MGR, through the eyes of a new biography

MGR’s statue at the AIADMK headquarters in Chennai
Unlike almost anywhere else in India, Tamil Nadu had thrown up towering personalities of regional identity politics, who were unique at a time when nationalism was stirring the rest of India in the decades leading up to independence. 

They were political ideologues, writers, poets and polemicists who were vital to spearheading the Dravidian movement, challenging established social dynamics, caste hegemonies and upholding Tamil pride and resistance to Hindi and north Indian entitlement. 

Among them, none was as unique as the late matinee idol and long-time chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Marudur Gopalan Ramachandran, or MGR, and the founder of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).  

MGR with J Jayalalithaa in Ayarathil Oruvan
While the leaders of AIADMK’s perennial opposition, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), were often fiery orators, capable of rousing passion in audiences with their hyperbole and language skills, MGR needed a scriptwriter and songwriter to communicate his message. The crowds, however, thronged his gatherings despite his poor oratory skills. They just wanted to see him, a power that the best of his opponents could not match. 

His rivals prided themselves on being founders of a different political movement and political party; but he was able to break away and founded his own party and led it to success for 30 years as its leader. His DMK rivals were better actors; but he drew the crowds. They had better storylines, but the audiences wanted to see in real life the man who had such an electrifying presence on screen.

MGR’s extraordinary mass appeal and success as a celebrity political leader were often attributed, not incorrectly, to a careful building of his image on screen and off it, creating the myth that the two were the same. Thirty years after his death, MGR: A Life seeks to record the life and times of one of India’s enigmatic and successful political personalities.  

MGR with V N Janaki in Mohini
Thus, as the biography details, here was an unlikely man of humble origins, a Malayali from Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was known), who endeared himself to the Tamil masses in ways never seen before, often turning Dravidian tenets on their head to burnish his own brand of personality politics.

As a long-time commentator on Dravidian politics and the movement, R Kannan’s MGR: A Life  has been in the making for many years and is long overdue. After M S S Pandian’s Image Trap  in the early 1990s, there have been almost no books on MGR in English that have sought to recreate his life and political and cinematic legacy and, indeed, his unique position in Indian politics. 

The Lok Sabha constituency of Tirunelveli, my ancestral town, and the surrounding southern parts of Tamil Nadu have shown unwavering political loyalty to the AIADMK for decades. As a little girl, much before the time when politics could make its presence felt, the closest MGR’s presence touched my life was not from the movies, but from red-toothed Pachaiamma (Green Mother — yes, it’s a name!).

Pachaiamma was my grandfather’s farmhand who would visit home when the children from the big cities congregated for summer vacations in Tirunelveli. She wore the traditional Tamil sari with no blouse; her ear lobes were long and pendulous, swinging with big brass earrings and her mouth was always smiling.  As a child familiar with mythologies and festivities I asked Pachaiamma once to name her favourite god. She didn’t hesitate — what’s coyness between girls — and lowered the edge of her sari perilously close to her breast and flashed a tattoo. It was a blue-green one in Tamil of the English initials: MGR. 

MGR A Life Author: R Kannan, Publisher: Penguin, Pages: 495 Price: Rs 599
For a Dravidian people exhorted to challenge Vedic gods and Brahminism, Pachaiamma and her ilk’s belief in and devotion to MGR were fierce and unwavering. “So fair and handsome, cannot do no evil,” she rattled on. As Kannan explains in the book, “MGR was god on earth to the rural poor, and millions just wished to see him, to touch him; they were electrified by his presence and took the moment as a gift life had bestowed on them.” 

Kannan’s book faithfully records the early years in the 20th century that saw the rise of many leaders in Tamil Nadu and the strong links between artistes and political ideologists. His allegiance is to the parent DMK and its leader, M Karunanidhi, referred by the author by his honorific Kalaigner (the artist) and it is a testimony to his commitment that he paints this pen portrait of MGR with an impartial brush. 

MGR with J Jayalalithaa in Kavalkaran
His book includes many anecdotes including MGR’s obsession with his spotlessly clean and supremo image, his famous generosity that mirrored the mythological kings of yore, his open sympathies with the underdog and poor and his ability to quell dissent. The tetchy relationship with his co-star and later political heir J Jayalalithaa are all reproduced here in fascinating detail. 

In Kannan’s biography MGR is as much a hero of his own making as a personality created by the “simple Tamil folk”. For them, he remained a divine placebo who motivated them to soldier on through the hardships and wretchedness of their lives.

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