100 Movies and Beyond
by Sachi Sri Kantha, January 16, 2018
Khushwant Singh’s portrayal of MGR
Khushwant Singh (1915-2014), the doyen among the Indian journalists of his generation, contributed a feature on the status of Indian movies, to the New York Times, in 1976. For this feature, he had interviewed a few prominent personalities in the Indian movie world – Hindi actor Raj Kapoor (1924-1988), studio owner B. Nagi Reddy (1912-2004), MGR’s counterpart Sivaji Ganesan (1928-2001) and South Indian actress K.R. Vijaya (b. 1946), one of MGR’s heroines in a few movies. But, he didn’t meet MGR personally, but had watched one of the movies ‘Idhaya Kani’ (1975), then newly released. Nevertheless, Khushwant Singh had written the following about MGR’s status in the Indian movie world.
“Even by India’s bizarre movie standards, MGR’s popularity is extraordinary. In Madras, the months preceding the monsoon are hot, humid and oppressive, and few people stir out of their homes or offices in the afternoon. The only places with activity are movie houses. MGR’s latest film, ‘Idhayakani’ (Fruit of the Heart, or The Dearly Beloved) continues to draw crowds at all hours. Though a placard at the entrance announces in English and Tamil, ‘House Full’, there are long queues of men, women and children separated by wiremesh partitions, waiting patiently to buy tickets for later shows. They are served with aerated waters and iced buttermilk by members of MGR fan clubs.”
Then Khushwant Singh describes a little on what he saw at the beginning of this particular movie.
“Inside, the air is heavy with the smell of urine and sweat. The lights go out. The name of MGR flashes across the screen. Viewers chant it loudly and clap their hands. The film opens with a close-up of MGR in his fuzzy cap, dark glasses and snow-white shirt. He folds his hands, bows and greets his audience, ‘Vanakkam’. Viewers join their hands and respond ‘Vanakkam’. Two men run up to the screen and wave a platter of smoking incense as they would to their gods in the temple. MGR tears open his shirt. The face of his political forerunner, Annadurai, appears to be imprinted on his chest. Annadurai tells the audience that MGR is his dearly beloved. MGR replies that the feeling is mutual. After this protestation of affection, which has no bearing on anything, begins the story – or stories.
MGR is owner of a large estate. He lectures his workers on the necessity of hard work. Then MGR become a police officer engaged in breaking up a gang of foreign smugglers. He beats a lot single handed. Next, MGR becomes a lover. He ravishes a buxom Punjabi wench (the chaste image of the southern Indian woman remains unsullied). MGR becomes a suave man of the world speaking a king of English. When the heroine says, ‘You are stupid?’, MGR retorts, ‘You are nonsense’. The crowd roars, ‘You are nonsense.’
In the smugglers’ den, MGR asks, ‘Shall we talk business?’, the leader of the gang replies, ‘Business next. Dance first.’ Now, we have a long dance sequence with scantily clad fat-bottomed girls gyrating to music that is neither Indian nor Western, but a mixture of both. So it goes on. The excited, noisy crowd that entered the hall three hours ago, leaves utterly subdued, silent, but hugging its dreams as a miser would guard his gold.”
It’s somewhat unfortunate that Khushwant Singh wasn’t able to see some of the best movies of MGR, when the actor-turned politician was young, and he couldn’t meet MGR in person. But, he had interviewed MGR’s junior contemporary with equal standing in the Hindi movie world, Raj Kapoor. Whereas, Raj Kapoor limited his range of activities to being an actor, producer, director, studio owner and ‘showman of Hindi cinema’ and came to the movie world with the advantage of having a father Prithviraj Kapoor (1906-1971) as an actor in Indian stage, MGR did achieve all what Raj Kapoor was able to do in Hindi movies without having a father as his guide, and also could successfully transfer his cinema popularity to politics and succeeded. Furthermore, to gain popularity during his younger days, Raj Kapoor plagiarized Chaplin’ Tramp image and made a success of it as a ‘talking Tramp’, in movies like Awaara (The Vagabond, 1951) and Shree 420 (Mr. 420, 1955).
One can consider linguistically challenged Khushwant Singh’s portrayal of MGR as that of one blind man ‘seeing’ an elephant. Similarly, there have been other linguistically challenged blind men, who had described MGR (- the elephant), with the types they could easily recognize. These include, MGR described under varied ‘masks’ as, Douglas Fairbanks (Eric Barnouw, 1963), Errol Flynn (Joseph Lelyveld, 1967; Robert Hardgave, 1973), John Wayne (Susanne Rudolph, 1971), Rock Hudson (Bernard Weinraub, 1973), ‘Indian Reagan’ (Eric Barnouw, 1996) and Arnold Schwarznegger without the muscles (Shashi Tharoor, 2003).
In the Table presented above, I provide a quantitative count of MGR’s productivity (133 Tamil movies), he had starred in between 1936 and 1978, in comparison to the total number of 2,157 Tamil movies released between 1931 and 1978. Both columns deserve some attention. MGR made his film debut in 1936, after the first 100 Tamil movies were released. Among the 38 movies released in 1936, he was featured in minor roles in two movies. To recapitulate his early career, he received his first billing in a hero role 11 years later, in 1947, after playing minor roles in his first 15 movies. As is evident, during the peak of the Second World War years and the post war year of 1946 (1943-1946), for multiple reasons the number of Tamil movies released didn’t exceed 20 per year; 13 in 1943, 14 in 1944, 11 in 1945 and 16 in 1946. MGR could appear in minor roles only in 6 among these 54 movies.
MGR’s Own Selection of his Best Movies
Decade wise quantification provides the following numbers for MGR’s movie career.
First decade (1936-45) – at the age span 19-28 – 13 movies
Second decade (1946-55) – at the age span 29-38 – 20 movies
Third decade (1956-65) – at the age span 39-48 – 46 movies
Fourth decade (1966-75) – at the age span 49-58 – 47 movies
Post fourth decade (1976-78) – at the age span 59-61 – 7 movies.
As indicated in the Table, it should be noted that since 1950, MGR was the featured lead player (the hero) in all his movies. He never appeared in a secondary or minor role. It should also be noted, only in 1978 (the year, MGR closed his career), the total number of released Tamil movies exceeded 100 mark. By his own recognition, MGR had chosen the following 14 movies as his significant ‘turning points’ of his career.
1st – Raja Kumari (The Princess, 1947; Jupiter Pictures)
2nd – Marutha Naatu Ilavarasi (The Princess from Marutha Nadu,1950; G. Govindan & Co.)
3rd – Marma Yogi (Secret Mystic, 1951; Jupiter Pictures)
4th – Malai Kallan (The Mountain Thief, 1954; Pakshiraja Films)
5th – Nadodi Mannan (The Vagabond and the King, 1958; Emgeeyar Pictures)
6th – Thirudathe (Do Not Steal, 1961; ALS Productions)
7th – Thai Sollai Thattate (Don’t Reject Mother’s Words, 1961; Thevar Films)
8th – Enga Veetu Pillai (Our Own Child, 1965; Vijaya Productions)
9th – Kaval Karan (The Guard, 1967; Satya Movies)
10th – Kudiyiruntha Kovil (The Family Abode at a Temple, 1968; Saravana Screens)
11th – OLi Vilakku (Light Lamp, 1968; Gemini Productions)
12th – Adimai Penn (The Slave Woman, 1969; Emgeeyar Pictures)
13th – Maatukara Velan (Cowherd Velan, 1970; Jayanthi Films)
14th – Rickshawkaran (The Rickshaw Man, 1971; Sathya Movies)
MGR’s impressions on his achievements in his movies, after his gun-shot wound rehabilitations were as follows:
9th Turn: Kaval Karan (1967): “After being shot and treated by the doctors, when I returned to work, I had mostly lost the power in speech ability. I couldn’t talk loudly or in aggressive situation, when nerves on one side pinched. Whether people will accept me in such a situation I wanted to know and the movie was released as per my schedule. Nevertheless, [this movie] had a remarkable box office run, exceeding the previous records.”
10th Turn: Kudiyiruntha Kovil (1968): “I had a double role in this movie, with varied character personalities. This was the first movie, I earned an award for acting from the Tamil Nadu state. As such, it gave me satisfaction. Amidst much difficulties, my ‘beloved brother’ Mr. Velumani produced this movie with much affection”.
11th Turn: Oli Vilakku (1968): “ This was a fresh opportunity for me to experiment a character. Whether people will accept me, as a drunkard was a question mark for the producers until the movie was released. Distributors were assuring them that my fans would accept me in a character with a faulty trait. Nevertheless, only after the movie was released and the verdict of peoples became favorable, those who were involved with the movie could have a long sigh. For me, it was my 100th movie. But, since I accepted such a faulty character and succeeded in this attempt, gave me much satisfaction.”
MGR had chosen his own second production ‘Adimai Penn’ (1969), for the 12th turn, in his selection. As this movie was discussed in a previous chapter (Part 46), I omit this here.
13th Turn: Mattukara Velan (1970): “Initially, this movie was to be directed by my ‘beloved brother’ Mr. T.R. Ramanna. But, as he was busy with other movie projects, he couldn’t progress with this movie project. Suppose, if a renowned director like Mr. Ramanna first agrees, and then drops out from a movie project and this news spread, we don’t have to guess the implications that movie’s producer would face. Even movie distributors would be doubting. There was talk, that something wrong with the story, or that the producer wasn’t adequate enough, or that the chosen actors and actresses were not apt choices. All these rumors were floating. But, the producer and my ‘beloved brother’ Mr. Kanagasabai continued the project without being disturbed. Eventually, Mr. P. Neelakantan directed the movie. It did break, previous records. I do recognize that, Mr. P. Neelakantan is associated with quite a number of ‘Turns’ in my movies. His involvement and contributions with ‘Thirudathe’, ‘Kavalkaran’ and ‘Mattukara Velan’ movies were notable.” MGR’s writing assistant Ravindar includes a tidbit that this movie title was lifted from a lyric line from Pattukoddai Kalyanasundaram (1930-1959), who had died young. Rather than ‘stealing’ it as per convention in Tamil movies, MGR had insisted on paying a nominal sum to the family first, before using the phrase ‘Mattukara Velan’ as his movie title.
14th Turn: Rickshawkaran (1971) “Many predicted that this movie will be a flop. But, those who made such dire predictions eventually agreed to the opposite and asserted, – This indeed is a big success’. This movie broke all the previous records held by my earlier movies in box office. How much opposition? How many derisive comments? How many difficulties? How many months taken for shooting? I do congratulate Mr. R.M. Veerappan, who withstood such challenges and completed this movie.”
Rickshawkaran, for which MGR received the Indian government’s ‘Bharat’ award as the best actor, was his 109th movie. As his autobiography came to an abrupt stop in October 1972, we don’t have his evaluations of the remaining 24 of his movies released after 1972. Among these, one can assume that only his 3rd own production Ulagam Suttrum Valiban (1973) would have merited his inclusion in the above list. Other 23 movies can be conveniently dismissed as typical MGR entertainers in color, even though two of these, Urimai Kural (1974) and Meenava Nanban (1977), were directed by the reputed director C.V. Sridar.
Less Recognized MGR movies
One should also note, that in the above listing, MGR had included ONLY the financially successful movies to his producers. Maybe for reasons of modesty, he had omitted his ‘experimental’ black and white movies of early 1950s, that were not successful at box office. It was in these movies, one could see MGR’s finest performances in acting, and not in the ‘MGR formulaic’ movies of 1970s, that Khushwant Singh had portrayed in his New York Times essay. Five of these notable movies include, Andhaman Kaithi (Andhaman Convict, 1952), En Thangai (My younger sister, 1952), Naam (We, 1953), Koondukkili (The Caged Parrot, 1954) and Paasam (Affection, 1962). Among these five movies, four (other than Naam) are now available for viewing in You Tube versions.
Among these five movies, director Thanjavur R. Ramanna (1923-1997) was involved with two movies – Koondukkili and Paasam. As already noted, MGR had recognized Ramanna (a stage name, but his birth name is also Ramachandran) as a renowned hand. Apart from these two experimental movies, in collaboration with his elder sister and noted movie star, T.R. Rajakumari (1922-1999), he formed R.R. Pictures, and had directed MGR in five additional movies – Gul-E-Bakavali (1955), Periya Idathu Penn (1963), Panakkara Kudumbam (1964), Panam Padaithavan (1965) and Parakkum Paavai (1966), and one more movie Pudumaipithan (1957) under another banner. Thus, next to P. Neelakantan, Ramanna also gains credit as a director in shaping MGR’s persona during 1950s and 1960s, with 8 movies.
The reasons, why I mentioned MGR’s ‘experimental’ movies above, are as follows:
(1 ) In the Paasam movie, MGR’s character dies at the end. This was an anti-climax. Though MGR had raised this issue with the producer-director Ramanna that sort of ending will hurt the box office, eventually he let the producer’s wish to stand. And as he had predicted, this movie turned out to be a flop in box office, despite solid performance by MGR and other cast. Previously, in an earlier movie Madurai Veeran (biopic of a Tamil folk hero), MGR’s character dies at the end. As it was a biopic, this was accepted by his fans, as pertinent. As such, this particular movie was a success in box office.
(2) KoondukkiLi movie has gained a unique status, as the only one in which two superstars of Tamil cinema (MGR and Sivaji Ganesan) starred together. While MGR played the hero role, Sivaji Ganesan took on the villain’s role. When screened first, it was a flop in box office, due to it’s unusual story line. Subsequently, it has gained a cult status, among all the Tamil movies released so far. If one has to compare the acting performances of both MGR and Sivaji Ganesan, it was the only movie we have in hand. While MGR provides a subdued, alert performance by conventional standards, Sivaji Ganesan played his role with vim and over-action.
The plot of this movie, in brief is as follows: Jeeva [Sivaji Ganesan], depressed in life due to a rude hand served by fate in being unable to marry the girl who stalked his heart in the traditional Penn Paarthal (Girl viewing) ceremony, attempts to commit suicide in a railway track. He was saved in time by Thangaraj [MGR], when both came to realize they were friends in the past. Thangaraj invites Jeeva to his household to live as a boarder, and finds Jeeva a job in the same work joint, he works. Thangaraj was married with a young boy. Jeeva came to realize that Thangaraj’s wife Mangala [B.S.Saroja] was the girl, who did stalk his interest earlier. Rumors were flying in the tenement they live, due to this sort of living arrangement. Due to an altercation, Thangaraj was framed for a crime, and serves time in jail. While Thangaraj was away, Jeeva makes a mean attempt to approach Mangala, for his passions, while the latter was down in luck with money and household maintenance. Mangala stoutly refuses Jeeva’s attempts. While Jeeva was about to assault Manga sexually, he was made blind by lightning strike. After release from prison, Thangaraj returns home to find out what had happened to his wife and son and hears about Jeeva’s ingratitude. He vows vengeance to Jeeva and comes to realize that his pal had become blind, and soothes himself. The movie ends, with blinded Jeeva walking into sunset (Chaplinesque style) with the grand-daughter of seller of cooked foods/ cum next-door girl Sokki [Kusalakumari], who had an eye on Jeeva, before he became blind.
The main reason for the box office failure of this experimental movie, was the bleak and realistic depiction on the poor working class situations, rather than escapism. The fight scenes for the hero (MGR) was minimal, as an established villain actor was not in the script. Sivaji Ganesan played the back-stabbing villain role, with cigarette in his lips. But, he was rewarded with a riveting, pathos-tinged song, ‘Konjum Kiliana Pennai Koondu Kiliyaaki viddu’, set to tune in Sindhubhairavi raga by maestro K.V. Mahadevan, and sung by T.M. Soundararajan. Lyricist was Vindhan. The beauty of this lyric, is the recurring refrain of two words ‘Sariya Thappa?’ [Is it right or wrong?] appearing in every second line.
There were two versions of this beautiful song, each with 6 quatrains, both sung by Soundararajan. Version 1 did appear in the movie, with Sivaji Ganesan lip-synching. Version 2, which didn’t appear in the movie (but was in record), due to objection from the Censor to a specific line in quatrain 5, ‘Pennai Paarthu Kannadithal Sariya Thappa?’ [Is it OK to wink at a woman?]. Lyrics of both versions, I present adjacently, in two PDF files. Both versions are posted now in You Tube now.
Version 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qPP_XaBbJz8
Version 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VnRVoyfSgTM
By contemporary logic, in early 1950s, the evaluation standards of Indian Censors even for a movie lyric, appears to border along Victorian era prudes.
(3) Though playing hero roles, in movies En Thangai and KoondukkiLi, MGR’s character don’t have a duet song with the heroine. This was against the convention, in Indian movies. The heroines in both movies, were director T.R. Ramanna’s 2nd and 3rd wives, both named Saroja. In the En Thangai movie plot, the young heroine E.V. Saroja (debut movie) plays the role of MGR’s younger sister, who loses her eye sight after a lightning strike. In KoondukkiLi movie’s plot, the heroine B.S. Saroja plays the role of MGR’s wife, the same woman villain (Sivaji Ganesan) had yearned to get married, before he was saved from suicide by the MGR character. Villain’s character going blind by a lightning strike was used as deus ex machina in the KoondukkiLi movie in the climax.
(4) Social scientist Pandian had presented a case that for MGR’s 100th movie, Oli ViLLaku, the original story line in Phool Aur Patthar (1966) Hindi movie, was changed. Whereas, in the “Hindi original, the hero married a widow at the end, in the Tamil version,
the ending of the film was changed at the instance of MGR himself, so that the widow dies a tragic death and the hero weds an unmarried woman. The widow is unfit for the hero as she has already lost her sexual innocence…”
Pandian had cherry-picked a data point here, but conveniently ignored the story line of Andhaman Kaidhi movie. The MGR character in this movie, at the end marries a poor maid who has been raped. Thus, giving the film a reformist touch, according to Tamil film historian Randor Guy. There’s also one rare scene in Andhaman Kaithi, in which MGR was shown having a cigarette butt in his hand. This was also against MGR’s valued policy of adhering to anti-smoking character depiction.
(5) The Naam (1953) movie, was a joint production of Jupiter Pictures and Mekala Pictures. Those involved in the production were M. Karunanidhi, MGR, MGR’s sibling M.G. Chakrapani, director A. Kasilingam, and villain actor P.S.Veerappa. As the producers were identified with the DMK party, public did expect that the movie’s story line may contain political mix. But, against such expectation, they produced this movie devoid of such a mix; and probably due to this, it flopped in box office, despite solid contributions by all.
‘Important’ MGR movies listed by Rajadhyaksha and Willemen (1998)
In the ‘Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema’ listing, Rajadhyaksha and Willemn had included 19 of the MGR movies (in which he had played the hero role), in their list of ‘most important’ films. They had defined, what was considered as ‘important’ as “films which have made a significant contribution to the development of Indian cinema from a number of points of view: economic, technological, aesthetic, intellectual, political and sociological (not necessarily in that order). These 19 movies were,
Manthiri Kumari 1950
Marma Yogi 1951
Andhaman Kaithi 1952
Malai Kallan 1954
Alibabavum Narpathu Thirdudargalum 1955
Madurai Veeran 1956
Chakravarthi Thirumagal 1957
Nadodi Mannan 1958
Periya Idathu Penn 1963
Ayirathil Oruvan 1965
Thaikku Thalaimagan 1967
Pudhiya Bhoomi 1968
Adimai Penn 1969
Mattukkara Velan 1969
Nam Naadu 1969
Engal Thangam 1970
Ulagam Sutrum Valiban 1973
I have indicated in blue, five movies, which did appear in MGR’s own list. In addition, two earlier movies, Ashok Kumar (1941) and Meera (1945), in which MGR had minor roles were also included in the important movies of India selection by Rajadhyaksha and Willemen. As both these authors being non-Tamils, they had acknowledged the assistance of few contributors who were ‘specialists’ in Tamil cinema. These acknowledged folks were, ‘Film News’ Anandan (1928-2016), Mathias Samuel Saundra Pandian (1958-2014), Randor Guy (b. 1937), Sundararaj Theodore Baskaran (b. 1940), Pritham Chakravarthy and M. Ravi Kumar. Though all have gained some recognition of varied grades, I feel they haven’t done justice in the selection of MGR’s best movies. Among these, Theodore Baskaran appears to be the foremost amateur historian, in conventional terms. Randor Guy was a popular historian, providing tidbits on ‘behind the screen’ details of personalities movie world. ‘Film News’ Anandan was a publicity guy, who was a compiler of Tamil movie lists. And, as I have indicated in this series on numerous occasions, Pandian was a social scientist with a Leftist political bias, whose knowledge on history of films, and techniques used in making films was very limited.
In my view, Tamil movie history had been poorly served by these six ‘specialists’ who were consulted in the compilation of the ‘Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema’. They had failed to press for inclusion of MGR’s iconic movies like ‘KoondukkiLi’ and ‘Paasam’ in the important movie listing, while MGR’s mediocre movies such as ‘Kanavan’ (The Husband, 1968) and ‘Pudhiya Bhoomi’ (New Land, 1968) were included. Furthermore, other than P. Neelakantan, no entries exist for either directors such as T.R. Ramanna and K. Shankar (1926-2006), or for play back singers such as T.M. Soundararajan, Sirkazhi Govindarajan and Chidambaram S. Jayaraman who were involved in developing ‘MGR persona’.
Eric Barnouw: Media Marathon – A Twentieth Century Memoir, Duke University Press, Durham, 1996, pp. 155-166.
Eric Barnow and S. Krishnaswamy: Indian Film, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press, New York, 1980, pp. 180-183, 294-295.
Randor Guy: Blast from the Past – Goondukili. The Hindu (Chennai), Oct.10, 2008.
Randor Guy: Blast from the Past – Andhaman Kaithi. The Hindu (Chennai), May 15, 2009.
Robert L. Hardgrave Jr.: Politics and the film in TamilNadu: the Stars and the DMK. Asian Survey, Mar 1973; 13: 288-305.
Joseph Lelyveld: Movie idols star in Indian election campaign. New York Times, Feb.10, 1967.
Aranthai Narayanan: Thamizh Cinemavin Kathai, Second edition, New Century Book House, Chennai, 2002.
M.S.S. Pandian: The Image Trap – M.G. Ramachandran in Film and Politics, Sage Publications, New Delhi, 1992.
Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen: Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema, New revised edition, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1998.
MGR: Naan Yean Piranthen? – Part 2, Kannadhasan Pathippagam, Chennai, 2014.
Ravindar: Pon Mana Chemmal MGR, Vijaya Publications, Chennai, 2009.
Susanne Rudolph: From Madras – a view of the Southern Film. Yale Review, spring 1971; 60(3); 468-480.
Khushwant Singh: ‘We sell them dreams’. New York Times, Oct.31, 1976.
Shashi Tharoor: A land governed by film stars. New York Times. Aug. 15, 2003. https://www.nytimes.com/2003/08/15/opinion/a-land-governed-by-film-stars.html
Bernard Weinraub: Movie idol leads sharp attack on Government of Indian state, New York Times, Mar.26, 1973.