by Sachi Sri Kantha, August 11, 2013
Last few months had seen the deaths of quite a few Tamil movie personalities who were involved with MGR during his film career. The obituary list includes actoresses Rajasulochana and Manjula, playback singer T.M. Soundararajan, lyricist Vaali, and music director T.K. Ramamoorthy of the Viswanathan-Ramamoorthy duo. Among these, lyricist Vaali (born as S. Rangarajan in 1931) had recorded ample anecdotes in his 1995 autobiography ‘Naanum Intha Noorandum’ (This Century and Me) about his interaction with patron MGR. Those still living among the actors’ clan who had worked with MGR during 1950s includes fellow actor-politician S.S. Rajendran, heroines Anjali Devi, M.N. Rajam, and the then ‘new face’ B. Saroja Devi as well as comedian Manorama. Not to be forgotten, among MGR’s acquaintances of late 1940s, was the then Jupiter’s ‘office boy’ named M.S.Viswanathan, who later blossomed into music director.
In this part, I’ll focus on the period between 1947 and 1949, when MGR had to play supporting roles and wait for his ‘big break’ as the Tamil hero. India received its independence on August 15, 1947. As it often happens in the movie industry, ill luck or ‘bad breaks’ of other rival heroes (especially P.U. Chinnappa and Ranjan) at pertinent times in combination with change in popular taste did propel MGR’s fortune. Ranjan’s move to Bombay to accept offers in Hindi movies in 1948 and Chinnappa’s premature death in 1951 at the age of 35, opened up a void which MGR was able to capture and keep for almost quarter of a century as an action star. Below I also provide a comparison of MGR’s film career with that of John Wayne, Hollywood’s greatest action hero.
MGR’s supporting roles between 1947 and 1949
Even after popular success of his debut movie Rajakumari (released on April 11, 1947), MGR had to content himself by starring in supporting roles in the movies of two leading Tamil singing stars (namely M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar and P.U. Chinnappa). The five movies in which MGR played supporting roles and their release dates are as follows:
Paithiyakaran (NSK Films, Sept. 26, 1947)
Abimanyu (Jupiter Pictures, May 6, 1948)
Rajamukthi (Narendra Pictures, October 9, 1948)
Mohini (Jupiter Pictures, October 31, 1948)
Ratnakumar (Murugan Talkie Film, December 15, 1949)
Synopses and some details relating to production about these five movies had been provided by Randor Guy in his ‘Blast from the Past’ series between 2007 and 2010. In this part, I provide some context to MGR’s career development which has not been touched by Randor Guy.
Paithiyakaran (Mad Man) movie was produced by T.A. Mathuram, the actress-wife of comedian N.S. Krishnan, while the latter was under incarceration on involvement with the murder of muck-raking journalist C.N.Lakshmikanthan in November 1944. The movie, based on social-reformist Tamil play with the same name, was released a month after India received independence in August 1947. The script for this movie’s social theme was prepared by popular drama actor S.V. Sahasranamam, who himself played the lead role. Mathuram played a dual role as heroine and comedian. While as a comedian she teamed with her husband Krishnan, but as a heroine she teamed with MGR’s character in the movie and both sang a duet song!
Jupiter Pictures which produced Rajakumari (1947) also released two movies in 1948 (Abhimanyu and Mohini) in which MGR had non-hero roles. In the same year, two movies (Chandralekha under Gemini label, and Naam Iruvar under AVM banner) which had greater popular appeal were also released. Compared to these two movies that featured actors (M.K. Radha and Ranjan in Chandralekha, as well as singing-star T.R.Mahalingam in Naam Iruvar) with whom MGR had co-billing in his early movies, MGR’s four movies released during 1948 and 1949 were marginally popular with the audience. As he had played only supporting roles in these movies, the lack of financial success for these movies cannot be pinned on MGR.
MGR was a co-star in the Raja Mukthi featuring Bhagavathar, who himself produced this movie. The flop of Bhagavathar’s Raja Mukthi was a blessing in disguise for MGR. While it signaled the end of Bhagavathar’s dominance in Tamil movies following his 30 month incarceration on a criminal case, it also introduced to MGR, his future third wife Vaikom Narayani (V.N.) Janaki.
1949 had only one MGR movie released; again in another supporting role in Rathnakumar featuring Chinnappa as the hero. In the billing of both Bhagavathar’s Raja Mukthi and Chinnappa’s Rathnakumar, multi-talented Paluvayi Bhanumathi (1925-2005) from Andhra Pradesh had appeared. She would be a ranking presence as a heroine in MGR’s notable movies of 1950s.
Both Chinnappa (1916-1951) and Ranjan (1918-1983) were action-movie stars, who were born a year before and after MGR’s birth. The given names of both were Puthukoddai Ulaganatha Pillai Chinnasami and Ramanarayana Venkataramana Sarma, respectively. As is common in movie industry, MGR also in his early career opted the stylish stage name ‘Ramachandar’, to distinguish himself from other actors carrying the same Ramachandran name (T.R. Ramachandran and T.K. Ramachandran; there was also another Ramachandran, who opted the nick name Ramanna, a sibling of heroine Rajakumari. This Ramanna, later became a producer-director of many MGR movies in 1950s and 1960s.) For interest, I have assembled a montage of signatures MGR, his two Ramachandran contemporaries as well as that of his wife Janaki in a scan. Whereas other three have signed in English, MGR had signed in Tamil as ‘M.G. Ramchandar’.
Both Chinnappa and MGR, from poverty-tinged upbringing, had similar educational background and joined Madurai Original Boys Company drama troupe. Though their talents were familiar to each other, and both debuted in Tamil movie in 1936. Chinnappa’s stars shined brighter due to his combined singing and martial arts (such as staff fencing, known as silambam in Tamil) skills. As such, Chinnappa debuted as a hero in Jupiter Picture’s production Chandrakantha, while MGR had to content with a minor inspector role in Sathi Leelavathi. This movie was directed by P.K. Raja Sandow (1894-1942), the silent movie star who was also from Puthukottai, Tamil Nadu. Akin to Sathi Leelavathi, the plot for Chandrakantha was also based on a novel by J.R. Rangaraju by the same name.
In the next 15 years, Chinnappa starred as a singing-action hero in 24 movies. His last movie Sutharsan was released after his premature death on September 23, 1951. The reason for a young, healthy and active guy dying suddenly within a couple of minutes was hard to believe. As such, the cause of Chinnappa’s sudden death has not been clarified. Was it accidental, or was it from a self-induced orgy of excessive indulgence in drinking? Even Tamil movie historians like Aranthai Narayanan and Randor Guy have resisited in divulging the secrets. According to a recent 2011 report, Chinnappa had gone to a theater in his native Puthukoddai with his friends to see N.S. Krishnan’s own production ‘Manamagal’ movie. Then, while in the company of his friends at home, he had quipped, ‘feeling faintish’ and vomited blood. Within few minutes, Chinnappa had died.
In contrast to these two, Ranjan, from a relatively rich family, was a man of multi talents. He graduated from the Christian College, Madras with a physics honors degree. He was also an aviator, musician-dancer, journalist, critic and a magician! Ranjan’s star (in a villain role) rose high with the April 9th 1948 release of Chandralekha movie, under Gemini banner. Mogul S.S. Vasan had spent an exorbitant sum of three million rupees to produce this movie in more than three years and promoted it valiantly. After its success in Tamil language, Vasan reproduced the movie in Hindi and made it a success in Bombay as well. Chandralekha’s success in Bombay indirectly affected MGR’s career as well. Ranjan, his then rival for hero roles in Tamil movies, shifted his focus to star in Hindi movies. There, he did enjoy some success as a Hindi movie star for a decade (with movies such as Nishan 1949, Mangala 1951, Shin Shinaki Boobla Boo 1952, Baghdad 1952, Shahenshah 1953, Baghi 1953, Baap Beti 1954, Kismet 1956, Paristan 1957, Baghi Sipahi 1958, Madari 1959, and Commander 1959). But, after his sojourn in Bombay, Ranjan did return to Tamil movies in mid 1950s to star in a couple of movies like Neelamalai Thirudan (1957) and Raja Malaya Simhan (1959). However, by this time, MGR had established himself firmly and Ranjan failed to usurp MGR’s status. It is unfortunate for Ranjan that he had spread his talents so thin, that he was not even credited with an entry in the authoritative Encyclopedia of India Cinema!
In the mythological Abhimanyu movie of 1948 produced by Jupiter Pictures, MGR played a supporting role of Arjuna (father of hero Abhimanyu) in the Hindu epic Maha Bharatha. Released a month after the release of Gemini’s Chandralekha movie, Abhimanyu’s success at box-office was muted. Again, the uncredited script writer for Abhimanyu was M. Karunanidhi. But, in place of his name, A.S.A. Samy’s name was included in the title credits. The reason offered by Jupiter’s producer Somasundaram was that Karunanidhi had to pay his dues before gaining status as a script writer. In the next Jupiter Pictures movie Mohini released five months later, in which MGR again played a supporting role, and for the first time was paired with V.N. Janaki, his future third wife. The plot, according to Randor Guy’s synopsis, was a cross between Shakespeare’s ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’ and the Arabian Nights tale ‘The Magic Horse’. A.S.A. Samy was again identified as the script writer. This magic horse was made of wood, but activated by engines to fly. Camera tricks helped the wooden horse to perform unusual feats!
Manthiri Kumari (Minister’s Daughter) was produced by Modern Theatres, one of the most successful studios owned by disciplinarian T.R. Sundaram (1907-1963), and located in Salem town, Tamil Nadu. It’s first release was in 1937 with the title ‘Sathi Ahalya’, which was the debut movie for Kathiresan Thavamani Devi. As indicated in part 9 of this series, Jaffna-born Thavamani Devi had a leading role in MGR’s Rajakumari movie. Even prior to that, she had starred in one of MGR’s earlier movies Vethavathi or Seetha Jananam in 1941. Thavamani Devi had two successful movies. First was, the mythological Sakunthalai (1940), in which Carnatic Diva M.S. Subbulakshmi was featured in the title role, and Thavamani Devi played the temptress Menaka role. Second was, Vanamohini (1941) – a Tamil adaptation of jungle Tarzan movie.
In 1992, Thavamani Devi (at the age of 64) had offered an interview to the Ananda Vikatan weekly, in which she had described marginally her interaction with mogul T.R. Sundaram and her travails with other Tamil movie producers. Here are the excerpts in translation:
“Then, we were living at Colombo. Our native place was near Jaffna. We were of Brahmin line. Dad Kathiresa Subramaniam was a justice. Uncle Balasingham was a minister in colonial Ceylon government. All in our family were educated, and rich too! After five male siblings, my parents wished for a girl and prayed in many temples. This was the origin ofmy name Thavamani Devi (Penance-jewel Princess!). As such, I was the pet (for my parents)…
I was around 13. T.R. Sundaram, the boss of Modern Theatres, had heard about me through his friends sent one of his assistants to Ceylon to book me. At first, dad rejected this offer. However, the assistant somehow pressed dad’s agreement, and gave 10,000 rupees as advance.
We reached Tamil Nadu. We were offered a house within studio compounds. On the first day of testing, when I spoke the lines with much emotion, T.R. Sundaram had come to like my delivery. Thus, I became the heroine of ‘Sathi Ahalya’ movie. T.R.Sundaram treated us very promptly offering all facilities for our welfare. In the absence of shooting, none (including Sundaram) would dare to visit our house. That sort of treatment made us happy. After ‘Sathi Ahalya’, I had movie offers for ‘Shyam Sundar’ and ‘Seetha Jananam’. To act in these movies, I traveled from Ceylon. All these were produced by good companies. After the death of mother, dad also retired from his position, and…I settled in Chennai with dad.
T.R.Sundaram and dad became close friends. To relieve his tension from movie business, Sundaram and dad played chess. When both were engaged in chess, no one should bother them. [That was the condition]. I’d never dare to approach them. Once when I recommended to Sundaram that for the ‘Uttama Puthiran’ movie, why not offer chance to P. U. Chinnappa when they were engaged in chess, I’d never forget the scolding I received from him for disturbing the chess game. At the same time, I cannot forget mentioning that he did choose Chinnappa for that movie.
[It is unfortunate that] later I became a victim of ‘casting couch seduction’, because of my strong will of not to entertain the approaches of some producers and directors. Due to my resistance, I lost many opportunities… After the death of my dad, I couldn’t even return to Ceylon. Even when I thought of tutoring dance, music classes, there was opposition even for this effort. From all angles, I was threatened with a ‘shadow war’ in Chennai for almost 10 years. Then, for piece of my mind, I moved to Rameswaram. I married a widower Kodilinga Sastri in November 1962, and live here now forgetting my past connection to the movie world.”
This brief interview-expose by Thavamani Devi in 1992 was a periodic revelation on the foxes and vultures of Chennai movie land who circled young actresses in 1940s and 1950s. In a posthumous article on Thavamani Devi, Randor Guy had presented an unflattering portrayal of her career decline as “She began to slide down the grease pole. Extravagant life style, advancing age, lack of discipline in work ethos, other problems and more did not help her.” This I guess, was the view of the male chauvinistic angle of Madras cinema industry. But, in 1992, Thavamani Devi was forthright in exposing the dark side of the industry’s patrons. But, there were disciplined producers like T.R. Sundaram, about whose work ethics even poet Kannadasan had offered praise.
Between 1950 and 1956, Sundaram would direct and release three MGR movies under Modern Theatre’s label. These were, Manthiri Kumari (1950), Sarvathikari (The Dictator, 1951) and Alibababum Narpathu Thirudargalum (Ali Baba and Forty Thieves, 1956). The last mentioned became the first film shot entirely in color for MGR as well as for the Tamil movies.
MGR’s ascent to iconic rank began with the release of Manthiri Kumari (Minister’s Daughter) in 1950. After struggling in side lines for almost 15 years, with 20 movies to his credit (with the exception of Rajakumari in 1947, his sole hero billing), he succeeded in reaching the top, from which he would never be toppled for the next 27 years! Professional misfortunes or risks (such as a career-threatening leg injury in a 1958 play, even a near-death experience resulting from an assassination attempt by senior actor M.R. Radha in 1967, financing and producing three movies on his own) and dabbling in local politics would not blow him out. It was not in his character to play a subsidiary role or a villain role or a ‘guest’ role for few minutes. Even when he was billed with his other contemporary heroes, MGR was the hero for the rest of his 113 movies. As was his wont, he would collaborate with his two equally talented contemporaries, Sivaji Ganesan (1928-2001) and Gemini Ganesan (1920-2005) only in one movie, as the sole hero. The two movies which had this rare recognition were Koondukili (‘Caged Parrot’, with Sivaji Ganesan; R.R.Pictures, 1954) and Muharasi (‘Face Consetellation’, with Gemini Ganesan; Devar Films, 1966).
MGR and John Wayne
In my view, many of the hagiographic short biographies on MGR published in Tamil suffer from lack of comparison of MGR’s movie career to any of his contemporaries in other movie industries, either within India or beyond India. This partly reflects the ignorance of MGR biographers to simultaneous development in other cinematic and political cultures. So that, this deficiency has to be rectified, I have made an attempt to compare the movie career of MGR with that of one Hollywood hero, whose claim to fame can be matched appropriately. The Hollywood hero of my choice was none other than John Wayne (born Marion Mitchell Morrison, 1907-1979). I provide a PDF table comparing the careers of MGR and John Wayne. In it, I have identified 17 criteria from birth to death which perfectly match the careers of Tamil Nadu and Hollywood icons of cinema. About career comparison of MGR and other movie stars in publications in English by other film critics, I’ll elaborate in the next part.
Anonymous: Sudden death of Chinnappa at the age of 35. (in Tamil) www.maalaimalar.com/2011/02/26092558/p-u-chinnappa-dead.html (accessed Aug.8, 2013)
George Carpozi Jr.: The John Wayne Story, Dell Publishing Co, New York, 1979 (first published in 1972).
Randor Guy: Starlight Starbright –The Early Tamil Cinema. Amra Publishers, Chennai, 1997.
Randor Guy: Blast from the Past – Paithiakaaran (1947). The Hindu (Chennai), June 13, 2008.
Randor Guy: Blast from the Past – Abhimanyu (1948). The Hindu (Chennai), Oct.1, 2009.
Randor Guy: Blast from the Past – Mohini (1948). The Hindu (Chennai), Oct. 19, 2007.
Randor Guy: Blast from the Past – Raja Mukthi (1948). The Hindu (Chennai), April 18, 2008.
Randor Guy: Blast from the Past – Ratnakumar (1949). The Hindu (Chennai), Feb.25, 2010.
Randor Guy: Stickler for discipline [a brief profile of Modern Theatres and T.R. Sundaram]. The Hindu (Chennai), Aug. 8, 2008.
Randor Guy: Gone, but not forgotten [a brief biography on P.U. Chinnappa]. The Hindu (Chennai), Oct. 1, 2010 [Note: the dates of birth and death of Chinnappa mentioned in this feature are in error.]
Aranthai Narayanan: Aaramba Kaala Tamil Cinema (1931-1941). Part 1, Vijaya Publications, Chennai, 2008. (in Tamil)
Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen: Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema, new revised edition, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999.
Thavamani Devi interview. The anguish of a Cuckoo! Ananda Vikadan, Oct. 17, 2012. (re-publication of the item which first appeared in Aug. 2, 1992 issue). (in Tamil)