Cho was senior to me by a couple of years at the Vivekananda College, Chennai. The 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 an actor. His drama troupe consisted of brilliant, educated youth like Neelu, V R Srinivasan, Ambi… all amateurs, adept at delivering impromptu, dialogues on stage, just like Cho.
Cho’s plays were political satires with sharp criticism of goverments and its leaders. Cho invited Congress stalwart K Kamaraj to witness one of his plays. 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 for fear of facing his father who was a staunch Congressman. With trepidity, he avoided attending T T Krishnamachari & Co where he worked in the legal department and meeting T T Vasu, closely associated with Kamaraj! Of course, Vasu was also furious!
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 1000 times! SB mentored him and provided invaluable contacts with political leaders and later handed the business to Cho.
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 Mahabharatha, Ramayana and other scriptures. With this knowledge, he could attempt to disabuse the poorly informed and often stupid attack of the Dravidian papers and magazines of that time.
Close contact with national leaders....
Cho established good contacts in Delhi and invited the senior correspondent of Indian Express, K Srinivasan, to write from the capital. KS, with his extensive political connections, introduced Cho to top political leaders. Cho’s sharp intellect, humour and satire impressed these and got him close to several political bigwigs. He expanded these to include Kamaraj, 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 written by her in Thuglak. These provided rich insights into the strong personality of the future Chief Minister.
None of the senior political leaders, both at the Centre and state, were spared from Cho’s sharp criticism – Indira Gandhi, M G R, Karunanidhi, Jayalalithaa… He strongly opposed the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi and expressed his dissent in several unique ways including releasing the wrapper of the first issue of Thuglak after the imposition of emergency, blank and dark. He worked closely with Ramnath Goenka of Indian Express and S Gurumurthy, the fire brand chartered accountant, to oppose the Emergency.
Cho wrote extensively on religion, writing books like Mahabharatham 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 cultural and religious practices of 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 remove misconceptions about the Hindu religion.
Cho was a staunch nationalist but was not affiliated with 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 GK Moopanar against the AIADMK and the Congress led by PV Narasimha Rao. He persuaded actor Rajinikanth to support the DMK-TMC combine openly. The Jayalalithaa-led AIADMK was severely drubbed in the assembly elections and Karunanidhi was returned to power.
Respected even by bitter critics...
However, vexed with the family enrichment of Karunanidhi, Cho made a U-turn in 2001. He 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 the respect of political leaders, cutting across 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 on Kumudam for their coverage of film news. Cho opted to focus on political thought and economy. One more instance of his courage.
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. Then 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 the same newsprint as the inside pages. This meant sizeable economies in printing costs. He didn’t opt for colour for all pages. Tughlak did not go for advertisements from large consumer product manufacturers. It developed a loyal ad base by a few advertisers - educational institutions, realtors and small 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 leader!
Thuglak has 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. S Gurumurthy, who has taken charge as editor, should focus on revenues.
Thuglak is famous for its cartoons carrying pun and satire, frequently the wrapper used to be adorned with dialogues by two donkeys with which he began the inaugural issue. Credit should also go to his training a good number of writers on his line of satire like Sathya, Dhurvasar...
Cho wrote several features, especially on national and local politics. With his indifferent health in recent months these had reduced drastically. One thus misses brilliant 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 the launch of Thuglak on Pongal day, Cho organised anniversary meetings. His hour-long talks were, most of the time, solo but later expanded with senior politicians. These attracted audiences in large numbers and was popular among its readers who were invited to present their views. Cho’s sparkling instant comments were 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 . -SV