Thursday, March 1, 2012

Is Thuglak’s Editor Going the Thuglak Way?

The front-page cartoons of this magazine have always been considered a barometer of the nation, and particularly Tamil Nadu’s, political landscape. Rib-tickling and dripping with sarcasm, it’s following has gradually swelled, though, not in dramatic terms, as certain high-profile media houses would flaunt. Be it the DMK or the AIADMK, the BJP or Congress, the Left or National Conference, its leaders have been the butt of many an acerbic but thought-provoking joke. In fact, it may not sound out of context to liken this publication to the American humour magazine, MAD.

Sample this: during the height of Anna Hazare’s high-profile fast against corruption, resulting in hectic parleys between his team of lieutenants and the Parliament, this magazine ran a front page cartoon with Team-A on one side and representatives of the UPA government on the other. Team-A, which remains silent when its demands such as inclusion of the Judiciary and prime minister under the Lokpal Bill’s ambit are met with inconclusive replies, jumps with exultation when the politicians mention that the Bill will be debated in Parliament.

It has to be noted that this magazine was one of the few sane voices calling a spade a spade when virtually all of the Indian media had gone overboard declaring India to be on the cusp of another revolution and that Anna is the new-age Jayaprakash Narayan. Today, we need no seer to declare that Team-A’s movement against corruption has turned a damp squib.

A recent front-page cartoon on the magazine was the photograph of Priyanka Gandhi gently pinching the cheek of her mother, Sonia, during the Uttar Pradesh election campaign. While most newspapers carried the photo under titles relating to love and affection, this magazine had a different take. Priyanka is shown telling her mother, “I never knew you were made of such strong stuff... you have never revealed even to me where the Rs24 lakh crore has been stashed away...”

This, when the CBI director had made a few days ago the startling revelation that Swiss banks were a cache for a humongous amount of the nation’s illegal wealth.

The magazine in question is the Tamil weekly Thuglak, and its editor, the indomitable lawyer-cum-drama artiste-cum-political commentator Cho Ramaswamy; perhaps better described as the gadfly of Indian, or largely Tamil Nadu, politics.

derives its name from Muhammad Bin Thuglak, Cho’s stage play, a satire on Indian politics made in the 60s, which also had a successful cinematic adaptation, with the director himself playing the lead role. Tongue-in-cheek, the movie likens the then governments to the capricious ruler who flirted with the idea of setting up a second capital of India, Daulatabad, and burnt his fingers in the process. The ruler comes to life from his grave (it is later revealed that it’s a hoax), sweeping the media and historians off its feet; gets elected as the prime minster through a sequence of hilarious sequences, and proposes ridiculous solutions for the nation’s problems. For the language issue dogging the country – the DK, the precursor to the DMK, was then dead against the imposition of Hindi in Tamil Nadu –  he suggests the imposition of a totally alien language, Persian; he vacillates between making all his party’s MLAs deputy prime ministers and office boys, the trademark ‘Cho’ wit embellished in every single dialogue. From Nehru to Rajaji, Karunanidhi to the Marxists, Muhammed Bin Thughlak takes an almighty dig at the nation’s then leading politicians; it could still be a blueprint for contemporary satire cinema.

Which is why its editor’s new-found allegiance with the AIADMK comes as a pointed jab to the heart, or a bitter after-taste after a palatial seven-course meal. (click on link below to view speech, though, it's in Tamil)

At the 42nd anniversary of the magazine in Chennai, Cho extolled on the capabilities of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa – he said she was erudite, multilingual, has the ability to grasp facts immediately and is statesman non-pareil – while making a pitch for her to become the next prime minister. At the same time, he spared no sarcasm whatsoever in attacking the DMK’s chief, the now beleaguered former CM M Karunanidhi. His speech had an air about it which may not have belonged to even a die-hard Amma (as Jayalalithaa is popularly referred to) supporter.

Members of the Fourth Estate having political allegiances is certainly no crime, but there is a very fine line between having one's views and impinging it on others. Clearly the bespectacled editor of Thuglak
seems to have transgressed that fine distinction.

Was he reading a handout delivered to him straight from Poes Garden? At least he gave every indication in its affirmative.

Will Cho now have the same temerity to pinprick the AIADMK on matters of governance? Let us not forget that the new government not too long ago was chastened by the Madras High Court for its overdrive to reverse the Samacheer Kalvi scheme initiated by its predecessor. Jayalalithaa may have not embarked fully on vendetta politics, as she once used to after getting elected, but the comment that she being made of prime ministerial-stuff was hardly expected from a critic as vociferous and respected as him.

True, the recent DMK regime could have easily put to shame a Laloo Yadav or Shibu Soren – who will forget Rs 1,76,000 crore, a figure one of its former ministers, Andimuthu Raja, is perhaps destined to be associated with till his death?; few in Kollywood, the thriving Tamil film industry, would even want to talk about the vice-like grip the former TN CM’s family held over it; its ministers had to possess a new qualification – involvement in a couple of land-grabbing cases; but Jayalalithaa is certainly no Joan of Arc. She has yet to clear her name in a slew of corruption-related charges; and the shadows of her association with her former confidante, Sasikala Natarajan, are only darkening by the day. And the coalition between the AIADMK and the Vijaykanth-led DMDK has collapsed even before it could pick up steam, putting to shame the dalliances of Elizabeth Taylor, Hugh Hefner or Kim Kardashian.

Which brings us to an all-important question: is bias-free journalism anathema to Indian politics?