Cho failed to rise above his own prejudices, but he served a purpose in bringing pretentious humbugs down to earth.

Quo vadis Cho after a life of lambasting hypocrisies Screenshot/YouTube
news Tribute Wednesday, December 07, 2016 - 17:54

Cho Ramasamy christened one of his plays “Quo Vadis?” (Where are you going?). When he thought of the title, he had not even the ghost of an idea of what the play was going to be about, he recalled during a conversation, chuckling.

The story goes like this. In the sixties, Avvai Shanmugam, a pioneering theatre artiste and also an avid Tamil enthusiast, was the chief guest during the performance of Cho’s play “Is God Dead?”. In his brief comments, he made a passionate appeal to the dramatist not to use English titles but promote Tamil.

On the spur of the moment, Cho responded, saying, “Ok Shanmugam sir doesn’t like English titles… I understand… well my next play will be Quo Vadis…”  The auditorium erupted in laughter.

Shanmugam was championing the cause of Tamil, but was a very soft-spoken man. He would never make any offensive comment. So one could guess how he might have phrased his suggestion. But Cho never had any time for niceties, nor would he bother whether his remarks riled the guest of the day. Only that, for him, this whole Tamil nationalism was a hypocritical business and it had to be tackled head on.

That episode perhaps captures the very essence of Cho. He had strong notions about a whole host of things and would not hesitate to speak out, leaving political correctness to wimps.

It may not be far wrong to suggest that it was his impatience with hypocrisies that took him to great heights in Tamil public life, never mind that he himself fell victim to the very sanctimony he was excoriating all along.   

He had started off staging droll plays, puncturing many an ego. At a time when DMK men were strutting around as the guardians of anything and everything Tamil, he went about lashing out at them and his plays were well received. After all, the audience were essentially the middle class Brahmins of south Madras and they had such strong antipathy to the DMK.

But when Karunanidhi became Chief Minister and his goon squad turned more and more menacing, large sections of non-Brahmins too became extremely disenchanted and Cho’s barbs were a welcome relief.

His “Mohammed Bin Thuglaq” was a devastating satire on the regime of the day. It has actually not received the recognition due to it outside the state, though it ruffled innumerable feathers within Tamil Nadu.  Karunanidhi’s flunkeys went about lambasting Cho in crude terms, and the Chief Minister himself took a dig or two, claiming it was the Brahminical lobby that was speaking through Cho. When the play was turned into a film, theatres were even vandalized.

Even his “Compositor Kavithai” (The poetry of compositors!), a rollicking spoof of Karunanidhi’s poetic oeuvres that fell in the range of modern poetry and hence were not metrical, evoked an overwhelming response. Poetry of compositors means poems chiseled by the compositors of the printing press, just breaking a line according to formatting needs, without regard to any other dimension.

The publishers of the popular Ananda Vikatan weekly (which had carried the spoof) floated the idea of a satirical fortnightly to be edited by Cho himself. After some misgivings, he gave in and it became an instant success. Later the magazine was turned over to Cho himself.

His crusade against the Emergency was as exemplary as that of Ramnath Goenka’s, and a lot more innovative too. He published a tongue-in-cheek review of “Sarvaadhikari” (Dictator), an MGR  film of  yesteryears. 

He had only been anti-Communist and anti-DMK at that stage. But thanks to the Emergency, when he interacted with a lot of Sanghis, he warmed up to Hindutva. And RSS ideologue, S Gurumurthy became a permanent fixture in his court. Along the way he had become an advisor to MGR as well.

So, by the late 1970s, he came to be looked upon as a wise man with no agenda of his own and was listened to with respect by personalities across the spectrum. As others have frequently pointed out, he never bound himself to any ideology, to any personality, though he made no secret of his predilections. He had castigated MGR no end.

On the day the Babri Masjid was demolished he came out with a black cover. When the Mannargudi hordes were running amok, towards the end of Jaya’s first tenure, the Thuglaq featured a cartoon showing Sasikala and Jayalalithaa together, on the edge of a precipice, the legend recalling a famous dialogue of Karunanidhi’s for Sivaji’s debut film “Parasakthi” – “she ran… ran towards the very brink…”

He could swallow all his hostility towards Karunanidhi and serve as match-maker and bring together the DMK and the fledgling Tamil Maanila Congress.  But in no time he went back to Jayalalithaa and resumed his position as her advisor.

Till very recently I used to think he never profited from any of his contacts and that whatever he did was out of sheer conviction. But whistleblower Savukku exposed his clay feet. This has not been refuted so far. That is certainly a dampener for many of his admirers including yours truly.

Such shenanigans apart, I would still think he had not become too very corrupt. Certainly he could have made millions given his extensive contacts. He didn’t.

When he was a nominated as an MP of the Rajya Sabha, he responded immediately when he heard of some problem in a constituency represented by a Muslim woman, and from the DMK at that. She would gush, “Oh it was a great gesture… allocated so much money… normally to wheedle out anything from the constituency funds, you will have to bribe our MPs or MLAs… I didn’t give him a paise…”

The anti-Brahmin lobby would seek to portray him as a representative of reactionary forces and insist that his antipathy to the Dravidian movement and the true blue leader Karunanidhi stemmed from his Brahminical roots. Over a period of time, as a reflex action perhaps, he did become  more and more conservative, singing paeans of praise to all things Brahminical and even advocating the return of the Brahmin back to his roots. He never shrank from cracking sexist jokes, even while claiming to value Jayalalithaa highly.

But the critics, both on the Left and from the Dravidian stream, ignored his critique only to their doom. I am sure he would have mellowed into a much more non-partisan commentator if he had not been pilloried viciously, almost without basis.

He could not rise above the din much, dogged as he was by his own prejudices. But he served a most useful purpose in bringing down to earth many pretentious humbugs.  And his gift of repartee is something legendary. Not only journalism, but the many other spheres he traversed with ease and with little airs, would now be the poorer.

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