New Delhi: People may get puzzled when they hear the name Maruthur Gopalan Ramachandran. But hardly would anyone question who ‘MGR’ was.
Ramachandran, popularly known as MGR, was born in the plantations of Kandy in Sri Lanka on 17 January 1917. He was only two years old when his father, Gopala Menon, passed away and his mother, Marudur Sathyabama, decided to return to Kerala. Upon arrival in India, she was however driven away by relatives and Sathyabama finally settled in Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu with her two sons.
While everyone remembers MGR as the politician who wore a fur hat and sunglasses, he is most fondly remembered as that actor who made millions swoon. MGR was posthumously awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1988.
His foray into acting began when he was barely 14. MGR and his brother, M.G. Chakrapani, had joined a drama troupe to support their family. A few years later, inspired by Gandhian ideals, MGR also joined the Indian National Congress. He went on to serve as the chief minister of Tamil Nadu for 10 years, from 1977 to 1987.
In an interview in 1981, MGR was asked if he saw himself becoming the prime minister of India someday. To this, he promptly replied, “Instead you should ask me: how long do you think you will continue as the chief minister?”
On his 104th birth anniversary Sunday, ThePrint takes a look at the life of this iconic actor-cum-politician who is credited with forming the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, and who also launched former chief minister Jayalalithaa into politics.
Early beginnings and foray into cinema
Drama troupes were an easy way to earn money at the time, something that prompted MGR and his brother Chakrapani to join the famous Boys Company during their early teens.
In his book MGR: A Biography, Shrikanth Veeravalli states how drama at the time was not for the weak-hearted. “In the process of becoming a versatile actor, one had to be adept at singing, dancing, sword fighting, diction and memory. This was inculcated with diligence and loads of punishment.”
But it was this rigour that MGR liked and he actively sought out for meatier roles. He was only 14 when his mentor Kandasamy Mudaliar took him and his brother to Rangoon (now Yangon) and Singapore for stage shows. But MGR’s heart was set on movies.
He made his film debut in 1936 at the age of 20 with the movie called Sathi Lilavathi, directed by Ellis R. Dungan. MGR played the role of a corrupt police officer.
His big break came in 1950 with the movie Manthiri Kumari, a historical drama, also directed by Dungan. It was this movie that created his image as the sensitive champion of the poor and downtrodden.
In an acting career spanning from 1936 to 1976, and two movies released posthumously, MGR acted in 136 films — 132 Tamil, 2 Malayalam, 1 Telugu and 1 Hindi movie.
MGR was also a man of many firsts. Not only was he the first actor in India to become the chief minister of a state, he was also the first actor in South Indian cinema to win the National Film Award for Best Actor for his movie Rickshawkaran in 1972.
He quit acting after becoming the chief minister of Tamil Nadu in 1987.
When he was once asked if his ‘good-boy roles’ helped his political career, MGR responded saying, “Well, I have played the villain’s role too in some films. Only I don’t play a villain’s role in real life! Whatever I promise to my people I try to implement to the best of my ability. People know I am sincere and believe what I tell them. The moment they lose faith in me, MGR the hero becomes a zero!”
MGR joined the DMK in 1953. It has been reported that it was DMK founder C.N. Annadurai who saw MGR’s potential and his charisma that would help the party reach out to the masses.
Former Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi and MGR were known as the “deadly combo of the 60s”, in both cinema and politics, in Tamil Nadu. Karunanidhi was also a screenwriter.
In 1972, MGR founded the AIADMK, three years after Annadurai passed away in 1969. MGR was expelled from DMK by Karunanidhi after he said that the party had become corrupt following Annadurai’s death.
When asked what was the difference between AIADMK and the DMK, MGR had once responded saying, “The DMK pursues Karunanidhi’s policies. In my party, we follow Anna’s ideals.”
After the imposition of Emergency in 1975 by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the dismissal of Karunanidhi’s government, MGR swept the state assembly polls in 1977. He was quick to dump Mrs Gandhi in the state polls, something she never forgot and what was to become the basis of the current alliances in the state — Congress aligning with DMK against the AIADMK.
MGR, however, maintained good equations with Indira Gandhi. In an interview, he had once said, “It doesn’t mean the mother starves the children who don’t fight with her.”
Veeravalli’s book has also noted, “It makes an interesting study that Ramachandran’s evolution as an individual had all the bearings of childhood struggle. Be it a genuine wish to help the subaltern masses, the Midday Meal Scheme or the attraction to the Dravidar Kazhagam ideals against the hegemony of Brahmins; all his actions had their roots in what happened during his childhood.”
MGR died of a heart attack on 24 December 1987, with the state observing a seven-day mourning.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.