He was the original superstar of Tamil films. He was a superstar long before the title was bestowed in Tamil Nadu for Rajnikanth. What is more amazing is that this man who came to dominate Tamil cinema and politics was not even a Tamilian but a Malayalee born in Ceylon (as it was known then). His rise and success in Tamil cinema and politics best exemplifies the generosity of Tamil Nadu and Tamilians towards non-Tamils: “Ellaraiyum Vaazha Vaikum Tamil Nadu.” (Tamil Nadu allows everyone to make a living).
His death made international news. His funeral was one of the largest in the world where over 2 million people thronged to Chennai from all over Tamil Nadu. Twenty four years after his death in 1987, his influence and image still looms large over Tamil Nadu politics and cinema. In Malaysia, his fan clubs still function actively and hold charitable events in his name.
During his lifetime he was awarded many titles by his fans and followers: Puratchi Nadigar, Makkal Thilakam, Ponmana Chemmal, Vathiyar etc…but to Tamilians and fans of Tamil movies all over the world he was known by three alphabets – MGR.
This January 17th would be his 94th birthday. This article is not about his life and many achievements. I would like to instead highlight MGR’s genius in using the medium of cinema to carve his large than life imagine. In this day and age of 24 hour cable TV where politicians especially in the US rely on image consultants, publicists, stylists etc to create the “right” image for the public, I would like to point out how MGR was doing this already on his own from the mid 1950s onwards and how his influence is still felt in Tamil movies today. In many ways he also brought changes to Tamil movies where its real effect would not be seen until much later.
Creating the MGR image
One of the turning points in MGR’s life and Tamil Nadu politics was when he joined Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in 1953. I am not sure whether MGR was the first actor to join a political party in India but he certainly was the first to show how an actor with a commanding screen presence can enhance a party’s image, draw in the crowd and add a dash of glamour.
Both DMK and MGR benefited from this marriage. MGR was deeply involved in crafting his image and tying it with DMK’s message. He would listen to the lyrics, suggest how he wanted it worded, (of course he was helped in this by legendary Tamil lyrists as Kannadasan, Vaali, Pattukottai Kalyanasundram etc) pay special attention to his costumes (he made sure the DMK colors of black and red were prominently displayed especially in his color films) -- can anyone forget the black shirt he wore when he sang Naan Anaiittal in Enga Veetu Pillai? In color films he made sure to wear colors that showed off his fair skin to its best so much so some colors like a combination of red pants with white shirt or white pants and yellow shirt – in short any combination of two powerful contrasting colors came to be known as MGR colors.
MGR never smoked or drank in his movies, had great respect for mothers and women and always played the underdog – the fisherman, a rickshaw rider, a goat herd etc but with one difference: no matter how menial the job, he was always educated. He pushed forward the message the importance of education in uplifting a person’s life.
Consolidating his power base
Besides his magnetic screen presence, he also knew how to get his people organized. He made effective use of his fan clubs to do social service and act as his publicists. His constant portrayal as an ordinary worker who could take on the rich and powerful made him an idol to millions of poor people in Tamil Nadu and NRI Tamils. He was truly the first mass hero. He also demonstrated what power a person can wield when he becomes a darling of the masses.
Whatever the critics may think of MGR’s tenure as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, the fact is that common people loved him and believed in him. Some like the writer MSS Pandian in his book, `The Image Trap: M. G Ramachandran in Film and Politics” (1992, Sage Publications India Pvt Ltd, New Delhi – available in Amazon.com) take a very critical view of MGR’s rise in cinema and politics and pin point it to his savvy use of the screen image that tapped into the poor people’s unconscious desires, to hoodwink the people. Pandian does to a point argue his case well. But he fails to mention how and why MGR throughout his life (and after) was held in very high esteem by the public. He was the CM from 1977 to 1987 and his emotional power on the people was unbroken. Even when he was stuck down with a paralytic stroke in 1984 and could not campaign for the elections, he was elected to office. In an issue of Kumudham (29.12.10) the magazine quotes an interesting anecdote by K.B Ramakrishnan, who was MGR’s secretary for 30 years. Apparently during 1986 Aruppukotai by elections, MGR came to campaign for his party AIADMK. He was in ill health and had difficulty speaking in front of the mike. The thousands of people who had turned up to hear him speak had tears in their eyes when they saw their hero struggling to speak (due to the stroke). They shouted in unison, ‘You don’t have to speak Thalaiva; seeing you is good enough’. Ramakrishnan said, “Hearing this, MGR was moved to tears and cried. All this [outpouring of love and devotion] could only be marshaled in Tamil Nadu politics only by MGR.”
If only his screen image as a movie star was his reason for his rise in politics, as Pandian argues in his book, how come other legendary actors in Tamil cinema like Sivaji Ganesan could hardly make a dent in local politics? MGR’s success as CM then prompted a new era in Tamil Nadu and Indian politics where film stars entered politics. Some like NTR in Andhra Pradesh also found success whereas others like Amitabh Bachchan did not. Even now in Tamil Nadu politics movie stars like Vijayakanth – who has been styled by his fans as the Black MGR --, Sarath Kumar etc have not enjoyed the success that MGR had in politics despite having a larger than life screen presence. The question in Tamil Nadu politics is which actor will be the next MGR in politics? Will it be Vijay? The closest person who comes near to the kind of demi-god idolatry enjoyed by MGR in Tamil Nadu today is Rajnikanth. But in his case it seems his fans are the ones who want him to join he politics rather than the superstar himself who looks as though he would much prefer to do his charitable works in private and retreat to Kailash for a couple of months each year.
MGR the star creator
MGR is also responsible for launching the careers of some of the legendary heroines in Tamil cinema namely Saroja Devi and Jayalalitha. Although he was not the one who discovered them, by approving them to be his heroines, they became big stars overnight. Saroja Devi has said in interviews that after MGR booked her as his heroine in Nadodi Mannan, overnight she had 30 offers from other Tamil producers. Other actresses whose careers are closely tied to MGR are Manjula and Lata.
MGR was also responsible for boosting the career of lyrists Vaali after he had a fall out with Kannadasan over political issues. MGR was not afraid to give chances to new comers. He was ably ‘voiced over’ in songs by TM Sounderarajan so much that TMS was the voice for MGR (and Sivaji). At a time when it was unthinkable to have another singer sing for MGR, MGR OKed the choice of an unknown Telugu singer to sing for him. The song Aayiram Nilave Vaa eventually won the singer a National Award. The singer is SP Balasubramaniam! When Yesudass, who was already a legendary singer in Malayalam films wanted to break into Tamil films, he asked MGR for a chance. The result was Thanga Thoniyile for Ulagam Suttrum Valiban (SPB also has a song in that movie – Aval Oru Navarasa Naadagam). When Yesudass was facing a slump in his career in Tamil movies, again it was an MGR movie, Urimai Kural and the song Vizhiye Kadhai Ezudhu that boosted his popularity again as a play back singer.
MGR – the Shankar of his day
Long before Shankar came to define Tamil films with his big budgeted, high tech and stylish Tamil movies; MGR could be considered a pioneer in this field. MGR’s first directorial venture, Nadodi Mannan, was a big budget bonanza in those days. Although a black and white film, there was one song sequence in that movie with Saroja Devi which was in color. The film was blockbuster.
His next venture, Adimai Penn was also one of the most expensive movies of its time and was shot in never before seen locations for a Tamil movie. Again, it was another blockbuster. But the biggest one of them all was Ulagam Suttrum Valiban (USV) shot in locations in Kashmir, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong and Japan – totally unheard of for a Tamil film back then and which predated Shankar’s Jeans (and its many locations) by 24 years. USV also has the distinction of being the first Tamil movie which was subtitled in English for the Malaysian and Singapore market so that non-Tamils could see it. It would be 40 years later before Tamil films with English subtitles would make their presence felt again in this part of the world.
MGR introduces non-Tamil speaking actresses
In USV, MGR introduced a Thai actress Medha to Tamil audiences. Then in 1975 he invited Hindi actress Radha Saluja to be his heroine for the movie Idhaya Kani. Both Medha and Radha Saluja did not speak Tamil and their voices were dubbed. At that time the Tamil audiences looked upon these two actresses especially Radha Saluja with curiosity as she was not able to speak Tamil and have to resort to someone else dub for her.
MGR seemed to have recognized the merits and attraction of north Indian beauties for the Tamil audience especially men: their fair skin, sexy body and lack of inhibitions compared to south Indian actresses. Radha Saluja eventually disappeared from Tamil films. But who would have guessed that one day north Indian actresses with dubbed voices (because they could not speak the language) would rule the roost in Tamil films as proved by Nagma, Jyothika, Simran, Tamannah, Shriya and gang? In fact according to Behindwoods list of 10 top actresses in 2010, only Asin and Priyamani in that list use their own voice to dub (and they are not even Tamils!) The others including the only Tamizhachi in the list, Trisha (so far in her 10 year career in Tamil films she has dubbed in her own voice for only 3 movies) use only dubbed voices!
MGR’s influence and the changes he brought to Tamil cinema and politics are still being felt directly and indirectly today. He certainly was one of a kind and one doubts whether we will actually see another person like him with his sway over the Tamil people all over the world. He was a genius who controlled his image and his message to the people via a visual medium long before others in India realized how powerful cinema could be (nowadays its either TV or internet). His enemies can call him whatever they want but for his fans (and I am one) he will always be the Vadhiyar who taught us right and wrong and told people that they can stand up for their rights.