Marudur Gopalan Ramachandran, or MGR, as he has always been known, is among the most charismatic and popular politicians India has known. The three-time chief minister of Tamil Nadu was literally worshipped by his people, who saw him as their ‘saviour’. He was also the original superstar of Tamil films. A Malayali by birth, he was seen as a Tamil, having been adopted and embraced by the DMK. MGR lost his father early in life and his mother was forced to move to Tamil Nadu to live with a relative. She brought up Ramachandran and his elder brother, Chakrapani, amid great poverty. The boys had to drop out of school and work in a drama troupe to eke out a living. It was not as though MGR was spotted by a director or producer and became a star overnight. The early years were full of struggles, rejections and humiliation. He did not taste success till 1947, when he was 30 years old. How did this man climb to the top and become a leader who could do no wrong?
Some answers are provided in the book, MGR: A Life, by R Kannan. The book is well researched and packed with facts and anecdotes, with the author trying to take an objective look at MGR’s life. This is quite welcome, as there are hardly any serious books in English on Dravidian leaders. Most existing books on MGR are just hagiographies. MGR’s connection to theatre and films was his stepping stone to politics. The Dravida Kazhagam (DK) and then the DMK were beginning to make full use of drama and cinema to spread their ideologies and MGR had several mentors who were into party activities. The decision to step into politics was hastened by MGR’s friendship with M Karunanidhi, a scriptwriter and founder-member of the DMK. Karunanidhi gave MGR his first hit in Rajakumari in 1947, and MGR started drifting towards the DMK, finally joining the party in 1953.
The party and its leaders, particularly Anna and Karunanidhi, recognised they had a charismatic crowd-puller with them. Thus, they began building the MGR image. MGR’s films established him as a dashing hero, who valiantly fought for justice. Kannan says MGR had figured out early on that there was no difference between the screen hero and the real one, at least in his case. “Cinema was more than his livelihood. It was his life and his vehicle for his latent aspirations. The budding hero chose his roles and lines carefully, never essaying a negative role. In his films good always triumphed over evil. He vanquished powerful villains single handed. He fought for the underdog who the DMK was representing. He claimed he led a simple life.” The carefully-crafted image worked and MGR was accepted as the person he projected himself to be. This was to last his lifetime. The poor remained devoted to him. No other actor has been able to achieve what he did. This is one of the more interesting parts of the book.
The anti-Hindi agitation of the Sixties swept the DMK into power in 1967. During the election campaign, MR Radha, a fellow actor, tried to shoot MGR, who had to undergo a surgery that impaired his voice. Posters of MGR with a bandaged neck, asking people to vote for the DMK, had a huge impact. MGR continued to act and attract crowds wherever he went. However, he did not get any party position when Anna was sworn in as the chief minister, nor did he seem to aspire for it. He was happy to be an MLA. In 1969, Anna passed away. MGR proved to be the kingmaker in helping elect Karunanidhi as the successor to Anna over several other senior leaders. Karunanidhi made MGR the party treasurer, a post he had himself held. But, by 1972, cracks began to appear in their friendship. Goaded on by some disgruntled party leaders, the kingmaker decided to be king. The Congress played many underhand games in splitting the party. In 1975, MGR launched the AIADMK and won the elections in 1977. Till his death in 1987, nobody else stood a chance in Tamil Nadu. It also became a two-party state, with the national parties hanging on to the coat tails of either the DMK or the AIADMK. The Dravidian parties have ruled Tamil Nadu for 50 years now.
MGR’s 10 years were full of drama and political shenanigans. He was not a great actor, orator or an administrator. But he had that indescribable something that made him the darling of the masses. He was a politician more by instinct than intellect. His feelings for the poor were real, as he never forgot his early deprivations. One of the criticisms against him is that he didn’t pay much attention to industrial growth in the state. That is not strictly true. His schemes—increasing the reservation percentage in education, allowing private engineering colleges and the iconic universal noon meal scheme—were to lay the foundation for future growth. Kannan’s book constantly touches upon the relationship between friends-turned-foes MGR and Karunanidhi. Karunanidhi lost out in the popularity sweepstakes and could never make a comeback till MGR’s death.
The book is more a political biography than a personal one. It talks of MGR’s closeness to his elder brother, Chakrapani, in the early years, but not his influence over MGR in his later years. It also doesn’t talk about MGR’s complicated relationships with women. He was married thrice and his successor, J Jayalalithaa, became his fatal obsession. The book is so dense and full of characters that someone outside Tamil Nadu might find the constant twists and turns difficult to understand. However, the importance of the book lies in the fact that it documents the evolution of the two major Dravidian parties that still hold sway over the people of Tamil Nadu.