This is the uncut draft of the complete interview with ‘Cho R’amaswamy – only half of which was relevant to the column in the newspaper. Hence, I produce below the full transcript from the freewheeling interview and his random recollections of the city and his life.
The Second World War was going on. Whenever sirens were sounded, Air Raid Police recruits would warn people to run into their houses. And as a youngster, I wanted to be an Air Raid warden. But who would take a seven year-old fellow? I pestered the Captain Mr. Desikachari. He gave me a cap and a whistle. One day, when the siren was sounded, I ran around the street whistling, asking people to get into their houses. One man brushed me off saying: Po da, Chinna paiyyan, what do you know? I got angry and hit him with a whistle. He chased me all the way to Mr. Desikachari’s office.
I spent the first 19 years of my life near the Kapaleeswarar Temple. We lived on North Mada Street till 1953, before we moved to Abhiramapuram and then Alwarpet.
The streets were not so cluttered back then because there were very few commercial establishments especially in residential areas like Mylapore. Nowadays, I don’t see any milkman bringing a cow to the house and milking it. That was a usual sight.
Valentines day would have never even been thought of in those days. Love affairs were very few and nobody paraded their love. Nowadays, love affairs seem to be for public consumption.
Even in films, you don’t see the hero and heroine dancing together all alone. They want a crowd of 100 people dancing with them. Like that, the common people also want their love paraded. In my opinion, it is an indecent sight… something so private, why should it be public, I don’t understand.
It’s not that the city has changed. The times have. There was less of competition. So many avenues were open. I could go to the states, I could get into films, I could get into journalism. Yes, I have been a dabbler but the times helped it. I was not taking a big risk. I could experiment. Nowadays, one cannot take a risk, you have to specialise.
As a city develops, naturally, commercial establishments will crop up everywhere.
One had more intimate friends in every locality. If there were about 60 houses in North Mada Street, every household member knew everyone else in the street. Parents of one child would take care and also be concerned about another child.
The milkman would threaten us to go and study. And we had to be afraid of him because he had a bigger say in the household than ourselves.
We used to fight over magazines – Kalki and Ananda Vikatan and the novels by Kalki (Krishnmurthy) and Devan (R.Mahadevan) were so popular. The Deepavali Malars were a great event. Margazhi Bhajanai was a big deal. Everybody used to join in. Even radio plays were a rage – Sivaji Ganesan used to act in them.
Students used to go to each others house for Vaarachaapadu, almost everyday. The trams were our means of transport. I used to get on it just for tamash. Anybody could get in and get off anytime. It never gained speed. Young boys used to do it in the tram running between Santhome and Luz. Even the police was very friendly. The crime was non-existent.
By the mid fifties, the community living system started disintegrating and maybe around the sixties, the compound wall started coming up around houses. That kind of community living is missing now. Today each one looks after himself.
Opportunities that arose shaped me more than anything else. Stage plays were a regular thing back then. There were at least about 100 sabhas in the fifties. But, I had not seen a single play. I was more interested into cricket.
I was about 15 or 16, I used to play in the third division and also got to the second division. Not because of any merit or talent but because I was tolerated in the team as a friend of everybody.
It was about ‘52 or ’53 when a friend took me to a play written by Pattu. I liked it so much that I joined the troupe that day itself. It was a light hearted comedy. I have never been driven by an ideology, thank God. Even my political plays were not born out of ideology, it was just a desire to do something different.
Originally, it was the desire to perform… after four or five plays, I started political plays. The response was terrific. Even as the sabhas came to know I was writing a play, bookings were made and dates were given. That was the kind of pull we enjoyed.
We used to hang out at the Guptas State Hotel in Luz Corner. We used to meet there, have a cup of coffee and keep talking for hours together. And Nageswara Park, we used to rehearse our dialogues and discuss other plays.
My first political satire was Quo Vadis. I used to give English titles for my plays – If I get it, Dont tell anybody, Why Not, What For, Wait and See… And one day, on the stage, TK Shanmugam said that I should stop giving English titles to Tamil plays. I spoke next, thanking him and said that the next title will not be in English…. It would be Quo Vadis. Because I had made an announcement, I had to do something to suit the title and that’s how I got into political satire. Purely by accident and mischief.
Yes, it took some time for the political parties to get accustomed to it. Especially the DMK around the late sixties, they started creating problems during my plays… the egg throwing and all that. I should thank them for it because they gave extra ordinary publicity to my plays.
But it was just parody. It was not below the belt. No one could find one indecent remark in my play. It was a something new and they wanted to put an end to it. When they were out of power, they threw eggs. When they were in power, they tried to ban my plays. This went on again and again with Mohammad Bin Tuglak, Enru Thaniyum Inda Sudandira Thaagam and so on… And after some time that too stopped.
They realised I was going to do it anyway. They had no legal grounds to stand on. I had to file a couple of writ petitions but even before it reached the hearing stage, the government realised they didn’t have a case. The media too was pro-DMK, it was the holy cow. I was among the first persons to start doing it in a big way and people came to see that.
An umpire is a neutral person, it does not mean he won’t declare anybody out. He has to be fair, that is neutrality.
Cinema can help but it cannot make a politician. Take any successful politician like MGR, Jayalalitha or Karunanidhi… They did a lot of political work before being accepted by the people. For some people, their political and film career ran parallel to each other. It was not as if they metamorphosed from one to the other. You can cite any number of instances where a matinee idol failed to make it in the political world – like Sivaji Ganesan, Bhagyaraj, T Rajendherr and now, Sarath Kumar.
I have been advocating Rajnikant’s entry into politics but I have not been able to convince him. In my opinion, he is imminently suited to being a politician but he does not agree. I have found him to be a good manager. He understands issues, he listens to others opinions to come to a decision. He has integrity. You need a huge mass base to succeed in politics and that he has. For him, this mass it will change into a vote bank.
In MGR’s case, you can’t say whether it was the party that benefited more out of him or he benefited more out of the party. It was both ways.
Films for me happened by accident. Sivaji Ganesan and Bhim Singh were going to film a play of Pattu and they came to watch it. They liked me and wanted me to do that role. I was hesitant. I was from a conservative family and nobody would’ve agreed. I did it without permission from the house. Cinema wasn’t considered to be a respectable vocation. But because of my fascination for acting and weakness for popularity, I decided to do films . After the first film, I had to leave a gap because of severe objection but S.Balachander pulled me back after I rejected a few offers because of family pressure.
Even now, the mindset hasn’t changed. People love cinema but they wouldn’t want someone from their family to do it. Even politics is looked at that way. Nobody would want his son or daughter to be a politician.
At one time, I was working like a mad person. I had given up practice because of my theatrical activity. I was a junior with my maternal grandfather Mr.Arunchalam. My paternal grandfather Mr. Ramanatha Iyer had given up law to became a sanyasi. He had written many law books. His law Lexicon is a standard textbook even today. So I had quite a good clientele but I couldn’t find time for practice and every other day we had a play. I had to give up my legal profession and that was the only training I had.
Opportunity came when i was offered Legal Advisor’s position in TTK. I grabbed the nine to five job because I didn’t have to meet clients. After that, Thuglak was offered to me in 1970 when relatives at the Ananda Vikatan group decided to launch a journal.
Things have been happening to me. I didn’t have to go in search of anything. It was because of lack of competition. I was living in better times.
(Srinivasa Ramaswamy a.k.a Cho Ramaswamy was born in Madras in 1934. Over the years, he has dabbled in law, cricket, theatre, films and journalism. He continues to be an active political commentator as the Editor of Thuglak.)