The trend of personality cults taking centre stage in politics is a common feature in India. However, the phenomenon of leader worship reaches a whole other level when one talks about politics in Tamil Nadu. The fierce emotional outpour that followed the demise of former chief minister Jayalalithaa was evidence of the demi goddess like stature she enjoyed in the state. However, the phenomenon of personality cults in Tamil Nadu politics dates back much before her when her political mentor M G Ramachandran was the heartthrob of the state, both as a leader and a leading actor. As the southern state celebrates the centenary birth anniversary of the popular leader, we reflect upon MGR’s rise to overarching fame and success in Tamil Nadu.
MGR was born in Kandy, Sri Lanka in 1917 to a family of devout Hindus. Ironically, later in his career, he would make a name for himself in a party and political movement that shunned Brahmanical Hindu philosophies and mooted for social equality. However, before MGR became a shining political figure, it was the Tamil film industry that paved his way to popularity.
MGR made his debut film Sathi Leelavathi in 1936. It was in 1950 though that he made his major breakthrough with the film Manthiri Kumari directed by his future political rival M. Karunanidhi. Generally starring in romantic or action movies, MGR directly appealed to the sentiments of Tamilians with films that were easily identifiable by both the rich and the poor. MGR was the biggest name in Tamil film industry right until his death in 1987. By then he had also been elected chief minister four consecutive times. His last film was Madhuraiyai Meetta Sundharapandiyan.
The film industry in Tamil Nadu had been intimately woven into politics ever since the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) was formed in 1949 by writer and playwright C. N. Annadurai. In fact, the DMK had so many people from the film industry that it was the first to effectively use cinema for propaganda in the state. With MGR joining the DMK in 1953, the party found a popular face to represent itself and enter the lives of the common people.
As part of the DMK, MGR became the link between the party and the common man. Though the party already consisted a large number of film personalities, it was MGR who shone, perhaps because of the fame he had already achieved as an actor. In 1962 he became member of the State Legislative Council and was first elected to the Assembly in 1967. After death of party founder Annadurai, he became party treasurer.
However, MGR’s relations with DMK members started turning bitter after the demise of the founder. In particular was the opposition and rivalry he faced from chief minister M Karunanidhi since 1972. MGR protested against Karunanidhi’s dictatorial methods and attempted to expose cases of corruption within the party. Very soon he found himself ousted from the party. What followed was the beginning of new chapter in the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu, with MGR forming the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in 1972, later named the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).
MGR used his popularity both as an actor and as a public figure to make the AIADMK a successful political party that would go on to achieve sweeping victories over many elections. In 1977, the AIADMK won state Assembly elections for the first time and MGR was sworn in as the seventh chief minister of the state. He remained in power till his death in 1987, winning three consecutive elections.
MGR’s tenure as chief minister was marked by the welfare schemes which continue to remain an important part of Tamil Nadu’s socio-political landscape. Midday meals, liquor ban, women centric welfare schemes and preservation of heritage sites were some of the populist measures MGR came to be associated with and would later be carried forward by his political successor Jayalalithaa.
In 1982, MGR introduced Jayalalithaa to politics after having worked with her in several films. Though debatable, it is said he nurtured and mentored Jayalalithaa’s political career and her rise to popularity among the masses. The news of MGR’s demise in 1987 was received with the kind of emotional outrage unheard of before. Soon after, the party split between his wife V.N. Janaki and Jayalalithaa. It was the latter who carried ahead the legacy of the iconic figure.
MGR’s name in Tamil Nadu politics is retained firmly 30 years after his demise in a way that an insight into the current state of affairs in the state being incomplete without a look at the impact that he made into the households and hearts of Tamilians.