24th of December ... Exactly 22 years earlier, Tamilnadu was a ground of uncontrollable grief and social & political unrest of huge magnitude. The entire state came to a standstill as people were aghast with shock on the death of their beloved Chief Minister, M.G.Ramachandran (MGR). The response was genuine and highly emotional to the extent of a large number of reported self-immolations.
Dinamani dated 25th December, 1987 - Carrying the news of MGR's death.
The following article is a recap of, what MGR was to tamil filmgoing audience and tamil people, in general. Most of the facts presented were borrowed from various media and the output is a result of my understanding of the various inputs I received. The article will try to assess the cinema and political career of MGR and I generally will try to avoid the flowery descriptions that he always gets from any media, print or visual.
MGR starred in his first major film role "Raajakumari (1947)" and for a larger part of his film career spanning 30 years till "Madhurayai Meetta Sundarapaandiyan (1977)", he was the reigning superstar of the tamil filmdom. MGR's popularity as an actor was well pronounced and more readily seen after his own production & directorial venture "Naadodi Mannan (1958)" broke and set new box-office records.
If you leave aside his most obvious box-office capabilities and success, what were his contributions to Cinema, as such ?.
Actor Vs Director
Early 50s were a crucial period for tamil cinema as this period saw the emergence of a large number of films with social themes (transition from Mythology based movies). If not for the star system (MGR & Sivaji Ganesan) that developed during this period, the control of the cinema would have rested with the directors instead of the lead actors. MGR paid ample attention in moulding his on-screen persona and encouraged hero worship. In MGR's case, it is said that, he would interfere in each and every department of his film and that lead to the sidelining of the actual creator of the movie - the director, forever.
MGR rewrote almost all the prevalent notions that defined a film's lead actor. In tamil popular culture where moustache is seen as a macho-symbol, MGR never acted with his original moustache. Also, when he made his way into the cinema, the lead actor should be in a position to lend his voice for the songs also. Playback singers weren't popular that time. MGR acted out what a film-hero should and shouldn't do on-screen. He was a definite milestone in tamil cinema's history and even today, actors like Rajinikanth, Vijayakanth and Vijay just follow him. The image of Robin Hood that he left behind was picked up by later generations of actors.
Enga Veettu Pillai
There is a very common term that we use these days, Masala film. What is a masala film ?. The film won't have a great plot ... The story never stands on its own but on entertaining scene sequences, good songs and stunts. I think MGR institutionalised and popularised this concept ... Sword/Silambam fights, romantic songs with attractively dressed ladyleads were almost universal in his later movies. "Enga Veettu Pillai", "Ulagam Sutrum Vaalibhan" etc offer grand examples of how a masala movie should be made.
One good thing that formed a part of each and every MGR movie is his introductory / thathuvam / philosophical song. They really educated and inspired a generation of audience. Again, the credit for the song was never given to the lyric writer or the singer but to MGR. Even after the defect in his voice (M.R.Radha shot MGR at his throat, 1967), people discussed, "Vaathiyaar paatellam nalla dhan paaduraaru, dialogue pesum podhu dhan prachnai pola", which means, "MGR is able to sing the songs properly but only while delivering dialogues, he has the problem with his voice".
MGR and Latha
MGR never looked at cinema as an art. For him, it was sheer business. For producers, he was the most reliable brand available, MGR would stand for Maximum Guarantee of Returns for them. People never complained or expected real performances from him. They just wanted to watch him on-screen and whistle at his gimmicks for three hours. Interestingly, the MGR fanatics were referred to as "Whistleadichaankunjugal" (விசில்அடிச்சான்குஞ்சுகள்). MGR's films, in a way desensitivised the film-going audiences in Tamilnadu and made them very mediocre. On the other side, if you speak of monotonous performances, even Chaplin did the same. Entertainment is what people looked at and they got it in him. That's how it went !!!
Let's have a look at MGR's Political career.
MGR & AIADMK
It was a complete underestimation of MGR's potentials on Kalaignar's part that brought MGR into the political arena of Tamilnadu. Once he was in, he never turned back and was outrageously successful. MGR was never a serious politician in his beginning years or till the death of C.N.Annadurai in 1969. Annadurai called MGR his "Idhayakkani" and he was generally used by the DMK to mobilise people for political rallies and meetings. Annadurai has once openly commented on the vote-garnering capability of MGR. Out of DMK in 1972, MGR starts his own political party AIADMK and won the state assembly in 1977. What are his political achievements ?. Lets have a look ...
Anna and his "Idhayakkani" MGR
Tamilnadu on a back-foot
MGR's rule during 1977 to 1987 resulted in an apparently visible setback in terms of Industry & Commerce infrastructure and performance of Tamilnadu. The Economic indicators of the state were on a rampant back-foot during his governance. The development activities only slumped during his regime and this should be seen in light of the fact that MGR's party enjoyed a real continuous reign of the state, close to 11 years except for a brief period in 1980. Single party, Single administrator and hence uniform policies & governance should have only elevated the growth of the state, which sadly didn't happen during his period.
MGR - Jewel of the masses
MGR was straight from the studio sets of "Madurayai Meetta Sundarapandiyan" to the Chief Minister office and hence his administrative capabilities were below par, atleast during his first term. His government always concentrated on the populous schemes like the mid-day meal scheme etc (Which would keep his votebanks intact) rather than Infrastructure oriented schemes which should have put the state in a good shape in future.
MGR is credited with setting up a faction-ridden AIADMK and factionist politics saw its peak during his regime. A large degree of misuse of powers and government funds was reported and this only deepened the economic disparities in the state. If it was DMK under M.Karunanidhi which introduced corruption into the state, ADMK under MGR institutionalised and mastered the course. His fans and devotees used to dismiss these facts with a simple explanation, "It is the people around MGR who do all these and that he isn't aware of things around him". Even if that is the case, Can it be called a good governance ?
MGR was very much aware of the saleability of his brand and was very consciously preserving his image. He was heavily made-up in all his public appearances. His fur cap and black glasses were only hiding his balding head and sunken eyes - signs of ageing. He never let people knew that he was ageing, for them he was still the same young man romancing with youthful ladies in cinema reels. MGR's brand of politics, the so-called "glamour politics" only set a bad example in the state that almost every actor in this state nurtures political ambitions just after delivering a box-office hit. I completely admit that the filmstars are also part of this democratic system and hence own every right to contest elections and lead people. But "Right" doesn't provide an automatic implication of administrative efficiency, which many of them lack at the outset.
The MGR Phenomemon
His politics never projected AIADMK as a party, it's policies or its plans / manifesto for the state and MGR remained the sole cynosure for AIADMK and its political propagandas. Whenever questioned about the policies, agenda and manifesto of the AIADMK party, MGR never came up with a concrete or complete explanation. He used to blabber Annaism, democracy, socialism, "Naadodi Mannan" etc. Apparently, In AIADMK's political entry and succeeding electoral duels with DMK, the wholesome attention is paid to the MGR Phenomenon only. Interestingly, the then Tamilnadu Food Minister Tirunavukkarasu once said, "We all are zeros.We gain our value because of the number one before us.The number one is MGR". In all the 200+constituencies, people always believed that they were casting their vote for MGR as they punched their ballots on the two-leaves symbol.
By the fag end of his political career, MGR was largely sick and was unable to deliver his duties effectively. The party was in dangers of disintegration and there was an apparent unrest among the partymen. As long as he was alive, he successfully kept the party intact but left behind a chaotic and leaderless AIADMK. Lots of turmoil followed before things fell into place under Jayalalitha. This is a more serious blunder on the part of the leader of a party. Literally, the second rung was absent in AIADMK during his premiership of the party and AIADMK still remains so under Jayalalitha. For all these partypeople who call themselves patrons of C.N.Annadurai, Anna was a magnanimous leader who encouraged a second rung leadership in DMK and fondly called them "Thambigal", meaning younger brothers.
That's a lot of criticism. So, What has his government given Tamilnadu. My father gave me the following information and when I asked him, "Is that all ?", he said, "That's it". He was of a firm opinion that, even if MGR would have lived more, his party would have been defeated in the next polls because of apparent administrative negligence on his part and corely corrupt-head politicians of his party.
- Housing scheme for Harijans or the untouchables.
- Good Transport network or town bus facilities to small towns.
- Immensely popular Chief Minister's mid-day nutritious meal scheme.
Mid-day meals scheme
His Mid-day meals scheme has been analysed and applauded worldwide. In 1982, MGR started the noon-meal scheme for children below ﬁve years which was then expanded to include pre-schoolers, all primary school children, children up to 15 years of age in rural areas, old age pensioners, the destitute, widows and all pregnant women. The noon meal scheme has had a long run in Tamilnadu with a wider coverage and as a result various indicators of malnutrition showed a downward trend in Tamilnadu during the period.
Summing up, The relationship that MGR and DMK had before the formation of AIADMK was a symbiotic one. MGR required the party's light on him for a successful cinema career and also, It was the DMK's propaganda cinema and DMK's script writers who provided a kick-start for MGR's film career. DMK also took his services for adding glamour to the party and nobody can deny the importance of the sympathy wave (MGR was shot at the throat, 1967) that put DMK on the political saddle. Later MGR-MK fallout and the formation of AIADMK produced a wholesome shift in the state's politics. MGR's administrative capabilities and his political successes only seem to be an oxymoron, for me.