by Sachi Sri Kantha, March 6, 2015
I received the following critical comments from fellow MGR biographer and friend R. Kannan, for Part 24 (Secured and Damaged Charisma), on Feb.3rd. Initials MKT refers to M.K. Thiyagarajah Bhagavathar, with whom I have compared MGR’s film career:
I read your part 24 of the MGR series with great interest and as ever was impressed with your research and efforts. I wish to disagree with you though. If I am not mistaken you cite MKT’s arrogance, condescension, self-serving nature as one of the two reasons for his charisma fading away. Also you mention that he was not known for his philanthropy like MGR.
MGR I believe was equally a human being condescending and even punishing people at times. I am inclined to believe that MGR had gone to the extent of ruining many. I believe that it was in MGR’s nature to be a generous man when it came to money. However, I don’t think these explain his charisma in full. Unlike MKT MGR was an actor- politician who cultivated his image early on. MKT was simply an actor. The DMK carried MGR on its shoulders. True that the party greatly benefitted from MGR’s association.
On the philanthropy I think MKT was a Mariamman devotee and I am assuming he would have donated to such causes. Also MGR’s charisma has been greatly saved by several incidents in his life: the first is the 1969 gunshot wounds; the second is the expulsion from the DMK; the third is his poor health in 1984. In the 1980 parliamentary elections and in the 1986 civic body polls MGR’s charisma was not at play. Also the AIADMK peaked after MGR in the last elections winning a record 150 seats. MGR could not win more than 130+ seats. These are my thoughts for now.”
My response sent on the following day to Mr. Kannan was as follows:
Thanks for your clear thoughts and analysis on part 24. Sure, you are welcome to disagree with my views. I do appreciate it very much. Can I include your criticism, at the beginning of Part 25?
In fact, about those who were ill-treated by MGR, I plan to write later, in one chapter. I have read, there have been a handful. Kannadasan, Kuladeivam Rajagopal, Chandrababu, T.M. Soundararajan (TMS), later S.A. Asokan and even Jayalalitha (after MGR chose other heroines like Manjula and Latha in 1970s). Karunanidhi had accused that MGR worked against S.S. Rajendran (SSR)’s interest. But, in balance, number of those who have gained from MGR’s munificence outweigh those who were side tracked. Even among the above list, Kannadasan and TMS had kind words later. Jayalalitha returned to MGR.
It’s unfortunate that we don’t have much information about Bhagavathar’s career. Though I didn’t include this in my part 24 chapter, one should also include in this Bhagavathar-
MGR charisma debate, comedian N.S. Krishnan (NSK) as well. NSK also had charisma. He also went to jail with Bhagavathar. But, after his jail term, he was able to retrieve
his lost charisma. His produced movies were not flops. But, why Bhagavathar couldn’t do so?”
Motifs in MGR movies
A dictionary on cinematic terms, define a motif as “a recurrent word, phrase, situation, object or idea.” There are many motifs in MGR movies. One prominent motif is a riding scene with an educational (or philosophical) song. The hero character rides a bullock cart or a small scale chariot, while lip-singing this enthralling song. Occasionally, either the heroine or a side-kick (comedian) or an actor in a minor role is nearby. Here are some selected examples.
‘Manusanai manusan saapiduraandhi’ – in Thaaiku Pin Thaaram (Wife after the Mother 1956)
‘Summa irunda nilathai koththi’ – in Nadodi Mannan (The Vagabond King 1958)
‘Uzhaipathila Uzhaipai peruvathila’ – in Nadodi Mannan (The Vagabond King 1958)
‘Achcham enpathu madamaiyada’ – in Mannathi Mannan (King of Kings 1960)
‘Paarappa Palaniappa Pattanamam Pattanamam’ – in Periya Idathu Penn (High Society Woman, 1963)
‘Nenjam undu Nermai undu Oodu raja’ – in En Annan (My Elder Brother 1970)
It has been stated that MGR adopted this strategy of having an educational song, after the success of Malai Kallan (1954) movie, in which he lip synched a time-less song ‘Ethanai Kaalam Thaan Emaruvar intha Naatile?’ (How long these guys will be cheating us?). For this song, the heroine (P. Bhanumathi, 1925-2005) was riding a horse, while MGR character was walking nearby holding the horse rein. Even though the lyricist, the song arranger (aka music director) and the singer were different individuals, in his fans minds, the song has become entrenched as an arch-typical MGR song, for the sole reason that MGR’s imprint is seen there. Almost all such songs in 1950s, and 1960s were sung by T.M. Soundararajan.
Nadodi Mannan (The Vagabond King) was MGR’s grand project of 1956-57, and it was released on August 22, 1958. In addition to acting in double roles, MGR produced and directed it under his newly formed company banner, Em.Gee.Yar Pictures. In these movie, there were two educational songs with a riding scene. One was ‘Summa kidandha nilaththai koththi sombalillamal yer nadathi’ (Digging an unkempt soil and ploughing it earnestly) sung by T.M. Soundararajan and written by Pattukottai Kalyanasundaram, a Communist Party sympathizer. For this song, MGR was riding a bullock cart with heroine P. Bhanumathi. A second song, ‘Uzhaipathila Uzhaipai peruvathila’ (Is their pleasure in labor or in demanding labor) was sung by Sirkali Govindarajan. For this song, written by poet A. Lakshmanadas, MGR was riding a small scale chariot with an actor in a minor role. In addition, MGR also added a still magical educational song Thoongathe thambi thoongathe (Do not idle younger brother and don’t be a listless fellow), sung by T.M. Soundararajan and written by Pattukottai Kalyanasundaram.
Other motifs in MGR’s movies include rising sun symbol of DMK party (until he was expelled from the party in 1972), frequent use of the word Anna (that literally means ‘elder brother’in Tamil, but used as an euphemism to C.N. Annadurai, the founder leader of DMK), and the word Thai (which literally means ‘mother’) in many of his movie titles.
Troubles and Triumph of Nadodi Mannan (The Vagabond King)
A write-up of Nadodi Mannan story plot, as it appeared in the Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema (1999), is as follows:
“MGR’s period adventure fantasy, with 19 songs, and important DMK propaganda film repeating his successful screen pairing with Bhanumathi (Alibabavum Narpatha Thirudargalum 1955 and Madurai Veeran 1956) in a style derived from Gemini’s post-Chandralekha (1948) films. The good king Marthandan (MGR) is dethroned by the Rajguru (Veerappa) and replaced by a double, the commoner Veerangan (MGR again). Nakedly propagandist (e.g. colour sequences showing the red and black DMK flag and its rising sun party symbol), the film presents the good guys as waiting to overthrow the Rajguru’s corrupt rule, a thinly disguised reference to the Congress Party. Inaugurating MGR’s personal political programme with songs like Thoongathe thambi thoongathe (‘Don’t sleep, young brother)…”
Fortunately, we have MGR’s account on why he produced this ‘Nadodi Mannan’ movie, which appeared in a special issue to felicitate its success in 1959. Thus, I provide selected excerpts of his thoughts in translation.
“Why I began this own movie? I could have earned enough for my life from many offers for other movies. Disregarding that route, why I had to make my own movie by spending own money as well as energy? Like this, many questions were asked by my well-wishers as well as those who wanted me to slip. [We] were shareholders in the Mekala Pictures and released the Naam [We] movie. Then, I was keen on making my own movie and we established the Em.Gee.Yar Productions. ‘We’ meaning my elder sibling M.G. Chakrapani and I. For this movie, Kalaignar M. Karunanidhi was supposed to offer the story and write script. It was titled, ‘VidiVeLLi’ and he began to develop the story. For many reasons, there was a delay. Unexpectedly, he was thrown in jail, after he took part in the Kallakudi Agitation. [Note by Sachi: this happened in 1953]. Then, we stopped the Em. Gee.Yar Productions and established the Em.Gee.Yar drama troupe. [However] the idea of producing a movie didn’t leave my mind. I was awaiting for an opportunity.
I did hear many jeers and loose-talk about my sincere effort. One category belonged to, ‘He had earned some fame. But, he couldn’t live within that with respect.’ Another category was, ‘He is going to be a director!…How timid he is?’. [The third criticism was], ‘He is going lose big. We’ll see with our eyes.’ [The fourth criticism was] ‘How is he going to finish the movie, if he spends so much like this?’ [The fifth criticism was] ‘He is shooting many many things. Repeatedly, he does the same. Poor soul! He doesn’t know what to do.’ [The sixth criticism was] ‘Revolution- what revolution? Let his movie return from the Censors. It will be empty!’
I did hear all these talks with my ears. What I could think of these critics was the words of Lord Jesus, ‘They do not know, what they are doing.’ I laughed at them. They also laughed back at me. After the movie was released, and it received plaudits from the press, those who laughed at me, came to cry. Some of them, still continue to cry. Why? I had escaped from burning myself…”
In the same article, MGR had mentioned that he spent 1,800,000 rupees [in 1957-58] for this movie. As has been mentioned previously in this series, this sum was almost 2.5 times higher than the average movie production budget in Chennai for those times. Ravindar, MGR’s assistant in the story department, offers additional supporting details on the cost.”Usually 40-50 days of shooting are adequate for a movie. But, for ‘Nadodi Mannan’, it took 156 days. In those days with minimal technology, the under-water dream scene for the song ‘Kannil vanthu Minnal pool Thoonruthe’ song had 12 days shooting, the final fighting scene at the rope-bridge had 11 days shooting, the folk dance scene with the song ‘Jimpaka jimba’ had 9 days shooting, the sword fight of MGR and villain Nambiar had 7 days shooting, and the appreciated educational song scene ‘Thoongathe thambi Thoongathe’ shot via a long pipe with MGR (in a lower placed prison floor) and heroine Bhanumathi (lodged in different section of the same prison) taking part without each not knowing their faces had 3 days shooting.”
While MGR in his account of 1959 offers whole-some praise to the cooperation of heroine Bhanumathi, Ravindar in his 2009 (book) account provides some background details on the friction between MGR and Bhanumathi during the making of the movie. However, Ravindar’s account first appeared in print in Bhommai movie magazine, between 1992 and 1995. As such, while MGR had died in 1987, Bhanumathi was still alive when Ravindar’s account appeared first. I provide below excerpts from Ravindar’s account in translation. Ravindar uses the honorific Tamil word ‘Chemmal’ to MGR. I simply translates it to ‘hero’.
“Nadodi Mannan movie offered lot of troubles to hero. To make it a success, he took care into all aspects of the movie. The first shooting was for the song scene ‘Sammathama – Naan Ungal kooda vara sammathama?’ [Is it OK, Is is OK if I come with you?] sung by heroine Bhanumathi. Elder [sibling Chakrapani] always talks in non-sexual double entendre. They were humorous and thoughtful. Elder quipped, ‘The song begins with a question, ‘Sammathama – Naan Ungal kooda vara sammathama?’ I doubt whether this lady will be with us till the end. Only God should tell.”
Then, Ravindar described the friction between MGR and Bhanumathi as follows:
Bhanumathi was an all-knowing actress. She was indeed honorable to her job. [She] comes late. After arriving, she won’t sit down. She would complete four hour work in one hour and return. ‘Re-take’ was not in her dictionary. To a song scene, ‘Aandavan Enge? Arasandavan Enge?’, the lyricist was Muthukoothan and N.S. Balakrishnan made arrangements for Bhanumathi to sing. Hero would suggest, if the song’s raga is better like this, Bhanumathi would say differing opinion. Then, hero would say, ‘This is not a stage concert. One can change the raga, because the song should touch the ears of viewers.’ For this, Bhanumathi would retort, ‘I know more about music. You just mind your business.’ Hero was upset. Elder [MGR’s sibling Chakrapani] was scared and ask, ‘Can the movie shooting continue like this?’
One day, while at his home in Lloyd’s Road, hero was in upset mood. When I went, he asked, ‘You all are writers. Isn’t it? Can’t you write a story, without a heroine?’ I realized, for what reason, he had asked me that question. Then, I replied, ‘We can write. But, those who see the movie should appreciate it. Tomorrow, I’ll come with a new story.’
This resulted in the introduction of the second heroine in that movie. B. Saroja Devi was introduced as a new face. Ravindar adds, “Hero did prove, that an expert could produce a movie without an actress. After realizing this experience, Bhanumathi returned for a draw. The shooting for the movie was nearly over. Then, one song scene in which Bhanumathi features, ‘Summa irunda nilathai koththi’ (mentioned earlier as one of the riding scene song) was shot and included.” Ravindar provides a sum up as follows: ‘Disaster turned into triumph. The story was revised to have two heroines, and Tamil movie world was served with a solid heroine [in Saroja Devi]. Though the movie was a popular success, hero couldn’t retrieve the money spent, because area distributors had gobbled their shares. Some even had the gall to show ‘loss’ account, which hero took it into stride, as one of human frailities.”
MGR’s 1959 version of his friction with Bhanumathi was as follows. “While I was acting with Mrs. Bhanumathi in the ‘Alibaba’ movie produced by Modern Theatres, the advertisement for Nadodi Mannan appeared as an adoption of the ‘Prisoner of Zenda’ English story. Few days later, another advertisement appeared for Bharani Pictures. On the day, their announcement appeared, Mrs. Bhanumathi told me, “It looks as if, you are making a movie on the same story we are also interested in. Let there be no competition between us. Please change your story. We have spent much for many months and everything is ready.’ I replied, ‘This design, I have been dreaming for many years. I wanted a change in my life and chose this story. In addition, I take control as the director too.’ We continued the discussion. Finally, I told, ‘I’ll keep only the section of a commoner switched to king in the Prisoner of Zenda story. The rest are different. If you are adamant in keeping your story, you can take it. There won’t be any competition. Because, your story is a direct adaptation of Prisoner of Zenda. Mine is different.’
In reality, I was confused too. She also faced the same situation. Few days later, I replied, ‘We had stopped using that story. Without doubt, you can proceed’. I thanked her sincerely. She didn’t realize that she might have an opportunity to act in ‘Nadodi Mannan’. However, the reality was she gave up, and offered us the story written by Mr. A.K. Velan and asked us to use it. I’m one who likes the freedom to work according to my wish. Mrs. Bhanumathi also shares the same trait. Both don’t give up easily. Those who expected that whether my movie will be completed and whether Bhanumathi will feature in it were disappointed by the cooperation she gave to the character Mathana in the movie, in her inimitable style.”
In his essay, MGR does mention that in the very original advertisement for the movie, they themselves added the information that ‘Nadodi Mannan’ was an adoption from Prisoner of Zenda story. However, when the shooting began, the story plot evolved according to the Indian cultural norms, and the Prisoner of Zenda story was jettisoned.
He specifically mentions three changes. While in the original story, the queen moves intimately with the king’s double, in the Nadodi Mannan story, the king’s double rejects the advances of the queen. Once the queen realizes that the double was a stranger, she switches the relationship terms to that of a ‘brother’. Secondly, in the original story, the king’s double was a kin of the king and share the same interests of the king. But, in the Nadodi Mannan story, the double is a commoner (a vagabond) and had opposing interests to that of a king. In the original story, the character of Rajguru and the island component is absent. But in the Nadodi Mannan story, these were plot foils.
MGR had stated that the plot for his movie was formed in his mind twenty years earlier. To quote, “In 1937-38, when I was acting in Calcutta for the movie Maya Macheendra, I went to see an English movie with friends. The name of that movie was ‘If I were King’. The star was Ronald Colman. In one scene, he speaks ‘If I were a king’. Now I don’t remember the lines. But, that particular thought had got imprinted in my mind. In those days, I had thought about poverty and people’s situation. Rather than saying ‘thinking’, it would be proper to say, I was experiencing the same. Occasionally, I thought, why these problems exist. The answer I received was, ‘It’s because of foreigner’s rule. But I didn’t realize that the foreigner’s rule will be forever. Therefore, even if the foreigner’s rule vanish, the rulers should be of good mind. Then, people will benefit. That’s why I created the vagabond character. Then, I thought about the situation of the king. Those who are ruling us now, belong to our tribe. They live with us. But their thinking and talents are controlled by foreigners. Thus, I imagined, if they join with commoners? This was the focus of the king character. The king realizes the truth and wishes to join with the commoners.”
‘If I were King’ released in 1938 was a Ronald Colman (1891-1958) vehicle in which he starred as a medieval swashbuckling Francois Villon. It was based on a 1901 play by Justin Huntly McCarthy. In fact, Ronald Colman also starred in the 1937 movie, ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’, a 1894 novel by Anthony Hope. MGR had initially announced that the ‘Nadodi Mannan’ was an adoption of this movie, and subsequently switched the plot to ‘If I were King’. While ‘If I were King’ directed by Frank Loyd had a run time of 110 min, ‘Nadodi Mannan’ was stretched to over three hours.
MGR’s compliments to the fellow participants in the ‘Nadodi Mannan’
In the felicitation feature article, MGR had complimented the actors, technicians and associated participants who contributed to the movie’s success. These include actresses (Bhanumathi, M.N. Rajam, G. Sakuntala, B. Saroja Devi, K. S. Angamuthu, T.P. Muthulakshmi, Gemini Chandra), actors (P.S. Veerappa, sibling M.G. Chakrapani, M.N. Nambiar, T.K. Balachandran, K.R. Ramsingh, J.P. Chandrababu), story (R.M. Veerappan, Vidwan V. Lakshmanan, S.K.T. Sami), advisor Director K. Subramanyam, cinematographer G.K. Ramu, studio owner Nagi Reddy, script writers (poet Kannadasan, Ravindar), lyricists (N.M. Muthukoothan, Suratha, Pattukottai Kalyanasundaram, A. Lakshmanadas, music directors N.S. Balakrishnan and S.M. Subbiah Naidu, sound artist Menon, editors Arumugam, K. Perumal and Jambu, and office executive S. Govindarajan, make up artist Rangasami. What I found strangely missing in this almost complete listing by MGR who were instrumental in the success of his movie was the non-mention of playback singers such as T.M. Soundararajan、Sirkali Govindarajan, P.G. Krishnaveni (Jikki), P. Leela, P. Sushila, T.V. Ratnam, Jamuna Rani and N.L. Ganasaraswathi.
Standing of ‘Nadodi Mannan’ among other Tamil movies released in 1958
In 1958, a total of 37 Tamil movies (excluding the dubbed movies) were released. Among these 37, the leading heroes featured were Sivaji Ganesan (8 movies), Gemini Ganesan (8 movies), S.S. Rajendran (6 movies), K.R. Ramasamy (3 movies), T.R. Ramachandran (2 movies, plus one of Gemini Ganesan movie), T.R. Mahalingam (1 movie) and MGR had exclusively ‘Nadodi Mannan’. This also explains the success of MGR’s business acumen. While his rivals saturated the movie theaters with multiple movies, MGR timed his own production as the only released movie of the year.
The Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema (1999) lists 26 Indian movies as notable for the year 1958. The language distribution was, Hindi (12), Tamil (2), Bengali (2), Assamese (2), Telugu (1), Kannada (1), Malayalam (1) and Sindhi (1). Four movies were produced in more than one language, by multi-lingual produers and/or directors. 25 of the 26 movies listed in this Encyclopedia were in black and white. Only ‘Nadodi Mannan’ was in black and white, and Geva color (latter half). Genre wise, the 26 movies are distributed into social (10), mythology (4), period history (3), crime thriller (3), comedy (1), avant garde (1), folk tale (1), reincarnation story (1) and adaptation from Dosteoevsky (1). Nadodi Mannan is in the category of period history. The interests of Indian movie goers was changing in late 1950s from mythology, folk tales and period history into social plots. Thus MGR, a keen reader of the audience mind, was forced to switch to social themes in 1960s. It was not an easy undertaking.
Delicate Use of motifs
Quite a number of snob Marxist academics (Chidananda Das Gupta, M.S.S. Pandian, and K. Sivathamby) had derisively commented on the use of DMK’s rising sun symbol in MGR’s movies, including ‘Nadodi Mannan’. But it should not be forgotten, that in the 1957 general election which DMK contested for the first time, the rising sun symbol was not assigned exclusively to the party. This I had pointed out earlier in my book review of S.S. Rajendran’s autobiography. Thus, MGR’s use of the rising sun symbol in his movies was a game winning strategy to compete with the established Congress Party on a level ground, when it comes to attracting voters. Pre-independence Congress Party too made effective use of motifs such as charkha (spinning wheel), khaddar (hand spun and hand woven cloth) and even jail experience to attract the voters in countering the propaganda of British imperialists. In addition, Mahatma Gandhi’s action of intentionally breaking the salt laws imposed by the imperialists in 1930 also made salt as a motif for independence struggle. These motifs were used for propaganda in songs, stories, and stage dramas. Indian Communists used the universal hammer and sickle motif for their propaganda. Thus, MGR’s use of rising sun symbol should not be isolated and commented derisively.
Partiality of the snob Marxist critics is evident when they criticize the use of DMK party motifs in MGR’s movies like ‘Nadodi Mannan’, but ignore the use of motifs by Soviet Union’s elite directors like Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948) and Alexander Dovzhenko (1894-1956). On Eisenstein’s productions, the observations of David Bordwell is pertinent here. “Each of his (Eisenstein’s) silent films begins with an epigraph from Lenin, and each depicts a key moment in the myth of Bolshevik ascension: the pre-revolutionary struggles (The Strike), the 1905 revolution (Potemkin), the Bolshevik coup (October), and contemporary agricultural policy (The Old and the New).”
Now 57 years later, almost all the lead players who contributed to the success of ‘Nadodi Mannan’ had departed, with the exception of three: actresses M.N. Rajam, B. Saroja Devi, and R.M. Veerappan, MGR’s then assistant. Their fading reminiscences, if recorded in any sort of media, may divulge still unknown details about the making of this trend-setter Tamil movie.
‘Film News’ Anandan: Sadhanaigal Padaitha Thamizh thiraipada Varalaru (Tamil Film History and its Achievements), Sivagami Publications, Chennai, 2004.
Eric Barnouw and S. Krishnaswamy: Indian Film, 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1980, pp. 179-180.
Sylvan Barnet, Morton Berman and William Burto: A Dictionary of Literary, Dramatic and Cinematic Terms, Little, Brown and Co, Boston, 1971.
- Kirubakaran (ed): Naan Aanaiyittaal…! (If I Ordered..!), Vikatan Pirasuram, Chennai, 2013, pp. 99-133.
Aranthai Narayanan: Thamizh Cinemavin Kathai (A story of Tamil Cinema), New Century Book House, Chennai, 3rd ed., 2008, pp. 501-506.
Geoffrey Nowell-Smith: The Oxford History of World Cinema, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996, pp. 168-169.
Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen: Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema, revised ed., Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999, p. 355.
- Ravindar: Pon Mana Chemmal MGR, Vijaya Publications, Chennai, 2009. (in Tamil)