Even after he became a Chief Minister and a national leader, M Karunanidhi never forgot his humble beginnings. Despite his hectic schedule, Karunanidhi would make sure to travel to a 60-foot bridge on the Yercaud Ghat road from time to time.
He often reminisced of the days when he used to sit there and pen unforgettable dialogues for iconic films like Mandri Kumari.
The dialogues he penned from there made cinema halls reverberate with claps and whistles of movie buffs, and catapulted Karunanidhi to greater heights in filmdom and in politics.
After he moved to Madras, it seemed he missed the panoramic view of Salem city from the mountain heights and the fresh air that he used to enjoy at the 60-foot bridge and longed to return to his favourite joint.
The 60-ft bridge on Yercaud Ghat road where Karunanidhi used to sit and write.
His colourful film career took flight right at Salem. In 1949-50, M Karunanidhi stepped into Modern Theaters as a dialogue writer on the recommendation of poet-cum-lyricist KM Sherif, writes R Venkatasamy, who wrote Mudhalalli, a biography of TR Sundaram, the legendary producer and the owner of Modern Theaters.
Karunanidhi had worked in Coimbatore Central Studios and at many other studios in Kodambakkam, but it was Salem’s Modern Theaters that gave him his big break into the world of Tamil cinema.
The writer of the film Ponmudi, which was under production, had left his work unfinished and TR Sundaram decided to assign Karunanidhi the task of completing it. Sundaram liked his work and Karunanidhi was employed at a monthly salary.
Karunanidhi had with him the script for a stage play based on Tamil epic Kundalakesi. TR Sundaram was impressed by it and figured that it would make a good movie if it was adapted. And this was then converted into the legendary Mandri Kumari.
American movie master Eliss R Duncan, who was the stable director of Modern Theaters, directed the movie. It was a box office hit and made Karunanidhi into an instant celebrity. The film also gave future Chief Minister MG Ramachandran a big turn in his career.
At first, Eliss R Duncan was hesitant to cast MGR as the hero in Mandri Kumari because of a minor curve on his chin. However, Karunanidhi strongly recommended MGR, suggesting that a short moustache can hide the flaw. The idea was accepted and the film took MGR to great heights in his film career and thus forged a lasting bond between him and Karunanidhi, and both, despite becoming political rivals, had a deep mutual respect for each other.
Mandri Kumari was also the first time that the dialogue-writer of the movie was given credit on the movie posters, writes Venkatasamy. Karunanidhi was one of the few celebrities recognised for his signature dialogues.
Poster of 'Mandri Kumari' in which the name of its dialogue-writer M Karunanidhi is mentioned
Karunanidhi’s contemporaries in Modern Theaters were lyricist Kanadasan, MGR and Janaki. The latter two became chief ministers as well. NT Ramarao, who also worked for Modern Theaters, became the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh.
A rare photo of Karunanidhi with his colleagues at Modern Theaters, including late lyricist Kanadasan
Such was the platform that Modern Theaters gave to talented people. It was a one-of-its-kind studio outside Kollywood that made 118 films in all South Indian languages as well as in English. It produced the first colour film in Tamil - Albabavum Narpathu Thirudarkalum. TR Sundaram was seen as a towering figure and Karunanidhi, MGR and Kanadasan who were celebrities, used to call him, “Mudhalalli" (master), writes the biographer.
What remains of Modern Theaters today is only the iconic arch on the Yercaud Road in Salem.
Karunanidhi's association with Salem's Modern Theaters remembered by garlanding a poster on the iconic arch.
There is hardly anyone still alive who remembers Karunanidhi’s life in Salem at Sanathi Street in Fort Salem except Vekatasamy (79). The tiny tiled house where he lived survived till recently.
Whenever Karunanidhi came to Salem, he would drive past the arch to the sixty-foot bridge and spend time there alone, remembering his humble beginnings. For the old-timers, a stopover at the bridge will surely conjure up the unforgettable song “Varai, nee Varai,” as it was here that the song was shot.
The spot on Yercaud Ghat road where Karunanidhi used to sit and write.
The last time he was reported going to the place was in 2009 when he came to inaugurate the hi-tech government hospital in Salem.