The man & the myth

In India, it has been a trendy thing for “secretaries” of esteemed leaders to author books with the title, “My years with So and So”. Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Jawahar Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Mother Teresa were some of the names which have been peddled in fashion. Now, M G Ramachandran (MGR) has also joined this select band of Indian leaders. In my opinion, this book authored by Kondath Mohandas (the Director-General of police in Tamil Nadu during MGR’s rule) has been mis-titled. rather than the given title, “MGR: The Man and the Myth”, it would have been appropriate if the title was, “My Years with MGR”.

According to the prologue of this book, author Mohandas met M G Ramachandran, the movie star for the first time in 1969, while he was the superintendent of police, Madurai, and when MGR was camping for his location shooting of the movie Mattukkara Velan. It was just a courtesy call by the author (in his position as a law enforcement officer) and lasted only a few minutes. He met MGR, the movie-star turned politician, for the second time in 1976, during the Justice Sarkaria Commission hearings in Madras. Mohandas then held the position of the Deputy Inspector General (DIG-Intelligence) during the President’s rule in Tamil Nadu. When MGR was first elected as the chief minister of Tamil Nadu in the 1977 election, he requested the author to continue in the same post. As a result, for the following ten years (1977-87), Mohandas became perched in a privileged position of watching how the adorable move-star turned politician governed Tamil Nadu, and made his decision and projected himself to the public. This book is an outcome of this, what one can say, ‘privileged perch’.

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The Man from Marathur & Malai Nadu

Eighty two years ago, a baby boy was born to a migrant couple, Gopala Menon and Sathyabama, in a ‘line-room’ of a tea estate in Kandy. Later, this baby boy would grow into a leader with the name Maruthur Gopalan Ramachandran (popularly adored by Tamils all over the world with the acronym MGR).

Maruthur was the ancestral village in the Kerala state from where his parents hailed from. Many have ridiculed the uncertainty of his birth date, though MGR had used 17 January 1917 in his personal documents. One should sympathise with MGR on this matter because he was born to an Indian immigrant family in a tea plantation in Ceylon, which was then under British colonial rule. Way back in 1917, the health care facilities available for the plantation workers were atrocious, leave alone the requirements related to birth registration. That he survived into adulthood itself was an achievement.

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MGR – Champion of the Tamils

MGR is the unofficial hero to all the Tamil boys my age when I was going up. Mention “MGR”, and all the Tamil boys’ eyes brightened up. The only thing I know about MGR is what I have seen on the RTM movie channel. The Tamil actor was undoubtedly one of the most popular Tamil actors, if not, the most popular Indian actor of his time. Every Indian boy growing up in my neighbourhood secretly harbours the desire to be “just like MGR” when they grow up. On screen, MGR fights like a tiger, he wins the hearts of all the pretty women and he’s fiercely loyal to his mother and walks the path of righteousness all the time. My closest childhood friend was this guy who was a couple of years older than me called Anbalagan. He stayed opposite my house together with his two younger brothers Nathan and Vasugan. But it was Anba who always gave me the rundown on the famous MGR and the wondrous things he did in his acting roles.

Later, of course, he introduced me to Sivaji Ganesan and another actor called Radha (I think). That was how we passed our time after school in the evenings, if we were not playing badminton. I remember once telling Anba, “how does MGR remember all that monologue?” I was relating to the previous night’s MGR movie where he went on and on about his family, his mother and his filial responsibilities.

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MGR is God

ANDIPATTI: Andipatti in southern Tamil Nadu has been in the limelight ever since the constituency returned MGR in 1984, even though he was lying at the Brooklyn Hospital in the United States and did not personally come to file the nominations or even campaign.

It was no surprise that AIADMK General Secretary J Jayalalitha chose to file one of her nominations from this predominantly rural constituency, though her nomination has since been rejected. But the divide in Andipatti in terms of development is lurking in contrast.

At one end, the town and villages of Andipatti is relatively well developed with some very good tar roads, over 56 schools, a private engineering college, a few sugar mills, schools with computer education and the like. Yes, Andipatti too has internet centres, like in all of Tamil Nadu.

But, on the other hand, the levels of education and the poor literacy rate speaks for itself. That is reason enough why the people of Andipatti hold MGR in such high esteem and some of them still believe that that legend still lives on. This was put across best by an old woman, Raghamma, of Thimarasanaickanur village in Andipatti, who could hardly tell her age — she first
said her age is 100, then when the villagers said she does not know her age, she went into another bout of thought, then said she must be 60 years.

“I like MGR a lot. Is MGR alive?” she smiles sheepishly, “I will vote for MGR’s two leaves symbol.”
Then came this moment. Do you know Jayalalitha? Raghamma goes into a shell. “Who is she,” Raghamma asks after much thought.

The villagers around her prod on. “Here there are several people like her, who do not even know that MGR is dead. They do not know of Jayalalitha either. They just vote for MGR’s two leaves symbol. That is why the AIADMK will always have an edge in the southern districts.”

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MGR – Jewel of the Masses

Tamil filmdom has been a fertile breeding ground for politicians. Marudur Gopalamenon Ramachandran, popularly known as MGR, came to politics via the films and reached the peak of political success to become the Chief Minister of the state.

Roopa Swaminathan, in these two books, narrates the life story of MGR and of another colossus of Tamil cinema, Sivaji Ganeshan, who shared with MGR the top spot in Tamil cinema and also entered politics in the same era. MGR made a tremendous success in politics but Sivaji proved an inept political player.

As a film hero MGR chose his roles carefully with an eye on building his own image. Starting with mythologicals, he moved on to social themes where he picked up the roles of the poor underdog who stands up to the might of rich oppressors and gets the better of them. This gave him the image of a modernday Robin Hood and a fan base which eventually turned into a huge vote bank sustained by more than 10,000 fan clubs that MGR took care to nurture and promote.

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The ‘Birth Soil Bond’ of MGR

An Aroordhas Anecdote on MGR

Recently I provided a translation of an anecdote about movie maestro Sivaji Ganesan which had appeared in renowned Tamil movie script writer Aroordhas’s memoir book ‘Naan Muham Paartha Cinema Kannadigal [The Cinema Mirrors I have Looked At, Kalaignan Publishers, Chennai, 2002, 224 pages]. Here I provide the translation of another anecdote recollected by Aroordhas in this book, but on M.G.Ramachandran (MGR), whose 89th birthday was on January 17th.

It is a well known fact that MGR was born in Kandy for an Indian immigrant couple in 1917. Aroordhas had visited Kandy nearly six decades later, when the shooting for Pilot Premnath movie starring Sivaji Ganesan took place in Kandy. Here follows Aroordhas’s anecdote [pp. 33-34], in my English translation:

“When the shooting for ‘Pilot Premnath’ movie took place in Kandy, I grapped a handful of soil from that city and filled it in a plastic vial. After returning to Chennai, I met MGR.
‘Elder, I’m offering you a gift now, which othes might not have given it for you until now.”
‘Is that so? May I know what is it?’
‘Will you open your palm?’
[MGR] offered his palm.
I placed that particular plastic vial in his sandal wood-colored palm.
‘What’s this? Soil?’
‘Yes of course. This is your birth soil. I collected this from Kandy, and brought it especially for you’, I explained. When MGR heard this, he became so emotional and touched both his eyes with that vial.
He opened the lid of the vial. Like picking the holy ash (viboothi), he pinched a little of the soil by his thumb and index finger, and placed it in his mouth. Then he applied a little soil onto his head as well.
I saw both his eyes were welled [with tears]. Like a child, he asked me, ‘Can I keep this vial?’
I replied, ‘Elder, what are you talking? I brought this especially for you.’
‘Thank you. I’ll keep this gift forever with care.’ he said and grapped my hands.”

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