In the previous chapter, I had observed that charismatic persons can be identified with following primary traits. (1) Originality in deeds, (2) humility in action, (3) Apportioning due credit to fellow associates, and (4) risk taking attitude. Subsequently, I located an interesting article by Ken Rea in the New Theatre Quarterly journal, published recently in August 2014. What he had reported and inferred are of some relevance for this MGR biography. I’ll provide a synopsis of this study on aspiring British stage actors, at the end of this chapter.
Also, in Part 11 of this series, I had compared MGR’s record in Tamil movies to that of his Hollywood contemporary John Wayne. Both were charismatic action-movie stars of their generation. Apart from this, in this chapter, I look for a comparison nearer home. I compare MGR’s record in Tamil movies to that of his senior contemporary M.K.Thyagarajah Bhagavathar (1910-1959), anointed as the first super star of Tamil cinema. For convenience, I refer to him simply as ‘Bhagavathar’ as he was called by his fans and media folks of his times. Though, Bhagavathar and MGR had charisma, why the former lost it in mid 1940s and died without retrieving it until his death, and why the latter never lost his charisma and secured it safely until his death is the focus of this chapter. Thus I have titled it as, ‘Secured and Damaged Charisma’. ‘Damaged charisma’ theme also is equally relevant to the stage-movie-political career of M. Karunanidhi, MGR’s friend turned foe.
Synopsis Bhagavathar’s movie career
I provide a specially compiled table nearby, which compares the film careers of Bhagavathar and MGR. A synopsis on Bhagavathar’s career which appears in the Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema (1998) is offered below.
“One of the first major Tamil singing stars, introduced in K. Subramanyam’s mythological Pavalakkodi (as Arjuna). Born into a family of goldsmiths in Tiruchi; joined the theatre as a child in F.G. Natesa Iyer’s troupe and went on to become the biggest Tamil stage star, sporting shoulder-length hair, diamond ear-rings and kohl around his eyes. After a successful film debut, became briefly the highest-paid actor in South India, despite appearing in only 11 films, with classic performances in Duncan’s Ambikapathy, Y.V. Rao’s Chintamani and Raja Chandrasekhar’s Ashok Kumar, and the folk legend of the reformed saint Haridas, a major commercial hit. Helped launch the mainstream Newtone Studio (1937). As a musician, he adhered to the Tamilisai movement, emphasizing Tamil traditions as opposed to the Carnatic idiom dominated by Telugu, Kannada and Sanskrit. Arrested with N.S. Krishnan and jailed in 1945 for two years for the infamous Lakshmikantan murder (in which the two stars allegedly had a film gossip columnist C.N. Lakshmikantan, killed). Made a high profile comeback with two of his own productions: Chandrasekhar’s Raja Mukthi, failed but is remembered as a debut of playback singer M.L. Vasanthakumari. Turned to direction with his last film, Pudhu Vazhvu.”
There is a factual error in this synopsis. Bhagavathar’s oeuvre consists of a total of 14 movies. His first 9 movies until 1944 were grand hits, among which two (Sathyaseelan, 1936 and Thiruneelakantar, 1939) were his own productions. But the last 5 movies released after his jail term (from 1948 to 1960, including Pudhu Vazhvu – 1957 which he produced and directed) were flops in box office. His final movie Sivakami (1960) was released posthumously. Why Bhagavathar’s charisma became damaged is an interesting question.
Apathy of Bhagavathar and his wife Kamalam
It may be arrogance, or a case of lack of empathy to a fellow actor, not favored by Lady Luck. In Part 3 of this series, I had translated an anecdote from Kaja Muhaideen’s (pen name K.Ravindar) book. He worked for MGR until latter’s death as a script writer. I reproduce it again here for its relevance as well as humility and helping trait of MGR, to those who had been rude to him when he was an out-of-luck actor yearning for chances. Two short and sanitized biographies on Bhagavathar’s life had appeared in Tamil, by Vindhan and Malathi Balan. But, the episode described by Ravindar do not appear in them. As Bhagavathar had died in 1959, this episode relates to Mrs. Kamalam Bhagavathar. The setting was post 1977, after MGR had become the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. ‘Hero’/‘He’/‘him’ in the translated text refers to MGR.
“If it’s evening, I go to Arkadu Mudali Road. For two days an old lady was waiting at Arkadu Mudali road. On the first day, I couldn’t identify her. On the second day, she asked, ‘Are you the Nagore boy, who was in N.P. Abdul Kadar house?’ I watched her face curiously and was dumbfounded. Before that, she herself introduced her; ‘I’m the wife of Bagavathar’. My eyes teared. In those days she was full of beauty with gem stones dangling in her body. Now, her skin had darkened and lifeless. I felt pity. ‘Amma, why you are here?’ I asked.
‘Thambi, I wanted to see MGR. No one listens to me. If you could tell him, please let him know. I’m standing here for two days with pain.’
It was not my job to notice who were standing at the entrance, who leaves. On that day, I reluctantly put that message to him. He asked, ‘Do you know her?’
I said, ‘Yes, It was N.P. Abdul Kadar who introduced me to M.K. Radha elder; he was the one who brought me to the cinema world. During that time, when I was idling, I stand in the Thanam and Co. wrist-watch shop owned by Kadar elder. Then, both Bagavathar and this lady do visit the shop. Even now, she was the one who identified me.’
He said, ‘Yes, for one reason I have made her stand there. You go and do your job.’
Within one week, I learnt from newspaper that one lakh (100,000) rupees were offered from personal funds to Bagavathar family, and the road in which Bagavathar’s house was located and an art theater was named after Bagavathar. Hero was the one who had done this. There was a photo in which hero was featured with Bagavathar family. As it was his habit in doing something without announcement, I didn’t feel this was such a big matter. After hero arrived, I went to see him.
‘Howdy? Did you read the paper? Did you see the story about Bagavathar?’ he asked.
‘Yes’, I quipped.
‘Are you satisfied now?’ he asked.
When I replied, ‘What’s here about my satisfaction?’, he responded.
‘Ravindar, I wanted that lady to realize how times change. She stood only for two days. Even for that, she felt so hurt. Do you know, how many days I had stood in their house compound? In that Askok Kumar movie, the role of me playing Bagavathar’s friend was strongly opposed Bagavathar and his wife who complained to Rajah Chandrasekhar. Even then there were Elder and Younger siblings. Chandrasekhar was the elder, and T.R. Ragunath was the younger. Because of the kind heartedness of those two, I got to play that role! Just because you are on top now, one shouldn’t undermine others’ opportunities’, he said.” [Words in bold font, as in the original.]
As MGR had implied, lack of empathy when their luck was in ascension on the part of Bhagavathar and his wife Kamalam could have been one of the reasons for damaged charisma of the singer-actor. The two sanitized biographies on Bhagavathar do not provide adequate details of the sensational gossip journalist C.N. Lakshmikanthan murder case of 1944, for which he was arrested, (charged as the 3rd accused with abetment as well as with conspiracy to the murder) and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Few Comparisons between the careers of Bhagavathar and MGR
First, it is somewhat a coincidence that both Bhagavathar and MGR lost their fathers in Ceylon. Gopalamenon, MGR’s father, probably died in 1919 after he moved himself and his family to Kandy from Kerala. Krishnamurthy, Bhagavathar’s father, died in Colombo, while accompanying the drama troupe (in which his son was the lead performer) in its second trip to Ceylon. Though the exact year in which Krishnamurthy died is not mentioned by Bhagavathar’s biographer Vindhan, I presume it should have been in early or mid-1930s. Through the courtesy of Mr. Kathiresan (an influential figure in Colombo of that era and father of actress Thavamanidevi), Bhagavathar was able to transport the remains of his father to Tiruchi.
Secondly, for his 1934 movie debut as a hero, Bhagavathar (at the age of 24) received only 1,000 rupees. The heroine of Pavalakkodi movie, S. D. Subbulakshmi was offered 2,000 rupees. In his autobiography, MGR mentions with humility that for his 1936 Sathi Leelavathi movie debut in the role of a police inspector (at the age of 19), for the first time in his life, he saw the 100 rupee note, as an advance received from producer Maruthachalam Chettiar. Then, for his 1942 Thamizhariyum Perumal movie, for a small role, he received a salary of 300 rupees. Between these two movies, MGR had acted in a small role in Bhagavathar’s hit movie Ashok Kumar (1941). But, he had omitted this experience in his autobiography. Finally, for his 1947 Rajakumari movie as a hero (at the age of 30), MGR was offered a cumulative sum of 2,500 rupees.
Thirdly, both Bhagavathar and MGR had to face a criminal lawsuit. For Bhagavathar, it was in 1944, when he was aged 34. For MGR, it was in 1967, when he was 50. Bhagavathar was an accused in his lawsuit; but MGR was a plaintiff in which his fellow actor M.R. Radha was the accused in attempting to murder him. More details on MGR’s case against M.R. Radha will follow later. Whether the status of being an accused or a plaintiff in a murder trial affect the charisma status of a movie superstar is a moot question.
Few offers to Bhagavathar for retrieving his charisma
Bhagavathar’s biographers mention at least two chances offered by his well-wishers to retrieve his popularity and charisma. First was by DMK leader C. Annadurai (Anna). He had scripted a movie story named Sorga Vasal ( Gate of Heaven, 1954) especially for Bhagavathar, and wished the latter to play the hero role. But Bhagavathar, unsatisfied by the atheist sentiments expressed in the script stood by his conviction, and rejected the offer outrightly. Thus, Anna had to settle with K.R. Ramasamy (a junior colleague of his party, with an established reputation as a singer-actor) for the lead role in his movie.
The second offer was made by the producer A.L. Srinivasan (an elder sibling of poet Kannadasan) who wanted Bhagavathar to play the role of poet Kambar, the father of the hero Ambikapathi in his 1957 production. The doomed love story of Ambikapathi- Amaravathi couple is to Tamils, what the doomed love of Romeo-Juliet is to English-speaking audience. Bhagavathar himself had essayed the hero Ambikapathi role in his 1937 movie, directed by Ellis Dungan. In the 1957 version, Sivaji Ganesan played the hero Ambikapathi role. Considering his seniority, producer Srinivasan was willing to offer 10,000 rupees higher than the amount offered to Sivaji Ganesan, the hero. But, Bhagavathar had flatly rejected this offer, with a flawed reasoning that his fans who had seen him play Ambikapathi in 1937, would be dismayed if he had to play the role of Kambar (father of hero Ambikapathi). That his reason was flawed based on delusion is a fact. He had lost his fans by 1948 itself. Had he taken up this offer, Bhagavathar might have gained fame in Tamil movie history as playing the role of both, a young Ambikapathi (son) in 1937 and an older Kambar (father) in 1957.
Call it excess pride in his virility or was it unabashed timidity that had clouded Bhagavathar’s thinking then. He simply failed to read the air of changed surroundings – a failed case of mastery of audience. Some of his admirers do mention that after his release from prison in 1947, Bhagavathar had turned philosophical and more religious. If this was the case, then he would have opted to retire from movies, once and for all, and focused only on performing in music concerts. This he failed to do. He did act in 4 movies until 1957, which indicates that Bhagavathar was more than willing to play the dice for recapturing the old fame.
This brings me to the study of Ken Rea, published last year. Ken Rea is a senior acting tutor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London. For the past 14 years, he had gathered information from his students (a total of over 350 actors) answer to the question, ‘What makes an exciting actor (or an outstanding actor)?’ This sample had identified 12 traits, as follows:
- Danger: unpredictable, risk-taking, daring, bold choices, courage, ability to surprise.
- Presence: magnetism, focus, compelling, limitless projection of energy, confidence.
- Warmth: incandescent generosity, without ego, a twinkle in the eye, joy, openness.
- Effortless spontaneity: abandon, freedom, relaxation, openness, playfulness.
- Individuality: freshness of approach, boldness, maverick, going against the obvious, ownership.
- Intensity of focus: totally connected and concentrated, total commitment, transports us.
- Specificity: precision, detail, virtuosity, accuracy, acute perception of behavior.
- Mastery of the audience: rapport, conducting their imagination, letting them in.
- Grace: ease and relaxation, aesthetically pleasing, inner calm.
- Charisma: magnetism, animation, originality of imagination, unique personality.
- Passion: hunger, drive, motivation, relish, vulnerability, enthusiasm.
- Sexual charisma: animal quality, at ease in your body, uninhibited sensuousness.
Charisma appears twice (10th and 12th) among these 12 traits. Tamil movie goers have no doubt that both Bhagavathar and MGR exuded charisma as well as sexual charisma. Bhagavathar oozed sexual charisma in his hero role of 1937 movie Ambikapathi, aided by Ellis Dungan’s direction. MGR’s sexual charisma is distinctly visible in all his 1950s movies, when he was aged 33 to 42.
From these answers of his students, and aided by experts associated with the field (agent or casting director, director, actor and critic), Ken Rea distilled the essence of being an outstanding actor to 7 values (consisting of identifiable cluster traits). These are,
- Warmth: vulnerability, passion and openness
- Generosity: extroversion, love and openness
- Enthusiasm: drive, curiosity, enjoyment, exuberance, optimism, passion and motivation
- Danger: unpredictability, individuality, imagination, agility, courage and risk-taking
- Grit: resilience, perseverance, enthusiasm and optimism
- Presence: attraction, relaxation and magnetism
- Charisma: (the most important of all – the ability to stand out) confidence, presence, passion, authenticity and virtuosity.
In hindsight, one may infer that Bhagavathar was few notches lower than MGR, in the above identified 7 values. I could identify, generosity and danger (courage and risk-taking) as two values which deprived Bhagavathar in retrieving his charisma in the post-1947 period. As the MGR anecdote mentioned above by Ravindar indicates, in comparison to MGR’s recorded life, Bhagavathar was less forthcoming in the generosity component. Secondly, he could have had the courage and risk-taking attitude to accept the two offers made to him by Anna and A.L. Srinivasan to help him in 1950s. Particularly, had he accepted to play the role of Kambar, in the 1957 production, his fans as well as others would have been delighted in seeing how Bhagavathar essayed both vital roles of the Ambikapathi-Amaravathi story in a 20 year span, and compared his performance to that of 1937 Kambar role played by Serukulathur Sama. But, it was not to be.
To find an answer to the question (When did MGR gained charisma?) which I had asked on this charisma theme, I could depend on MGR’s thoughts. In chapter 111 of his autobiography, beginning from 1947 to 1971, he had listed 14 ‘turns’ of his movie career. I find that his list of first four ‘turns’ very helpful. These are,
1st turn: ‘Rajakumari’ (The Princess, 1947): ‘I was contracted as a hero’.
2nd turn: ‘Marutha Naatu Ilavarasi’ (The Princess of the Maruta Land, 1950): ‘It was helpful for producers to decide that I was a ‘hero material’.
3rd turn: ‘Marma Yogi’(Secret Mystic, 1951): ‘When fans were confused about where I belonged – in the 2nd row or 1st row among the heroes, this movie placed me in the 1st row.’
4th turn: ‘Malai Kallan’ (Mountain Thief, 1954): ‘To the question, which position in the first row he deserves, this movie placed me that frequently he deserves the top spot.’
Thus, without much confusion, one can assign that MGR was handed the charismatic crown in 1954 with the popular hit ‘Malai Kallan’ movie.
In contrast to Bhagavathar, after securing his charisma in 1954 in movies, not only MGR was able to transfer that charisma successfully to politics (an exceptional feat among his Indian actor contemporaries), he never permitted his charisma to vanish until his death. This does not mean that he was always right in his decisions. He did err occasionally. But, he was able to overcome his deficits by his endowed warmth and generosity values (the first two values), identified by Ken Rea for an outstanding actor.
Though he had acted in two of Bhagavathar’s movies in subsidiary roles, it is rather unusual that Bhagavathar hardly receives any mention in MGR’s autobiography. Among the cumulative total of 1480 pages, Bhagavathar’s name is mentioned passingly only on two occasions. Relatively, activities of Bhagavathar’s contemporaries like P.U. Chinnappa, N.S. Krishnan and other senior actors of Tamil stage and cinema receive numerous mentions in MGR’s reminiscences.
In the next chapter, I cover MGR’s first production Nadodi Mannan (Vagabond King, 1958), for which he had attributed his 5th turn.
‘Film News’ Anandan: Sadhanaigal Padaitha Thamizh thiraipada Varalaru (Tamil Film History and its Achievements), Sivagami Publications, Chennai, 2004.
Malathi Balan: ‘Elisai Mannar’ M.K. Thyagarajah Bhagavathar Life Story, Books India, Chennai, 2003. (in Tamil)
Randor Guy: Starlight, Starbright, 1. The Early Tamil Cinema, Amra Publishers, Chennai, 1997.
Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen: Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema, New Revised ed., Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999.
MGR: Naan Yean Piranthen? (Why I was Born?), 2 volumes, Kannadhasan Pathippagam, Chennai, 2014. (in Tamil)
- Ravindar: Pon Mana Chemmal MGR (Golden-hearted MGR), Vijaya Publications, Chennai, 2009. (in Tamil)
Ken Rea: Nurturing the Outstanding Actor: Lessons from Action Research in a Drama School. New Theatre Quarterly, 2014 Aug; 30(3): 231-242.
Vindhan: M.K.T. Baghavadhar Kadai (Bhagavadhar Story), Arunthathi Nilayam, Chennai, 2nd ed., 2000. (in Tamil)