At 100, MGR is a phenomenon that still sells

MG Ramachandran, iconic actor and politician of Tamil Nadu.
MG Ramachandran, iconic actor and politician of Tamil Nadu.

‘Acham enbathu madamaiyada, anjamai dravidar udamaiyada’ is the title song of the 1960 MGR movie Mannadhi mannan. It translates to ‘Cowardice is foolishness. Be like Dravidians, who are defined by their courageous acts.’

The song penned by Kannadasan is quite special, for it defines the characteristics of Dravidian men and in turn personified the iconic character. It is no wonder, the song is played repeatedly on MGR’s birthday, January 17.

There is a line in the song,

‘Vaalthavar kodi maraindavar kodi, makkal manathil nirpavar yaar

Maaperum veera maanam kaapor, sarithiram thanile nirkinjar’

It means ‘So many people are born and die every day. But only few remain in people’s heart. It is he who is the greatest warrior, who protects the pride and dignity of his people, becomes a legend and lives forever in people’s heart.’

For some reason, it seemed to suit former Chief Minister MG Ramachandran, fondly called MGR by his fans and ardent followers. Not that he was any warrior, but he did become a legend and managed to entice people when he was alive and even three decades after his death in 1987.

Born as  Marudur Gopalan Ramachandran in Kandy, Sri Lanka on January 17, 1917, MGR came from a humble background. His father died when he was young and his mother worked to her bones to bring him up. That probably explains his portrayal of a loving son in most of his movies. He joined a drama troupe and later gained entry into movies in 1936 through the movie Sathi Leelavathi, where he played a small role. His major breakthrough came from the 1950 movie Malaikallan, which was his first commercial hit as a hero. The major turning point in his life was in 1958, when he directed and produced the movie Nadodi mannan, where he played the role of a prince and pauper at the cost of his entire fortune. It was the biggest hit of that year and first film to cross 200 days in 40 theatres. For MGR there was no turning back since then and he became one of the most sought after actors of those times.

There was none at that time who could equal his popularity. He had many names – Puratchi Thalaivar, Makkal Thilakam, Ponmana Chemmal, Kodai Vallal, Vasual Chakravarthy, given by his fans. His charisma made it possible for him to enter into politics. He became the first actor-turned-Chief Minister in the country. There are thousands who still stand by the party he started All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the two-leaf symbol, only because it was an identity he created. 

People who remember his death would tell tales about the crowd the then Madras witnessed on December 24, 1987. There was chaos as lakhs from all over Tamil Nadu came to pay their last respects to MGR. The city mourned their favourite leader’s death for over a week. My dad would remember the day of the funeral as if it happened only yesterday. “It was one of the worst times for all fans and also the State,” he told me. I’m sure this was the sentiment of most of MGR fans.

But it always made me wonder. How can a mere actor gain so much popularity that he was able to rule over thousands of people even now, decades after he died. I went to see the digitised version of his super hit movie Ayirathil oruvan in theatre when it was released in 2014. When latest movies run out of theatres in few days, Aayirathil oruvan ran houseful for weeks. The crowd his movie pulled was proof enough of the legacy he left behind, as an actor and a politician.

Why is it that he could still sell?

I asked my dad, one of the biggest MGR fans I have known. His answer was simple, he was a hero even off-screen. “He is a living legend,” he said. So I asked, what is about MGR that attracted him. “I do not know. All I need is to see his face,” he always replied. I love the way my father’s eyes shine when he talks about MGR. I could see adulation, respect and something more from the tone and gestures of my father. It is the same reaction I get whenever I talk to MGR fans. Be it an auto-driver, an IT professional, a clerk or farmer. And this something more is what makes him special. It does not matter if the movie is crappy or great, all they need is his presence. That was how much he meant to fans.

When I watch his movies or listen to songs in the actor’s films, I feel that words used in lyrics and his character design are made in such a way to attract the attention of the masses. Just like the title song I had mentioned in the beginning, each of his songs were custom-made for MGR to convey his beliefs and probably his ideals. Without a doubt, he was successful. People believed in him blindly. They believed that he was their saviour. His film songs became a bible by which they led their lives, which I believe is not so bad. His songs most of the times carried pretty deep meaning and are thought provoking.

My dad has a favourite. It is ‘dharmam thalai kaakum, thaka samayathil uyir kaakum’. It means when you help people in need, it will one day save your life. It is a rule by which my father has lived his life. “It has saved me so far. I believe it will continue to save me,” he would always say. As for me, other than Acham enpathu madamaiyada my favourite has been ‘Kan pona pokile kaal pogalama.’

The crux of the song was: You should not give in to temptations; Be true to your roots and follow the right path even if it is laborious. This is something you really can keep in mind.

The movies too have their own rules. They reflect on the life of the poor and what a leader should do to improve them. If he did or did not as a leader is a totally different question, but it was one of the major themes of his movies. Be it Malaikallan, where he is a thief who helps his community. It may be Padagotti, where as a fisherman he helps his fellow fishermen. In case of Idhayakkani, he is a rich businessman who helps his subordinates. According to my father, who is my major source of information, his movie Nadodi mannan reflects his ideals the best. The song ‘Uzhaippathilla Uzhaipai’ reflects his beliefs on what a leader must do for his country. Apparently, on his first interview as the Chief Minister he told the same to the media on what his idea of a leader is.

The masses superimposed the image of MGR with that of the image he projected in his movies. Using songs and movies to reach masses were probably intentional or maybe it was not. But his movies played a major role in him gaining political influence in the State. It followed even after his death, which is apparent from the rise of late Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, his political heir, as the power centre of TN politics. 

But movies and songs alone would not have made him Tamil Nadu Chief Minister thrice. He was generous and strongly believed in uplifting the poor. It cannot be forgotten that he was the one who revived his predecessor Kamarajar’s, another legend, midday meal scheme in schools. There are many, including an auto-driver I met previously who was benefitted by that. 

My father recounted few personal instances of his friends and acquaintances. For instance, a boy in a village wrote a postcard to MGR seeking financial help and was responded by him every month for one year. If anybody feels hungry in movies he will immediately help. In real life too he used to extend such help. In one of the issues of Thuklaq, late Cho Ramaswamy wrote that a person keeping the vessel in the oven with water can go and get rice for cooking from MGR before the water boils. 

He is not all perfect as he made out to be. Some say Tamil Nadu growth regressed during his time period and he was not a good leader. But there is none who can deny the cult politics he pioneered. If he ruled the silver screen with his charismatic presence, he created a cult worship in Tamil Nadu politics, which plagues the State even today. He created a legacy in the State that cannot be marred by his shortcomings. 

MGR is without a doubt a legend who scripted his own history in twin worlds – politics and cinema and was successful in both.


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