From the India Today archives (1978) | MGR: The celluloid politician

from the india today archives (1978) | mgr: the celluloid politician
(NOTE: This article was originally published in the INDIA TODAY edition dated August 15, 1978)

The story of Tamil Nadu politics, it is sometimes said, can be neatly condensed to cover the size of any Tamil film poster. If the concept holds good metaphorically, it is also literally true: Tamil film posters, in size, shape, content and colour, are like film posters nowhere else in the world. They are a world apart.

Neither Hollywood in its heyday nor the brutal glories of Run Run Shaw’s epics can offer much competition. Walking down Madras’ Mount Road, which is the state capital’s central thoroughfare, is like disappearing into an eternal dream sequence. In no more than a matter of minutes the superstars take over. So powerful is the visual assault that the most resilient consciousness cannot but succumb.

The passage from the real to the surreal is accomplished in a few fell blows. On either side stand mythological heroines, legs splayed, 30 feet tall; giant goddesses glittering in gold; monumental hoardings exuding sweaty sex; dimpled dream heroes, gladiators and gangsters and glycerine tears spilling out in lurid detail to offer the greatest escape on earth.

If this is one, perverse first-impression of Tamil society, then no number of later studies of state politics can afford to deviate from the initial image. The hybrid of films and politics is unique to Tamil Nadu alone. Not merely because of Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran’s formidable star status, or because of former chief minister M. Karunanidhi’s ace qualification as the most powerful screenplay writer of the state or, indeed, because of the father of Tamil politics, the late C.N. Annadurai’s capacity to wield a yet more potent pen in writing plays or film dialogues, but because the entire history of the reformist Dravidian movement is inextricably tied up with show business.

CHANGED SOCIETY: Judging from the political mileage they have achieved over nearly four decades, Tamil politicians and political parties have only proved that there is no business like it. In its earliest days when the fledgling Dravida Munnetra Kazagham Party (DMK) broke away in 1949 because of the political ambitions of Annadurai from the original DK organization, a standard mode of collecting funds was by staging zealous social melodramas that preached the basic tenets of the Dravidian movement: anti-Brahminism, atheism and social and economic reform.

The principles were somewhat similar to the spirit behind the late Prithviraj Kapoor’s plays for Prithvi Theatre. But the base was much larger, and the growing popular support essentially political in nature. For a cheap ticket, large numbers of people would gather in city streets and village squares, to watch the vision of a changed society.

As the medium of the cinema became popular in the 1940s and early 1950s, and the political horizon widened, Annadurai, himself an upper caste lecturer in a Madras college, transferred his apparently tremendous literary capabilities to writing screenplays. The success of his films was overwhelming. Feudal landlords were shown shrivelling before mass peasant revolt, religious and superstitious myths were exploded and, in historical epics, the wilting princess was inevitably won over by the handsome low-caste serf who, soaked in sweat and blood, carried forward the uprising. But most important of all, it was the fiery dialogues that the audiences returned to hear again and again.

THE RAGE: Annadurai quickly achieved the status of a revered leader. In turn, he quickly discovered an heir apparent whose political and, far more important, theatrical talents he could not ignore. This was Karunanidhi, a party worker and magazine editor, whose flair for producing purple passages of prose surpassed anything produced by the great leader himself. Film scripts written by Karunanidhi became the rage.

By the time the DMK romped home with 15 seats in the state Assembly poll in 1957, Karunanidhi was the hottest property sought by every movie mughal in Madras. The big studios were setting up big films, and the DMK was setting up for a bigger showdown with the Congress governments which it attacked as being corrupt, degenerate and pro-North. Karunanidhi worked wonders via his film dialogues and real-life oratory: the DMK lobby of screenplay writers, as it is now called, discovered the bogey of imposition of Hindi on a non-Hindi speaking people, as well as the demand for a separate Tamil Nadu state.

In the 1962 elections, the DMK expanded its strength to 50 seats in the Assembly, and eight in the Lok Sabha. Though Annadurai lost, he was elected to the Rajya Sabha. In the next general elections which came after the violent anti-Hindi agitations that erupted in the region in 1965, the DMK was assured a neat majority, which it achieved with 138 seats in the Assembly. Annadurai, embodying the spirit of the Dravidian movement, became chief minister. This was the dawn of the promised new world that the film screens had projected for nearly two decades. The dream world took precisely 10 years to fade. When it lapsed, it could only be replaced by a greater dream, contained in the face and figure of a single man: M.G. Ramachandran.

CHILD ACTOR: In the beginning the power of the face with the bold cleft chin was not recognized. In the early 1950s Ramachandran, who came from a poor Tamil family raised by his widowed mother, found himself playing bit roles in films, having worked his way up as a child actor in vaudeville troupes. But his “fair complexion”, as a biographical pamphlet on him written by the AIADMK member of Parliament, A.P. Janarthanam points out, was a great asset.

Perhaps struck by this, his physique and, by Tamil standards, his striking looks, Annadurai and Karunanidhi detected in him star qualities. He was, at any rate, a dedicated DMK follower. He had ambitions of becoming a star himself and although, as his staunchest supporters will admit, he could never compete with the histrionic abilities of Sivaji Ganesan (also an ardent Annadurai supporter) he projected an untainted honesty in real life that reflected his projected virtues on the screen. To a considerable extent, Annadurai and even Karunanidhi, were responsible for building him up.

They found obviously a very useful ally in a star who embodied their long-winded philosophies. But Ramachandran was quick to catch on. Having graduated from routine romantic leads he deftly began to craft his own image. If he did not drink and smoke in real life, he never did on the screen. The public image began to fit in with the projected private image. His generosity as a philanthrophist became a legend. The larger part of his earnings as a star were diverted to the party or to widely publicized charitable causes – a practice he continues to the present day. By the time he could dictate his film roles, the transformation had begun. Ramachandran, the romantic hero, was becoming MGR, the myth.

SUPERSTAR: The image of superstar was carefully being superimposed with the image of superman. The cheap romantic leads were gone. In roles specially written for him in the 1960s, he played a version of Raj Kapoor’s tramp, a coal miner, a leader of exploited fishermen, and by the time his biggest hit of all, Rickshawkaran—about a downtrodden rickshaw-puller who makes good—was released, MGR was ensuring all possible success by distributing thousands of cheap raincoats to local rickshaw-wallahs exactly as he had done in the film. MGR, the good, pure, courageous champion of the oppressed, who even took the precaution of letting his heroines dream sexy thoughts about him rather than tarnish his own screen personality, was passing into the realm of living legends.

In addition, he began to employ, with equal dexterity, some well-known Hollywood techniques to attain the ultimate in celluloid nirvana. Slowly he shrouded himself in mystery, and began to recede from the public eye. The sunglasses appeared, possibly to hide dark rings beneath the eyes, and the karakuli cap, to keep his wig in place. There was also the drama surrounding his private life. Approximately every five years he changed his heroine who, because she was usually under exclusive contract, was regarded as his personal property, leading to wild rumours about romantic liaisons between them.

The tally for the last 20-odd years runs as follows: B. Saroja Devi, Jayalalitha, Manjula, Bhanumathy and last of all Latha, a doe-eyed 21-year-old. She spoke to India Today at the AVM Studios in Madras last week. “I was 15 years old and in school when he discovered me. I’ve now made 18 films with him, and I owe him everything, including my entire career. Naturally, you cannot help being emotionally involved. But believe me, he’s the most kind-hearted and simple soul you could ever hope to meet. I’ve travelled abroad with him and I am a member of his AIADMK Party. I don’t see him as much now because he’s a very busy person totally dedicated to his people. I cannot explain to you what he means to the people. It’s a gift he has from God. But let me tell you that once when at the end of a film he was made to die, the audiences hated it. The film was a total flop. They could not seem him die.”

INJURED: Once he nearly died. Two months before the 1967 elections, a fellow actor, M.R. Radha, provoked by a studio quarrel, drove straight to his vast and closely-guarded mansion called MGR Garden in a Madras suburb, and fired three shots at him at point blank range. The bullets grazed his neck and on being rushed to Madras’s Royapettah Hospital his escape was declared miraculous. Janarthanam’s pamphlet makes great capital out of the event.

“The stunning news that MGR was shot, spread like wild fire. The poor masses, crying, lamenting, made a beeline for the Royapettah Hospital where the doctors were waging a grim struggle to save MGR. Had the bullet penetrated half-an-inch more, MGR (the darling of the millions) would have been lost… candidates to the assembly, with tears in their eyes, cried out, “dear hero, had you just set foot in my constituency, I would have won!”

If he could not set foot in the constituencies, he did the next best thing. He had posters of himself, lying bandaged in hospital, printed and splashed all over his own constituency. He won and so did the DMK. He had learnt to play his film roles and his politics with the greatest precision. Following Annadurai’s death because of cancer in 1969, Karunanidhi stepped into the chief ministership. But he remained the general secretary of the DMK, while MGR was treasurer. Sooner or later the rift was imminent. Karunanidhi found it difficult to swallow the growing MGR cult.

MGR in return felt he was the actual muscle behind Karunanidhi’s government and resented being elbowed out. The clash between the personalities was inevitable. It came in the form of a dispute regarding misuse of the DMK funds. In late 1972, MGR broke away to form the All India Anna-DMK (AIADMK). But Karunanidhi not only retained power, he also maintained the backing of the industrialists and the big studio networks.

MGR, starting his party from scratch, redoubled his tactics to create a solidly anti-DMK movement. His films now began to contain direct political innuendoes against the DMK. Karunanidhi and his DMK were painted as the betrayers of Annadurai’s ideals.

RIFT: Karunanidhi today alleges that the rift came because MGR demanded a ministership in his cabinet which he was not prepared to offer till MGR decided to quit acting. “Pure cine glamour has brought him success,” the 48-year-old Karunanidhi told India Today in his Madras home last week. “He was a stunt actor, nothing more. He used the films to project himself. He painted himself as God. As in his films, he also plays a double role in his politics. He wants prohibition to show people his Gandhian ideals. What ideals? He is not even a true Tamilian. Although he gives his age as 61, people say he’s at least 65 or 66.”

Karunanidhi and the DMK’s defeat in the June Assembly elections last year, which brought MGR to power, were only in part due to the staunch opposition he had put up to Mrs Gandhi’s Emergency and other policies. In actual fact, the DMK dream was crumbling. MGR supported the Emergency throughout the period President’s rule was imposed in Tamil Nadu by Mrs Gandhi.

In other words, as actor Sivaji Ganesan told INDIA TODAY “the Emergency was really loved” in the South.

But with the Janata Party having preceded MGR’s electoral success, the new chief minister toned down his support for Mrs Gandhi and played up his connection with Janata Party leaders. “During the one year he has been in power,” says a political observer in Madras, “MGR has played both sides well. He has retained his grapevine to Mrs Gandhi as well as ensured prohibition and anti-corruption drives to please Morarji Desai. Now that the Janata Party crisis has surfaced he has again begun to exert his opposition against the Centre over the language issue. It could well be that Congress(I) chief ministers like Devraj Urs and Chenna Reddy are using him to create a non-Janata Party confederation in the South.”

EMERGENCY: “The politics of MGR are in flux,” agrees N. Ram, associate editor of The Hindu and a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). “His politics is the politics of opportunism. In the Dindigul byelection in 1973 he aligned with the CPM to defeat the DMK and the Congress(O). But he ditched the CPM in the Coimbatore byelection. He then began to align with Mrs Gandhi. His role during the Emergency was shameful.” But even he sees no other alternative in Tamil Nadu except MGR.

Meanwhile Karunanidhi, with 47 seats in the Assembly, as compared to MGR’s 127, is unlikely to get very far. For the two years he has been out of power, he has tried to subvert the success of the man whose path he helped pave to everlasting glory. When MGR slowly began to return to power, and steal the core support from the DMK, Karunanidhi even tried the last tactic of setting up his own son, Muthu, as a star.

The idea was to beat MGR at his own game. Instantly, Muthu fan clubs sprouted all over the state. But Muthu, who was being projected as a mini-MGR hero, despite his tolerable looks and good singing voice, proved a flop. Karunanidhi has now returned to writing screenplays and three of his films are due for release soon.

TAX ARREARS: When they are released later this year they might help him win an edge over the chief minister. MGR, who announced last April that he would resume film acting to help clear his income tax arrears, has made it known that he has begun shooting for one film. In addition, there are eight other films pending since he became chief minister. But informed studio sources in Madras claim that he will never be able to complete them. He will never have the time from state duties, they say, and never be able to pay the attention to the smallest details that he normally does. At the same time there is much excitement over a rumour that MGR is looking for a new heroine, preferably another schoolgirl.

Is the five-year cycle to be resumed again? Nobody knows. MGR fan clubs – there are thousands of them in Tamil Nadu – are meanwhile taking a rest from their long years of frenzied adulation. There have been no MGR releases in the last year, so they have turned their attention to political stardom. At least three of MGR’s studio sidekicks—an actor, a fan club president and a small time producer—have become parliamentary secretaries in the ministries. Some of his more accomplished film colleagues are aspiring to ministerships. But the man behind it all remains a myth: remote, aloof, with his halo of stardom intact. He is made of the stuff the dreams are made of and he has not much time for the banalities of everyday existence.

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