A Revolutionary called MGR (Book Review)

MGR: A LifeBy M.R. Narayan Swamy,

Title: MGR: A Life; Author: R. Kannan; Publisher: Penguin Books; Pages: xiv + 495; Price: Rs 599

When he was born in Kandy in Sri Lanka, perhaps none would have even remotely imagined that M.G. Ramachandran, or MGR, would overcome the tag of his Malayali origin and the grinding poverty he faced in childhood to one day become a colossus in Tamil Nadu. R. Kannan’s well-researched book does full justice to the extraordinary story of a remarkable man whose decision to split the DMK and form the AIADMK ended up effectively shutting out the political space in the southern state for pan-India parties.

Most people in the country think MGR was just a film actor-turned-lucky politician; he was much more than that. MGR had the power to draw crowds, believe it or not, on par with Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi. And though human and fallible, Kannan’s story reveals a great humanist and a fascinating man with keen native intelligence and politics in the DNA. All this took him to great heights, a feat that eluded many in Tamil Nadu.

Life was so harsh that MGR’s widowed mother Sathyabama often fasted to feed her children. Penury forced MGR to quit school after Class 3 and take to theatre where his constant companions were uncertainty, hardship and humiliation, even after he began earning a monthly salary of five rupees. When he got his first 100 rupees for his first movie at age 19, a disbelieving MGR asked his brother if it was a genuine note. At home, his mother placed the note near her husband’s picture, lit camphor and applied “vibhuthi” on her two sons’ foreheads. MGR could not sleep that night.

As his graph rose in the Tamil film industry, slowly and steadily, MGR began to acquire a cult image. He carefully cultivated a screen image of a do-gooder. He was already attracted to the Dravidian movement; his own increasing appeal was a major boost to the fledgling DMK and its leader Annadurai or Anna, a man whom he greatly admired.

The budding hero chose his roles and lines carefully, never essaying a negative character. That is why, as versatile actor Sivaji Ganesan remarked, MGR succeeded in politics where he did not. On screen, MGR was “vathiyar” or teacher to the working class, the epitome of the perfect man to the womenfolk. He was a crusader for justice. He wouldn’t smoke on screen. Obsessed with his image, MGR paid great attention to tailor-made songs that had a multiplier effect. His movies and songs turned MGR into a larger-than-life figure. And MGR fan associations, which the actor carefully cultivated, promoted the cult further.

But everything about MGR was not artificial. He genuinely believed in helping people in distress. According to one account, MGR’s unpublicised acts of charity ran into Rs 1 crore, perhaps much more. Even as he began earning decent money, he would ensure that the staff in his unit was fed well. Often he would have spent half his salary by the time his film finished. Once in the 1950s, after seeing rickshaw pullers in Chennai drenched in drain, he gifted 6,000 raincoats — each costing Rs 10. No wonder, to the mass of poor, MGR was a veritable god.

MGR dramatically survived when fellow actor M.R. Radha shot him in 1967, something that secured for the DMK great sympathy in assembly polls that year, helping it to dethrone the Congress in Tamil Nadu — forever. He entered the Tamil Nadu Assembly through the Upper House — which he would later abolish. Once he was made the Treasurer in the DMK, relations with Karunanidhi slowly derailed, leading to his exit from the party and the formation of ADMK (later named AIADMK), irrevocably changing the political map of Tamil Nadu.

But unlike Karunanidhi, MGR was not a fighter vis-�-vis New Delhi. He would capitulate easily. For him, befriending those ruling the Centre was a priority, even if the Prime Minister was a weak Charan Singh. After rubbing Indira Gandhi the wrong way initially, he finally became a staunch ally. His now celebrated Midday Meal Scheme in schools proved to be a revolutionary step that was embraced by the rest of India. But while his first administration was generally considered corruption free, corruption appeared with a vengeance in his two later regimes. That he funded the LTTE illegally was known, what was not clear was where the money came from.

MGR did promote J. Jayalalithaa, much to the chagrin of senior colleagues, but it remained a love-hate relationship. She was too independent and would at times be seen to be disobeying MGR. But for all his weaknesses, as a politician, MGR never relied on caste and religion for votes. While there was relative industrial harmony during his reign, industrial growth was slackening. He ushered in the era of freebies — something that haunts Tamil Nadu to this day. But this did not help the poor to leap out of the poverty graph. MGR’s 10 years in power in Tamil Nadu was a mixed bag, and the decay in the AIADMK, now so visible, began even as he was alive.

(M.R. Narayan Swamy can be reached on narayan.swamy@ians.in)



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