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Born on October 5, 1934, he was a lawyer by training and later branched into theatre, films and finally to journalism. Winner of the B.D. Goenka award for excellence in journalism, he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha by the BJP government and served as an MP from 1999 to 2005.
Besides his plays, some of which were made into successful films, Ramaswamy’s other writings covered a wide variety of subjects. Well-versed in the Indian epics, Vedas and Puranas, he wrote copiously on religion and culture.
Gadfly who carried satire & comedy from stage to print
A versatile personality, Cho Ramaswamy was a lawyer, actor, playwright, journalist, commentator and a political interlocutor, all rolled into one.
Born into a family of lawyers — his grandfather Arunachala Iyer, his father Srinivasa Iyer and uncle Mathrubootham were well-known lawyers — Cho also took up the legal profession. For some time, he was a legal advisor to the TTK group, before plunging fully into theatre. Later, he ventured into films and finally made his mark as a journalist by launching his own magazine.
Even before he entered journalism, his work in the popular theatre was laced with political and social criticism. If the attempts of the Congress government led by M. Bhaktavatsalam in the late 1960s to censor the script of his play Sambavami Yuge Yuge drew popular attention, his political satire Muhammed Bin Thuglak was a runaway success. It struck a chord with the people, as through the story of a whimsical king, it pilloried the vice of floor-crossing that was playing havoc with parliamentary democracy in many States then.
Cho was a close friend of many political leaders, former Chief Minister and late Congress president Kamaraj being one of them in his early days. He even worked as a go-between Kamaraj and Indira Gandhi for a possible merger of the Congress some time after its split.
Among the others he was close to were Jayaprakash Narayan, L.K. Advani, R-S-S leader Balasaheb Deoras, Chandra Shekhar, G.K. Moopanar. Among contemporaries, he was close to late Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Muhammed Bin Thuglak was made into a film despite the then DMK government’s efforts to stop its production. Party cadres sought to disrupt the screening too — in some places the screen was torn by vandals.
By the time he launched Thuglak on January 14, 1970, he had already established a name for himself. The articles and cartoons in it were a bold challenge to vested interests. Often writing from a common man’s perspective, he seemed to lend his voice to the voiceless and the disempowered middle class.
Cho had a simplistic view of his success in the fields he forayed into. He described the launch of Thuglak and its role as a gadfly in Tamil Nadu political discourse as just an extension of the satire and comedy that were integral to his plays.
“I have been lucky,” he used to say. It was no surprise when he titled his memoir Athirshtam Thantha Anubavangal (‘Experiences Given by Fortune’).
Cho Ramaswamy's association with political leaders transcended the sort of friendships that journalists routinely maintain with them. It was a role that resulted in key political decisions and major developments.
Even though he could count towering figures such as K. Kamaraj, Jayaprakash Narayan and Morarji Desai among those with whom he was closely associated, it was Cho's friendship with former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa that attracted much attention in recent times.
Their careers began roughly at the same time, and they acted in some films together. Cho was seen as an advisor to Jayalalithaa, though neither of them thought so, preferring instead to characterise their proximity as just as a long-standing friendship.
When he was admitted to hospital last year with a respiratory ailment, she visited him to enquire about his health. It is a strange conjunction of destiny that he died in the same hospital as her within a day-and-a-half of her death.
Contrary to popular perception, Cho always had reservations about supporting Jayalalithaa. Soon after AIADMK founder M.G. Ramachandran's death, his wife Janaki was sworn in Chief Minister. However, she lacked the requisite numbers, given that many AIADMK members had backed Jayalalithaa.
Cho wanted the Janaki Ramachandran ministry to survive, as he strongly felt it would keep Ms. Jayalalithaa and the DMK at bay. However, Congress leader Rajiv Gandhi favoured Jayalalithaa, and the Janaki government collapsed in January 1988 after unprecedented violence in the Assembly following the Congress' refusal to back her regime.
In 1996, Cho had become 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 openly support the DMK-TMC combine.
He adequately warned the BJP against forging an alliance for the 1998 Lok Sabha elections with Ms. Jayalalithaa. His reservations proved prophetic, as the Vajpayee regime fell after she withdrew support after just one year.
However, in 2001, Cho did warm up to her and once again played a role in bringing Moopanar’s TMC and the AIADMK together. This was the very man who helped the DMK and the TMC form an unassailable combine only five years earlier.
Thereafter, he did occasionally sound critical of the AIADMK supremo, but his political positions were by and large guided by his unbridled hostility to the DMK and its patriarch M. Karunanidhi.
In his address to Thuglaq readers in January last – it is an annual fixture – he advised voters against supporting ‘family rule’, implying that they should vote against the DMK.
Perhaps, an episode from their theatre days best sums up the relationship between Cho and Jayalalithaa.
During the rehearsal of a play ‘The Whole Truth’, Cho, donning the role of the villain, was supposed to strangle the character played by Jayalalithaa. as he closed in, she could not help laughing instead of being afraid. “His expressions made me laugh,” she explained.
“She might have treated my stinging comments too as comical,” Cho was to quip later.