India is Sri Lanka’s closest neighbour. Among the Indian states, it is the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu that is closest to the island. Tamil Nadu meaning “Tamil Land/Country” is home to more than 72 million people. Since 1967, Tamil Nadu has been ruled by political parties adhering to what is termed as Dravidian ideology. ‘Dravidianism’ in essence espouses economic development, social justice, equality, elimination of caste discrimination, women emancipation, secularism, rationalism, self-respect, greater cooperation among South Indian states, opposition to Hindi imposition and a Tamil national consciousness.
The ‘Dravidian’ political ideology has been ruling the roost in Tamil Nadu for the past 57 years. Either the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (DMK) or its alternative the All India Anna-Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (AIADMK) have been enjoying political power in the State.
In spite of this “Dravidian” heritage of rationalism and self-respect, it is Tamil Nadu that has allowed film stars to exercise political hegemony among Indian states. M.G. Ramachandran known as “MGR” became the first film star to take up chief ministership of an Indian state. MGR though ethnically a Malayalee made a name for himself as an actor in Tamil films and followed it up by becoming the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu state. MGR the founder-leader of the AIADMK ruled from 1977 to 1987 being elected thrice as chief minister of Tamil Nadu in 1977, 1980 and 1985.
Maruthur Gopalamenon Ramachandran or M.G. Ramachandran was born on 17 January 1917, His 107th birth anniversary will be celebrated on Wednesday (17). This article therefore focuses on the cinematic politics of MGR to denote his Birthday this week by outlining the cinematic politics and tracing his journey from leading Tamil film actor to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister.
Sri Lankan connection
Interestingly, MGR had a Sri Lankan connection being born in Hantane, Kandy. His father was at that time teaching in an estate school in Kandy. MGR, the youngest child, was born at home in Hantane on 17 January 1917 and named as Ramachander. He grew up in Kandy till he was two. In 1919 the family returned to India.
MGR known by his given name Ramachander joined the drama troupe ‘Madurai Original Boys Company’ as a child actor. The troupe specialised in staging plays with young boys as actors. When the film industry began flourishing, MGR tried to become a film actor. His first film role was in the 1936 movie “Sathi Leelaavathy”. MGR acted in 20 minor roles from 1936 until he got his major break as lead actor in the film “Rajakumari” in 1947. Thereafter for 30 years, he was the uncrowned king of Tamil cinema. The swashbuckling action hero gave up acting in 1977 after he became Tamil Nadu Chief Minister. His last film ‘Maduraiyai Meetta Sundarapaandiyan’ was released in 1978.
M.G. Ramachandran acted in 136 films from 1936 to 1978. He played minor roles in 20 and major roles in 116 films. Of these, 12 of MGR’s films were silver jubilee hits running for over 25 weeks each after being screened. Another 68 films ran for more than 100 days at theatres during their first screenings. Even the MGR films that did not run for 100 days initially turned out to be money-spinners in the long run as each re-release brought large audiences to theatres.
This was the time when the magical initials MGR comprised a household name in the Tamil-speaking homes of countries with a substantial population of Tamils, such as India, Malaysia, Singapore and Sri Lanka. MGR had a huge following of fans in Sri Lanka during the time he sparkled on the silver screen. Among his fans in the island were a large number of Sinhalese and Muslims too.
MGR had a formula of his own in the films he acted in. This helped build up a screen persona that immensely benefitted him in politics too. The story had to be sentimental with displays of mother-son love or brother-sister affection. Despite ups and downs and twists and turns, the good guy had to triumph in the end. Needless to say, MGR was always the good guy except for a few in the early stages of his career. The films had to have a positive message imparting a lesson to the people. The hero was regularly portrayed as a paragon of virtue who fights for justice on the side of the oppressed. The hero sings philosophical songs and songs urging social upliftment for the down-trodden masses.
Besides these features, a typical MGR film always had thrilling fight scenes and titillating love song sequences. MGR got the finest villain actors to play opposite him. P.S. Veerappah, T. Ramachandran, Sinnappaah Devar, M.R. Radha, T.S. Baliah, M.N. Nambiar, S.A. Asokan, R.S. Manohar and K. Kannan were but some of the villains who clashed with the action hero on screen.
Likewise, MGR always had the loveliest actresses as his scintillating heroines on screen. Among actresses MGR paired with were V.N. Janaki (whom he married later), B.S. Saroja, Madhri Devi, Anjali Devi, Bhanumathy, Padmini, Vyjayanthimala, Saroja Devi, Savithri, Devika, Jamuna, Rajasulochana, K.R. Vijaya, Jayalalithaa, Vanishree, Lakshmi, Manjula, Latha and Radha Salujah. Of these stars, MGR has acted in the most number of films with Jayalalithaa as leading lady. Saroja Devi came next.
However, it was well-known that MGR was infatuated with the alluring Jayalalithaa Jayaram with whom he paired in 28 films. Though unmarried, “Selvi” (Miss) Jayalalithaa was regarded as the love of MGR’s life. Jayalalithaa’s passport to success in filmdom was her second Tamil film ‘Aayirathil Oruvan’ (One Man in a Thousand) where she played leading lady to MGR. Despite the 32-year difference in age, the MGR-Jayalalithaa duo was a hot pair. MGR’s last film with Jayalalithaa was ‘Pattikkaattu Ponnaiyah’ (Village Rustic Ponnaiyah) made in 1973.
There was a time when MGR in a movie called ‘Thanipiravi’ (Unique Being) played Lord Muruga and Jayalalithaa his consort Valli in a dream sequence. A picture of both together as Murugan and Valli was framed and worshipped by many. According to some observers MGR had a foot fetish for Jayalalithaa. In many of the films they acted together in, there were scenes of MGR touching Jayalalithaa’s feet like removing a thorn from her sole or massaging a sprained ankle. Apparently, Jayalalithaa’s erstwhile leading man had a fixation for her feet.
Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (DMK)
MGR himself underwent two transformations as his acting career blossomed. Firstly, he changed his name to Ramachandran from Ramachander. Nevertheless, it was as MGR that he was widely known. Secondly, he joined the ranks of the newly-formed Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (DMK) led by C.N. Annadurai known as “Anna” or elder brother.
In Tamil Nadu it was the DMK that first attempted to use cinema for political propaganda in the post-independence years. Annadurai had once said that if it took 10,000 political meetings to convey one message, it only took one single ‘hit’ movie to deliver the same. Annadurai and his disciple Karunanidhi known as “Kalaigner” (artiste) set out on that venture. Films scripted by Annadurai were well-received, and its political content made great impact. But it was Karunanidhi who really hit it big as script-writer. Both Annadurai and Karunanidhi became chief ministers in later years. It was Karunanidhi who enticed MGR into the DMK political fold.
Karunanidhi developed a writing style called “Adukku Mozhi” that was flowery and alliterative, and which soon became very popular. There were others to follow Karunanidhi in both content and style — Aasaithamby, Krishnaswamy, Maaran (Karunanidhi’s nephew) and Kannadasan. The DMK also spawned a school of actors who could effectively mouth the lines of the script writers. S.S. Rajendran (SSR) and Sivaji Ganesan in particular were able to deliver the flowery and fiery prose of Karunanidhi with great conviction and style.
Personal differences arose between Sivaji Ganesan and Karunanidhi, and the actor crossed over to the Congress party. To make up for Ganesan, Karunanidhi, whose dialogues were increasingly getting political, weaned an actor from the Congress camp into the DMK fold. This was none other than M.G. Ramachandran. When the DMK began using actors for political propaganda, the Congress leader Kamaraj dismissed them derisively as “Koothaadigal” (performers). But the Congress had to soon change stance and rely on people like Sivaji Ganesan and lyricist-script writer Kannadasan who had crossed over from the DMK.
Even as film stars were used for political propaganda, the film stars in turn were using politics for their personal advancement. M.G. Ramachandran himself began constructing and consolidating a personal political base. Even when he starred in films not written by DMK ideologues, the lines he delivered on screen carried hidden political meaning. An example was the constant reference to the morning sun (Udhaya Sooriyan), the DMK symbol.
In colour productions, MGR would wear the party colours, black and red. He also sang songs on screen pledging sweeping social reforms that would remove socio-political inequalities. Gradually, MGR’s screen persona started reflecting the DMK’s image. The difference between reality and make-believe blurred, while he continued to pull crowds. As Annadurai once said of MGR, “Avar Sollukku pathu latcham. Avar Mugathukku muppathu latcham.” (One million votes for his speech. Three million for his face.)
In his roles, MGR always fought for the underdog against tyranny and injustice. He took special care to project a social message in most songs, and took care to act in different roles so that different segments of the population could relate to and identify with him. The movies, titled simply but astutely, in which he played lead roles include ‘Padagotti’ (Boatman), ‘Meenava Nanban’ (Fisherman Friend), ‘Thoilaali’ (Worker), ‘Vivasayee’ (Agriculturist), ‘Rickshawkaran’ (Rickshawalla) and so on. These occupational groups began treating MGR as one of their own. Two other aspects of his film titles were references to mother like “Theivath Thaai” (Divine Mother) and usage of maxims like “Neethiku Thalai Vanangu” (Bow down to Justice)
“Rasikar Mandrangal” (fan clubs)
A unique feature of the relationship between the movie stars of Tamil Nadu and their fans was the proliferation of “Rasikar Mandrangal” (fan clubs). These clubs would hold special pujas in temples whenever a new movie of their matinee idol was released. Milk would be poured on cut-outs of actors and camphor lit. M.G. Ramachandran probably encouraged the phenomenon of fan clubs from late 1940s onwards, and the clubs ended up as a well-knit federation that counted its membership in the millions.
The clubs held annual conventions and also participated in social service projects. It was estimated that the MGR fan club network consisted of 35,000 clubs with a membership of two million. When MGR entered active politics, his fan clubs were in turn politicised and soon became an indispensable component of the DMK propaganda machine. In MGR’s case both spheres mutually reinforced each other — film popularity providing political mileage and political positions strengthening film popularity.
MGR was soon rewarded with political office by the DMK. He was made first an Upper House member of the state legislature. Later MGR contested the State Assembly elections directly and won continuously in each election from 1967 to 1984 until his death in 1987. The DMK formed the administration in Madras state renamed by the party as Tamil Nadu in 1967. Some weeks prior to the election, MGR was shot and injured by fellow actor M.R. Radha due to a personal dispute. It was a case of life imitating art. The DMK pasted posters of an injured MGR lying upon a hospital bed. There was a sympathy wave that boosted the DMK’s electoral fortunes. MGR himself won with a sweeping majority without attending a single meeting in his Constituency.
The popularity of MGR within the DMK party and Tamil Nadu state caused major convulsions. In a bid to counteract the phenomenon, DMK chief minister Karunanidhi encouraged his son M.K. Muthu to enter movies. The father, while in office as Chief Minister, wrote the story and dialogue for Muthu’s first film ‘Pillaiyo Pillai’ (Oh, What a Son). Muthu fan clubs were set up overnight, with father Karunanidhi’s backing.
MGR, realising what was in store, engineered a split within the party in 1972 on the grounds of corruption charges against the incumbent regime. Incidentally, MGR did not have any problems in setting up new party structures —he merely converted his fan clubs into party branches.
Anna-Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (ADMK)
MGR formed the Anna-Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (ADMK) after splitting from the DMK in 1972. In forming his new party MGR retained the name of DMK with an added prefix – Anna derived from the DMK founder-leader C.N. Annadurai popularly called “Anna”. MGR later amended the Anna-DMK to AIADMK or All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham . MGR incurred much mirth among political pundits when he stated that his party ideology was a blend of “capitalism, socialism and communism”. He called it “Annaism” after Annadurai as in the instances of Marx – Marxism or Mao – Maoism. MGR had the last laugh on his detractors when his party romped home as winners in 1977.
MGR became Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. His followers who dubbed him earlier as “Puratchi Nadigar” or ‘Revolutionary Actor’ now hailed him as “Puratchy Thalaiver” (Revolutionary Leader). MGR was elected Chief Minister again in 1980 and 1985 after his party won at the polls. During his tenure as Chief Minister, the actor-politico introduced many populist, welfare measures. Chief among them was the “Sathunavu” (nutritious food) scheme where healthy meals were given free to students at schools. MGR died in harness as Chief Minister in 1987. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi bestowed upon him posthumously the “Bharat Ratna” which is the highest civilian honour in India.
After MGR’s demise on 24 December 1987, his wife Janaki Ramachandran succeeded him as Chief Minister for a brief spell of 24 days in January 1988. MGR’s party fragmented into two with wife Janaki leading one faction and paramour Jayalalithaa Jayaram the other. Later Janaki bade adieu to politics and both factions united under MGR’s former leading lady. Jayalalithaa led MGR’s party to victory in the elections of 1991, 2001, 2011 and 2016.
Jayalalithaa, symbolised the transition from the MGR era to the present. It was MGR who had, as Chief Minister, inducted Jayalalithaa into politics. She was hailed as MGR’s political heir and was called “Puratchi Thalaivi” – the feminine equivalent of Revolutionary Leader. In later years she was known as “Amma” (mother/Madam) It has been said in lighter vein that MGR was the only Tamil Nadu Chief Minister whose wife as well as paramour succeeded him as chief ministers. Jayalalithaa passed away unexpectedly in December 2016.
MGR’s involvement with the politics of Sri Lankan Tamils was extremely interesting. MGR was reluctant as an actor to identify himself with the Sri Lankan Tamil cause at one point because he did not want to risk offending his Sinhala fans in the island. He openly stated so in a meeting in London in 1973 and aroused the ire of Sri Lankan Tamils present. The very same MGR later transformed into a strong supporter of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) led by Veluppillai Prabhakaran after “Black July” in 1983. He even went to the extent of openly providing crores of cash to the tigers. MGR’s convoluted understanding of Sri Lankan Tamil politics and his complex relationship with the LTTE requires a more detailed analysis on another occasion.
The MGR phenomenon of cinematic politics was no doubt unique, and his mystique continues its hold over Tamil psyche even today. Before his death, he had come to personify the aspirations of the common people but as more than just a symbol. As political leader, he was also seen as a vehicle for realising their dreams. So powerful and lasting has been the MGR legacy that, decades after his death, the crowds cheer madly at the mere mention of his name at election meetings in Tamil Nadu.
(This is a modified version of an earlier article)
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org