Book- MGR: A Life
Author- R Kannan
Price- Rs 599
In keeping with the DMK’s secularism, MGR wore no religious symbols, except towards the end of his life. He also wished that his close associates not sport them. He asked the lyricist Vaali to refrain from wearing any religious marks, as party elders like NV Natarajan (NVN) would think poorly of him. When Vaali retorted that he would rather leave, MGR said the issue could be closed.
Earlier, he had asked the actress Sakunthala, of his MGR drama troupe, to wear her religious symbols in private. While performing in the temple town of Thiruvannamalai, he prevented her from visiting the shrine, saying, “If partymen see this they would mistake me.” The years 1953 to 1956 were a slow period for MGR, with two out of three films following Marmayogi not faring well.
He founded the MGR Nataka Manram (MGR Drama Troupe). On 1 October 1953, RM Veerappan (RMV) joined as his manager, thanks to senior stage artist Narayana Pillai, after which MGR’s heart grew fonder of the DMK. Known for his political astuteness and organisational skills, RMV would see that MGR blossomed into a mature politician. In September 2005, Kalaignar (M. Karunanidhi) called RMV the ‘sculptor’ who made MGR.
The MGR Nataka Manram had 30 men and nine women, and MGR had made them part of the DMK. When he found out that Sakunthala was not a member, he expressed his unhappiness and then asked an aide to tie a DMK flag to her car. Some 40 families depended on the troupe and they grew concerned when MGR landed Malaikallan. But a caring MGR took it upon himself to stage plays in the Coimbatore area in the evenings, while he would shoot for Malaikallan during the day. Similarly, as the drama troupe began to fare better, MGR converted the monthly salary to a share from the proceeds. But as MGR became busy, the troupe wound up. Its play Inbakanavu (Sweet Dream) debuted as a benefit performance for the DMK’s 1953 Three-front Agitation case fund in October 1953, and it was a huge hit.
MGR waved the DMK flag at the beginning and end of the play, and addressed the audience on the DMK’s policies in the end. This DMK involvement, however, came with a price. The Madras Sabhas (associations) refused sponsorship and All India Radio ostracised him. When a staffer broadcast an abridged version of Inbakanavu, he was promptly transferred for the indiscretion.This ostracism extended to his film career as MGR would act only if political propaganda was permitted in his movies.
Sakunthala said that MGR lost many roles and a worried Chakrapani often quarrelled with his younger brother on this account. MGR wrote later: “The bond is such that whatever good or bad occurs to the Kazhagam, [it] also reflects in my life.” But MGR pushed the envelope with his DMK agenda. In fact, in 1968, he testified that it was his “job”, and said that he felt vindicated when he was accused of politicising cinema. Thozhilali (Worker, 1964) is a case in point. To indicate that the worker would one day become the owner, MGR had to say: “That is my future star of confidence.”
The scriptwriter Arurdhas, a Catholic, explained the story of the star of Bethlehem. When MGR pointed out that it was the Swatantra Party’s symbol, Arurdhas suggested replacing the sun with the star. Dravidar Kazhagam’s MR Radha, the movie’s villain, told MGR that the shot with the word “sun” could not end with his face as was planned. The shot now ended with MGR directing the script to the image of Murugan behind MR Radha on the wall. This was not the first time that MGR had tried and failed….
The young DMK party planned agitations and programmes and, in the summer of 1953, Anna announced the party’s famous Three-Front Agitation. MGR did not take part in it. Anna had exempted actors and certain professionals such as lawyers.
On 15 July, the batch led by Kalaignar lay on the rails of the local Kallakudi station, defying the authorities and an incoming train. The train screeched to a halt just ahead of where Kalaignar and his colleagues lay. Kalaignar was slapped with a six-month sentence for the protest. Later that day, however, six lives were lost in police firing.
Anna was upset with Kalaignar for exceeding the party’s mandate — of just putting up a poster saying ‘Kallakudi’ on the name board of the station, which read ‘Dalmiapuram’, and demanding a return to the original name — and the series of events leading to the loss of life. Kallakudi left a deep impression on MGR. On 29 November at the Egmore railway station, the screen hero awaited the Kallakudi hero, who was returning to Madras after the completion of his prison term. Kalaignar could not even alight from the train, such were the crowds. Like in the movies, carrying him, MGR waded through the jostling crowd, only to lose his expensive watch in the process.
MGR would praise Kalaignar as one of the rare leaders who had risked his life. Had the train not screeched to a halt, the loss would have been irreparable. On Karunanidhi having ‘kept his head on the rails’, he sang in Engal Thangam:Blocking the moving train/ [and] Placing his head on the rails/ Disregarding life, as straw/ This crowd upheld Tamil honour.
MGR and Jayalalithaa had not taken a fee for the movie to help Kalaignar financially. It appeared to be the apogee of their cooperation, but Vaali wrote that he knew that MGR and Kalaignar were having ‘small cold wars’. Producer Murasoli Maran appeared in no hurry to finish the movie. When Jayalalithaa pointed this out, MGR began probing, only to learn that the producers were in discussions about Kalaignar’s eldest son, MK Muthu’s Pillayo Pillai (Oh! The Son, 1972). Clearly MGR was not ‘Our Gold’ any more. Also, the cold war would not be cold any longer as MGR feared that Muthu was being sponsored by his family in competition to him.