Renowned Tamil actor Sivaji Ganesan made his debut in Krishnan-Panju’s Parasakthi in 1952, but that isn’t the only reason the film is regarded as a classic. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam president and future Tamil Nadu chief minister M Karunanidhi’s fiery, iconoclastic dialogue was one of the movie’s highlights. In The Eye of the Serpent An Introduction to Tamil Cinema, S Theodore Baskaran writes, “M Karunanidhi, who had earlier worked as a dialogue-writer in some films without being credited for it, wrote for The Princess of Maruda Country/Marudanatttu Ilavarasi (1950); but it was The Goddess/Parasakthi (1952), adapted from a popular play, that brought him acclaim as a dialogue-writer. He became much sought after and soon acquired a star status. The producers realized that the radical rhetoric and the elegant prose of these writers was a saleable commodity among Tamil audiences and were therefore hired as dialogue writers.”

One of the most controversial films in the history of Tamil cinema, Parasakthi is important for more than one reason. It owed its success in large part to its dialogues and enhanced the value placed on dialogue writers. It spawned more such films, each one replete with similar assonant monologues. M Karunanidhi, who wrote the dialogues for Parasakthi, used this film to express his ideas on religion, god and priesthood. Sivaji Ganesan, who was still working with drama companies, made his debut in this film as the lead actor. He later went on to act in more than 200 films in a career that lasted fifty-two years.

Adapted from a successful play by Palavar Balasundaram, the film’s story, set against the backdrop of the Second World War, is about three brothers in Rangoon and their sister in Madras. The brothers are separated in the chaos of war; Gunasekaran, the youngest, travels to Madras in search of his sister and finds she is a destitute widow. He does not reveal his own identity as he is powerless and cannot offer her any help. He sets himself up as her protector; when the priest tries to molest her inside a temple, he inflicts grievous injuries on the priest. Driven to despair, his sister kills herself, along with her infant child. All end up in court where matters are sorted out and the family is united.

Parasakthi (1952).

The emphasis on family ties and kinship roles formed the fabric of the plot. Black-marketing and the unseemly conduct of priests was also given considerable significance and rationalist ideas permeated every scene. But the film remains predominantly aural, with the characters delivering long monologues, which were entertaining in themselves. Gramophone record and later, audio cassettes of these dialogues were released. The story was told predominantly through static mid-shots. The film also retained much of its character as a stage play. The songs in the film, popular as they were, added to the aural character. Some of the tunes were based on songs from Hindi films, including Sunehre Din (1949) and Babul (1950). Two songs were rehashes from two Urdu films made in Lahore, Dopatta (1951) and Akeli (1952), for which the music was composed by the legendary Ghulam Haider.

The DMK was launched as a political party in 1949 and M Karunanidhi, as one of its leading ideologues, used the characters in this film as mouthpieces for his rationalist ideas, with digs at mythological episodes and rigid, inflexible casteism. The film opens with a song on the glories of Dravidian heritage. As it ran into difficulties with the censors, a special committee of the Film Censor Board was asked to view and clear Parasakthi.

Excerpted with permission from The Eye of the Serpent, S Theodore Baskaran, Tranquebar Press.