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A Tribute to Komal Swaminathan

Cinema Virumbi: A Tribute to Komal Swaminathan by V. Ramesh

Cinema Virumbi Thro’ Zine5, I pay my tributes to this unassuming genius, who passed away, rather hurriedly, on 28th Oct 1995

Komal Swaminathan was one of the best playwrights in Tamil. While he is remembered most for his dedication to Tamil drama till his last breath, there are other areas where he created a mark as well, such as films, journalism and politics. Komal was born in Chettinad. His father was a Postmaster and his job made him take his family with him on every transfer, within Tamilnadu and parts of Kerala. While Komal was in college in Madurai (as well as for a few more years after college), he was a speaker in Congress public meetings, especially during the first ever general elections in India in 1952. His speeches earned him the name ‘Kodaiyidi’ Komal Swaminathan. At that time, Kamaraj made him switch over to khadi, which he maintained till the end (but for a small emotional break when the Congress split vertically in 1969!). In those years, he wrote a fiery Congress propaganda play named ‘Idhaya Thudippu’. After this, he moved over to Madras, where he met his Guru, SV Sahasranamam of Seva Stage. In Seva Stage, he came into contact with veterans like BS Ramaiah, V Gopi and Muthuraman among many others. The following plays of Komal were staged by Seva Stage:

Pudhiya Paadhai,
Minnal Kolam
and Thillainaayagam.

Around 1962-63, he started working as an Assistant Director with KS Gopalakrishnan. He was associated with films like KaRpagam, Kai Koduththa Deivam, Aayiram Roobaay, Chiththi, Ennathaan Mudivu? , Selvam, PEsum Deivam and Suhaagan, the Hindi version of Saaradaa. In this period, he also participated in story discussions with Devar who had a vision to make films like Deiva Cheyal, Haathi Mera Saathi (nalla nEram), Maa (annai Or aalayam) etc.

After these, he started his own Drama troupe named ‘Stage Friends’, with SVS and other friends from erstwhile Seva Stage, for which he wrote:

Sannadhi Theru,
nawab naaRkaali (filmed in the same name by CV Rajendran),
Mandhiri Kumaari,
PattaNam PaRi POgiRathu,
Vaazhvin Vaasal,
PerumaaLE Saakshi (filmed as ‘Paalaazhi Madanam’ in Malayalam and ‘Kumaara Vijayam’ in Tamil),
Jesus Varuvaar,
Yuddha KaaNdam (filmed in the same name),
Raaja Parambarai (filmed as ‘Paalootti vaLarththa kiLi’ by P.Madhavan),
anju Puli oru PeN,
Sultaan Ekaadasi,
KOdu illaa KOlangaL (Before inauguration, this was called ‘ilakkaNam meeRiya kavithaigaL’),
Sorga Bhoomi (filmed as ‘anal kaaRRu’),
Chekku MaadugaL (filmed with Vijayakanth as ‘Saathikkoru needhi’),
ThaNNeer ThaNNeer (filmed in the same name by KB),
oru Indiya Kanavu (filmed in the same name with Suhasini),
asOkavanam,
iruttila ThEdaadheenga,
naLLiravil PeRROm,
KaRuppu Vyaazhakkizhamai (about 28th Jan 1988, when TN assembly had a free for all on a Black Thursday!),
Graama Raajyam (about missile launching and the plight of the villagers nearby),
aatchi maaRRam,
Manithan ennum theevu
and naaRkaali.

Starting with ‘nawab naaRkaali’, a good number of his plays prior to ‘Sorga Bhoomi’ were comedies. Komal’s brand of comedy was breezy, soft and gentle, offending nobody and never slipping into vulgarity or ‘asattu pisattu’ banana peel variety. In ‘Yuddha KaaNdam’ and ‘anju Puli oru PeN’, he introduced novel concepts in Tamil stage like double decker stage and revolving stage. Of course, all his plays subsequent to ‘Sorga Bhoomi’ were so down to earth that he did not have to concentrate on any such novelty. In fact, there are instances where the sets didn’t arrive in time and Komal’s team went ahead with ‘ThaNNeer ThaNNeer’ with some makeshift huts made on the spot! In one of his last few plays, he boldly experimented with surrealism, almost unimaginable in commercial Tamil theatre!

Around the time of ‘Raaja Parambarai’, he was influenced by the teachings of Swami Chinmayananda. From ‘Sorga Bhoomi’ onward, his plays were distinctly leftist oriented, as he read Marxist literature extensively those days. But, I personally feel he was experiencing the disillusionment of a true Gandhian who witnessed his dream India going haywire! I don’t think he really meant the violence that appeared to be hinted as the solution in ‘ThaNNeer ThaNNeer’. In fact, his first major work ‘Pudhiya Paadhai’ and his magnum opus ‘ThaNNeer ThaNNeer’, written 20 years later, had a common thread viz., villagers coming together against all odds to solve their problems by themselves, without waiting for the Govt. Except that, in ‘Pudhiya Paadhai’, he advocated cooperation with the well-meaning Govt. (under Jawaharlal Nehru’s leadership), as against ‘ThaNNeer ThaNNeer’ which was clearly anti -establishment!

Artistes like ‘Vadhyar’ Raman, Peelisivam, Samikkannu, , Veerachamy, Suryaprabha, Gandhimathi and ‘Achacho’ Chitra were among many who were part of the Stage Friends family. Sathyaraj, a newcomer in showbiz, was introduced to Komal by Sivakumar who gave him a small role in ‘kOdu illaa kOlangaL’!

Occasionally, he wrote plays for others also :

‘KiLLiyoor Kanagam’ and ‘en veedu, en kaNavan, en kuzhanthai’ for ManOrama. ‘en veedu….’ was probably his only play with a Tamil Brahmin family backdrop.

Major and Komal were childhood friends in Madurai. After college, they lost touch for a while, till they met in Madras again in the early sixties. Komal wrote ‘appaavi’ , ‘Delhi Maamiyaar’ (filmed as ‘KaRpgam Vandhaachcu’) and ‘avan paarththuppaan’for Major.

KalyaaNa Supermarket for Nambiyar.

In addition, he had a role in the stories of films like ‘Kallum Kaniyaagum’, a TMS-AL Ragavan joint venture, ‘Ponnaana vaazhvu’, ‘KOdai Mazhai’ etc., He himself directed three films ‘anal kaaRRu’, ‘Yuddha KaaNdam’ and ‘oru Indiya kanavu’. I read somewhere that he, along with his daughter, has written one song in ‘oru Indiya kanavu’.

In the last few years, as his health prevented him from concentrating on drama, he took over as the editor of ‘Subha MangaLaa’. Inspired by ‘Deepam’, a magazine run by his close friend Naa.Parthasarathy till he passed away, he maintained in ‘Subha MangaLaa’ a good balance between the ‘ilakkiya’ magazines and outright ‘commercial’ magazines, giving opportunity to many people to write. Somewhere, KB has commented that it is like Shyam Benegal’s films, treading the middle path! Once, he even travelled to Jaffna, to give first hand information about Srilanka to his readers! After his demise, the publishers (Sriram group of Chennai) brought out one issue in his memory in Nov 1995 and stopped the Monthly thereafter, as they felt that the high standards set by Komal couldn’t be maintained under others.

Most of these details, I have gathered from his autobiography (‘PaRanthu pOna pakkangaL’ serialised in Subha MangaLaa for around 35 months). In this, he had adopted a unique technique of devoting one chapter to one individual known to him (or to one episode in his life), so that a reader can start with any chapter, without the need for starting from the first chapter! There is a mild repetition of events in this style, but that is also enjoyable! Chapters have interesting titles like ‘Varaaha nadhiyum VaLLuvadaasanum’, ‘aganda kaaveriyum aanantha vikatanum’, ‘padukkai aRaiyum Paris Commune-um’, ‘Komal golmaal aana kathai!’, ‘Chappathi Chappathithan!’ etc., People who know him closely tell me that he would have liked to write a few more chapters, covering some more personalities, before he passed away at the age of 60. In one chapter, he has written about the short but intimate interaction he had with Gurudutt during the shooting of ‘Suhaagan’. He says, if Gurudutt had lived longer, he would have completed a project which he had in mind viz., filming ‘Silappathikaaram’ in Hindi as ‘Maadhavi’ with special emphasis on Maadhavi. Till date, no one has presented ‘Silappathikaaram’ effectively to the Hindi viewers! In yet another, he has narrated the funny incident of how Indian Railways mistyped his name as KOmaLa Swaminathan and allotted him a berth in the ladies- only portion of the compartment! The TTE was annoyed saying “ aEn sir indha maadhiri ellaam pEr vachchukkaReenga?” Komal quipped “naan pEr vachchukkum pOdhu ungaLai enakku theriyaadhu! Aduththa thadavai ungaLai kEttukkittu pEr vachchukkaRen!!”

In his last few years, he had two projects in mind. A play named ‘Karuppu Vairam’ about the plight of coal miners and a film named ‘indRu Pudhidhaay PiRandhOm’ with Radhika as heroine. Somehow, these two assignments didn’t materialise!

He had a zen (‘thaamarai ilai thaNNeer’) attitude towards life and was known for his modesty to a fault and sparkling sense of humour!.

Though he was the recipient of KalaimaamaNi and a number of other awards, I honestly feel ‘Tamil kooRum nallulagam’ didn’t give him the grand recognition that he legitimately deserved!

Thro’ Zine5, I pay my tributes to this unassuming genius, who passed away, rather hurriedly, on 28th Oct 1995.

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