by Sachi Sri Kantha, April 7, 2015
MGR’s biography would be incomplete, if the rivalry offered by Villuppuram Chinnaiah Ganesa Moorthy aka Sivaji Ganesan (1928-2001), his junior contemporary and reputable rival in Tamil movies and Tamil Nadu politics, is left uncovered. As such, in this chapter, in addition to entering the 1960s, I focus on (1) Sivaji Ganesan’s thoughts on this rivalry (2) an American observer Susanne Hoeber Rudolph, who had compared the parallel career of Sivaji Ganesan and MGR, and (3) the expressed view of one of his heroines, Vyjayanthimala Bali, also a reputed dancer who later became a Congress Party MP.
Criteria of Success in Film Industry
Psychologist Dean Keith Simonton began his 2009 review on the economics of film making in Hollywood, with the following three sentences. “The mainstream film industry faces a tough challenge every single year. The vast majority of the films released each year fail to make money during their theatrical run. In fact, most films lose millions of dollars. The only reason why the core industry survives at all is because a small percentage of films bring in substantial box office receipts, and an even smaller percentage of these attain the status of outright blockbusters with earnings in hundreds of millions of dollars.”
If one alters the currency ‘dollars’ to ‘rupees’, the above statements apply well to film industry in India as well, for any particular period. That’s why movie industry in any nation is propped by super heroes and talented heroines. For the Tamil movie industry of 1960s, the leading stars who pulled in substantial box office receipts were MGR and Sivaji Ganesan. Simonton identified three main criteria by which a movie’s success is evaluated: critical evaluations, financial performance and movie awards. Of these three, one can distinguish that critical evaluations are decided by ‘egg heads’, critics and academic scholars. Financial performance is decided by the movie goers who purchase the tickets. Movie awards, in many instances, are decided by the peers in the industry.
As for Tamil movie industry of 1960s, Sivaji Ganesan’s movies cornered the critical evaluations. MGR’s movies ranked high in financial performance. As for movie awards (international or indigenous), with a few exceptions, there weren’t many awarded for Tamil movies. What Simonton had observed for the Hollywood movies remains true for the Tamil movies as well. One critical aspect was the distribution of the movie, during its theatrical release. Five notable variables were, (1) season of release, (2) number of screens, (3) major distributor, (4) marketing expenditures, and (5) market competition. For Hollywood movies, the big-money making movies are mostly likely to be released in summer months. The secondary period with good box office returns are Christmas and to a lesser extent, Easter.
Check the movie release dates in the Table (in separate PDF file above) for essential details of the movies in which MGR starred from 1960 to 1967. For Tamil movies, there are three specific seasons; namely, Thai Pongal (in mid-January), Hindu New Year (in mid-April) and DeepavaLi (in late October-early November). The movie release dates for MGR movies fall in this pattern; almost every year, there will be a Thai Pongal release and a DeepavaLi release, and occasionally a Hindu New Year release.
Sivaji Ganesan’s Success with Veera Pandiya Kattabomman (1959) Movie
If MGR found success with his Nadodi Mannan (1958) movie, it was Sivaji Ganesan’s turn in 1959, with Veera Pandiya Kattabomman (Heroic Pandiyan Kattabomman) movie. It was a biopic of a Tamil chieftain named Kattabomman (1760-1799), who was arrested and executed by the British colonialists. Unusually for a Tamil movie, this movie received an international award at the Africa-Asian Film Festival held in Cairo. Though a founder enthusiast of DMK party, Sivaji Ganesan had drifted away from DMK in late 1950s. MGR, S.S. Rajendran (SSR) and poet Kannadasan were the prominent faces of DMK then. Kannadasan produced a movie Sivakangai Seemai, with SSR in the lead role, in rivalry to Veera Pandiya Kattabomman. While the latter movie (in techniccolor) was released on May 6, 1959, the former movie (in black and white) was released on May 19, 1959. Lead actors, script writer, lyricist, director and music director and producer were different for both movies. Only actress S. Varalakshmi acted in both movies.
On the production of the Kattabomman movie, Sivaji Ganesan had reminisced as follows: “I will remember Kattaboman forever. The play served as a platform to display the talents of several artistes and helped to bring people together. Once he saw the play, director B.R. Panthulu decided to make it into a film. Shakthi Krishnasamy wrote the dialogues for this film. Nowadays nobody writes dialogues like his, and no one delivers them like we did. This film won an award at the Africa-Asia film festival. This is because of the powerful story telling in the film. I faced many hurdles when I was acting in the film.
There was a character called Vellaiyadevan in the story and initially S.S. Rajendran was slated to play this role. He refused as he was committed in the making of another similar film called Sivagangai Seemai, which portrays the struggle of two South Indian kings against the British. This film was pitched against Kattabomman. As justification, we were told that Kattabomman was a king belonging to Andhra Pradesh while the Sivagangai Maruthus were Tamilians. This was the kind of attitude which prevailed in the industry at that time and I am not going to elaborate on it further. We faced a contingency as we needed a good actor for the part of Vellaiya Devan. I came up with a plan. What do you think? I approached the actress Savitri, a gem of a person whom I consider as my sister. She had almost reached full term pregnancy at that time. ‘Please send your husband Gemini Ganesan to act the role of Velliya Devan. This is the biggest gift that you can give your brother’, I said to her. Although she was due to deliver any time, she willingly allowed her husband to leave her for the shooting in Jaipur.”
Whereas, Nadodi Mannan (1958) was a half black and white, and half Geva-color production, Veera Pandiya Kattabomman (1959) was a complete techni-color production. This distinction also made a difference in glamor. Comparatively, Kannadasan’s Sivakangai Seemai was only a black and white production. Thus, it lost out in competition to Veera Pandiya Kattabomman. A month following the release of Veera Pandiya Kattabomman movie, as recorded earlier in parts 13 and 22, MGR suffered a leg injury at a drama stage in Sirkazhi on June 16, 1959. This accident incapacitated him for the next six months. As such, only one of his movie, Thai Magalukku Kattiya Thali (story by his mentor Anna) was released on the last day of 1959. It turned out to be a financial flop! According to his writer assistant Ravindar, MGR’s interpretation for the flop was that the movie’s producer cum director R.R. Chandran was an expert cameraman. Thus, his focus was more on camera angles, but he had ignored other vital aspects of movie making. It was the only movie, MGR was paired with Telugu actress Jamuna (b. 1936). The story plot of the movie was about caste discrimination in Tamil society. Like in Nadodi Mannan, both T.M. Soundararajan and Sirkazhi Govindarajan were used as playback singers for songs of MGR. Despite the lilting, memorable songs (especially, Govindarajan’s duet Adivarum adaga Pot-Pavaiyadi Nee, and Soundarajan’s duet Chinnan chiru vayathu muthal sernthu naam pazhaki vanthoom, a ‘riding educational song’ Onralla Irandalla Thambi – an MGR movie motif, see Part 25 – extolling the greatness of ancient Tamil Nadu, sung by Govindarajan, set to music by music director/violinist T.R. Paapa), the movie flopped.
Movies and Main Events between 1960 and 1967
During this period, two individuals whom MGR had known for decades influenced his career in movies and politics tremendously. They were, body builder turned producer Sandow M.M. A. Sinappa Thevar (1915-1978) and elder mentor/actor of stage Madras Rajagopalan Radhakrishnan (M.R. Radha, 1907-1979). MGR reached the pinnacle of his movie career (a star with superior earning power) and took his first direct political step, by being elected to the Madras Legislative Assembly in 1967 and simultaneously influencing the electoral victory of DMK party over the Congress Party in the Madras State. Prior to that, he faced a life threatening second accident, in a shooting incident involving his elder mentor M.R. Radha on Jan.12, 1967.
Some significant dates in MGR’s life of this decade (until 1967) are as follows. That MGR is a stickler in demanding ‘politically correct’ names for his movies from producers is well known. As such, some of MGR’s movie titles are not easy to translate into English. A good example is Petraal Thaan Pillaiya (1966), the movie which was linked to his shooting incident by M.R. Radha. Thus, wherever it is infeasible, I have omitted the translated English titles.
1960: number of movies released 3 – Bhagdad Thirudan (Thief of Bagdad), Raja Desingu
(Raja Desingu) and Mannathi Mannan (King of Kings)
1961 April 9: E.V.K. Sampath and Kannadasan quit DMK party to form Tamil Nationalist Party (TNP).
1961: number of movies released 5 – Arasilankumari (The Princess), Thirudathe (Don’t Steal), Sabash Mapillai (Greetings Bridegroom), Nallavan Vazhvan (Good One will Live) and Thai Sollai Thattathe (Don’t reject Mother’s Words).
1962 Feb.25: death of second wife Sadhanandavathi.
1962: nominated as the DMK Member of Legislative Council (MLC) of Madras State.
1962: number of movies released 6 – Rani Samyukta (Queen Samyuktha), Maada Pura (Balcony Pigeon), Thayai Kaatha Thanayan (The Son who saved the Mother), Kudumba Thalaivan (Leader of the Family), Paasam (Love), and Vikramathithan (King Vikramathithan).
1963: First of the two years, in which a maximum number of 9 movies were released. These were, Pana Thottam (Money Garden), Koduthu VaithavaL (The Blessed Lady), Dharmam Thalai Kaakkum (Order will Save Life), Kalai Arasi (Artistic Queen), Periya Idaththu Penn (High Society Woman), Ananda Jyothi (Happy Flame), Neethiku In Paasam (Love after Justice), Kanchi Thalaivan (Leader of Kanchi), Parisu (The Prize).
1964 March: resignation of MLC nominated position.
1964 July: at a birthday felicitation function, creating a stir among DMK party cadres by calling Congress Party leader Kamaraj as his ‘leader’ and mentor Anna as his ‘guide’.
1964: number of movies released 7 – Vettaikaran (The Hunter), En Kadamai (My Duty), Panakkara Kudumbam (The Rich Family), Theiva Thai (Divine Mother), ThozhilaLi (The Laborer), Padakotti (Fisherman), and Thayin Madiyil (In the Lap of Mother)
1965 Oct: first and only trip to his birth place Ceylon.
1965: number of movies released 7 – Enga Veetu Pillai (Our House Child), Panam Padaithavan (Rich Man), Ayirathil Oruvan (One in a Thousand), Kalankarai ViLakkam (The Light House), Kanni Thai (Virgin Mother), Thazhampoo (Pandanus flower), and Asai Mugam (Lovely Face).
1966: Again, a maximum number 9 movies were released. These were, Anbe Vaa (Come here Love), Naan Anaiyittal (If I Ordered), Nadodi (Vagabond), Chandrodayam (Rising Moon), Mugarasi (Luck of Face), Thali Bhagyam (Luck of Thali thread), Thani Piravi (Exceptional One), Parakkum Paavai (The Flying Lady), Petraal Thaan Pillaiya (difficult to translate this title!)
1967 Jan.12: shooting incident at his house, by actor M.R. Radha.
1967 Feb.: Elected as the DMK Member of the Legislative Assembly for St. Thomas Mount constituency.
1967: number of movies released 4 – Thaiku Thalaimagan (Eldest son of Mother), Arasa Kattalai (Order from Kingdom), Kavalkaran (Protector), Vivasayee (Farmer).
Between 1960 and 1967, when his age advanced from 43 to 50, a cumulative total of 50 of his movies were released. He was the hero in each of these movies. He neither played second fiddle to any other heroes, nor took honorary roles. This was a contrast to the career of Sivaji Ganesan. As the compiled Table shows, during this period MGR’s lead heroines in these 50 movies were, B. Saroja Devi (25 movies) and Jayalalitha (8 movies). In one movie, Arasa Kattalai, released after the 1967 shooting incident, both appeared together. Other notable heroines were, Padmini (5 movies), K.R. Vijaya (5 movies), Savitri (2 movies) and P. Bhanumathi (2 movies). Jayalalitha and Vijaya appeared together in one movie, Kanni Thai.
A second look at the compiled Table also reveals the consistency of MGR’s producers, among whom two were prominent. Devar Films (owned by MGR’s long time buddy Sandow M.M.A. Sinappa Thevar) and R.R. Pictures (belonging to director T.R. Ramanna). Though Ramanna had produced movies with Sivaji Ganesan and did produce the only movie Koondu KiLLi, in which MGR and Sivaji Ganesan were featured, for financial success, he relied more on MGR. Then, we have a couple of producers, who had shifted their allegiance from Sivaji Ganesan to MGR, for better financial success. These include, B.R. Panthulu (Padmini Pictures), who had produced classic Sivaji Ganesan movies like Veera Pandiya Kattabomman, Karnan and Kappalottiya Thamizhan, moving to MGR’s camp in 1965 to produce Ayirathil Oruvan (1965) – the first pairing of MGR and Jayalalitha, Nadodi, and. Rahasya Police 115 (Secret Police 115). Another producer was G.N. Velumani (Saravana Films), who previously had success with Sivaji Ganesan with movies like Bhaga Pirivinai and Paalum Pazhamum, later landing in MGR’s camp with many hit movies such as Panathottam, Padakotti, Kalangarai ViLakkam, and Chandrothayam. These producers were unaffiliated to DMK party, and some were ardent Congress Party sympathizers. It is my surmise that MGR creating a stir among DMK party cadres in 1964 by calling Kamaraj as his ‘leader’ might have been a ploy to placate the sentiments of these movie moguls as well.
That B.R. Panthulu and G.N. Velumani left Sivaji Ganesan’s camp to join with MGR also stresses the relevance of financial performance and the ‘bottom line’ of the final product of their effort. Whatever the critical evaluations by the egg-heads on the quality of the plot and the acting performance of the players, if the final product flops in the box office, there couldn’t be another repeat opportunity in the high risk film industry. Later in 1970s, even other reputed directors like C.V. Sridhar and A.P. Nagarajan who gained respect by associating themselves with Sivaji Ganesan, had to move into MGR’s circle also highlighted the same phenomenon.
Sivaji Ganesan’s Lament on the insensitivity of Congress Party Circle
In his autobiography, Sivaji Ganesan had stated the following:
“B.R. Panthulu produced good movies such as Karnan [Karna, a ranking character in Maha Bharatha epic], Kappalottiya Tamizhan [The Tamil Who Owned a Ship – a biopic on V.O. Chidambaram Pillai] and so on….I was able to excel in my role as V.O. Chidambaram in Kappalottiya Tamizhan… This film was not a box office hit because V.O.C. belonged to the Congress Party. Certain people did not want the masses to be stirred by the nationalist spirit. It was the time when the DMK was gaining political ground in Tamil Nadu. A time when there was competition between parties, and films were pitched against each other. The opposition unleashed a malicious propaganda that since V.O.C belonged to the Congress Party Kappalottiya Tamizhan was a Congress Party film. In those days, the DMK had the strength of numbers…The difference between the DMK and the Congress is that the latter did not pay much importance to the field of performing arts. My professional accomplishments or my speeches were not appreciated by them whereas the attitude of the DMK was different. It used films as the primary medium to widen the party base. Since the Congress did not understand artistic sensitivities, Kappalottiya Thamizhan, which was a film made for the Congress, was a box office failure…”
Susan Rudolph on Sivaji Ganesan (in 1967)
Susan Rudolph was an associate professor in political science at the University of Chicago, when her ‘Letter’ on ‘Southern Film’ appeared in the Yale Review in 1971. In this feature, she had looked back to 1967, when she met Sivaji Ganesan at Kodaikanal when he was shooting a film for AVM Productions. At that time, he was 39 years old, after DMK party was elected to power. Excerpts:
“Shivaji Ganesan, the reigning male idol of the Tamil film, and his wife Kamala celebrated their fifteenth wedding anniversary on May 1…Shivaji is about five foot eight inches, with lean hips and a barrel chest, and that extra bit of flesh around the chin that film-goers in a hungry country like to see in their stars…Shivaji wears his clothes – which range from dhoti and shirt to Italian-cut raw silk suits – with the air of wearing costumes. For his pictures, the makeup men tone him up from his natural warm middling brown to a false dark apricot….
We asked him how he came to be in the films.
‘I have been an actor since I was a boy. I ran away from home when I was six and joined a touring company of actors. We traveled from town to town. We never knew when we would eat and what would happen. It was a hard life.
‘But they taught me so many things. It was called a gurukulam, a traditional school. It worked by apprenticeship to a master or masters. Boys joined it when they were young. We learned how to dance, and sing, and act. I know how to do all the classical dances, khatakali, Bharatanatyam, and also the twist. An actor had to be able to do everything and the boys learned from the elders. It was a hard discipline. I used to play women’s roles when I was young. My hair was so long.’ He made an expressive gesture of combing heavy, knee-length tresses.
‘I was a good-looking girl. In those days the young boys played the women’s roles because there were no women in the company. Only today are there women actors. The director Gopalkrishna [i.e, K.S. Gopalakrishnan], he also used to act women’s roles. Then, when I became better known, I in turn had young boys who learned. But now there is nothing left of the gurukulams. Mine was the last. We still try to keep up an acting company in Madras and have a play once a week. But now it is the college boys who come, not young boys. And they don’t want to work at the discipline. They want immediately to have such big roles.
‘I finished one film today. In two days, I shoot another. They take six months to film. But sometimes we have a double schedule, one film in the morning, another in the afternoon. The film I shoot in two days is Mr. Trilok’s [i.e., director A.C. Trilokchandar]. He is a very good director and script writer. And a young man, too, younger than me.’…
Films are serious business in India, and Shivaji is a valuable property. The country has been producing more than three hundred films a year for the last six years, making it one of the largest film producers in the world. They are enormously popular not only among literate city people but among millions of illiterates for whom other mass media are less accessible. The Tamil films account for about fifty pictures per year and Shivaji accounts for between 10 and 20 percent of these.”
In the same feature, MGR also makes a cameo appearance because the talk of Susan Rudolph twists to comparing the movie careers of Sivaji Ganesan and his older contemporary MGR, among those who were present then. Excerpts:
“ ‘MGR sounds like John Wayne and Shivaji like Alec Guinness,’ I said. John Wayne and Alec Guinness were not, in fact, quite right for contrasting MGR and Shivaji. MGR, we presently discovered, is more like Charlie Chaplin with a Dean Martin face and physique. In Petrtaldan Pillaya, he plays a cheerful wayward tramp, slightly overwhelmed by the elegance and big city life of Madras, and the wily ways of its demimonde of magicians and thieves and fortune tellers. His gait and grin are so much like Chaplin’s that the resemblance cannot be entirely accidental. But while this makes him a box-office attraction, it also gives him a bit of a reputation as a light weight. People give their remarks about Shivaji a gravity they do not apply to MGR.”
Susan Rudolph was partially right and partially wrong, in the above stated excerpt. Overall, MGR indeed projected a John Wayne image in his Tamil movies, which I have indicated in previous chapters. Only for the movie Petral Than Pillaiya (supposed to be a marginal adaptation of Chaplin’s acclaimed The Kid plot), MGR played the Chaplin face. But remember, The Kid was a silent movie released in 1921 with a running time of little more than an hour; Petral Than Pillaiya (1966) released after 45 years was a talkie with song sequences and other popular attractions to the Tamil audience. MGR’s screen persona can hardly be compared to that of ‘Chaplin with a Dean Martin face and physique’. What an insult to both MGR and Chaplin?
Actress Vyjayantimala Bali on MGR
Between 1948 and 1970, actress-dancer Vyjayantimala (born 1932) acted in only 64 movies (majority in Hindi). Only 10 of her movies were in Tamil. Among these 10 Tamil movies, she was the heroine for 4 of Gemini Ganesan movies, 2 of Sivaji Ganesan movies and one of MGR movie. That one movie, released in 1960, was Bhagdad Thirudan (Thief of Bagdad). Later, Vyjayantimala became a politician and represented the South Chennai constituency as a Congress Party MP at the Lok Sabha. In her 2007 memoirs (20 years after MGR’s death), Vyjayantimala had written the following. She mentions one Yagamma , her maternal grandmother and guardian.
“Then, coming face to face with the screen idol, M.G. Ramachandran, I was totally lost to begin with. One had grown with his larger than life image, right from childhood to youth. What all I had heard about him, but when I met him, he came across as a normal person so modest and smiling all the time. He didn’t seem conscious of the stature he enjoyed, for it didn’t show. There was no sense of superiority considering he was put on a pedestal. In Bhagdad Thirudan (Thief of Baghdad), I had to play a lively, spontaneous dancer, who’s sold and taken as a slave. MGR rescues me. It was also a good-humoured film with a lot of comic sequences.
One memorable scene was where he had to pick me up, and after lifting me throw me on a couch. Look at the maryada [note by Sachi: respect] they had at that time, anybody else would have just done it. But sought Yagamma’s due permission and she as usual kept at it, ‘Oh, my child should not get hurt. Be very careful.’ She went on giving all her instructions. He did it so graciously after it was enacted by the director’s assistant. All this came naturally to MGR, for he really knew how to behave with his leading ladies. It spoke very high of him. He was so decent and gracious, very gentle and quiet. He wouldn’t talk much and would speak up only when the shot was ready and followed the director. He would even extend the courtesy of asking me, ‘Shall I start?’ And I would just nod my head. It was all very cute.
MGR was the most loved person, for whatever he did on the screen was lapped up. He came up tops. He was a stalwart, for he looked the role, though unlike Sivaji [Ganesan] he had a more swashbuckling style. Besides, he also brought in his party ideology through cinema. People would even prostrate, as he was an idol for the masses in Tamil Nadu. No wonder, he was known as Makkal Thilagam (People’s King).”
The expressed opinion of Vyjayantimala do not differ from that of many of MGR’s other heroines, but does differ from the characterization of some of MGR’s rivals and critics such as M. Karunanidhi, journalist Cho Ramasamy and writer D. Jayakanthan. (I mention only those who are living now). There is no necessity for Vyjayanthimala to offer pleasing sentiments on MGR, 20 years after his death, unless she was touched by his attributes.
‘Film News’ Anandan: Sadhanaigal Padaitha Thamizh thiraipada Varalaru (Tamil Film History and its Achievements), Sivagami Publications, Chennai, 2004.
- Ravindar: Pon Mana Chemmal MGR, Vijaya Publications, Chennai, 2009, pp. 56-57.
Rudolph, Susanne Hoeber: From Madras – A view of the Southern Film, Yale Review, spring 1971, 60(3): 468-480.
Simonton, D.K. Cinematic success criteria and their predictors: The art and business of the film industry. Psychology & Marketing, May 2009; 26(5): 400-420.
Sivaji Ganesan: Autobiography of an Actor, edited by T.S. Narayana Swamy, English version by Sabita Radhakrishna, Sivaji Prabhu Charities Trust, Chennai, 2007.
Vyjayantimala Bali: Bonding…A Memoir, Stella Publishers Ltd, New Delhi, 2007, pp. 99-100.