Sunday, July 19, 2009

The MGR phenomenon

I am referring to MG Ramachandran (1917-1987), one of the most important figures of Tamil politics, who, with help from other prominent leaders of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), including the crafty script-writer Karunanidhi, seamlessly moved between cinema and politics as if the two were one. In the process they created a politics that had all the drama of movies and movies that were overtly political. Later MGR broke with Karunanidhi, formed his own party, the AIADMK (All India Anna DMK), and used his power as a star to cast a kind of spell on Tamil Nadu. I would like to give you a flavor of the MGR phenomenon using excerpts from Vaasanthi’s Cut-outs, Caste and Cine Stars, which I wrote about briefly here.

1. Cinema with a pint of blood

Blood donations in Tamil Nadu and MGR movie premieres were strangely connected -- this is the sort of anecdote that just about proves that reality can be more bizarre than the wildest fiction:
It looked as if every young man in town was eager to donate blood. The hospitals noted a record number of donors. Young Sadanand Menon, who was just out of college and joined the Indian Express, as a reporter, was intrigued. And also deeply touched. The editor had asked him to look into the new phenomenon. It was strange indeed. But Sadanand found out that the crowd of donors peaked on Thursdays, declined on the following days and rose again from Wednesday. The donors were paid five rupees per pint of blood. The blood was sold to buy cinema tickets for the new releases on Fridays. He confirmed that whenever a new MGR movie was released, the queue for blood donation was the longest on the previous day.
2. Sipped juice is holy water

India Today -- as quoted in Vaasanthi's book -- on MGR:
For close to a decade, the matinee-idol-turned politician had monopolized the floodlights as only a man who has straddled Tamil Nadu's intertwined worlds of cinema and politics can. As a hero of scores of films, his name was a household word for more than twenty years. And his well-known acts of personal charity -- distributing food and clothes to the poor -- had earned him a special affection bordering on worship. If he merely sipped a glass of orange juice offered to him at a public meeting, the rest of the liquid would be diluted in buckets of water, which would then be passed around for his fans to drink as theertham -- holy water. Slumlords in the industrial town of Coimbatore used to pull down giant film hoardings of MGR and hire them out to slum women to sleep on at night.
3. Cultivating an image

The importance of image was not lost on MGR. These are his own words:
It is not enough if you are good man, you must create an image that you are a good man. Every man must have an image. Take Nagi Reddy or S.S. Vasan or myself. Each of us have a distinct image. The image is what immediately strikes you when you see a person or hear his name. You put forward an image of yourself if you want to get anywhere.
Vaasanthi writes:
MGR’s entire career can be termed as a synthesis between acting and politics. His fans and supporters were so carried away by the image that they could see no difference between the screen characters and the real person...it was believed that he would agree only to play roles that corresponded to his personal values and commitments.
4. MGR and women
Narendra Srinivasan makes an interesting observation in his book Ethnicity and Popular Mobilization. ‘Women were sensitive to the basic issues MGR raised – the availability of food and water, as they are homemakers; and temperance, as excessive male drinking bled their family budgets and often led to violence against them.’ Rural women desired protection against a culture that was associated with alcohol, violence and the perception of women as whores. MGR gave them status and a sense of dignity by calling them ‘thaikulam’, community of mothers.

And women loved MGR, no matter what he called them. With the advent of cinema halls, there was a newfound freedom they enjoyed within the darkened walls with just their hero on the screen. They could consort with the beloved hero in their imagination, identifying with MGR’s various heroines. ‘The intensity of this identification,’ Subramanian says, ‘meant that support was readily transferred after MGR’s death to Jayalalithaa, who was one of MGR’s popular screen heroines through the 1960s and the early 1970s.
Interestingly enough, Rajnikant, the other cine star Tamilnadu is crazy about, is not so popular with women. Vaasanthi reasons that this is because of "Rajni's anti-hero image -- the irreverent, smoking, drinking, woman-bashing hero -- appealed only to the diaffected male in search of an identity, and definitely not a female audience."

5. The poor, Sri-Lankan born Malayali

And finally here’s a very short biography of MGR that may help complete the picture. I present this deliberately at the end, rather than give an up-front introduction – that’s because sometimes you get fascinated with a person’s deeds and then want the details: “Who was this guy?” “What was his background?” In short, MGR was Malayali and was born in Sri Lanka into a very poor family. But here's more:
Marudur Gopalmenon Ramachandran was born on 17 January 1917, in Kandy, Sri Lanka. MGR’s father, Gopala Menon, died when was still a child and left the family penniless. Ramachandran’s mother Sathya moved to India with her children and settled in Kumbakonam, Tamilnadu. Hunger claimed the lives of two of his sisters and an elder brother. Driven by extreme poverty, MGR began his acting career as a theatre artist at the age of seven, and joined the Madurai Original Boys Company, owned by M. Kandasamy Pillai. Ramachandran was fair-complexioned and pretty as a girl, and it was said that it was common for the wealthy, land-owning young men of Thanjavur district to sexually abuse such kids. This, according to a chronicler, may have affected MGR’s psyche. After a long struggle M.G. Ramachander, as he was then called, got a break doing small roles in mythological films followed by action films that became his forte. Critics never thought much of his limited talent as an actor though his films broke records at the box office. He also won the National Award for acting in Rickshawkaran.

5 comments:

Krishnan said...

Nice sum-up of MGR, Hari. Try to get hold of K. Mohandas's MGR, The Man and the Myth.

Suhel Banerjee said...

Very nice post. I have always been curious about this Tamil phenomenon and helped me understand a lot:)

Nitpicking, you have written 2 for both points 2 and 3:)

sandeep varma said...

Interesting read

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