Anna’s Death and Aftermath
by Sachi Sri Kantha, July 30, 2019
On June 10th, MGR biographer Kannan sent me the following thoughts, after reading Part 52 of this series.
“Thank you for Part 52 which I read in one breath. Yes. It could certainly form a subject of research. I don’t remember seeing anyone write about humor in MGR films although it was a major part and in the latter years became another tool to criticize the opposition. MGR’s comedians like Thengai [Srinivasan] and Isari Velan mouthed politically laced wit, the latter as I remember from Idhayakani…”
I do acknowledge that I missed mentioning the name of comedian Isari Velan (aka, Kathir Velan 1941-1987), in the previous chapter. He did appear in 9 of MGR movies in 1970s, especially in the post-DMK phase of MGR’s political life. What little information, I could find about him, was authored by Sahadevan Vijayakumar, from a Tamil website, https://antrukandamugam.wordpress.com/2013/08/25/aisary-velan/ The moniker ‘Isari’ in front of his name Velan originated from a 1956 drama ‘Engume Ethirpu’ in which he had appeared. It was presided by the King of Tamil Comedians, N.S. Krishnan. As an anecdote goes, Krishnan had humorously tagged the teenager as,’Athu Sari Velan’, as the phrase ‘Athu Sari’ (It’s OK) was littered profusely in that drama. With time, ‘Athu Sari’ became shortened to ‘Isari’ in front of his Velan. He was also an elected MLA belonging to MGR’s party in the 1977 general election.
Anna’s Failing Health and Kannadasan’s Allusion
While seeing former mentor Anna after a long time, at a public function held under the auspices of Indo-Soviet Cultural Society, in which he too participated and gave a speech, poet Kannadasan had noted that the ‘ballooning girth’ of Anna’s body didn’t appear to him as a natural one. At the end of the meeting, Anna had tapped Kannadasan’s belly and had asked to visit him at home, without fail. Within a month or so, Kannadasan heard from Kamarajar that Anna was suffering from throat cancer. This was within 18 months after he assumed the Chief Minister position.
Director A.P. Nagarajan’s masterpiece ‘Thillana Mohanambal’ movie, based on Kothamangalam Subbu’s novel, was released on July 27, 1968. It featured Sivaji Ganesan as the nadaswaram player Shanugasundaram and Padmini as the bharata natyam dancer Mohanambal. ‘Nalanthaana’ song sequence lasting for nearly 5 minutes in this movie was an endearing performance by all those who participated in this song sequence. In this song sequence where the hero and heroine appears together, the dancer was shocked by the bleeding on the left arm of her love interest, while performing. Without interrupting the performance, she sings with pain, while continuing to dance.
The YouTube clip for this song is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Du-jHKRvLLg
Tamil movie lore from Kodambakkam has it that poet Kannadasan wrote this lyric, as an allusion to the failing health of Anna. Only in one word (“Penn” = woman) of the lyric, Kannadasan used the story’s character. The rest of the words described his personal sentiments to Anna’s health condition. Kannadasan’s lyric in translation reads as follows:
‘[Are you] Well?…[Are you] Well?
In your body and spirit – Are you well?
That you should get well
I’ve been thinking day to day.
Secretly, like a fruit hidden by leaves
Without others knowing, will you tell?
Was your body hit by evil eyes?
Got damned – I’m still not sure.
When I heard that sad message – this
Woman’s agony – who else knows?
Let’s forget – what happened in the past!
Let’s hope for the best now!
Bonded [We’re] – Let’s wait!
When time permits, Let’s meet!’
Anna visited USA twice in 1968. First visit in April, was from an invitation from the Yale University’s Chubb Fellowship (a visiting lecture program). The second visit, five months later was for medical treatment for gullet cancer. The chronological sequence of Anna’s final five months is as follows:
Sept.10, 1968 – Anna left for USA for medical treatment.
Sept.16, 1968 – Dr.Theodore Miller performed surgery at New York Memorial Hospital.
Sept. 26, 1968 – discharged from the hospital.
Nov. 6, 1968 – returned to Madras.
Dec. 15, 1968 – Sivaji Ganesan’s 125th movie ‘Uyarntha Manithan’ was released. Anna
attended the function and spoke for 45 minutes.
Jan. 8, 1969 – Nagerkoil Parliamentary by-election. Kamarajar vs. Dr. Mathias. Kamarajar was elected.
Jan. 14, 1969 – Anna’s last public function; unveiling the statue of comedian N.S.Krishnan.
Jan. 20, 1969 – Fell unconscious in the toilet. Admitted to Adayar Cancer Institute lHospital..
Jan. 21, 1969 – Dr. T. Miller flew to Madras. Second surgery performed, but it was
Feb.3, 1969 – Anna died at 12:20 am.
Kannadasan’s version of Infighting by Anna’s Lieutenants
In one chapter of his autobiography, entitled ‘This is the Horoscope’, Kannadasan had written (in third person singular) the following:
The night before Anna was admitted to Adayar Cancer Institute Hospital, Kannadasan had visited Anna’s house, with three of his pals. He had described the scene as follows:
“When he went, Anna was struggling to eat the white yolk of a single egg. He was coughing repeatedly. Then, he asked, ‘How are you? Are your children fine?’. He responded. ‘Everyone is fine. How are you?’. With cough, he responded, ‘Still, not set up, well.’ For half an hour, he simply sat in front of him. He couldn’t speak at all….He told him, ‘Still not feeling good. Will you come tomorrow evening?’ He got up, while saying, ‘OK, Anna’.
After returning home, he wrote a letter item to the journal, with a caption; ‘God, Please save Anna’. In that letter, he wrote, ‘coughing life is filled with complexities. Doctors have lost the ability to save Anna. Only, the God could save him’.
The very next day news reached that Anna had been admitted to Adayar Hospital.
Following this, Kannadasan, had portrayed the positioning play for the post-Anna phase of the DMK party. Though he didn’t name the ‘individual’, it was understood to be Karunanidhi.
“…He definitely knew that Anna was nearing his end. More than him, another individual knew this better. He called that guy and asked, ‘What you had done?’ That guy responded, ‘What can we do? He never listens to what we say.’
[It’s as if] If the head priest is sick, his attendant will break coconut to Lord of the Hades!,,, He never suspected that some looked forward to Anna’s imminent death. From all over Tamil Nadu, the top guys of DMK reached the Adaiyaru Hospital.
Groups were formed, while at Anna’s bed side. Few who are now in other parties were also active in this activity.
Number one in the party was Anna; number two was [Navalar] Nedunchezhiyan, as the leader! In case of Anna’s death, attempts were made to revise this arrangement. Whether Navalar knew it or not, he could clearly see it. The horoscope of few individuals in the party, only he know well. Even Anna realized this. Anna preferred to see none. Didn’t he know that there were some who thanked the God, for his disease. Nevertheless, there were others who sincerely shed blood tears…
Whether knowingly or unknowingly, Mr MGR had sided with Karunanidhi. The news that MGR is supporting Karunanidhi, made the latter’s standing in the leadership stakes a prominent one. Due to this, sidelining Nedunchezhiyan and installing Karunanidhi became easier. In those days, Mr. Karunanidhi was seeing MGR morning and evening. At the meeting of party’s MLAs, Karunanidhi was elected. Navalar and Madhavan could only cry at Anna’s grave. Even before the cement in the grave could dry, it appeared that the party would split. Somehow, with his diplomatic skills, Karunanidhi did prevent this, and saved the day.”
Karunanidhi’s version of events
In his autobiography, Karunanidhi presented a different version from that of Kannadasan. Excerpts:
“My expectation was that Navalar to become the chief minister. But, excluding one or two of party’s MLAs, all others as well as Lok Sabha MPs thought otherwise. They had decided that I should be, and came to meet me in groups. Their opinion didn’t give me happiness. Rather, it was shocking to me….
Among the ministers, Mathiazhagan, Satyavani Muthu, A, Govindasami, Sadiq Pasha forced me to accept the chief minister position. Among the MPs, Nanjil Manoharan as well as Kovai Chezhian were near me and debated and forced me to do this, for the sake of saving the party. Having thought that Navalar should become the chief minister, this turn of events tested me. Even my house folks planned their best to divert this thinking. Puratchi Nadigar MGR approached me and did his best to reinforce on me that one shouldn’t ignore the majority opinion and responsibility should not be neglected.”
Then, Karunanidhi also had cited a segment of speech delivered by MGR on April 1, 1969, at the felicitation meeting for the new cabinet, held at Chennai Thousand Lights location. It was as follows:
“ ‘When I talked about who should become the chief minister, majority wanted Kalaignar (aka, Karunanidhi) to be. After that, I enforced on him that you should accept that demand. Even after all this, he was not willing. He sent Maran to me. Maran told us, ‘Kalaignar don’t want to be the chief minister. Do not trouble him with this.’ We replied, ‘This is for the party, for the people.’ ”
Karunanidhi wrote further.
“I write all this to show that I tried my best to avoid the chief minister position…To present the prevailing situation to Navalar, with N.V. Nadarajan, P.U. Sanmugam, A. Govindasami, I went to Navalar’s house. We told him the majority view of the party in detail. He definitely replied, ‘I wish to be the chief minister; if not, I will not accept any cabinet position. I requested him, to have the rank of deputy chief minister. He rejected it! ‘You can be a minister, and the leader of the House. Even while sitting at the House, I’ll sit the second rank, next to you. Even for this, Navalar wouldn’t agree.
Eventually, I did ask those who backed me, to leave me [from the contest]… My reasoning was not accepted.
The meeting of the party MLAs to choose the chief minister took place on Feb.9, 1969. A. Govindasami was chosen as the presiding leader for that meeting. Contestants were named. My name was proposed by minister Mathiazhagan and supported by minister Sathiavani Muthu. Then, Navalar’s name was proposed by S.J. Ramasamy MLA and supported by V.T. Annamalai MLA. Suddenly, Navalar got up and announced that he would be withdrawing from the contest. Thus, the laurel fell on my head….I took oath as the chief minister on February 10, 1969.”
By inference, one should note the selective memory of Karunanidhi. He had omitted the M.R. Radha shooting incident of MGR in January 1967 in his autobiography. But he had provided MGR’s supporting role to him, during the leadership conflict that arose between him and Nedunchezhian after Anna’s death. Karunanidhi’s version varies from that of Kannadasan’s version.
It is rather unfortunate that in his 2 volumes of autobiography, written between 1970 and 1972, MGR had been silent on the role he played to choose Karunanidhi over Nedunchezhian, on the post-Anna leadership conflict. Thus, we are left with only the versions of Kannadasan and Karunanidhi. Which version is nearer to the truth is left to everyone’s interpretation. I’d agree with the inference of Veeravalli that, “Karunanidhi’s statement about MGR helping him to the CM’s chair is not entirely baseless. Only that MGR acted at the behest of Karunanidhi.”
Subsequently, this leadership conflict following the death of the leader would become a tradition, after the death of MGR (1987) and Jayalalitha (2016) too.
Karunanidhi’s elegy to Anna appeared in the Ananta Vikatan’s commemorative issue on Anna (March 30, 1969). Nearby I provide the original; my English translation is given below. This elegiac poem, entitled ‘Three Letters’ was written in free verse.
‘With the word Anna
Let them call him – thus his mother
To honor those tribe of mothers
[poet] Avvai had a statue
Faith fighter Kannaki had a statue
Free unbowed [poet] Bharathi and
Unchallenged [poet] Bharathidasan had statues
Veerama Munivar had a statue,
Caldwell, Pope too had statues.nm
Kambar also had a statue.
Courageous ship-owning Tamil had a statue
The author of Kural – respected in eight directions
Thiruvalluvar also had a statue.
Ten statues got built –under Anna,
Whose love for Tamil to be globally anointed
Anna also had a statue
He stood with one raised index finger
Shows his command- our
Anna we thought.
Alas! – ‘One
More year I’ll live’ – He then
Pointed out – [I] realize now.
Our Anna – King of Hearts
‘Have young siblings – Don’t fear an army’
You did tell;
Leaving us – why you went on
Such a long trip?
In the charm and twinkle of your eyes
Our eyes fill with tears of lake
Why you did it?
You were a shadow for us
You had sunk into the sea
To search for a shadow.
Is this fair?
Pearls which fill the seabed
‘I’m the true pearl’ – You tell,
And you sleep at sea beach.
The tongue that spills music
Why did you fold it?
You moved your fingers and
Wrote magic; that finger
Why did you fold it?
With closed eyes – you think
I’ve treasured that beauty.
The sand had filled you and
Prevent us to see you.
You had ended the pain;
Our pain still hurts us –
Why did you go?
‘A heart should endure all’ You said.
For us to endure this, our hearts do hurt?
It’s enough Anna for you to enjoy sea breeze
Please get up – our Anna!
[You] won’t come, won’t come;
The designs of Fate we know Anna
Till I reach the place where you are now
Will you lent me your heart Anna…
I’ll bring it when I meet you again
And will offer in your feet, Anna!’
It was MGR who donated the 1968 statue of Anna, which Karunanidhi refers to in his elegiac poem.
Anna’s views on MGR’s Movies
One of the oft cited accolade Anna made on MGR was in 1958, during the felicitation function of MGR’s own production Nadodi Mannan. “The mango tree has many fruits. One of those fruits was shining the best. Many dreamt that whether this fruit will land in their laps. Kamarajar was anxious to have it. Me, too. That fruit landed in my lap. Now, I had placed it in my heart. That fruit is the one, who is seen nearby, M.G. Ramachandran. My heart’s fruit.” – Madiyil vizhuntathu oru kani; athanai eduthu ithayathil vaithukondaen.]
Though this might have been true about Anna’s sentiments on MGR’s charisma and philanthropy, what did he really thought about MGR’s movies? Among the 103 movies of MGR which were released while Anna was living, what Anna sincerely felt on the quality of these movies, other than their propaganda value to the DMK party, has not been openly mentioned by MGR, in his autobiography. The original story for two MGR movies (namely Thai Magalukku Kattiya Thaali-1959, and Nallavan Vazhvan – 1961, both made in black and white) was that of Anna. In box office, both had mediocre run. Maybe for couple of prominent movies, Anna might have issued praising ‘blurbs’ in his speeches, at the solicitation of movie producers and distributors. But, what he sincerely thought on the overall quality of MGR’s creativity, Anna had remained diplomatically silent.
If we exclude the two leading lights Sivaji Ganesan and Kannadasan, who left the DMK party by 1961, MGR was one of the three hero actors (other two being, K.R. Ramasamy and S.S. Rajendran) who promoted the DMK policies in their movies whole of 1960s. Other party activists and promoters included actor D.V. Narayanasamy, script writers Karunanidhi, Murasoli Maran, A.V.P. Asaithambi, Nanjil Manoharan, Rama Arangannal, lyricist N.M. Muthukoothan, and director duo Krishnan-Panju in the DMK camp. One could only sympathize with Anna’s ‘no open criticism’ for any movies in which his camp players had an active hand.
After Anna’s death, though MGR was able to maintain his balance in the movie world due to his immense presence, this couldn’t be said of other two movie heroes of DMK – K.R. Ramasamy (1914-1971) and S.S. Rajendran (1928-2014). DMK activities (before it became a recognized political party in India) was financed largely from the funds contributed by these two actors in 1950s. As such, they served as ‘financial essentials’ to Anna. Both faltered badly after Anna’s death, and their antagonism to Karunanidhi in the party (even when Anna was alive) also was a factor in their declining status among the party’s rank and file. K.R. Ramasamy died at the age of 57; 30 months after Anna’s death. S.S. Rajendran’s situation also turned out to be pitiable. He lost his moorings after Anna’s death, and his movie career came to abrupt stop. Subsequently, his political status was restored by MGR, after he quit the DMK party.
Anna Memorial Issue of Ananta Vikatan
Few weeks after Anna’s death, Ananta Vikatan weekly brought out an Anna memorial issue (March 30, 1969) of 125 pages. Still, I retain a copy of this issue. It carried contributions from, Karunanidhi – the Chief Minister (2 pages of his elegy poem), Nedunchezhiyan (4 pages), K. Anbazhagan (4 pages), E.V.K. Sampath (3 pages), one ‘Adiyaar’ (who had collected interesting anecdotes from Anna’s life in 48 pages) and K.S. Ramanujam (2 pages). I noted that for some peculiar reasons, MGR was not featured in any of the pages, not even in one of the 40 photos included there!
Anantha Vikatan – Anna memorial issue, March 30, 1969.
C.N. Annadurai – a time line. The Hindu (Chennai), Sept. 15, 2009.
Poet Kannadasan: Manavaasam (autobiography, vol.2), Vanathi Pathippagam, Chennai, 5th ed, 1991, pp. 149-150, 191-198.
Karunanidhi: Nenjuku Neethi (vol.2), Thirmagal Nilayam, Chennai, 1987, pp. 17-23.
Vidwan V. Lakshmanan: Makkal Thilagam MGR, 4th ed., Vanathi Pathippagam, Chennai, 2002.
K.P. Ramakrishnan: MGR Oru Sagaaptham, 8th ed., Vikatan Pirasuram, Chennai, 2013, pp. 92-94.
Dr. M.S. Udayamurthy: Americavil Anna, MGR, Vidwan Pathippagam, Chennai, 1975.
Shrikanth Veeravalli: MGR – a biography, Rupa Publications, New Delhi, 2013, pp. 48-50.