He was born at Nawalapitiya near Kandy, Sri Lanka, to Maruthur Gopala Menon and Satyabhama. He was from a Nair family in Vadavannur, Palakkad, Kerala. But his grandfather had migrated with his family to Sri Lanka.

After his father’s death, he could not pursue his studies beyond the primary stage due to poverty and joined a drama troupe called Original Boys. Gaining considerable experience on stage, he entered the world of cinema, and gradually rose to enviable positions by persistent efforts and endurance. He became an actor, with a huge mass appeal. He was also a very good director and producer, and was also known to be an expert movie editor. MGR married Bargavi also known as Thangamani who died early due to illness. He later married Sathanandavathi who also died soon due to Tuberculosis. His third wife was V.N.Janaki, a former actress she divorced her husband Ganapati Bhat, to marry him. He did not have any children.