitating the deed. When I retorted that he could keep the commission the mischievous Brahmin quickly got back asking if I thought of myself as Karna – the only man to have given away the sum of his Dharmic benefits as alms to Krishna. Not to be outdone I asked if he were the recipient of my karmic credits wouldn’t that make him Krishna himself! That got the old man laughing and we nodded to each other as one internet Hindu would nod to another when discussing an elegantly written M.J.Akbar foreword to a cliché filled Rafiq Zakaria book.

What got the smiles out of both the old Brahmin and this author was the realization that we were probably having the same landmark Tamil movie in mind as we engaged each other in some friendly ribbing. It is a testament to the movie and the epic story it told that two complete strangers with an age gap of at least more than 40 years could not only relate to it but also be regaled by it. The movie we both somehow related to the situation was – most Tamils should have guessed by now- Karnan, a biographic of the Mahabharatha icon.

In what appears to be a new trend in the film industry a digitally enhanced version of this 1964 Shivaji Ganesan starrer was re-released some seven months ago and has had tremendous success completing 200 days at the box office quite recently. The present post-Dravidian era of Tamil movie industry may make for dull study but the fifties and sixties during which masterpieces like Karnan were produced were made of heady days of political messaging, propaganda and counter propaganda. It was when the Dravidian movement had moved into the realm of movies from stage/street dramas and, as history would no doubt tell, reaped enormous benefits.

There are many narratives concerning the transformation of Tamil film industry, and one of the simpler narratives is that the period between 1950s to the end of 1960s saw two competing political movements fight it out through their productions. On one hand we witness the steady supply of movie professionals and productions steeped in the then energetic Dravidian political movement and on the other a slow but equally steady supply of productions that hung on to traditional narratives or what was left of it. Those on the Dravidian side were often close to preaching what would amount to sedition, Tamil nationalism and anti-Brahminism whereas a small group of nationalist professionals would churn out patriotic and devotional films.

It is important to recognize that the Dravidian school not only produced very good media professionals but had its very genesis in the media and resultant popular culture. Its leaders were as much media-men as they were politicians. So although the industry saw the rise of stars like Shivaji, MGR, N.S.Krishnan and M.R.Radha they were all nurtured from the platform that Annadurai and others had built over decades. No political movement in India has so effectively and consciously nurtured popular culture to serve its ends. An entire genre surrounding movies, stage dramas and books had been built up by the end of 60’s. It would all help one man hijack the show eventually but we’re digressing.

The response to this allegedly rationalist school was not lacking in variety or quality but was eventually over shadowed by the increasing political influence of DMK. The response was also defensive – it wasn’t the sort that went out into the enemy camp and took on his might but the sort that regaled in the glory of gone by days, the sort that was reminiscing of an idyllic age of epics and pious, patriotic men. This is not to understate their influence or popularity especially the works of Ramakrishnaiah Panthulu who can be safely said to have led the response to the Dravidian assault.

The political career of the symbols of Dravidian and traditional genre makes for very interesting analysis and generally tells the story of Tamil politics towards the mid-20th century. MGR the Dravidian movie mascot continues to enjoy massive popularity for both his movies and politics even decades after his death. On the other hand Shivaji Ganesan, the lead star of many Panthulu masterpieces enjoys great affection and respect as a movie star but is generally seen as having committed a very silly mistake in entering politics.

With the re-release of Karnan closing with an immensely gratifying two hundred day innings at the box office the Tamil film industry is feeling upbeat about the possibility of digitally re-mastering other classics for a re-release. Perhaps it is only by indulging in such nostalgia can we manage to live through a phase of vacuous politics. In this age of a vacationing Chief Minister and an erstwhile Dravidian political giant seen to be in irreversible decline these movies may offer a chance to relive the heady days of the fifties and sixties.

The post-Dravidian era isn’t half as exciting!