It is election time and political gurus are much in demand for their golden bytes. History is witness to the fact that great rulers were propped up by the far-sightedness of king-makers, who could foresee the long-term implications of the decisions they made. In the Indian context, Cho Ramaswamy has been a personality hard to understand for some. And for many others, he is a modern day Chanakya. I spoke to him at the office of his magazine Tughlak, on Greenways Road, where he still attends to work at the age of 80.
In the course of his career, he has been a lawyer, playwright, actor, journalist, mythologist. “I had taken to law and wanted to be a lawyer. I wanted time for my theatre in the evenings and when I worked as a junior lawyer, I did not get much time in the evenings. I joined the TTK group and was their legal advisor during this stint, I got time for theatre as well.”
But surprisingly, Cho hadn’t even been to a theatre till he reached the Law college. “Somebody took me for a play and it impressed me so much that I wanted to write plays,” he says. One thing led to the other and very soon, Indian epics caught Cho’s interest. “It can be attributed to my work in theatre. I was working on a play called Sambhavami Yuge Yuge. The protagonist of that play was a lawyer and had to quote extensively from the Bhagvat Gita. So I studied the text and found it extremely fascinating. It led me to other texts like the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Upanishads,” says Cho, who went on to write over 23 plays. “These plays were very successful and many of them were performed over 100 or 200 times. However, I don’t think mythology became a point of reference in my plays. But this knowledge helped me write about them in my journal Thuglak. The epics have many timeless and practical teachings and are relevant even today.”
As a writer Cho doesn’t feel he was consciously making any change in cinema or theatre. “One play had to be different from the other. So after writing two or three farces, I would write a political satire. That is how plays like Muhammad Bin Thuglak got written. I also did films to get some change from theatre,” says Cho, further narrating his entry into cinema. “Sivaji Ganesan and director A Bhimsingh saw
the play Petral Thaan Pillaiya, a United Amateur Artists production, where I had played a mechanic’s role. They were planning to adapt it into a film and felt that I should play the role of the mechanic in the film as well. That’s how my journey in cinema began,” he says.
It’s been almost half a century since Cho wrote the iconic play Muhammad bin Thuglak, where he played the eponymous role. “It has to be different if written now but it is appreciated even today because many things mentioned there are relevant. I thank politicians for having kept the play relevant by their behaviour,” he says, with his characteristic humour. The play became an instant hit and Cho also got a name for the journal he began. “Since I had done political criticism in my plays, I started doing it in my journal as well. The name Thuglak became quite popular and I was beginning to be increasingly associated with it. Hence, I decided to use that name for my journal as well.”
For someone who has closely followed politics since independence, Cho feels that the worst moment for democracy in India was the Emergency in 1975. “Nowadays, I feel that a little dose of emergency will do good; but it all depends on the people who administer it. It is capable of getting out of hand. But some determined governance is required at this point,” says Cho who feels that competition in journalism is more today. “I think English journalism has changed for the better. Sadly, for Tamil journalism, I cannot say the same thing.” As a political commentator, Cho is looked up to for his foresight, wit and sharp remarks. “Nobody is going to relish criticism. But at the same time, there is enough protection for those who want to be anti-establishment. I have been a critic of the central and state government for long and nothing has happened to me. There will be a few notices slapped on you and you have to face them. It’s a part of your job.” He asks politely if the interview can be wrapped up, as he has a wheezing problem. We agree and he quickly poses for a few photographs with us. As he walks out of his cabin, the modest environs of his office strike me. With his political connections, it wouldn’t have been difficult for him to expand his operations to build a formidable office complex. But people buy Thuglak not because it is widely advertised but because it has the unmatched stamp of Cho. His opinions, laced with wit and sarcasm makes the magazine one of its kind and it takes nerves of steel to stick to your stand and run the show as per your own terms. Cho Ramaswamy is one of the last of his kind. Journalism, as we knew it, still survives but is counting its last days.