A Vibrant ‘Vaathiyar’ to the Illiterates
by Sachi Sri Kantha, February 19, 2019
Thomas Edison (1847-1931) was one of the pioneers in contributing to the origin of motion pictures. One of his quotes pertaining to this invention was, ‘I consider that the first mission of the motion picture is to make people happy, the second to educate, elevate and inspire’. It was as if, MGR in almost all of his movies since 1950 had followed this Edison’s dictum to the dot. He never cared or was bothered about the arm chair critics’ illusory ranking and criteria of ‘what is best acting?’, ‘who is the best actor?’ or ‘is their reality in his movie portrayals?’ MGR created his own text book and formula on making the illiterate Tamil masses happy while they enjoy his movies in theaters for 150 to 180 minutes. He wanted to offer the satisfaction to his fans that every paisa or cent of their hard earned money was not wasted. In addition, MGR made sure that from each of his movie, his fans would also learn something of worth to life and offer inspiration to live.
‘Vaathiyar’ (Teacher) as the Sobriquet
‘Vaathiyar’ – a much respected word in Tamil language, meaning ‘teacher’ or indirectly, ‘leader – the one who is followed’ was one of MGR’s sobriquets. The equivalent word of Sanskrit origin is guru; In Urdu, and Japanese, it’s equivalents are ‘ustad’ and ‘sensei’ respectively.
Surprisingly, M.S.S. Pandian (1992), writing on MGR’s honorific titles, exclude Vaathiyar in his listing. In Pandian’s words, “MGR carried several honorific titles by which he was referred to in public meetings, party newspapers, election posters and so on Some of these colourful and often inappropriate titles are, Puratchi Nadigar (revolutionary actor), Puratchi Thalaivar (revolutionary leader), Kalai Venthan (monarch of the arts), and Ponmana Chemmal (golden-hearted one). An omitted title for MGR in Pandian’s listing was ‘Niruthiya Chakravarthy’ (emperor of the arts), given when MGR visited Ceylon in 1965. Though Pandian, due to his ideological blindfold and partial ignorance on movie making repertoire, had opined that some of these were “inappropriate titles”, I hold a contra view that MGR had proved with his deeds that he did earn each of these titles in the old fashioned way. All his contemporaries in the movie field do acknowledge that MGR was well versed in all aspects of movie making. Thus, the titles, Kalai Venthan and Niruthiya Chakravarthy were apt indeed. Even his rivals and critics do acknowledge that MGR was a philanthropist in heart; thus the title Ponmana Chemmal was not a hyperbole given to a stingy guy. Some may have doubt about the title, Puratchi Nadigar? given to MGR. What type of revolution MGR did? I provide the reasons below. Simply, he swam against the currents in the casting of his movie characters with a strong conviction to uphold his principles and succeeded.
To the best of my knowledge, I am at a loss to identify in which year, MGR came to be tagged with this ‘Vaathiyar’ sobriquet. It predates 1960. The sources that I had checked (the reliable memoirs from the Tamil movie world – such as those of script writer Arur Doss, lyricist Vaali, MGR’s writing assistant Ravindar, bodyguard cum double K.P. Ramakrishnan) do not shed any light on the origin of this sobriquet to MGR.
Biographer Kannan had passingly noted, “It was only a matter of time before MGR became ‘vathiyar’ or teacher to the working class, and the epitome of the perfect man to womenfolk.” Kannan, citing Karunanidhi’s biography was quite clear that MGR’s other sobriquet, Puratchi Nadigar (i.e, Revolutionary Actor) was conferred on him by Karunanidhi, after the success of his 1954 movie Malai Kallan (The Mountain Thief). My guess is that, ‘vaathiyar’ sobriquet post-dated Puratchi Nadigar tag after MGR established himself as a ranking hero in Tamil movies in mid 1950s, following the formation of MGR fan clubs.
Promoted Policies in the storyline and songs of MGR
MGR promoted policies in the storyline and songs can be summed in seven ‘bullet points’.
- Promotion of Tamil pride and self-support
- Standing up to the rights of the powerless
- Respect to the mother
- Exposure of vice
- Antiviolence against women
- Abstinence from smoking and liquor
- Prisoner reforms
Whether they be historical costume dramas or on current social themes, all the movies of MGR revolves around the same plot – the disparity between the powerful and the powerless. This is the theme identified in bullet point 2. MGR, as the hero, would identify himself with the powerless and stand up to the rights (socially, economically, politically and sexually) of the powerless. In this, MGR’s world view gained total support from his junior contemporary in the field, the globally renowned Indian movie director Satyajit Ray (1921-1992). In a 1983 interview to the question, “What according to you is the most important Indian reality?”. Ray had answered, “To me, the most important reality of post-Independence India is disparity. Disparity in income, disparity of opportunities, disparity of wealth. All other problems are secondary to it.” Where Satyajit Ray and MGR differs was in the presentation of their view. Whereas in developing his movie plot, MGR strictly adhered to the ‘first mission’ enunciated by Thomas Edison, that a motion picture “is to make people happy”, one cannot say the same to Satyajit Ray’s all movies. Ray’s movie plots were ‘too realistic’ for the powerless masses about their real life struggle that they experience in their day to day life; these plots appealed to the eyes of the wealthy and middle class audiences and highbrow movie critics of Europe and North America. Even a category of Indians came to despise Ray for “exporting poverty” to the foreigners. On the contrary, MGR’s movies couldn’t receive such criticism.
Among the above listed 7 items, I feel that bullet point item 6 (MGR’s anti-liquor and anti-smoking campaign) via his movies has NOT been given its due credit by his biographers and commentators. While his contemporaries in Indian movies and elsewhere (especially Hollywood) were making money with tobacco commercials and sponsorship events, at a cost of his movie characters, MGR took a definitive stand on his conviction when he was young and never ever faltered for over 25 years. That he swam against the prevailing current made him a ‘vaathiyar’ in its original sense of the word. Research papers have been published on how the ‘big Tobacco’ companies roped in the big name Hollywood actors and actresses to promote cigarettes via movies and testimonials (check the cited papers of Mekemson and Glantz, 2002 and Lum et al. 2008). Previously, I had compared the careers of John Wayne and MGR. From these research papers, one learns that John Wayne had promoted R.J. Reynolds’ Camel brand cigarette, with the lines, “The roles I play are far from easy on my voice! Camels suit my throat to a ‘T’ ” Not only John Wayne, a whole parade of Hollywood’s leading stars (first generation of ‘talkie’ stars – Al Jolson, Douglas Fairbanks, Kay Francis, Jean Harlow, Barbara Stanwyck, Carle Lombard, Dolores Del Rio, Rita Hayworth and Hedy Lamarr, to name a few) who were MGR’s contemporaries promoted cigarettes for financial reasons, between 1927 and 1950, citing fake reasons to fool the public that smoking a cigarette is good for their throat and voice! But, MGR proved to be a prophet (one in hundred among his peers) who swam against this current.
15 years ago, in a longitudinal study on a representative sample of California adolescents, aged 12 to 15 years, Janet Distefan and her colleagues reported that smoking by actors (both sexes) in movies significantly increased the risk of future smoking among adolescent girls who have never smoked, independent of effects arising from other tobacco advertising and promotional practices. Unfortunately, they couldn’t find similar significant increased risk of future smoking for adolescent boys, and they did provide reasons for the negative outcome. One of the cited reasons for this negative outcome was boys preferred ‘action-oriented’ movies, but the girls opted for ‘’family-oriented’ movies; in the ‘action-oriented’ movies, smoking scenes by characters were less than in ‘family-oriented’ movies. It should be noted that, almost all MGR movies (with the exceptions of historical costume adventures) were family-oriented movies too. Since 1961, historical costume adventure movies of MGR had dwindled to a notable few.
Critics may nitpick to point out that even if MGR’s characters don’t smoke, other characters (especially villains and their subordinates) do smoke in MGR movies. Of course, this couldn’t be helped. But, exercising overall control in plot development, MGR saw to it that smoking scenes in his movies were reduced to the barest minimum, unless they were of some critical relevance to the character development and plot. Towards this, he was even willing to sacrifice ‘realism’.
As per MGR’s anti-smoking stance, comedian actor C.K. Nagesh, who had starred with him in numerous movies offered this vignette. “As for me, MGR adapted a typical pattern during shootings…[He would say] ‘You can take about 15 minutes. Go to the make-up room, do a ‘touch up’, and if you want to make a phone call finish that too, and come. Once the shooting begins, there shouldn’t be any trouble.” If we look at this request superficially, we guess that MGR preferred the shooting run smoothly without any disturbance or delay. But, there is an in-depth message here. Going to the make-up room for a ‘touch up’ and phone call is merely a formality. MGR don’t like anyone who smokes in front him. Sometimes, he become angry. But, I’m a heavy smoker. Thus, to prevent any unwanted disturbance [of his mood] due to me, it was his style to use this technique.”
Violence against women (bullet point item number 5) was also one of MGR’s promoted policies in the movies. In a 1974 interview to the New York Times, with an American journalist Bernard Weinraub, MGR had expressed his criticism to the Paul character played by Marlon Brando, in the ‘Last Tango in Paris’ (1972), as follows:
“Mr. Ramachandran, who once gave raincoats to 6,000 ricksha men after heavy rain, bristled angrily the other day when an American visitor asked why Indian films seemed so unrealistic.
‘What’s realistic, who’s realistic?’ he said. ‘Tell me an actor who plays realistic parts in the West?’
The visitor mumbled: ‘Marlon Brando?’
Mr. Ramachandran sighed deeply and said: ‘I have seen ‘Last Tango in Paris’. An artist like that making this kind of film! Immoral! Is that realistic?’ ”
One could note that MGR’s thought on ‘what is realism’ resembles that of Chaplin (see, Part 46). His criticism was that why Marlon Brando, among all actors, had to lower his credibility in doing such a ‘porno-type’ 1972 movie, degrading women. For those who are uninformed about this Bernardo Bertolucci movie, there was an infamous anal rape scene where Brando forces sexual violence on the 19 year old heroine Maria Schneider.
In the same interview, MGR had described his movie characters as follows: “I believe in heroes who are pure and people do not want it any other way. Personally, I don’t drink coffee, I don’t take cigarettes, I give my wealth to charity. I have an image of a good man…What I say in my films, what I do, I try to live up to in my personal life. I try to say no matter how poor you are, if you’re a scavenger or a shoeshine boy or a rickshaw man, its not undignified to do manual labor. By hard work, you can help yourself.”
Prisoner reforms (bullet point item number 7) is also one of MGR’s ideology, in which he believed strongly. His movie characters in quite a number of movies do experience prison time. Examples include, Andhaman Kaithi (1952, The Convict from Andhaman), Koondu KiLi (1954, The Caged Parrot), Nadodi Mannan (1958, Vagabond and the King), and Paasam (1962, Affection). In one movie, Pallandu Vazhka (1975, Live for Long Years), which was a re-make of V.Shantaram’s 1957 Hindi movie Do Aankhen Barah Haath, MGR plays the character role of prison warden, who attempts to rehabilitate six convicts. MGR had great respect to Shantaram’s cinematic career and showed this by bending down to receive his blessings in a public function (see, part 13). What is notable in MGR’s 1975 movie was the role assignments for these six convicts in the plot. Three of the six convicts were regular MGR movie villains – P.S.Veerappa, M.N. Nambiar and R.S.Manohar. Two other convicts were comedians (V.K. Ramasamy and Thengai Srinivasan), who were regulars in many MGR movies. Gundu Mani, the stunt actor, was chosen to play the sixth convict; he was no stranger to MGR, an acquaintance from his stage drama days (see, part 13).
The first listed bullet point item (Promotion of Tamil pride and self support) needs only little expansion. Tamils in the 20th century had lost their political virility due to centuries of colonialism from external (Western) and subsequently native (majoritarian linguistic) stake holders. Via his movies and songs of 1950s, more than any other Tamil actor, MGR promoted Tamil pride. Foremost among these type of songs were, ‘Tamilan endroru inamundu’ [‘Malaikallan’ movie, lyricist Namakkal Ramalingam Pillai, sung by T.M. Soundararajan. Youtube video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fbj_12AYsCw], ‘Acham enpathu madamai’ [‘Mannathi Mannan’ movie, lyricist Kannadasan, sung by T.M. Soundararajan. Youtube video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EKJczFoJ4LE]
‘Chinna payale Chinna payale’ [‘Arasilankumari’ movie, lyricist Kalyanasundaram, sung by T.M. Soundararajan. Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTCihMCfSCU].
MGR also made sure to include silambam (staff or stick fight – an ancient Tamil martial art) fighting in many of his movies, thereby promoting its revival and survival into the 21st century. It should be noted that for their administrative convenience, the British colonialists suppressed these Tamil martial arts by law and labeling those enthusiasts who practiced these art forms as ‘criminals’. MGR himself was an exponent in silambam fencing. With his movie villains like M.N. Nambiar, S.A. Ashokan and Sandow M.M.A. Chinnappa Thevar, MGR delighted his fans in this ancient art form.
The influence of MGR’s movies of 1950s and 1960s, on the origin and fighting spirt among the 10,000 strong cadres of Tamil Tigers (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) led by Veluppillai Prabhakaran (1954-2009), have yet to be studied in depth. Though Prabhakaran had gone on record in a 1987 interview to Newsweek magazine, that he was influenced by Clint Eastwood’s ‘Dirty Harry’ movies in sharpening his fighting skills, this couldn’t be equally said to his foot soldiers. An idol to them, their parents and siblings, nearer home was MGR, than Clint Eastwood.
Why? Clint Eastwood didn’t speak Tamil, and there wasn’t any inspirational songs in Eastwood movies; only MGR’s movie lyrics written by Kannadasan, Pattukottai Kalyanasundaram and Vaali (for convenience, I abbreviate these three names with initials KKV hereafter) could instill the Tamil pride. One can infer that for mental inspiration, even Prabhakaran would have felt more at home with the MGR songs of KKV. In Sri Lanka, a few prominent Sinhalese politicians, including the President J.R.Jayewardene came to tag LTTE as “MGR’s private army” in mid 1980s.
Puratchi Thalaivar (Revolutionary Leader) Sobriquet
It is not an exaggeration that MGR’s other sobriquet, Puratchi Thalaivar in politics was a most appropriate one too. After being expelled from DMK, MGR founded his own party in 1972 and led it to election victories consecutively three times. None in India or anywhere else could top this achievement. Since, MGR’s success in politics in 1970s and early 1980s, how many actors and actresses in India and elsewhere had followed his steps, and who could repeat MGR’s success?
I provide here, a letter I mailed to the Lanka Guardian magazine on May 14, 1993, contradicting the view provided by Sri Lanka’s historian Prof. Kingsley M. de Silva. This was in relation to the 1987 Rajiv Gandhi – J.R. Jayewardene accord on sending the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to Sri Lanka. My letter went unpublished, as to the whims of that magazine’s editor Mervyn de Silva. As what I wrote had touched on elements of MGR’s deed, even when he was incapacitated by illness, and what those who had followed him to the Chief Minister’s chair of Tamil Nadu (namely M. Karunanidhi and J. Jayalalitha) did by comparison when Eelam Tamils were in a pinch situation, I provide the contents of my 25 year old letter below.
“…K.M. de Silva believes that the role of the former chief minister of Tamil Nadu, M.G. Ramachandran was inconsequential because ‘his [MGR’s] health broke down to the point where he could hardly speak and his hangers on, male and female, interpreted his wishes through lip-reading, movement of his eyes and hands.’
There is no question that MGR was debilitated in Oct. 1984 and he was away in New York from Nov. 1984 to Jan. 1985. But, this debilitation did not force the charismatic MGR to step aside from his role as an important player in the Indian political field, after his return to Madras. For the role played by MGR between Feb. 1985 and Dec. 1987, information not appearing elsewhere has been presented in the book of Kondath Mohandas (MGR: Man and Myth, Panther Publishers, Bangalore, 1992; pp. 111-124 and 134-164), the man who served as the Director-General of Police during MGR’s rule in Tamil Nadu. He was in a privileged position to see how the movie star-turned politician functioned even while under the weather.
Tamils (Karunanidhi, Amirthalingam and the Eelam militants) as well as the prime ministers of India (Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi) knew well that, being a seasoned movie star he was, no one could steal a scene from MGR. Despite the bickering within his party ranks for succession, MGR did influence Rajiv Gandhi and LTTE in no uncertain manner between 1984 and 1987. Regarding the scene in Tamil Nadu, Mohandas has noted,
‘The Sri Lankan Tamil problem was one of the top priorities of the new MGR government…MGR gradually getting in touch with the militant groups – particularly LTTE through sources other than the CID. His idea seemed to be to impress on the Central Government his hold over the militant groups and use it as a card to be used if and when the need arose. This was a dangerous game, but as MGR once told me, ‘Life was not worth it without risks’ (p. 113).
MGR’s action of confiscating the arms of all Tamil militant groups prior to the SAARC summit in Bangalore (November 1986) and then returning the confiscated to the LTTE also attest to the fact that MGR played his card according to his way, without minding the Delhi wags, who did not bother to know the ground realities in Tamil Nadu.”
This was written by me in 1993. Subsequently, the published memoirs of J.N. Dixit (the then Indian ambassador to Sri Lanka during the mid-1980s) also confirmed the views of Mohandas, on the role played by MGR in assisting LTTE to gain an upper hand over the IPKF forces. MGR siding with LTTE in its conflict with the Sri Lankan government and the IPKF force, can be inferred from his ideology (bullet point item 2) in siding with the powerless underdogs.
Chandramouli, S (compiler). Sirithu Vazha Vendum (Nageshin Vazhkai Anubavangal). 3rd ed., Vanathi Pathipakam, Chennai, 2009, pp. 167-168.
Deming, R,Moreau and S. Mazumdar: The roar of the Liberation Tigers, Newsweek, Nov. 9, 1987, p. 26.
Distefan JM, Pierce JP and Gilpin EA. Do favorite movie stars influence adolescent smoking initiation? American Journal of Public Health, 004; 94: 1239-1244.
- Kannan : MGR – A Life, Penguin Books, Gurgaon, Haryana, 2017.
Lum KL, Polansky JR, Jackler RK, and Glantz SA. Signed, sealed and delivered: ‘big tobacco’ in Hollywood, 1927-1951. Tobacco Control, 2008; 17: 313-323.
- Malcolm: The universe in his backyard. The Guardian (London), May 2, 2002. [This commentary was on Satyajit Ray.]
Mekemson C and Glantz SA. How the tobacco industry built its relationship with Hollywood. Tobacco Control, 2002; 11 (suppl.1): i81-i91.
Sumit Mitra: The genius of Satyajit Ray. India Today, Feb. 1, 1983, pp. 68-76.
Pandian, M.S.S. The Image Trap: M.G. Ramachandran in Film and Politics, Sage Publications India, New Delhi, 1992, pp. 115 & 117.
Bernard Weinraub: Movie Makers’ feud dominates politics in State of South India. New York Times, Sept. 28, 1974.