MGR — a flashback

Marudhur Gopalamenon Ramachandran was also called Minimum Guarantee Ramachandran. And, till his last days MGR remained true to this description as a safe bet, in cinema, politics and life itself — he reigned the box-office till he quit cinema, ruled as CM till death and ranked as the most trusted politician of our times. Now, two decades after his passing in the early hours of 24 December 1987, MGR’s image is intact, his invisible influence all too manifest in the politics of TN. Indeed, he is a phenomenon that confounds critics, connoisseurs and the common man alike even today.

A fair assessment of MGR or for that matter, any leader of TN is next to impossible here. In this ‘Dravidanadu-that-never-was’, one is free to break idols of Rama and Ganesha, but one dare not turn one’s iconoclasitc ire on the demigods and demagogues lining its own pantheon. From Anna to Periyar to Karunanidhi to MGR to Jayalalithaa, all are deemed infallible, sans scan or scrutiny, by their scores of followers, a process ably aided by those leaders themselves. The ‘Man is the message’ personality cult of TN is a product of fertile fans and their careful cultivation. And MGR was the most successful master of that game. But to be fair to him, he would also rank as the worthiest of them all.

Critics of Anna’s legacy, this writer included, often dub the last forty years of Dravidian Parties’ rule as the dark ages. But MGR presents a paradox, with his ten-year stint (1977-87), seeming in hindsight as one of the better times that this State has had. And this had much to do with the man at the helm, who though uttered Anna’s ‘nama’ all the time, was in reality a happy distraction from all that his leader taught and represented(Goddess Mooga-mbika would vouch for that). MGR had several redeeming qualities that set him apart from his own mentors, peers and successors in the movement to which he belonged. And these amply reflected in his rule, which, whatever its failings, was bereft of all the vitriol and virulence, that Periyar and Anna preached in their heyday and J & K now practise daily. MGR, by nature, was no hate-monger. His was not reflected glory but self-earned fame. He was therefore a self-confident leader, sure of his mass support. He had no cause to be jealous and hence no reason to be scornful of foes. He was rather, humble to a fault.

So, what lay behind his success particularly in the face of more accomplished peers? As an actor he bore no comparison to Sivaji Ganesan who was a performer par excellence. As a politician, he lacked the rhetorical skills of K. Yet, MGR beat both of them blue in box-office and political office respectively. If Sivaji was the master of melodrama, MGR was the monarch of the martial arts (which morphed into dishyum dishyum in time); and though K’s pen was razor-sharp, MGR’s sword proved sharper, belying a popular metaphor. People laughed and cried with Sivaji’s histrionics and probably got their vocabs enhanced by K’s verbiose, but it was MGR who stole their hearts. Clearly, he had a communication channel and a chemistry with the common folk that was more effective than the spoken or written word. Indeed, there was something else in him that defied normal artistic norms or political intellect, a subtle but simple charm that endeared him to the masses on a scale that very few men in history have achieved.

But that kind of mammoth success did not come easily to MGR. His life was one of magnificient highs and catostrophic downs, straight out of a Book of Miracles or Believe it or Not stuff. He had a miserable childhood, struggling for a square meal and spent his youth going round in circles, years on, for a single stage or screen appearance. He was well into thirties by the time he became a regular hero, 1950 onward. Film industry wrote him off after a leg fracture in 1959, but he bounced back, literally with flailing fists and swinging swords, to become the numero uno. Again, in 1967 MGR was staring into the grave after M.R.Radha shot him … point blank. He survived and even won the Parangimalai Assembly seat from the hospital bed. His speech, was however, impaired. Yet, he trusted his fans and they in turn ignored his inability and in fact seemed to love him more! As we said, he communicated at a different plane wherein a voice counted for very little. In 1984, he survived a debilitating illness, became the CM again, this time from an American hospital and landed in Chennai, waving his hands to the glee of multitudes. Lord Yama had to beat a retreat once again. Indeed, MGR was a hit-movie by himself.

MGR was a trend-setter in both movies and politics. He redefined entertainment and rewrote the trade rules of the film industry, enriching it no end– Minimum Guarantee is an understatement; Maximum Gain was the reality. He knew every nuance of film-making and was a master technician. He understood the power of the medium and was the first in the world to use it, as a social and political vehicle very successfully. The DMK owed much of its rise to his charisma, a fact acknowledged often by Anna himself. MGR was the pioneer of puratchi politics, whatever it means. He was, in fact dubbed as puratchi nadigar (revolutionary actor) first, owing to his good samaritan roles. But when he formed the AIADMK, the nadigar gave way to thalaivar (leader), in tune with TN tradition. He has since spawned generations of actors aspiring to be CMs and one dreads if TN can take so many puratchis!

Though a showman, not all of MGR’s real life acts were put on. He had a spontaneous and sincere empathy for the poor, an earnestness born of his own earthy experiences of hunger and poverty. His noon-meal scheme, now in its 25th year, is a great social success story; economists scoffed at it initially but now several countries are emulating it. He was also a very responsible individual; he knew his sway over the masses and so was always careful about his utterances and actions, on and off screen. Had he smoked, all of TN would have been littered with cigarette butts! But such image-consciousness turned so infectious that he was laid to rest in his tomb, replete in white attire, dark glasses and that fur cap!

Twenty years on, MGR remains worthy of recall. Yes, he could have done much more with all his avowed concern for people. But he represents something that is sorely missing in the current crop of politicians: Goodness. MGR had it in abundance. And there is something else I cherish about him: the vast treasure of lilting songs that enriched his films. No re-mixes can beat the original. Now, that is true of the music as well as the man, MGR.

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Jawahar T R