“One thing Balachander could never do is to make me an actor,” said late Cho Ramaswamy. It was at an event to commemorate and celebrate the eightieth birth anniversary of one of Indian cinema’s greatest directors, K Balachander. At this function, when all others on the stage spoke of the veteran director’s contribution, Cho brought the house down with his statement.
Exactly a year ago, the playwright, political commentator, actor and satirist Cho Ramaswamy passed away. Today, the deep void which Cho has left in Tamil Nadu and its intelligentsia is hard to fill. His humour, sarcasm and vigour are all dearly missed.
Having acted in over 200 films, directed four, scripted 14 and written about 23 plays which had been performed over 5,000 times wherever Tamils lived, Cho left an indelible mark in Tamil Nadu and Indian history as a truly remarkable man.
Even though he was closely associated with towering personalities like K Kamaraj, Jayaprakash Narayan and Morarji Desai, it was Cho’s friendship with former Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa that attracted the most attention. Their careers began at the same time; they even acted in some films together.
When Cho was admitted to hospital last year with a respiratory ailment, she visited him to enquire about his health and said, “Anna (elder brother), you will get well soon. Don’t worry.” It is a strange unification of destiny that they died at the same hospital, he a day-and-a-half after her.
Cho never shied away from having an opinion. Be it supporting Kamaraj and Morarji Desai or praising the efforts of the then prime minister Manmohan Singh and the United Progressive Alliance in successfully sealing the nuclear deal with the United States, he was forthright in airing his views and writing about what he convincingly felt.
Such was the credibility that Cho established amongst all his readers that he was known as a writer and journalist who never ‘lied’. If we are to contextualise and convey about the persona of Cho to the gen-next, then following one’s pursuits armed with strong ethics would be an invaluable lesson to be learnt from his life.
Over the course of Cho’s journey, he has donned multi-disciplinary hats. Be it as an actor, playwright, lawyer or journalist, in whatever he did, he was passionate and true to it in the most complete sense.
His contribution in introducing Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Tamil readers deserves a special mention. It was way back in 2009, much before the mainstream started writing about the Gujarat model of development that Cho brought it out through his magazine Thuglak.
For Cho, Thuglak was an important means to what he called a ‘responsible opposition’. He would criticise any government in power. In fact, whenever he was asked, Cho was the first to come out and say, “Let anyone be the Chief Minister, I am the first critic.”
“If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything,” reads a famous quote by Malcolm X. Cho stood rock solid in support of the reporters who had been sent by him to Gujarat in 2009, to report about the state and its administration. It is these reports that he used to good effect in voicing his support for Modi.
The annual-day celebration of Thuglak was a big event every year in Chennai. It would be held on 14 January, the day on which the magazine was founded. This special event would witness never-before-seen crowds. In fact, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has attended two of Thuglak’s annual-day celebrations as the chief minister of Gujarat. It is through these events that Cho supported Modi for prime minister. The winnability criteria which Cho saw in Modi were consistently reiterated by him in all of his writings and interviews.
Cho was also an active proponent of leaders who appealed to the masses with ‘social concern’. For him, this was paramount, and precisely one of the main reasons why he felt the late M G Ramachandran was a popular leader in Tamil Nadu politics; for his mass appeal and his social concern for the people, at large.
Several news dailies have headlined, ‘He CHO-ked Politicians’, and this is so very apt for Cho. He was at his best when he was targeting politicians of all hues, but the beauty of it was that he had an irreplaceable personal relationship with all of them. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president and former Tamil Nadu chief minister M Karunanidhi was always a target, but in the next breath, Cho would also shower praise on the leader for his tireless work.
With his well-attended annual events, he could swing the fortunes of Tamil Nadu’s political parties, not only through perceptions but by ballot too. In his address to Thuglak readers in January last, he advised voters against supporting ‘family rule’, implying that they should vote against the DMK.
Cho considered himself a nationalist and a patriot. In his commentaries, he would never go soft on separatism. He also had a strong belief in Hinduism and its rich traditions. He would apply a mark of vibhuti (ash) on his forehead because he was proud of Hindu practices and customs. However, Cho maintained good personal equations with those who opposed his views. This was his greatness. “I don’t think I will see a person like him again,” said K Veeramani, a leader of Dravida Kazhagam.
Gujarat elections are here. It is an apt time to recall the “Merchant of Death” introduction. In inimitable Cho style, he introduced Narendra Modi, the then Gujarat chief minister, to a vast gathering as the “Merchant of Death”, a take on how Congress leader Sonia Gandhi had described Modi before the assembly elections in Gujarat in 2012. Cho said, “I now invite to address you the Merchant of Death — for terrorism, for corruption, to nepotism, to officials’ inefficiency, to bureaucratic negligence, to poverty and negligence. The merchant of death to darkness and despair will now address you…”
Although professionally Cho was a well-respected legal adviser to TTK group of companies, and wore many different hats at different points of his life, deep down this humble and ambition-less thinker always fancied himself as a writer in search of an identity. His readers will heartily vouch that Cho didn’t just find an identity, he also shaped the identities and opinions of many.