by Sachi Sri Kantha, December 24, 2015
First and Only Visit to Ceylon in late 1965
Last October marked the 50th anniversary of MGR’s first and only visit to his land of birth. I don’t have much primary materials with me now, about this visit. The blame lies on my mother. This is how, I had described the agony I faced in an autobiographical essay I wrote 20 years ago.
“One day, after I have tested my mother’s patience by coming home unusually late (after enjoying a matinee show), she had grabbed my suitcase of collectibles and disposed into garbage-can all my worthy collections related to MGR. She added insult to injury by asking me, ‘Will your MGR come and feed you in the future, if you are starving?’ This unwarranted invasion of my privacy hurt my sentiments badly. I vouched secretly that she had underestimated the loyalty of a true MGR fan. Not to be outsmarted, I made it my goal to see as much as MGR movies as I can…This caused unpleasant feelings between my mother and me. She really felt that my educational potential is being cheated by MGR, and she tried hard to ‘divorce’ me from my MGR craze. But for better or worse, she failed to succeed in it.”
As an aside, I should record that, in hindsight (after 50 years!), with my 79 year old mom still living and in declining health, I now realize that moms are always correct. If only, my MGR craze was a degree or two lower than what I had then, my professional career would have changed a lot. This is what MGR also had preached in his numerous ‘Thai’ (Mother)-titled movies. Thus, I did betray the trust my mother had then, and disobeyed MGR’s ‘teachings’. Why I write this extended MGR biography now after 50 years, is a sort of symbolic ‘penance ritual’ of my guilt-ridden soul! [Note to readers: In Part 31, I had exposed a plagiarism act by an MGR fan. One method of tackling this sort of rampant plagiarism in internet of my writing, is to insert personal tags and descriptions about my life within my story of MGR’s life, so that the plagiarist(s) have to take extra-pain to delete these sort of asides. Hope, readers will bear this with me.]
Now, let me return to MGR’s visit to Ceylon in October 1965. I was then a 12 year old boy, studying at Colombo Hindu College, Ratmalana. I provide excerpts from my remembrance of this visit of MGR with his then co-star B. Saroja Devi, as I had recorded in my 2004 autobiography, ‘Tears and Cheers’.
“Our school being located adjacent to the Colombo (Ratmalana) airport provided good opportunities for us to welcome the visiting dignitaries from other countries. When the dignitary was a political giant [like India’s primeminister Jawaharlal Nehru or China’s prime minister Chou-en Lai] we ‘semi-officially received ‘half a day holiday’ to go to the airport. In 1965, there happed a humorous extension to this accepted routine. In October of that year, the then Tamil move idol M.G. Ramachandran [MGR] visited Ceylon with his co-star B. Saroja Devi. Though he was a celebrity, he had not entered (active) politics at that time. Thus, he was not on par with the prime ministers of India or China. The day prior to his arrival in Ratmalana airport, senior batch students had approached our dear ‘suruttu Kanagar’ – the indefatigable eccentric teacher T. Kanagaratnam – and had expressed their wish to welcome MGR the following day after servicing the teacher with his daily quota of arrack liquor.
The very next day, when the school session was about to begin, there came ‘suruttu Kanagar’ with his cane in hand and chased all the boys in the class to ‘Go to the airport to welcome MGR. What have you to study here today?’ This was against the protocol, and I wonder how the principal would have reacted to ‘suruttu Kanagar’s command. And how the eccentric Kanagar would have faced the principal. But for us, it was the thrill of seeing MGR in person which dominated our mood. And MGR and his then co-star B. Saroja Devi were given a rousing welcome by the Colombo Hindu College boys at the airport on that October day in 1965. We all admired our Kanagar’s unorthodox command on that day. It was also a practical lesson by our beloved teacher that for exceptional occasions (and seeing the legendary MGR in person was no doubt an exceptional occasion!), even routine protocols and rules need be abandoned, if one is strong-willed and willing to accept the consequences.”
The available photo of MGR at Ratmalana airport shows that he was walking with a sun glass, probably with his writing assistant Ravindar to his left. Saroja Devi, follows two steps behind. He has his wrist watch in his right hand. The white cap (with which his image came to be known in later years) was missing. He was then 48. Unfortunately, MGR himself has failed to record a word about his Ceylon visit, in his two volumes of autobiography. Why? No one knows for sure. MGR and Saroja Devi were invited by the Davasa Newspaper Group of Newspapers (Sinhalese ownership), based in Colombo. Though the owners were Sinhalese, the group also had a Tamil language daily named Thinapathi, with its weekly Tamil edition called ‘Chintamani’. To cater to the semi-literate working class, it also brought out a tabloid with the name Radha filled with cinema news, court stories of murder and divorce. Thinapathi’s editor was S.D. Sivanayagam from East Ceylon, who jumped ship from Federal Party’s organ Sutantiran, over personal issues with the then young star politician A. Amirthalingam. The question of why MGR’s wife Janaki Ramachandran did not accompany her husband on this trip remains unanswered too.
When MGR and Saroja Devi visited Colombo, their super hit color movie Enga Veettu Pillai (Our Own Child), of Vijaya Productions, was released for Deepavali festival. In Tamil Nadu, the same movie was released in January 1965 for Thai Pongal festival. Few titles of MGR’s movies are difficult to translate into English. Literal translation can be done, but it doesn’t do justice to the essence of the plot summary capsulated in Tamil title. Enga Veettu Pillai is one of these. While I opt for ‘Our Own Child’ (a figurative translation), fellow biographer M.S.S. Pandian opted for ‘The Son of Our Home’ (a literal translation). On the plot construction, prominence and significance of this movie in MGR’s film and political careers, Pandian had covered much ground, though one should be cautious in accepting all the reasons he trots out to de-base MGR’s profile. Another MGR movie which offers this translation dilemma was Petral Thaan Pillaiya (1966), which would subsequently lead to the MGR – M.R. Radha shooting episode in January 1967.
While at Colombo, MGR also paid a courtesy call to the then prime minister Dudley Senanayake. It was noted that, in a bit of journalistic rivalry, as MGR’s trip was sponsored by Davasa newspaper group, the dominant Lake House newspaper group never opened their space to cover MGR-related stories in its Tamil daily. At Colombo, MGR stayed at Galle Face Hotel. Subsequently, he was a guest of movie mogul K. Gunaratnam of Cinema’s Ltd. for a few days.
Other than Colombo, MGR did visit Kandy, Jaffna, Batticaloa, Matale and Nuwara Eliya cities as well. At Batticaloa, he was greeted by Mr. Chelliah Rajadurai, then Federal Party MP. Among all the Federal Party politicians of that era, it was Rajadurai who had entertained good links with the DMK party leaders (like poet Kannadasan, Karunanidhi and others) from Tamil Nadu, long before 1972. Thus, MGR was no exception.
I could locate only one report about MGR’s visit to Ceylon, written by one S. Saravanapavan (Si.Sa) to the Kalaichelvi monthly (Nov. 1965), published from Chunnakam, Jaffna. It offers two answers he had provided in a news conference. First was, MGR had demanded that all the collections made at the functions in which he had participated in Ceylon should be donated to charity organizations. He also offered donation to the fishermen from Myliddy town (Jaffna peninsula) who had suffered damages due to a cyclone. A lame beggar had somewhat struggled and reached the podium to touch him, despite all the enforced protocols. Thus, instantly he offered this beggar 500 rupees in front of all.
The second story relates to a question directed to actress Saroja Devi by the reporters. She was asked a question, ‘With whom, you’d like to act?’ MGR interrupted to answer, “If she answers, that she would prefer to act with MGR, it may be only for the courtesy. She simply cannot mention the names of other actors. So, please refrain from asking such questions.”
Tackling ‘Upstart Producers of a Kind’
After he gained a firm foothold in the Tamil cinema world since mid-1950s, MGR had a ‘love-hate’ relationship with the movie producers. Thus, gained a reputation (for good or bad), that he was a ‘difficult character’ to deal with. I base this evaluation from the records of those (script writer Aroordhas and poet Kannadasan) who had dealt with him intimately. While MGR’s assistants Ravindar and Vidwan Lakshmanan had glossed over this theme, Aroordhas have offered valuable details on this topic. Thus, rather than paraphrasing his descriptions, I offer English translations of what he had written on MGR’s dealings with film producers.
According to Arurdhas, “When a producer reaches MGR with a mind of making a movie with him. MGR would ask him: ‘Are you taking the movie on your strength or on my strength?’ What this means is, ‘on my strength’ indicates that you’ll get funds from someone mentioning my name to produce this movie, or ‘on your strength’ indicates are you affluent to pay me’? Suppose if the producer states, ‘on your strength’, then MGR would analyze the situation. ‘Who is he? Is he a new guy or an old acquaintance? What is the benefit of helping him? Is he good or not good?’ He would find answers, and based on these answers, he may show the green flag. Or, red flag!
If the producer wanted MGR’s name to get funding from financiers, within a few months of shooting, there will be a direct line between MGR and the financier. Then, the producer’s half tuft will be on MGR’s hand and balance tuft will be on financier’s hand. (If this doesn’t happen, that depends on the producer’s trust and truth sense.) Once this situation develops, the producer will be demoted to the role of a broker. This is one type.
Another type of drama also occurs. The producer and financier may create a plot in collaboration first, and then they may come to MGR to dispense it, without any indication of the original plot. But the natural talent of MGR would somehow dig the original plot of producer and the financier. Then, how much that particular movie will develop, and how it will reach conclusion, neither producer nor the financier cannot predict. Even MGR himself couldn’t predict the outcome!
There were some who were trapped and drowned in this ‘MGR flood’. Then, there were others who luckily survived the flood and reached the shore. Some did make money. It all depended on how they behaved themselves! Those who had known MGR’s character in depth will realize that what I had written here reflects the accuracy. When the chariot called MGR faced some blocks in the road, the one who functioned as the fulcrum to make this chariot run, R.M. Veerappan (one of MGR’s then right hand) would attest to this.
Psychologically speaking, like how Jews were hated by Hitler, that sort of permanent ‘hate’ MGR had on producer tribe. He would even tell the reason for such antagonistic attitude. After so many years of trials and mental tribulations, he reached the hero status only when he reached 30, with the Jupiter movie ‘Rajakumari’ in 1947. Until then, he had to be satisfied with minor roles. Even those roles came to him, after utmost difficulties. He had told me that in those days, producers had hurt his feelings badly, by not offering him the hero status, but also by bullying him.
Before ‘Rajakumari’, a movie titled ‘Chaaya’ was announced with MGR as the hero, and T.V. Kumuthini (who had gained fame in ‘Ashokumar’ movie) as the heroine. But this movie was later abandoned. MGR had told me, ‘I could never recover from that lost opportunity. Though the movie was stopped for some other reason, producers had pointed at him as a luckless fellow.’ In this issue, MGR carried the trait of blaming the arrow as well as the shooter. When we hear his arguments from his mouth, we should realize that what he says was real. This is the truth.
When it comes to movie production, not only with other producers and directors, even in his own production and direction, MGR wouldn’t easily compromise! All the shots taken of him, he would repeatedly check and check. Even with the song sequences, the same checking would continue. He would ask for different lyrics, different tune and re-record the sequences. Occasionally, even after the shooting for song sequences with other actors were involved, if he was not ultimately satisfied with the sequences, he would chop it and re-record the same scene again.”
I have quoted in length what Arurdhas had written about MGR’s mentality about producers. Considering the overall facts, that (1) MGR held the top slot as the box office collection among Tamil movie stars for almost quarter century (since 1954 to 1977), (2) he did act ONLY as ‘the hero’ for over 100 movies. Thus, the value-added honorific nick name based on his initials, ‘Minimum Gurantee Ramachandran’ (MGR) holds true and he didn’t let down established producers who relied on him sincerely.
My analysis on this issue is as follows: MGR had no problem with either established studio moguls (Gemini or AVM or Vijaya or Jupiter Pictures or Modern Theatres, when the founders were in charge of movie production) or with his trusted producers like M.M.A. Sinappah Thevar (Devar Films) and T.R. Ramanna (R.R. Pictures). He also had no problem with established rival group (Sivaji Ganesan unit) producers who switched their allegiance to MGR such as B.R. Panthulu (Padmini Pictures). G.N. Velumani (Saravana Films) and director C.V. Sridhar (Chitralaya Productions). The conflicts MGR had was with upstart producers, who having earned a name in some other department of film became bitten by the bug of movie production, and depended on his labor and name to make money for themselves. Examples are as follows: actors turned producers (comedian J.P. Chandrababu, character actor cum villain S.A. Asokan), lyricists turned producers (Tanjai Ramaiah Das, poet Kannadasan). There is another untold angle too. By conviction, MGR was a teetotaler. If the so-called upstart producers are addicted to alcohol use (such as J.P. Chandrababu, Tanjai Ramaiah Das, Kannadasan, as well as M.R. Radha. I’m not sure whether actor Asokan also belonged to this group.), then MGR’s sensitive antennae probably warned him to nip their passion for making money using his name.
Kannadasan’s Extreme Anecdote
In his critical booklet titled, ‘MGR’s Interior and Exterior’ during the 1977 election year, lyricist Kannadasan provided an expose on MGR’s mean treatment of a producer of one of his movies, ‘Bagdad Thirudan’ (Bagdad Thief, 1960), the only movie in which MGR was paired with dancer Vyjayanthimala. No doubt that it was an extreme case. Excerpts from Kannadasan’s gripe follows:
“If a set was made for 30,000 rupees, the next day, he would ask to change for a new set. The already taken shots had to be re-taken, according to his wish. Golden Naidu, the producer, who had lived with respect was humbled beyond limit. It was estimated that when the shooting were over, there would be a loss for 500,000 rupees. MGR had firmly demanded that another 200,000 rupees had to be spent to finish the shooting. Naidu cried. One day, he even begged. But, MGR was adamant. Naidu returned home by cussing, ‘You devil. I’ll become a pauper now.’ His blood pressure increased. He retired to bathroom and didn’t return even after an hour. Those at home, forced open the bathroom door, and Naidu had died of heart attack.
None can forget how his family cried that day. All those in cinema gathered at that house. Almost everyone were cursing MGR. Suddenly, MGR arrived with a huge garland and casually threw that on his corpse. One by one all shouted, ‘After killing the guy, he had come to garland the corpse with his retainers.’ MGR and his gang fought with others. When Naidu’s servants repelled them, MGR and his retainers retreated in one car.”
Kannadasan himself himself had suffered from MGR’s highhandedness. He had written, “I also wanted to make movie ‘Oomaiyan Kottai’ (The Fort of the Dumb) and gave him 21,000 rupees. He didn’t even act for one hour. He also didn’t return the money given. In case, if I went to ask him a loan, he would ask for a promissory note and give money after I signed on it. His so-called donations were his tactic to ‘buy’ people.”
Interested readers can check my review on the merits and demerits presented in this minor book(let) of 48 pages by Kannadasan, in my 2011 review posted this website. [http://sangam.org/2011/10/Kannadasan_Booklet.php?uid=4486]
Unpleasant Experience with Genova movie
In his autobiography, MGR had described the unpleasant sentiments he faced with the Kerala-based producers, during the production of dual-language Genova (1953) movie. Some excerpts follows:
“They produced the Genova story simultaneously in both Tamil and Malayalam. I acted as hero in both languages. Though I couldn’t clearly read or write Malayalam language, I could use it at home. Thus, I could manage speaking that language. There were two who produced that story. Mr. Mathews was the one who looked after the shooting in Chennai. Mr. Eapen was another partner. They said, Mr. Nagoor, one of the partners of Newtone Studio, was also one of the partners. Mr. F. Nagoor was the director of that movie. They had contracted me in good faith….
In those days, in my contract, I made it sure that the producers had to abide some requirements. One of these requirement was that, ‘If the producer wanted another actor to act as my replacement, my permission should be first needed before shooting begins.’…Another requirement was, ‘In the movie I have acted, it should not be dubbed into any other language without my permission.’ These requirements were duly signed for Genova movie too. As I was acting in both Tamil and Malayalam versions of this movie, I made the following agreement.
‘Other than Tamil and Malayalam, this movie should not be dubbed in any other languages, without my signed permission.’ Only after this agreement, I acted in this movie.
One day, when I went to Newtone Studio, my blood boiled when I saw that scene. The Malayalam movie scenes in which I had acted speaking Malayalam, was being dubbed by another Malayalam actor. I shouted, ‘Where is Mr. Mathews?’ He came with a smile and greeted me: ‘Come, come. You had come at the correct time. I want to introduce this new arrangement, and he introduced me a guy Kunju or Kunju Bhagavathar. I had recognized his name in Kerala stage and cinema. Thus, I greeted him with respect…. Later, I called Mr. Mathews separately, and expressed my anger to him…. He replied: ‘Your Malayalam diction sounded like one who speaks in Tamil. The Malayalam tone is hardly missing. This is for your good, I say this.’
I shouted. ‘What gall you have? You insult me and then tell me that it’s for my good. Wait, I go and consult a lawyer and will put a stop for this.’ and left….
Mr. Mathew stopped me and said, ‘Please, don’t go to a lawyer. You will feel sorry, if he said that what I had done is appropriate.’ When, I heard this, I lost my temper.
‘What audacity you have?’
Until then, he was calm. Then, he exploded. ‘If I wish, I could change your voice in Tamil film version as well and can use another guy’s voice.’ I was shocked. He continued, ‘Will you listen to me with a calm mind?’
‘What is stated in our agreement? Other than Tamil and Malayalam, we should get your signature if dubbing should be in any other language. What is its meaning? We don’t have to have your agreement if dubbing is done in these two (Tamil and Malayalam) languages.’
I felt it hard and realized the weak position I had in this deal, and got a bit scared. I don’t care if they dubbed for Malayalam voice, but what’s my plight in Tamil, if they had dubbed (my voice with another’s) after I had successfully elevated myself as a Tamil actor. This contract will lit my prestige. What I had irresponsibly committed to do will harm my career in Tamil screen?…’
There is hardly any doubt, that it was this first-hand experience in 1953, which might have contributed to MGR’s tough approach with upstart movie producers. It was this sort of conflict with an upstart producer, one K.K. Vasu [who had borrowed money from character actor M. R. Radha to produce Petral Thaan Pillaiya (1966) movie, in which MGR acted in a Chaplinesque role] that culminated in the MGR – M.R. Radha shooting incident in January 12, 1967.
Arurdoss: Cinema Nijamum Nizhalum [Cinema – Truth and Shadow], Arunthathi Nilayam, Chennai, 2001, pp. 64-65. (in Tamil)
Arurdhas: Naan Mugam Paartha Cinema Kannadigal [The Cinema Mirrors that I’ve Looked at], Kalaignan Pathippagam, Chennai, 2002, pp. 96-99, 193-198. (in Tamil)
Kavignar Kannadasan: MGRin Ullum Puramum (MGR’s Interior and Exterior), Muttiah Publisher, Chennai, 1977, pp. 29-30. (in Tamil)
Pandian, M.S.S.: The Image Trap – M.G. Ramachandran in Film and Politics, SAGE Publications, New Delhi, 1992.
MGR: Naan Yean Piranthen [Why I was Born?] Parts 1 and 2, Kannadhasan Pathippagam, Chennai, 2014. (in Tamil)
Si.Sa: Maragatha Theevil Makkal Thilakam [Makkal Thilakam in Pearl Island]. Kalai Chelvi (Chunnakam), Nov. 1965, pp. 36-39.
Sri Kantha Sachi: MGR Movies Revisited: Autobiographical Flashback of early teenage years. In: MGR Movies Revisited and Other Essays, Eureka Center, Fukuroi City, Japan, 1995, pp. 1-8.
Sri Kantha Sachi: Tears and Cheers – Tale of a Tamil Scientist, vol.1 (1953-1985), Bose Design, London, 2004, p.31.
Srivathsan A. The day M.R. Radha shot MGR. The Hindu (Chennai), June 5, 2013.