MGR Remembered – Part 55

Ulagam Suttru Vaaliban [The Globe Trotting Youth]

by Sachi Sri Kantha

Part 54

[Front Note: For continuity with the previous chapter, I omit the political events, including the Bharat award (July 1972) to MGR and his expulsion from the DMK in October 1972 that preceded the release of Ulagam Sutrum Vaaliban movie in May 1973, for subsequent chapters.]

“Beginning from the village named ‘Birth’, and traveling towards the village named ‘Death’, the notes of my experiences of this abduction will become the answer for the question ‘Why I was Born?’ [of this autobiography]. This is how MGR began his autobiography in chapter 1, when he was 53. His life story ‘Why I was Born?’ began to be serialized in the Anantha Vikatan weekly from April 1970. It continued for 134 weeks and was abruptly terminated in October 1972, when was expelled from the DMK party. During these 134 weeks, ‘cold war’ was brewing between Karunanidhi and MGR. And it was during this period, MGR had executed the production of this third movie under the banner of ‘Emgeeyar Pictures’. Curiously not a single description of Ulagam Sutrum Vaaliban (Globe Trotting Youth; hereafter USV) had appeared in the 134 chapters of his autobiography.

(Lt-Rt) R.M. Veerappan, MGR and then Tamil Nadu governor S.L. Khurana, circa 1980s

The plot synopsis of USV, as it had appeared in the Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema, is as follows: “MGR’s last major self-produced film is a James Bond-style drama shot in Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Thailand. The scientist Murugan (MGR) invents a way of harnessing the energy of lightning. The crooked Prof. Bhairavan (Ashokan) offers him a fortune but Murugan donates the secret to a villainous Buddhist monk in Japan. Murugan is believed to be murdered, after which his brother, a Central Bureau of Investigation official (MGR again), unmasks the international gang of villains. Shot partly also at the Expo ’70 in Tokyo (sic, Osaka), the film’s claim to support scientific investigation is further underlined by documentary footage of Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Annadurai speaking on the subject. It was a major hit with continuous 50-day runs at all centres where it was first released.”

Two important omission in the list of names mentioned in the synopsis are that of , Indian politician-philosopher C. Rajagopalachari (aka Rajaji) for 5 seconds and polymath Bertrand Russell for 4 seconds. The addition of Bertrand Russell by MGR probably indicated his admiration for the policies promoted by the British mathematician-philosopher. That MGR had such admiration for Bertrand Russell had been corroborated in the memoirs of his writing assistant Ravindar. After being elected to the Chief Minister position in 1977, Ravindar had noted that MGR wanted Russell’s book ‘Power: A New Social Aanalysis’ (1938) to be translated into Tamil, for him to read in entirety.

Though it was believed by many (considering the turn of events during 1972 split in the DMK party) that USV would have its usual share of MGR’s anti-Karunanidhi diatribe in dialogues and songs, but it was not to be. The slightest hint appeared only the title credit song sung by Sirkazhi Govindarajan. The lyrics was written by one Pulavar Vetha. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any additional information on this lyricist, and why MGR choose him to write this title credit song remains elusive. The YouTube link for this song is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xyp_IBF9-CI

Instead of local politics, MGR made a subtle statement at the international level (considering the then vibrant Vietnam War situation in Southeast Asia) in aligning with Bertrand Russell’s view. Major portion of the movie was shot during President Richard Nixon’s administration. At the national level, inclusion of documentary footage of Nehru for 10 seconds (considering the fact that, Indira Gandhi was the prime minister then) was a sop to Indira to align his newly formed breakaway party with the Congress Party led by Indira.

MGR’s vanity-polishing title for the USV movie [i.e, Globe Trotting Youth] was a biting joke among anti-MGR elements. When the movie began production in 1970, MGR was 53; and when it was released in May 1973, he was 56. His chronological age appeared to be an oxymoron to the movie’s title ‘Youth’. Political adversaries and movie cynics wise cracked that the movie title should be Ulagam Suttrum Kizhavan [Globe Trotting Geezer]. MGR’s fans defended the accusation by noting that their idol was always ‘young in his heart’, and his virility is exhibited in his fight and dance sequences. Sivathamby, a noted Tamil critic, opined in 1971 “The superstar of the Tamil cinema is M.G. Ramachandran, affectionately referred to as ‘MGR’ by millions of fans in Asia. Now in his late fifties (sic), MGR still plays young men’s roles – his latest film is The Globe Trotting Youngster, MGR has generously supported the DMK; he is currently the party treasurer. When he returned from location shooting in Japan last year, chief minister Karunanidhi of Madras was at the airport to welcome him.”

Another minor criticism for the title was that, the movie’s locations were only in Southeast Asia and Japan; not the World! MGR seems ignorant of what is meant by the word Ulagam [‘World’]. In hindsight, one can note that the scientific basis for the plot of the movie was ill developed at best.

 

A recent review of USV movie (2015)

In an academic paper, ‘Watching from an Arm’s Length: The Foreign hand in Tamil Cinema’, Mudliar and Pal provided the following review for the USV movie.

“One of the best-recognized ‘foreign’ films was M.G. Ramachandran’s 1973 Ulagam Sutrum Valiban (World Traveling Bachelor) that was shot at several locations around East Asia. The shooting coincided with the World’s Fair in Japan, and the film exploited the visual quality of its locations with long shots of public space elements of technology and development such as skyscrapers, flyovers, yachts, escalators, electronic wristwatches, and a massive TV screen display of Lenin. Yet the same aspiration and modernity embedded in the modern spaces is contrasted with the moral failure of the individual who inhabits it. Many of the visual elements of foreignness are peripheral to the plot and serve primarily to emphasize MGR’s conquest of the world. He rides speedboats away from international villains, roller-skates in a cowboy suit, and attracts foreign women willing to learn Tamil for his sake. The ultimate Tamil man wins the world, and the audience rejoices at a trip around the Orient.”

 

Nitty Gritties of USV movie and comparison with previous two MGR’s own movies

First, a few statistics.

Nadodi Mannan (1958)

Age of MGR at the time of release: 41

Total number of movies released in India in all languages: 294

Total number of movies released in Tamil language: 61

MGR’s movies released in 1958: 1 (only this movie)

 

Adimai Penn (1969)

Age of MGR at the time of release: 52

Total number of movies released in India in all languages: 368

Total number of movies released in Tamil language: 70

MGR’s movies released in 1958: 2 (including Adimai Penn)

 

Ulagam Sutrum Vaaliban (1973)

Age of MGR at the time of release: 56

Total number of movies released in India in all languages: 448

Total number of movies released in Tamil language: 66

MGR’s movies released in 1958: 2 (including USV)

As is revealed by the above statistics, the while the total number of movies released in India in all languages showed an increasing trend, the total number of movies produced in Tamil language was marginal in a small range between 61 and 70. Also to be noted is the fact that in the years when his own production was released, by design MGR had restricted the release of his movies by other producers, for reasons such as to raise expectations of his fans, and not to hurt the box-office of his own production.

Vidwan V. Lakshmanan had written that, when the plan to make USV was announced, the distributors for all areas competed with each other for rights. After the stills for the Expo ’70 Osaka shooting came to be seen, some distributors who had already paid advance for their rights, re-sold their rights at higher prices to other distributors, for a profit. While the movie’s producer was still at an unknown stage of the outcome of his product, area distributors did make a ‘killing’ ahead of times.

The USV movie has few unusual items in the story plot for an MGR movie; (1) lack of a prominent mother figure! (2) incorporation of sexual violence scene by the villain on one of the heroines (Manjula). (3) Five duet songs for MGR with two heroines and one guest Thailand star Metta Roongrat (b. 1942).

During the production of this movie, MGR had jilted his 2nd muse Jayalalitha for reasons known to him only, and opted to arrange both his 3rd (Manjula, 1953-2013) and 4th (Latha, b. 1953) muses for lead roles. It should be noted that both these muses were 5 years younger than Jayalalitha. In addition, he offered a prominent role for another actress-dancer Chandrakala (1951-1999), and an impressive introduction of a foreign actress. According to Kannan (who had interviewed R.M. Veerappan, MGR’s Man Friday), Jayalalitha in fact did visit Japan, during the shooting period of USV, for unexplained reason(s). This should have happened during the September 1970, as Osaka Expo ’70 closed on September 13, 1970. MGR and his troupe landed in Tokyo on September 5, 1970. The following day, he was at Suita, Osaka, for shooting within the limited days available in hand. USV title credits indicate that shooting was held at the Soviet Pavilion, Mitsubishi Pavilion at the Expo ’70. In addition, other locations were Hitachi Production Inc., Tokyo, Hatakeyama Electric Co., Yomiuri Land -Tokyo, Kamakura temple, Dolphin Circus – Inoshima Island and Dreamland-Nara. During this busy schedule of shooting, how did MGR treat Jayalalitha then has not been revealed. Was he harsh on her, or did he treat her with affectionate friendliness? One may guess that being a tough competitor, Jayalalitha would have wanted to induce some sort of ‘rivalry stress’ on the performances of MGR’s younger muses.

T.M. Soundararajan

In each of MGR’s three movies, the lead actresses, script writers, lyricists, playback singers and music directors had changed; excluding lyricist(s) Kannadasan, Vaali, Pulamaipithan, playback singers Sirkazhi Govindarajan, S.P. Balasubramanyam, P. Susheela and S. Janaki as well as script writer K. Sornam. Each of these individuals had worked for two among the three movies. While the Nadodi Mannan and Adimai Penn were costume adventures set in a time frame of medieval centuries of Tamil Nadu, the plot of USV was set in the 20th century. The only artist, other MGR’s assistant R.M. Veerappan, who had contributed a major share to all three of MGR’s own productions was playback singer T.M. Soundararajan.

Nadodi Mannan (1958):

Actresses: P. Bhanumathi, M.N. Rajam and B. Sarojadevi.

Script writer(s): Kannadasan and Ravindar

Music director: S.M. Subbaiah Naidu

Lyricists: Paddukottai Kalyanasundaram, Kavi C.A. Lakshmanadas, Suratha, M.K.

Athmanathan and N.M. Muthukoothan

Number of songs: 11

 

Adimai Penn (1969):

Actresses: Jayalalitha, Pandaribhai, and Rajshri.

Script writer: K. Sornam

Music director: K.V. Mahadevan

Lyricists: Vaali, Pulamaipithan, Avinasi Mani and Alangudi Somu

Number of songs: 6

 

USV (1973):

Actresses: Manjula, Latha, Chandrakala, Metta Roongrat

Script writer: K. Sornam

Music director: M.S. Viswanathan

Lyricists: Kannadasan, Vaali, Pulamaipithan, Pulavar Vetha

Number of songs: 9

 

Songs of USV – Lyricists and Singers

As MGR’s ghost writer Vidwan V. Lakshmanan had reminisced in his biography of MGR, “all songs for the movie were pre-recorded before the shooting. They call it ‘music worship’. It happened like that. Each song received an immortal status. But, it should be noted that all songs were produced in a hurry. It was planned in such a way that before leaving for Japan, all songs were pre-recorded so that they could be used during the shooting sequences. All songs were under the supervision of MGR and reflected his thoughts.

Metta-Roongrat

M.S. Viswanathan’s composition of Kannadasan duet lyric, sung by T.M. Soundararajan and P. Susheela, ‘Pachi kiLLi, muthu charam mullai kodi yaaro?’ set in lilting dance tune turned out to be a big hit among MGR fans. A 53 year old MGR trysting with the then 28 year old Thai actress Metta Roongrat in the park was an unusual treat. Almost every line of this lyric are adorned with Kannadasan’s suggestive, euphemisms for love making (1) on mangoes as the breast of a young woman, (2) how a guy’s member dangles up and down when hugging a woman’s body, and she swoons of seeing heaven there itself. (3) inviting that woman to the bed room, and she rejoices, were indeed thrilling to many MGR’s fans. Few selected lines of this lyric are translated below:

[Hero] Kannil aadum mangani kaiyil aadaatho? [Those mangoes which dance in my eyes, won’t it dance in my hands?]

[She] Naane tharum kaalam varum. Yaen intha avasaramo? [Time will come when I’ll give it to you. Why you are in a hurry?]

[Hero] MuL illatha ThaaLai pola Thohai Maenee enru ALLum pothu meLum keeLum aadum aasai undu [When hugging the body as a sweat-scented Pandanus plant, (my) wish dangles up and down]

[She] Antha neram nerile sorgam thonrumo? [At that time, can we see the heaven?]

[Hero] Kanaathathum KeLLathathum kathalil viLLankidumo? [What was not seen and heard could be understood in love then?]

[Hero] PaLLikoodam pohalam – pakkam oodi vaa [Let’s go the bedroom – come running to me.]

[She] Koodam thanil paadam perum kalangal suvai allavo [Lessons learnt at the bedroom- are tasty, ain’t it?]

Akin to MGR’s other romantic songs, this song is a dream sequence in which his partner was dreaming about a time she wish to spent with her hero. The YouTube link is

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DAR5Sxy-1_w

Another Kannadasan duet song (sung by T.M. Soundararajan and S. Janaki), set in Osaka Expo ’70 background was, ‘Ulagam Ulagam –Azhahu kalaikalin surangam’, picturized on MGR and Chandrakala. The ‘Tower of the Sun’ sculpture of Taro Okamoto (1911-1996) can be seen in the background. The YouTube link is

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c8UuFNPsK_Y

A solo song of Kannadasan (sung by S.P. Balasubramaniam), set with a water ballet background, for MGR and Latha also turned out to be popular. For its times, Latha’s curves were prominently displayed for this song sequence. The YouTube link is

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7eAUJ6X-_1Y

 

The contemporary Indian movies of USV in 1973

USV, acted, produced and directed by MGR was released in India on May 11, 1973. Previous MGR biographers had recorded that the release of USV faced tough hurdles imposed by the then ruling DMK party. Karunanidhi, who was miffed by MGR’s popularity with the masses, did his best to spoil the release of this movie. He had political motives, to prevent a mass surge for MGR’s newly formed political party to gain undue advantage at the Dindigul by-election for a Lok Sabha constituency that was nearing. In those days, wall posters were the main source of advertisement for a newly released movie in India. According to Kannan, “There wasn’t a single poster advertising its release; this was for two reasons – one to keep its release a secret from the DMK administration and the second, because the levies on it were trebled by the Madras [Municipal] Corporation.” Veeravalli had added other wrenches thrown by the DMK government in the form of investigating MGR’s finances via the income tax officials for overspending foreign currency in shooting at foreign locales. The hands of theater owners were forcefully twisted indirectly in negating the offer of release.

Eventually when USV was released, it did surpass all box office records held until then in Chennai, other Tamil Nadu cities and even in Colombo (at the Capitol theater). Popularity of a movie like USV among the masses is only one and important criterion of evaluation that induces it’s participants for subsequent dream projects. But, if cinema is considered as an art form, how USV is evaluated against its rival productions with passage of time for the Tamil culture also need to be considered. As MGR himself had promoted the educational values of movies in his career, did USV contributed to educating the Tamil masses at a higher level was a moot point.

For historical evaluation on the impact of USV movie, it’s production cost and cinematic quality, USV deserves to be compared with its contemporary Indian movies released in 1973. It came to be recognized in the Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema (1998), as one of the ‘notable’ 25 movies released in 1973. I provide below a list of 24 other movies and their directors, which had been recognized similarly.

Ankur[The Seedling], Hindi, Shyam Benegal.

Ashani Sanket [Distant Thunder]. Bengali, Satyajit Ray

Banaria Phool, Assamese, Atul Bordoloi

Bobby, Hindi, Raj Kapoor

Bon Palashir Padabali, Bengali, Uttam Kumar

Daag [The Stain], Hindu, Yash Chopra

Dhund [Fog], Hindi, B.R. Chopra

Duvidha [In Two Minds], Hindi, Mani Kaul

Enippadikal [Staircases], Malayalam, Thoppil Bhasi

Garam Hawa [Hot Winds], Urdu, M.S.Satyu

Kaadu, Kannada, Girish Karnad

Manzilein Aur Bhi Hain [Jail is still ahead], Hindi, Mahesh Bhatt

Namak Haram [Traitor], Hindi, Hrishikesh Mukherjee

Nathaiyil Muthu [Pearl in a snail], Tamil, K.S. Gopalakrishnan

Nirmalayam [The Offering], Malayalam, M.T. Vasudevan Nair

Padatik [The Guerrila Fighter], Bengali, Mrinal Sen

Sharada, Telugu, K. Vishwanath

Titash Ekti Nadir Naam [A River named Titash], Bengali, Ritwik Ghatak

27 Down Bombay Varanasi Express, Hindi, Avtar Krishna Kaul

Yaadon Ki Baraat [Procession of Memories], Hindi, Nasir Hussain

Zanjeer [The Chain], Hindi, Prakash Mehra.

Rajaraja Cholan (1973, a screen grab) – Sivaji Ganesan (rt) in title role with K.D. Santhanam (lt)

For obvious reasons, this comparative exercise is beyond the scope of this biographer. Nevertheless, I wish to note that lists such as the one provided above are produced at the whims of chroniclers and do contain inherent bias. The selection criteria for such lists are mostly idiosyncratic and hidden. In 1973, another acclaimed high budget Tamil movie [a biopic on 10th century Chola Tamil emperor Rajaraja Cholan (AD 947-1014), starring Sivaji Ganesan, Rajaraja Cholan , scripted by Aru Ramanathan (1924-1974) and directed by A.P. Nagarajan (1928-1977) was released on March 31. It was promoted as the first 70 mm cinemascope movie in Tamil. Unfortunately, this movie was excluded in the above list. Compared to USV, Rajaraja Cholan was shot locally.

In the history of cinema, irrespective of the year in which they were produced, few movies are internationally acclaimed timeless masterpieces, for their thematic content. Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) and Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) belong to this category. Both predated the invasion of color into the film rolls. While acknowledging the fact that ‘this film is one of the biggest box-office hits in the history of Tamil cinema and ran for 25 weeks, not only in India, but also in places like Sri Lanka, US, Canada and UK’ as Tamil movie historian Randor Guy had noted, the verdict of this biographer is that though MGR did aim high for esthetic quality in USV, he eventually fell short of his target to produce a masterpiece. After nearly 50 years, USV seems dated now and appears like a tourist promotion video for Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand. And that final fight scene with MGR in roller-coaster appears like a childish gimmick in a theme park.

Furthermore, the role assigned to veteran villain actor M.N. Nambiar (with his clownish false teeth) seems overblown. A similar role played by Nambiar in MGR’s Nadodi Mannan movie 15 years earlier with a sword fencing duel with MGR was a degree higher than the karate duel he engaged with MGR in USV. Even for it’s cultural and education value for Tamils, Rajaraja Cholan deserves to be rated above than USV. If only MGR had concentrated a little more on developing the science behind the story plot, USV might have received critical acclaim. But with one leg planted firmly in Tamil Nadu politics, and aiming to curry favor with Indira Gandhi’s Congress Party for his fledgling breakaway party, MGR failed to provide more to the cinematic quality of USV. A sequel to this movie was announced in a message at the end of the movie, as KiLaku Afirikavil Raju [Raju in East Africa]. But, this sequel turned out to be MGR’s unfulfilled wish and never reached the start line.

I’ll let MGR have the last word. In his first chapter of autobiography, MGR had written, “When I talk about my past experiences in my life, there is no doubt that it has to be my own battles in my life. In those battles, I carried three weapons in my hand; namely, patience, self-confidence and courage. These three weapons have always supported me. I cannot answer whether I’ve achieved totality in all three. The fundamental reason why I came forward to write this series is my wish that these three characteristics I have, should be of help and blessing to others as well. If others think that I’m bragging about myself, I asked to be excused.”

 

Cited Sources

Eric Barnow and S. Krishnaswamy: Indian Film, 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, New York, 1980, pp. 294-295.

Randor Guy: Blast from the Past – Ulagam Sutrum Vaaliban (1973). The Hindu (Chennai), April 30, 3016.

  1. Kannan: MGR – A Life, Penguin Random Hous India, Gurgaon, Haryana, 2017.

Vidwan V. Lakshmanan: Makkal Thilagam MGR, 4th ed., Vanathi Pathippakam, Chennai, 2002, pp. 134-148.

  1. Mudliar, and J Pal: Watching from an Arm’s Length: The Foreign hand in Tamil Cinema. Communication, Culture & Critique, 2015; pp. 1-19. doi: 10.1111/cccr.12108

Aranthai Narayanan: Thamizh Cinemavin Kathai, New Century Book House, Chennai, 2nd ed., 2002 (orig. published 1981), pp 681.

M.S.S. Pandian: The Image Trap – M.G. Ramachandran in Film and Politics, Sage Publications, New Delhi, 1992, pp. 122-123.

Ravi Prakah and Raja (compilers): Kaala Pettagam 1926-2000 [Time Capsule], Vikatan Pirasuram 574, Chennai, 2011, p. 189.

Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen: Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema, New Revised ed., Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1998, p. 419.

MGR: Naan Yean Piranthaen – Part 1 [Why I was Born?], chapter 1. Kannadhasan Pathippagam, Chennai, 2014, pp. 18-26.

  1. Sivathamby: Politicians and players. The Drama Review, spring 1971; 15(2): 212-220.

Shrikanth Veeravalli: MGR – a biography, Rupa Publications, New Delhi, 2013, pp. 61-63.

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  1. Arul

    So far I thought MGR movies produced after formation of his party had tone of only local politics, but Dr. Sachi have clarified that in USV MGR made a subtle statement at the international level (considering the then vibrant Vietnam War situation in Southeast Asia) in aligning with Bertrand Russell’s view.
    I completely agree with Dr. Sachi in his view that for it’s cultural and education value for Tamils, Rajaraja Cholan deserves to be rated above than USV.

    Reply

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