by Sachi Sri Kantha, June 6, 2014
In the previous chapter (Part 17), I reviewed MGR’s two volume autobiography. To this chapter, I received the following comment from my long standing friend Prof. Sundaram Gunasekaran of University of Wisconsin, Madison. His thoughts were as follows: “Very interesting, especially the story of his [MGR’s] first love. You mention of two omissions in his biography; I can think of a third one – Jaya[lalitha]. After her historic win today, I must admit that she has bettered her so-called mentor, at least has benefited the most with the use of MGR name.” My reply to Guna was as follows: “To answer your question, Jaya do not appear in MGR’s autobiography at all (when he wrote it between 1970-72), except one passing mention – in which MGR had noted, that her mother Sandya was drinking whiskey (as he heard from one of his retainers), when they used his make-up room! He was somewhat irritated by that, because if others (media folks) had come to know that an empty bottle was found in his make-up room, they may falsely accuse him of using alcoholic drink!!! MGR don’t mention Jaya’s name. He mentions that when he was acting in ‘Kannan En Kathalan’ [Kannan is My Lover, 1968] movie. And Jaya was the heroine of that movie.
In this chapter, I review two more MGR-related books, which had been published in 2013. One is in Tamil, the other one is in English. The book in English, entitled ‘MGR a biography’ was by Shrikanth Veeravalli (curiously, my namesake, with a variant English spelling). It is of only 145 pages. The second book in Tamil, entitled ‘Naan Aanayyittal…Ponmana Chemmalin Pokkisham’ [If I give Command…Treasure from the Golden Hearted] was edited by S. Kirubakaran. It is of 256 pages. Among the two, the latter one is worthy of attention for the sole reason that it is a compilation of the text materials of 41 documents related to MGR; his speeches in public meetings, radio /TV, as well as written essays/articles/commentaries published previously in journals devoted to Tamil films and Tamil politics.
First to Shrikanth Veeravalli’s biography. In a previous chapter, I had compared the merits and demerits of four MGR biographies published in English. This new addition to ‘MGRiana’ appears to be a cut and paste, quicky product by a first time author. The inside cover blurb, introduces the author as “A senior management professional SHRIKANTH VEERAVALLI obsessively creates time for his hobbies and other pursuits. His interests span a wide spectrum: from movies to music, from cooking to books. History and crime fiction are among his favourite literary genres. He loves all things associated with words – whether it is reading or writing, solving or setting cross-word puzzles, listening or speaking. He has recently been empanelled as a crossword compiler for The Hindu, and plans to produce a lot of written work in the future. Brought up on a steady dose of Tamil movies, he thinks it is only natural that MGR is the subject of his first book.”
I have reason to include this 109 word profile of the author here, because it indicates some details about the personality of the author. I like the description, “He loves all things associated with words”. He loves words so much, that he incorporates what had been written by other authors, into his own corpus! He also doesn’t keep proper records of what he borrows, and from whom he had borrowed the ideas or words. He also doesn’t believe in the convention of giving due credit to other authors’ ideas. I have been chronicling MGR’s life for the past 26 years, after his death. My writings had appeared in print and electronic versions. As such, it is obvious that Veeravalli was influenced by my writings. To his credit, Veeravalli do mention my name and my thoughts about MGR twice in his book (between pages 96 and 97, and 140). What is presented between pages 96 and 97 about my reasons on why only MGR (among all other Tamil Nadu politicians) came to take the Eelam issue to his heart, I do acknowledge as my true comments. They appeared in my short collection of essays and articles, entitled, ‘MGR Movies Revisited: and other Essays (1995). But, what is presented in page 140, I have not written at all. It was a surprise to me, when I read it!
To quote Veeravalli, “As Sachi Sri Kantha wrote in his obituary for MGR, ‘In the eyes of the common people, the chief minister became indistinguishable from the generous-hearted, larger-than-life heroes he portrayed on screen. Few understood that his welfare schemes, however well-intentioned, were at the expense of developing the state’s infrastructure. Under MGR, Tamil Nadu slipped from second to tenth place among India’s twenty-five states in industrialization.’ ” Two pertinent issues here. First, I never wrote an obituary to MGR, after he died in December 1987! Secondly, what was passed by Veeravalli, as I had written, are not my thoughts and words. If he had cited a source from which he had gathered this bit of trivia, it may clarify the issue. This illustrates the problem of ‘copying and pasting’ indulged by some first time authors. And to think, that Veeravalli is now serving as a “crossword compiler for The Hindu” tells something about the journalistic practices of that publishing company. Another issue with author Veeravalli is, he had snatched my idea in explaining MGR’s political concept of Annaism, as his own, without due attribution of credit. To this website, I contributed an essay, ‘On Milton Friedman, MGR & Annaism’ in November 25, 2006, as a requiem to the celebrated American economist. In this book, Veeravalli passes this idea, as his own by re-arranging the words, as follows: “Milton Friedman, the 1976 Nobel Prize winner for economics, stated that even the US was 45 percent socialist, suggesting that socialism and capitalism could co-exist. Whether MGR understood what Friedman meant or not, it is possible that this was a utopian dream of his, and when articulated by him found supporters too.” (p. 64) Similarly, I also noticed that few of my 1992 thoughts expressed on MGR’s birth in Kandy, repackaged as his own!
In sum, this short biography is split into 5 parts; part 1 (1917-49), part 2 (1949-1972), part 3 (1972-1977), part 4 (1980-87) and part 5 (1987-forever). 15 chapters are contained in these 5 parts. MGR’s interest in the Eelam issue is covered in one of these 15 chapters, basically from Anton Balasingham’s book on LTTE’s interactions with MGR. Unfortunately, MGR’s career in stage and movies get short shrift. MGR’s tiffs with comedian J.P. Chandrababu, villain and character actor M.R. Radha, and director C.V. Sridhar are passingly noted. The only redemption seems to be, that author had begun each of the 15 chapters with a lyric from MGR’s movie, except the penultimate chapter entitled ‘Ascent Jayalalitha’. For this particular chapter, a lyric from a Jayalalitha movie (Sooriyakanthi, aka sunflower; a movie without MGR in it) is included. Overall, MGR’s political career is predominantly covered in this book. Details from the books of MGR’s two previous biographers Attar Chand, K. Mohan Das are passingly cited. At the end, Veeravalli cites Shakespeare’s line for Marc Antony, “Here was a Caesar! When comes such another?” and paraphrases it to MGR’s life as, “One is just tempted to end the narration by saying, ‘Here was MGR! When comes such another!” Lack of an index is a demerit.
One particular issue about MGR’s interaction with the then popular director C.V. Sridhar in 1960s, recollected by Veeravalli deserves expose. I quote the specific sentences that appear in page 45. “Sridhar was a very famous director during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. He holds the credit for introducing Jayalalitha in movies. He once signed up MGR and the shoot started. It was a story designed for MGR, but somewhere along the line, differences cropped up between him and MGR. When MGR suggested that a scene be changed as his fans would not accept him in that situation, Sridhar shot back that it was not an MGR movie but a Sridhar movie. In 1968, it was blasphemy to speak like that to MGR. MGR walked out of the movie and it was made later with Sivaji in the lead and the title was of Sivantha Mann. It was the first film to be shot outside the country in Switzerland. The movie bombed and Sridhar was neck deep in debt. He could not find help anywhere when someone suggested that he meet MGR. Sridhar was aghast at that advice. He felt that he did not have the face to meet MGR again let alone seek help. But the friend insisted and, and after much hesitation, Sridhar went to meet MGR. MGR heard out his problem and chided him for not coming earlier.”
I’d say that Veeravalli’s account of MGR-Sridhar interaction in 1960s is merely hearsay! He should have checked the original sources. Though MGR had not recorded it in his autobiography, director C.V. Sridhar (1933-2008), to his credit, had recorded it posterity in his memoirs, ‘Thirumbi Parkiren’ (Looking Back), which appeared in 2002. This was 15 years after MGR’s death. And Sridhar was under no obligation to protect MGR’s image or hurt his feelings! Sridhar mentions that he called MGR on phone and the latter asked him to visit his house. At MGR’s house, Sridhar requested MGR to act in one of his movies, which he would direct. After he told the story, ‘Andru Sinthiya Ratham’ [The Blood that was spilled Then], MGR listened to it and accepted to act with the quip, ‘Good Story. My character seems excellent.’ Then, Sridhar was so pleased and requested MGR to give call sheets, according to his convenience. For formality, he also was about to hand in 25,000 rupees as advance, MGR told him to hand it to his elder brother Chakrapani. After having the pooja [prayers] for the movie shooting, MGR offered call sheet for 2-3 days. The scene was, MGR making a forceful speech in front of around 400 youngsters. For this, Sridhar had arranged to receive students from many colleges in the city. The shooting of this scene was over. That’s all. After that, MGR didn’t give any call sheets. Now, I provide, Sridhar’s words in translation, in which he acknowledges his mistake in dealing with MGR. Sridhar had written,
“After that, we had met on so many occasions. But, both of us never talked about the stopped ‘Andru Sinthiya Ratham’. However, he behaved very kindly with me. Later only, I realized why MGR didn’t give call-sheet for my movie. This is it. I had promoted two movies, ‘Andhru Sinthiya Ratham’ and ‘Kaathalika Neramillai’ [No Time to Make Love] at the same time, on the same day in advertisements of a journal back to back. In it, I had inserted that ‘Kaathalika Neramillai’ was a color film. But no such announcement was made for the ‘Andhru Sinthiya Ratham’. MGR would have got upset [that’s the exact word, Sridhar had used within inverted commas.] after looking these advertisements. My impression then was that, as MGR himself was a ‘colorful’ personality, his movie need not be in color. Thus, I had decided ‘no color’ for this movie. My mistake was that, if I had talked with MGR and obtained his approval, he’d have agreed to my thinking. Without me doing that, once he saw back-back promotional announcements for two movies, he would have got upset that I’m down-grading his status in comparison to that of new faces.”
In fact, ‘Kathalika Neramillai’ was a hugely successful comedy movie made in Eastman color, in which Sridhar had introduced new faces Ravichandran and Kanchana to Tamil films. It was released in February 1964. It also benefitted from excellent performances by veteran T.S. Baliah, comedian Nagesh and supporting hero Muthuraman. It is interesting to check that Sridhar’s account of his mistake, contradicts the dateline given by Veeravalli, who places the rift between MGR and Sridhar in 1968. The promotional advertisement which Sridhar mentions should have appeared in late 1963. ‘Sivantha Mann’ movie was taken in both Tamil and Hindi. It was released in 1969. Sridhar records that its collection in Tamil version was good, but it’s Hindu version flopped badly. To re-gain the lost money, Sridhar gambled again in taking another Tamil and Hindi movie of the same story, ‘Avalukku Endru Oru Manam’ [A Mind of Her Own, 1971]. Even, Hindi version of this movie flopped in box office. The Tamil version was accepted with mediocre collection. Then, he produced another movie, Alaigal [Waves, 1973]. It also bombed, and increased his debts! Then, Sridhar wanted to take a Sivaji Ganesan movie with the title, ‘Hero 72’ in Tamil and Hindi versions. He was able to complete the Hindi version, with Jithendra in time, but Sivaji Ganesan refused to give call sheets to complete the movie. It was only then with neck deep in debt, Sridhar was forced to approach MGR. Veeravalli mentions that “someone suggested that” Sridhar should meet MGR. If he had really read Sridhar’s 2002 memoirs, he’d have known the identity of that ‘someone’. It was none other than popular Hindi actor Rajendra Kumar of 1960s, who himself had acted in Sridhar’s Hindi movies. I provide these nitty-gritty details recollected by Sridhar to show that Veeravalli’s version is utterly unreliable.
If Veeravalli’s biography is a disappointment, Kirubakaran’s compilation of MGR’s public documents which remained scattered in various Tamil magazines (Ananda Vikatan, Nadihan Kural, Sama Neethi, Bhommai, Filimalaya, Murasoli, Thirai Ulagam, Pesum Padam, Thenral Thirai, Manram and Mathi Oli) and special publications such as ‘Nadodi Mannan’ movie felicitation souvenir, is a pleasurable treat to have in one’s book shelf. Mr. Shanmughasundaram Mohan (b. 1930), Ex- Supreme Court Justice of India, had written an encouraging forward to this book. 41 documents assembled in this book, spans the period from 1948 to 1982. Among these 41 documents, quite a few reveal MGR’s inner thoughts on Tamil cinema and Tamil Nadu politics. In my choice ranking, MGR’s essay on the popular success of his first production, Nadodi Mannan (Vagabond and the King, 1958) spans 36 pages. In it, MGR had detailed the contributions of script writers (poet Kannadasan, Ravindar), actors (P.S.Veerappa, M.G. Chakrapani, M.N. Nambiar, T.K. Balachandran, K.R. Ramsingh, J.P. Chandrababu) , actresses (P. Bhanumathi, M.N. Rajam, G. Sakuntala, B. Saroja Devi, T.P. Muthulakshmi), dancer (Chandra), lyricists (N.M. Muthukoothan, Suradha, Athmanathan, Pattukottai Kalyanasundaram, Lakshmana Das), musical directors (N.S.Balakrishnan, S.M. Subbiah Naidu), story department of MGR Pictures (R.M. Veerappan, Vidwan V. Lakshmanan, S.K.T. Sami, stuntsmen and trainers (R.N. Nambiar), technicians (Ramu, Menon), editors (Perumal, Jambu), executive (Govindarajan), makeup man (Rangasamy), studio mogul Nagi Reddy, and last but not the least, director K. Subramaniam who served as a supervisor for MGR’s direction. He also corrected the false impression spread around that time, that this particular movie was an adaption of Hollywood movie The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), starring Ronald Colman. MGR states in the article that in their first promotional announcement, they themselves had mentioned this fact. But, subsequently, the story lines changed and another Ronald Colman movie, ‘If I were a King’ (1938) that attracted his attention around 1937-1938 when he was filming his fifth movie in Calcutta – Maya Machindra, came to his focus, and it came to be adapted. MGR continues further that he was bothered with poverty in the land and when he discussed this question within his circle, the only answer he received was that, poverty exists because of foreigner’s rule. At that time, India was a colony of British. But, he came to realize later that even after Independence, poverty problem continued to exist. Thus, he yearned for a ‘good rule’ (which he calls, Nal(la) Aatchi). Until, this is not settled, poverty cannot be eliminated. Thus, he introduced the vagabond character in the movie. MGR mentions the cost for producing this Nadodi Mannan (released in August 1958) was 1,800,000 Indian rupees. In a 1962 speech, made at a function to felicitate MGR’s election to the Upper House of the Madras Legislative Assembly, MGR offers the figure of 1,300,000 rupees that was spent in producing the Sivaji Ganesan starrer, Veera Pandiya Kattabhomman (released in May 1959).
Another interesting, lengthy address (29 pages) of MGR that appears as the last item of this book, was his ‘Thank You’ speech at the felicitation function arranged by the movie world to celebrate his honorary doctorate offered by the University of Madras. In it, he had mentioned that it was he who had recommended Sivaji Ganesan (then known, only as V.C. Ganesan) in 1946 to the role of Anna-scripted ‘Sivaji Kanda Indu Samrajyam’ or ‘Chandramohan’ drama as the most suitable actor, after refusing the offer he had in his hand. He mentions that the main reason was, he was pre-occupied with the shooting of his first hero – role movie Rajakumari (1947). He had asserted that this fact was known to actor D.V. Narayanasamy (who arranged with Anna to have MGR for that particular role), director A.S.A. Sami, and also to ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan.
The book is also supplemented with 60 photos of MGR, some with his contemporaries in movies and politics and some from film stills. It would have been good, if the years in which these photos were taken were clearly annotated. Especially, the cover photo of this book features MGR hugging an aged lady. Late in his years, he had used a white fur cap and dark sunglasses as part of his attire. As he appears in this cover photo without a cap and sunglasses, it is certain that this photo was taken before he turned 50. The contrasts in this black and white close up photo is rather remarkable. Man and Woman, ‘young’ and aged, ‘white’ and ‘black’, smooth skin and wringled skin, ‘double chin’ and ‘single chin’, a movie star (without makeup) and a commoner. It is mentioned that the compiler Kirubakaran is a full time journalist at Vikatan group. As Kirubakaran’s compilation is a vital source book on MGR, I plan to use materials from this book for future chapters of this MGR’s biography.
I thank fellow MGR biographer and friend R. Kannan for offering me a complimentary copy of Veeravalli’s book.
Shrikanth Veeravalli: MGR a biography, Rupa Publications, New Delhi, 2013, 145 pp.
S. Kirupakaran (compiler): Naan Aanaiyittaal…Pon Mana Chemmalin Pokkisham, Vikatan Publications no. 774, Chennai, 2014 (2nd edition), 256 pp.
Sridhar: Thirumbi Parkiren [Looking Back], Arundadi Nilayam, Chennai, 2002, 360 pp.
Sachi Sri Kantha: MGR Movies Revisited: and Other Essays, Eureka Center, Fukuroi City, 1995, 114 pp.