Surf Excel ad controversy reminds us how Cho Ramaswamy outwitted Karunanidhi

First Published 11, Mar 2019, 4:27 PM IST
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Surf Excel ad controversy reminds us how Cho Ramaswamy outwitted Karunanidhi
Highlights

The story is about two college students, who pose themselves as Mughal ruler Muhammad bin Tughluq and Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta (they make people believe that they had survived in their tombs after eating a magic herb), end up as the Prime Minister and his advisor

The recent Surf Excel ad has created a typical, pointless commotion on social media platforms with right-wingers taking exception over an assumed slight to the Hindu festival of Holi.

The ad showed a young Hindu girl saving a Muslim boy's, clad in a white dress, from being daubed with Holi colours because he had a namaz prayer session to attend.

The ad, in the opinion of this writer, has nothing problematic, and if anything, it is cute and cuddly with all those cherubs around. But the Hindu right-wingers seem touchy and are unhappy with how the ad unfolds. But luckily it is only an ad film and, hopefully, the hullabaloo, after running the outrage cycle, will die in a day or two.

But some 48 years back, a Tamil film ran into rough weather over some similarly motivated politicking by the DMK in Tamil Nadu, which it (the DMK) tried to paint as being anti-Muslim. It took all the innate intelligence and adroit manoeuvering of Cho Ramaswamy, the well-known journalist, MP and film personality, to scuttle DMk leader M Karunanidhi's cheap plans.

The film was Muhammad bin Tughluq — now celebrated in the annals of Tamil movie history as a biting political satire that was ahead of the times. The movie's original was a drama of the same name, which too was helmed by Cho and his troupe. The drama was hugely popular, and, of course, controversial, too, as it took pot-shots at Karunanidhi's politics at the state level and Indira Gandhi's at the Centre.

The story is about two college students, who pose themselves as Mughal ruler Muhammad bin Tughluq and Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta (they make people believe that they had survived in their tombs after eating a magic herb), end up as the Prime Minister and his advisor. They lay all kinds of Tughluqian rules and make a mockery of the governance. The spoof is sharp and the swipes at contemporary politics were on fleek.  

Even as a drama, Muhammad bin Tughluq faced several hurdles when it was staged, and it was not uncommon to see it being performed to the accompaniment of ruckus created by the DMK men.

The drama, thanks to the unintended publicity provided by the unthinking DMK cadre, became a huge hit, and Cho sensing an opportunity to reprise the success on celluloid, announced a movie version of the same.

The moment the film was announced (the year was 1971), the DMK got down to hinder the movie's production every possible way. The DMK went about its task both overtly and covertly. Many actors and actresses were informally told not to participate in the film. But Cho was anyway going to cast mostly his troupe members only.

Many technicians were asked to stay away from the movie, but since Cho had many friends in the industry, he used his personal good offices to get the movie going.

But getting a music director for the film proved to be a tough job, as most of them did not want to incur the ire of the ruling DMK government. The DMK had plenty of holdover Kollywood at that time. It was also the period when MGR was still in the DMK (though he and Karunanidhi had started to fall out of each other.)

Cho, however, managed to rope in music director MS Viswanathan (MSV), who, to his eternal credit, decided to stick with his friend even if it meant rubbing the big shots of the ruling party on the wrong side.

MSV, who was virtually the numero uno of Tamil film music at that time, also came in handy to stop Karunanidhi on his tracks in another way. But we are getting ahead of the story.

With all the attempts to make the movie a non-starter, the DMK's final gambit was to spread the canard that the film was anti-Muslim in its content. Since the film's protagonist is a maverick Mughal ruler, the DMK planted the idea that the movie was projecting the Muslim community in a bad light.

The shooting of the film was almost over, but the latest DMK machination seemed to be doing the trick. The protests seemed to be gathering momentum. Cho felt cornered, and he had to quickly come up with the response that will set at rest the misgivings of Muslim.

But since the film was fully shot, he couldn't change any of the contents. He was also not ready to tamper with the script as it would derail the entire film.

But quickly thinking on his feet — a hallmark of his entire life — Cho and his team decided to have a song right at the beginning of the film along with the film's credit that would be in praise of Allah.

Muslim songs, in that period in Tamil Nadu, were mostly sung by Nagoor Hanifa, who as it happened, was also the crooner of DMK's propaganda songs. He was also a personal friend of M Karunanidhi. So getting him to sing for this film was out of the question.

The film crew tried to get the legendary Mohd Rafi, but he was so busy with his Hindi songs commitments that his dates were not available for the next one-and-half-a-months. Cho couldn't afford to wait that long, as he was not sure whether he can hold on to the pressure from the DMK that long.

So Cho had to look for an alternate voice that would carry the appeal for Muslim songs, which in that period needed a deep-throated singing ability — something on the lines of Nagoor Hanifa in feel.

Again, as it happened, Cho felt that MSV himself would fit the bill. But till then MSV had won a name for himself only as a music director. He had hummed some harmony parts in a few numbers, but never really sung any song.

MSV was skeptical, but Cho somehow managed to convince him and got him to belt out the number.

The song, penned by Vaali, was: Allah Allah, nee illaadha idame illai, nee thaane ulagin ellai (Allah! Allah! There is no place without You, You are the ultimate in affection.)

The song became an instant hit, and until today enjoys iconic status among the public in TN. Also, MSV's singing took wings from then on, and he has sung many memorable numbers since then.

After a song that sung the praises of Allah in no uncertain terms, the Muslims had no problems with the movie and they would not join the protest chorus whipped up by the DMK.

Cho's smart strategy saved the day for him yet again.

The film eventually released and became a hit, and to this day enjoys a cult status. The song, as we said, is still hugely popular across the State.

The Surf ad too one day will get to that position.

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