MGR’s life was a song

I don’t want to talk about MGR as a CM, a subject that deserves a thorough and ‘critical’ study. Rather, today’s topic is what made MGR the CM: songs.

Well, his pre-CM life was certainly not a song given the struggles he had to go through for survival, battling hunger and humiliation in his early days. In fact, he had to face life or death situations even after becoming a superstar. Though he formally entered cinema at the age of 19, he became a popular hero only in his mid-30s, acting in bit roles in the intervening period. Sivaji Ganesan, on the contrary, hit a jackpot with his debut movie Parasakthi at the age of 23 and ‘landed on the mooon overnight’, to quote the thespian himself.

MGR in Malai Kallan

From the early fifties, there was no stopping MGR’s rise as a mass hero and a box office delight (MGR was often expanded as Minimum Guarantee Ramachandran) till he quit movies in 1978. And all through these years there were several heroines, many producers and directors, scriptwriters, scores of associates, distributors, etc. But what kept him constant company, built his image as a champion do-gooder, articulated and spread his ‘revolutionary’ ideas and ideals and entrenched this image in the hearts of millions and finally catapulted him to the CM’s chair was his songs.

In Ayirathil Oruvan

It is a well-known fact that MGR placed special emphasis on his film’s music and used to be very finicky about every nuance. Indeed, more than he did for his acting which, in any case, had a very narrow spectrum. So, the song made the actor and vice versa, to great effect, as we know. Most of his movies followed a standard theme and pattern with nary much variation or imagination. And if still MGR could get away with it for quarter of a century, it was because of his charisma, an edifice built on the foundation of his songs. And it appears fate, too, collaborated with him in his endeavour to become a popular actor rather than a versatile actor that Sivaji Ganesan was.

By magical coincidence, there is a song for virtually every major event in MGR’s life. Particularly those that warranted glorifying him or drawing sympathy for him. Here are a few samples: When MGR went to Sri Lanka, his country of birth, in the mid-’60s, came the song ‘Pirandha Idam Thedi Nadantha Thendrale…’ (O wind, that is walking towards the land of your birth…). When M R Radha shot MGR in the throat, almost killing him and crippling his vocal cord permanently in 1967, songs overflowed faster than his blood. Nalla Velai Naan Pizhaithukonden…(My good time that I survived) song was a kind of prophecy, coming as it did on the eve of M R Radha shooting.

The Oli Vilakku number Aaandavane Un Paadangalai… (God, I wash your feet with my tears) brought tears in torrents from the eyes of his rathathin rathangal (blood’s blood, whatever it means). His real-time ordeal became a reel legend with the song, Naan Sethu Pozhchavanda, Yamanai Parthu Sirichavanda… (I died and came back to life, laughing at Yama [the God of Death]) in Engal Thangam, much later. This theme of MGR saying ‘ta ta’ to ‘thotta’ was a constant refrain in almost all his later movies lending him an aura of invincibility.

In Ulagam Sutrum Valiban

In Padagotti

Earlier, when MGR came back to shoot after the, well, shooting, to the sets of Kaavalkaaran, he was,  many claim quite by chance, welcomed by that movie’s song, Ninaithen Vanthai Nooru Vayathu (I thought of you and you came, may you live a hundred years). The sets erupted and I don’t have to tell you what would have happened in the theatres. It is said that it was the photo of a wounded MGR in bed with a massive bandage around his neck that drew enormous sympathy votes for the DMK under Anna and swept the party to power. Even Anna acknowledged this when he said to MGR, ‘Your face is enough. You don’t have to come anywhere.’ Indeed, it was MGR songs that promoted and propelled the Dravidian movement in TN more than the rhetorics of its star speakers.

In Kalangarai Vilakkam

And again, when MGR fell seriously ill in 1984, it was deja vu time in TN. In the meantime, a few more songs had been added to his made-for-the-moment musical kitty. The State was awash with melted celluloid tears. During the period he was in US for treatment (1984 end to ‘85 middle), every new movie release was preceded by the invocation of an MGR song. Mostly, it was Neenga Nalla Irukkonum Naadu Munnera… from Idaya Kani. But all the earlier numbers, too, inundated. And lo! MGR again won the election, as in 1967, from a hospital bed. And, finally, when he landed in Chennai in February 1985, intact in his trademark dark glasses, fluff hat, white veshti and white mini kurta, the song that became viral was Naan Varugayile Ennai Varaverkka Vanna Poomazhai Pozhigirathu… (There is flower shower to welcome me). And then, Vaangayya Vaadhiyaarayya, Varaverkka… (We come to welcome you, teacher). The vaadhiyaar was promptly sworn in CM. The mystique of infallibility zoomed for this product of providence.

There were songs for every audience (vote bank in political parlance). There were those that projected him as the dutiful son, appealing to the cliched ‘thaai kulam’ sentiment. There was always a tottering old lady handy for MGR to hug and put to safety (well, there was the occasional old man, too). For every damsel harassed by the likes of P S Veerappa, Nambiar down to Justin, there was our MGR jumping out of the blue to relieve her distress, a filmy formula that is as immortal as MGR.

And then what? Duets and duets. All lilting romantic hits that made him a dream man of every woman fan. Really, MGR oozed subtle sexuality, a part of his persona that was subsumed by his larger than life image. To the poor, he was the perennial co-thozhilali, sharing a morsel, picking up an implement for a minute or two, carrying a log around, throwing arms around their shoulders notwithstanding if they could bear the weight of his well-built brawn, with the director ensuring all this is done in the presence of the impressionable heroine. And if, indeed, there happened to be two heroines, one would inevitably become sister but not before, well, you guessed it, a couple of dream duets. In all, 7-8 delicious songs a movie, catering to every possible viewer, ensured MGR’s name will ever remain music to people’s ears.

Lifting him to the lofty heights were first lyricists. Pattukottai Kalyanasundaram gave him the launchpad with Ethanai Kaalam Thaan… (For how much longer will they cheat us?) in Malai Kallan, a song which virtually outlined the MGR manifesto as early as 1954. Many gems flowed from that pen. Kannadasan made a people’s hero of MGR with songs like Achcham Enbadhu… (Fear is foolishness), Ulagam Pirandathu… (The world was created for me), Ennathaan Nadakkum… (Let whatever happens, happen), Unnai Arinthal… (Know thyself) etc., but a hero with passion, vulnerabilities and, with extraordinary qualities and looks. And then came Vaali. And MGR first became a flawless mega hero and then even God incarnate.

T M Soundararajan

Composers like Subbiah Naidu, K V Mahadevan, Viswanathan-Ramamurthy and later M S Viswanathan alone, whetted MGR’s insatiable appetite, producing everlasting tunes. With due respects to all of them in MGR’s musical journey, for every Kannadasan there was a Vaali and every KVM there was an MSV. But, in my view, one person stands out as the strongest and irreplaceable pillar that will for eternity hold aloft the glory of MGR in the hearts of the people.

And that man is singer T M Soundararajan (TMS) who lent voice to the real superstar of our times, from Malai Kallan to his last movie (Madurayai Meeta Sundarapandian) belting out countless numbers over 25 years. It was his golden voice, often altered to lipsync with MGR and suit his mannerisms, moods and emotions on screen, and carried the message and music of the lyricist and composers respectively, that embedded MGR’s image deep into the psyche of the target audience, nay the people of TN. It is on this unshakeable pole that the flag of MGR is still flying high. The blaring speakers all through 17 Jan is proof that TMS, who sadly had to lose his own identity, was, is and will be MGR’s inseparable ally forever.

But getting back to our hero of the day, MGR’s political journey might have had ups, downs, hiccups and questionable moments. But his song-filled sojourn will ever have a smooth flow into the ears and hearts of Tamils all around. Indeed, when you say MGR, you remember his songs, more than anything else.

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Jawahar T R