Tuesday, September 05, 2017

The Colossus Of Tamil Nadu

Author R Kannan traces the life of MG Ramachandran as artist, politician and human being

By Shevlin Sebastian

The brothers [MG Ramachandran and Chakrapani] met Sathi Leelavati's producer Marudachalam Chettiar and Kandasamy Mudalier at a hotel on Wall Tax Road. When Marudachalam Chettiar held out a 100-rupee note as advance, the brothers were overwhelmed. It was their first 100 rupees.

As they walked home, MGR asked his brother if the note was authentic, to which Chakrapani said he had never seen one before. Back home, [mother] Sathyabala held the note against the light, and declared it contained a watermark. After this, she placed it before her husband's picture, lit camphor, then applied sacred ash on her sons' foreheads. MGR could not sleep that night. It felt that the house was filled with silver coins and there was no place to put their feet.

At that time, if somebody had told MGR that, one day, he would become an extremely wealthy man, a superstar of Tamil cinema, a man much loved by the masses, become the founder of his own political party, a three-term Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, and have an affair with a protege Jayalalitha, who would become a Chief Minister herself, he would have said, “Don't be daft.” But that was exactly what had happened.

And this is explored in lucid and absorbing detail in the well-researched biography, 'MGR: A Life' by R. Kannan, who heads the Basra office of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq. Apart from MGR's life, the book also focuses on the sixty years of the Dravidian movement and how it became a potent force in Tamil Nadu.

But what fascinates is MGR's life. How a Class three dropout made his way in the world; his complicated relationship with Prime Ministers Morarji Desai and Indira Gandhi; and his friendship and later antagonism of Chief Minister K. Karunanidhi.

Asked about their relationship, Kannan says, “They had reached a point where they had no option, but to oppose each other. But MGR had a huge amount of respect for Karunanidhi. The 25-year-long association, when they were colleagues in the film world, and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, could not be set aside. So, whenever they met, in the State Assembly and outside, there was a good deal of cordiality between the two.”

What is also interesting to read is MGR's relationship with Jayalalitha, who was 30 years younger when she met the matinee idol.

She sort of stunned him, with her fair-skinned beauty, English language skills and phenomenal memory,” says Kannan. “The fact that initially she was indifferent because she did not know how big MGR was, dazzled him."

Afterward, when MGR realised that she was very ambitious, he became confused about her. The relationship became ambivalent. "He clipped her wings and left her high and dry on occasion," says Kannan. "However, when he was about to throw her out of the party [the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam], his fondness for her prevented that.”

No matter the difficulties, Jayalalitha remained with this charismatic man. “MGR did things by instinct,” says Kannan. “He was superstitious. Yet the man had the confidence to have bright people around him although he was a school drop-out. He was a large-hearted man, who believed in giving. He was quirky at times. And wanted to know about what was happening with others. So his intelligence set-up was very active.”

In the end, this is a worthwhile book. And it already has some celebrity admirers. Says legendary actor Kamal Haasan: “I know most of the story, but I was aghast to learn some truths. This is an interesting read and told in a voice similar to MGR's – not given to hyperbole or icon bashing.” 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

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