IN THE 1990s All India Radio invited me to record the life of Cho and his times for its archives for release after his demise. I had several sittings with him at the Thuglak office when he travelled down memory lane providing rich vignettes on his early life, his stint as a legal advisor at TTK, his rise as a theatre pioneer….
Unfortunately, we could not complete the task. However, I was closely following his rise and rise.
Cho was senior to me by a couple of years at the Vivekananda College, Chennai. His drama troupe, Viveka Fine Arts, originated at our college. It made a mark for his humour and satire. It dominated Chennai theatre through the 1960s and also paved the way for his entering films as a comedian. His drama troupe consisted of brilliant, well-educated youths like Neelu, V R Srinivasan, Ambi… all amateurs, adept at delivering impromptu, dialogues on stage, just like Cho.
Cho’s plays were political satires of governments. Cho invited Congress stalwart K Kamaraj to witness one of his dramas. Obviously Kamaraj was not quite amused over the strident satire. When the play was interrupted for his address, Kamaraj expressed his displeasure. Cho mimicked him and Kamaraj walked out with anguish! That evening Cho stayed away from his house in fear of facing his father who was a staunch Congressman. With trepidity he avoided facing T T Krishnamachari and his son T T Vasu, who were closely associated with the Congress party! Of course, they were furious too!
Cho expanded his reach by launching Thuglak in 1970 in cooperation with S Balasubramanian, Managing Director of Vikatan Publications and Editor, Ananda Vikatan. The title was after his famous satirical play Mohammed bin Thuglak that was staged over a 1000 times! SB mentored him and provided invaluable contacts with political leaders.
That was the time the DMK government under Karunanidhi was finding its feet and was dominated by Dravidian literature built around anti-religious, anti-Brahmin rhetoric. Cho took these head on. Cho was a consummate writer on Mahabaratha, Ramayana and other scriptures in lucid Tamil. With this knowledge he could attempt to disabuse the half-baked and poorly informed attack of the Dravidian papers and magazines of that time.
Cho established good contacts in Delhi and invited the senior correspondent of Indian Express, K Srinivasan, to write from the capital. KS, with his wide political contacts introduced Cho to senior political leaders. Cho’s sharp intellect, humour and satire impressed these and got him close to several political bigwigs. He expanded these later to include Morarji Desai, A B Vajpayee, Chandrasekhar, LK Advani… He admired the rare qualities of value-based politics of Morarji Desai, Chandrasekhar and other leaders of the Janata Party and later of the BJP.
Cho admired the intellect and brilliance of Jayalalithaa and presented a series of articles of her in Thuglak. These provided rich insights to the strong personality of the future chief minister.
None of the senior political leaders, both at the Centre and state, were spared from his sharp criticism – Indira Gandhi, M G R, Karunanidhi, Jayalalithaa… He strongly opposed the emergency in 1975-76 imposed by Indira Gandhi and expressed his dissent in several unique ways including releasing the wrapper of his magazine Thuglak blank and dark.
Cho wrote extensively on religion, writing books like Mahabaratham Pesugirathu, Valmiki Ramayanam and Verukkathakkadha Brahmaniyam. A television serial directed by him on his book Enge Brahmanan (Where Is The Brahmin?) was about the life of an elite Tamil brahmin, but it also questioned the relevance of the culture and religious practices in the current times. He can be well compared with Rajaji for his erudition and in-depth knowledge of Hindu scriptures. With this knowledge he tried to clear misconceptions about the Hindu religion.
He was a strong nationalist, but was not affiliated to any political party.
In 1996, Cho was a strident critic of Jayalalithaa's first tenure as Chief Minister. He played a pivotal role in bringing together the DMK and the newly launched Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) led by G.K. Moopanar against the AIADMK and the Congress led by P.V. Narasimha Rao. He persuaded actor Rajinikanth to support openly the DMK-TMC combine. The Jayalalithaa-led AIADMK was severely drubbed in the assembly elections and Karunanidhi returned to power.
However, in 2001, Cho made a turn about and once again played a role, brought Moopanar’s TMC and the AIADMK together and saw the return of Jayalalithaa to power.
Till his end Cho kept his integrity and stature and commanded respect of political leaders, crossing party lines. His visitors at the hospital included M Karunanidhi, J Jayalalithaa and Narendra Modi among others! Those who presented tributes on his demise included DMK’s ideologue Suba Veerapandian and DK’s Veeramani!
Despite his close association with the film world – he had acted in over 200 films and written the script and directed several of these - Cho steered Thuglak away from the familiar addiction to film news even when well-established Tamil weeklies like Ananda Vikatan and Kalki modelled their coverage of film news like Kumudam. Cho opted to focus on political thought and economy. One more instance of his courage.
And Cho maintained cordiality with all the three established weeklies: Ananda Vikatan’s editor S Balasubramanian helped Cho launch Thuglak and later handed it to Cho. Later Kalki’s Bharathan Publications printed and managed sales. And Kumudam Publications has been doing this in recent years!
Cho focused on costs and did not opt for gloss. The 40 page issue has the wrapper printed over same newsprint as the inside pages. This meant sizeable economies in printing costs. He didn’t even opt for colour for all pages. Tughlak did not go for advertisements from large consumer product manufacturers. It developed a loyal advertisement base by a few advertisers - educational institutions, realtors and local health services. At the peak of Cho’s close relations with AIADMK, one came across a large number of ministers and party bigwigs flooding birthday greetings for their supreme the leader!
Disappointingly, despite the respect commanded by Cho by both the DMK and the AIADMK, the state government that splurges advertisements from time to time, does not extend these to periodicals.
Thuglak had also been keeping the cover price low at just Rs 10. One should admit that for a publication of near five decades standing revenues have been modest.
Thuglak is famous for its cartoons carrying pun and satire, especially on the wrapper with dialogues by two donkeys with which he adorned the inaugural issue. I believe they were inspired/driven by Cho. The credit should also go to his training a good number of writers on his line of satire like Sathya, Dhurvasar…
Cho had been writing a number of features, especially on national and local politics. With his indifferent health in recent months these had reduced drastically. One thus misses the brilliant memorable pieces like Onnarai Pakka Naaledu, a hilarious, imaginary tabloid of 1.5 pages with juicy comments from political leaders. One remembers the flourish of such features during election campaigns.
On the anniversary of launch of Thuglak on Pongal day Cho organised annual meetings. His hour-long talks were, most of the time, solo but later expanded with senior politicians. These attracted audience in large numbers and was most popular among its readers who were invited to present their views. Cho’s sparkling comments and instructions were indeed memorable. In the one he organised with Narendra Modi in 2012, the latter made a brilliant presentation and Cho predicted the BJP capturing power in Delhi!
Well-wishers in business should help strengthen Thuglak and help it continue its pioneering work as a political satire non-pareil