Bharath Award – for Artiste or Politician?
by Sachi Sri Kantha, November 4, 2020
For the contents of the previous part 57, my friend and fellow MGR biographer R. Kannan, had offered the following comments, in his email of Sept. 17th.
“Another well-documented piece.
As for how Indira viewed MGR I would still differ with you. I have been to Delhi only twice in my life. But Delhi can provide perspective. MGR is among the many political actors who come and go in the life of a prime minister or a leader of India. MGR was a maverick. I don’t think any Congress leader of consequence wanted him into the Congress much less Indira Gandhi. Yes. Indira Gandhi needed him in 1979. But this too as we now know from her then colleagues was an idea that was hatched by C.M. Stephen a general secretary.”
My response, sent on Sept.18th was as follows:
“I do accept your interpretation on Indira and MGR relationship. I also acknowledge that you have ample first hand sources, compared to me. I present only my ‘interpretation/extrapolation’ of events. Some of them may fit in like a jig-saw puzzle, but some DON’T fit at all. The problem in writing history, is that unless we check all the available evidence poured in personal letters and other records, one cannot expect 100% fit. These are particularly so, with strong willed individuals like Churchill, Stalin, Indira and MGR, who act on their own sensitive antennas, and don’t listen to others. Certainly, with your permission, I’ll use your rebuttal, in the next chapter.
As for Indira, it is my thinking that her alliance decisions were made, in relationship with the Sri Lanka Tamil issue. Like Kashmir in the North, Sri Lanka in the South had been a headache for India’s top bananas since 1948. Though belonging to the same family (and 3 generations), Nehru, Indira and Rajiv attempted to solve this issue differently. They had to deal with both Sinhalese and Tamil leadership. While I jot these lines, I think there is a nucleus for a book chapter or a book, on this theme. So, Indira’s angle in dealing with TN politicians varied from her dealings with the CMs of other states (except that of Kashmir). She hardly listened to her inner circle, whether it was C.M. Stephen or Gundu Rao or Mohan Kumaramangalam, even though they might have projected such an image to the media for their own survival. This is a point, I want to stress.”
In addition, I wish to cite the words of Carlos Baker, a respected biographer of Ernest Hemingway. In the foreword to his 1969 biography, Baker had written,
“No biography can portray a man as he actually was. The best that can be hoped for is an approximation, from which all that is false has been expunged and in which most of what is true has been set forth, whether by statement or by implication.”
But I envy Carlos Baker. In compiling his ‘approximation’ of Hemingway, he was aided by “manuscript sources, including many pages of his [i.e., Hemingway’s] unpublished work, approximately 2,500 of his letters, and at least an equal number of letters to him from friends, members of his family, and chance associates. These materials have been supplemented with numerous interviews, much correspondence with those who knew him best, and by visits to many, though not to all, of the regions that Hemingway frequented, both early and late.”
Not only me, but previous biographers of MGR like Kannan have been handicapped by the non-availability of MGR’s personal letters. Thus, in comparative terms, our ‘approximation’ of MGR’s life has to be a poor one to that of respected Americans handled by elite biographers like Carlos Baker and Robert Caros.
Visit by Eelam Politicians in Feb. 1972
One particular episode which happened in Feb 1972 was the visit by Eelam politicians S.J.V. Chelvanayakam and A. Amirthalingam to Chennai. Neither Karunanidhi nor MGR makes mention about this visit, in their autobiographies. What transpired between Eelam’s then leading politicians and the two protagonists of DMK party is lost to history. At that time, MGR was ‘still’ affiliated to DMK. Few salient points to note were, (1) TULF was not formed then. Thus, Chelvanayakam and Amirthalingam met the DMK leaders as representatives of the Federal Party. While Chelvanayakam was in parliament, Amirthalingam was not. (2) This was immediately after the formation and recognition of Bangladesh. Probably the design was to exploit the ‘cordial relationship’ Karunanidhi (then holding the position of Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu) had with Indira Gandhi, towards their favor. Eelam Tamil leaders, knowing that Indira had a ‘warm’ relationship with Sirimavo Bandaranaike (the then Sri Lankan prime minister) wished to impress upon Indira, the gloomy prospects faced by the Tamils, when Sri Lanka becomes a republic in May 1972.
According to Chelvanayakam’s biographer A.J. Wilson, “Chelvanayakam was welcomed in Madras by leaders of both DMKs and of Congress (I). On this occasion he reiterated the position that the Tamil people had been forced (by the Sinhalese) into a position ‘in which only separation could save them’.” The footnote provided by Wilson to this sentence was revealing. Though Wilson was mistaken on the chronology of DMK (In Feb. 1972, there was only one DMK, and MGR’s off-shoot party came into existence only in October 1972), he provides the (then) hidden thoughts of Amirthalingam and his mentor. It is as follows:
“Amirthalingam mentioned to this writer that Chelvanyakam was so ‘filled with horror’ at the atrocities and brutal conduct of the Sri Lanka army (99% Sinhalese) that he insisted on going to Madras with him despite failing health. It was politically necessary that they should meet the leaders of the two rival DMKs, M.G. Ramachandran and M. Karunanidhi, since the two parties were more or less equipoised. Their plan was to request both leaders to put pressure on Mrs. Gandhi to intervene to protect the civilian population in the Tamil areas. Neither of them intended to urge an Indian military occupation. Mrs Gandhi was approached but with no tangible results. Both DMK’s were favourably disposed at this time (c. 1972) to Chelvanayakam and the TULF.”
Or could it be that, even in February 1972, Eelam Tamil leaders had a premonition (or some sort of ‘gathered intelligence’ from now-undecipherable sources) that MGR was looking for an ‘exit route’ from DMK, and was being pulled into the Indira Congress orbit?
MGR the ‘artiste’ or MGR the politician?
After his expulsion from the DMK party in Oct. 1972, MGR plunged into the Indian politics, more or less permanently. Thus, in his final 14 years, politics came to dominate his time. Nevertheless, his contributions to the Indian stage and cinema for four decades (tentatively from 1932 to 1972) far outweighs his contributions to the Indian politics (from 1973 to 1987) per se. For centuries to come, MGR will be remembered mostly for his contributions to the cinema of Tamil Nadu rather than as a politician. Even during his final 14 years, he was hampered by ill health in the last three years.
Thus, it’s apt to note what American journalist Otto Friedrich (1929-1995), had written on the prominence of artistes over politicians, when Father Time records his score.
“As time passes, all politicians (and Generals) come to seem less important; what lasts is art. ‘Literature’ said Ezra Pound, ‘is news that stays news’. Many Americans can remember that Calvin Coolidge was the inconsequential President when Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby, but as we look back, the political powers keep fading. What does anyone know about the petty princelings who ruled Germany in the time Bach except that they were not very kind to Bach? What does anyone know about the Pope who build the Sistine Chapel except he hired Michelangelo to paint the ceiling?”
Bharath Award for ‘Rickshawkaran’(1971) movie
The Rickshawkaran [Rickshaw puller] movie was released on May 29, 1971, under Satya Movies banner. MGR acted in the titular role. It was a popular crowd pleaser, with usual ‘bells and whistles’ of an MGR movie. A new feature was the introduction of Manjula (1954-2013), as MGR’s third muse. She was 6 years younger than MGR’s second muse Jayalalitha (1948-2016). Interestingly this movie also featured Padmini, one of MGR’s heroines in 1950s, in a mature role. There were no song-dance sequence for Padmini in the movie. But, Manjula, the heroine, was only 17 then. A song-dance sequence of Manjula with MGR in this movie can be viewed in this You Tube clip.
Once it was announced that MGR would be awarded the 1971 Bharath Award for best cinema actor for his role as rickshaw-puller Selvam in the ‘Rickshawkaran’ movie, it created such a buzz in India. While MGR’s fans rejoiced in Tamil Nadu, there was ridicule in other quarters. This award for best performance as a male actor was first established in 1967, and MGR was the fifth (and the first from South India) recipient. His four predecessors for this award, Uttam Kumar (Bengali, 1967), Ashok Kumar (Hindi, 1968), Utpal Dutt (Hindi, 1969) and Sanjeev Kumar (Hindi, 1970) were from North India. Excluding Ashok Kumar (1911-2001), other three actor peers were MGR’s juniors. Sanjeev Kumar (1938-1985), who died young at 48 years, was 21 years younger to MGR, and was born after MGR’s entry into cinema.
Even among non-committed Tamil intelligentsia, the consensus was MGR was a wrong choice, and ‘Rickshawkaran’ movie was a poor choice for MGR’s performance as an actor. There were innuendos to the fact that the award was either ‘a political one’, or ‘bribed’ (a bought one). How did MGR tackle these slanders?
MGR had written the following in his autobiography:
“Recently when it was announced that I will be the recipient of one of the President’s award ‘Bharath’, what slanders spread around is well known to many. ‘Blitz’ (English language weekly) from North India published an undocumented, erroneous item. That I had donated 40,000 rupees to receive this ‘Bharat’ award. I came to know about this, only after I had been to Salem, to attend a function. Few years earlier, the same weekly published a story about DMK. It was written in a slanderous manner. I submitted by rebuttal, but it went unpublished. Subsequently, I published the same in an English journal edited by Anna.
Because of this, I requested my attorney Mr. V.P. Raman to forward a lawyer’s notice for publishing an untruthful item about me. Once he sent the notice, ‘Blitz’ published a public apology. One particular journal in Tamil Nadu, exaggerated the false item that appeared in the Blitz, and published, ‘MGR offered 40,000 bribe’ [Note by Sachi: Bold font sentence, was as in the original.]
Though the stance taken by that newspaper [Note by Sachi: this un-named daily was Dina Tanthi of S.B. Adithan] about me, is well known for those in politics and for my fans as well, many felt hurt for propagating such an unverified lie. A lawyer’s notice was sent to that newspaper too. That they had received such a notice was informed to the readers, but like what the Blitz offered, a public apology was not forthcoming from that newspaper. That paper had written ‘donation’ and within parenthesis ‘bribe’. Judges should decide whether ‘donation’ means ‘bribe’….Though some sourpusses had behaved like this, majority representing the public congratulated me by telegrams and letters.”
Then, as example, MGR had presented the texts of two letters he had received. First one was from a high school teacher R. Sankar, of Koothakudai, South Arcot district, dated July 7th 1972. In this fan letter, Sankar had expressed his joy on behalf of school teachers, observed that MGR had participated on the award function held in Calcutta on July 4, 1972, and ended the letter in English words, ‘Long live Bharat MGR!’ On his own, MGR had picked up a quote of his mentor Anna [Let those who praise us praise; Let those who shower us with mud do so; We’ll move along in a straight path.] mentioned in this fan letter, and annotated it for a page.
The second fan letter was from one M.M. Mougammad Ally, Madagascar, dated June 26, 1972. In this letter, MGR’s fan had written, ‘… I enjoy reading your ‘Naan Yaen Piranthaen’ series; what you write about Arignar Anna, makes me think a lot. If you have plans to do shooting in Africa and Madagascar, I’m sure that you will be able to meet Tamils here and [the project] will be a success. Not many Tamils live here. There are lot from Gujarath land. Frequently, Hindi movies are shown. I have been propagating your style of acting…”
MGR’s writer-assistant Ravindar had recorded and anecdote MGR shared with him, about his visit to Calcutta in 1930s. To quote, “My brother and I went there in 1936 for shooting of ‘Maya macheendra. Do you know my then salary? Two hundred [rupees]. For a month we were eating what was served, and felt like being dumped in a prison. There were no studios in Madras then. In those days, I liked eating sweets. I wanted to eat rasgulla [a syrupy, sweet desert]. One item cost 4 annas. But, no money. At that time, my wish was served by a cook Kuldeep, who was looking after us. I was thinking about this there. I thought of him as well.
When I came out, after receiving the award, amongst the crowd, I could see the same Kuldeep, with a garland in his hand. After 40 years, he had grown old with grey hairs. I hugged him and brought him to the room. Then, he was a bachelor…now, he said he has two grandchildren. I gave him what I could. He would reject it politely. Still, I could push it to him. I felt like that I could repay what I owed him. This was my completion satisfaction, not on the award received, but serving the gratitude owed.”
Felicitations were held by many organizations, prominently by the Journalists Association, Stunt Actors Union, South Indian Artiste’s Federation and DMK, in 1972. Excerpts from the speech scripts of MGR at three of these felicitations are given below:
Speech at the felicitation function of Journalists Association
“I don’t fool myself. This Bharat award I had received was not based on all the movies released in 1971. From few of the movies sent from here, one was selected by a committee representing the government of India, and I was rewarded. Those who comment that I was an unsuitable choice should note one thing. This award was for 1971 only. It’s not a life time achievement award for an actor in India…Recognition depends on the viewpoint selectors, and not on the measurement of an individual’s talent.
…I got an opportunity. Many saw [it]. It was ascertained. For such specific situation, it was accepted. The award was given. If someone had a different opinion, it’s their own right…I’m not concerned whether who receives the award If I worry on this, at this 56 years, I cannot tackle many issues. Whether one rolls his eyes, moves his cheek muscles and let lips dance, he will be an actor only when people recognize him. If not, he is zero. Whether an actor becomes famous and recognized is due to the producer. He is the one who makes an actor….
When I visited Bengal recently, I had admiration for Tamil Nadu on one hand, but felt shame on other hand. One lady who spoke there, talked about Bengali, Malayalam and Hindi movies. Tamil and Telugu movies were totally omitted. The award winning, ‘VeguLi Penn’, wasn’t it a Tamil movie? Reason is, their thinking was different. Due to this, with all the other commitments, I did watch the Bengali movie with friends.
I don’t want to blame anyone. It’s improper to say a discordant view, after being chosen. A friend seated next to me said, ‘That movie won, because of a casting vote’. It means the Tamil movie received the same number of votes. Finally, the committee head voted for it. Because of it, that movie got the award. Did any newspapers which had written [about me] ‘Why a Bharat award for Ramachandran who received 8 votes…He had donated 40,000.’ had the courage to write about this? Satyajit Ray was there. As he belonged to that State, he was not forthcoming to mention this. Why I had to mention this? Our sensibility and balance had stumbled somewhere….
Regarding this award being given to me, the opinion of actor Jaishankar was asked. He had told, ‘This is a democracy. Films will not run, unless patronized by people. MGR’s movies run for over 25 weeks. He had been working as hero for many years, and even now he is being contracted for movies. If people accept him, why can’t we accept the decision of the selection committee?’ I thank him, not for telling the truth. But for the courage he had in telling it….
One individual had written to me. ‘Do not accept the Bharat award. Previously, you didn’t accept the Padmashri award. Like that, don’t accept the Bharat award. [There’s a difference] At that time, there was agitation against Hindi. One student was killed. There was danger to students. As such, I had refrained from receiving the Padmashri award. Now, that situation don’t prevail. This award is for an artiste, recognizing his skill. A professional will not reject his promotion. I have been acting for 36 years. Why should I reject an award, when it was awarded? I’m not one, who had run after power, status and fame. My policy is, they should come to me. Those who praise me now – the same people may throw me out tomorrow. This is fame…”
Speech at the felicitation gathering of Stunt Actors Association
“…Am I a stunt actor? What’s the link between me and stunt actors? In my earlier days, I had acted in women roles in the dramas Manohara, Satyavan Savithri. In the drama Rajambal, I had also acted as a woman villain. You say, you are a stunt actor, and why in such a woman role? Courage should not be sex biased. Even, woman should show courage…physical training and protecting the body are worthy indeed. Our ancestors learnt arts such as boxing, staff fighting (silambam). Even now, what I say is this. There should be training schools for these martial arts.
Physical training is not only for cinema. It’s good for life as well. For women, it’s aid for self protection. Even day bef
ore yesterday, I acted in a fighting scene. If a hero opts, not only in dangerous ‘takes’, for all fighting scenes, they can make stunt actors to replace them. But, I’m not like that. One has to work, and receive remuneration. This is my principle. We shouldn’t cheat…
Sometime back, many ridiculed fighting scenes. Now, no movie is without a fighting scene. You should realize this…You should demand salary worth for your efforts. In early days, stunt actors were thought of as foot soldiers, rowdies or troublesome drunkards. Now, situation had changed. Stunt actors are recognized as donors of talent, those who labor for others, those who offer life. I wish that you recognize your worth.”
Speech at the felicitation function arranged by the South Indian Federation of Actors (July 30, 1972)
“…When reporters asked me, what can be done in eliminating the opinion differences between the fan organization of Sivaji [Ganesan] and MGR, I replied that politicians should leave us alone. Political parties should not use our fan organizations for their growth. After Sivaji left the DMK, Anna greeted him ‘Engu inrunthaalum Vaazha’ [Wish you well, wherever you are.] Akin to this, there should be clarity in mind, ‘MGR – wish you well, wherever you are’.
The thoughts of both of us is that socialism should prevail in this country. We have interest in the growth of South Indian Artistes Federation. We are ready for sacrifice to the well being of Tamil Nadu and the flourishing of artistes’ world…”
To appraise this award issue, one may partially infer from the speech made by MGR at the felicitation meeting chaired by his junior peer Sivaji Ganesan, that by the end of July 1972, MGR might have been hinting that he was about to leave DMK party. Where to? He was being strongly pulled towards the Indira Congress party by its mediators, especially Mohan Kumaramangalam (1916-1973), a minister in Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet. This had been indicated by Karunanidhi, in his autobiography. Thus, the gossip that the Bharat award for Rickshawkaran movie might have had a political tinge cannot be denied. That’s how political favor were executed during Indira Gandhi’s time, and even now in India. Realistically, it was an award by the Indian state and the chances that the selection committee members were completely immune and impartial to the political winds blowing from New Delhi cannot be ignored. But, a bribe was paid by MGR, as alleged and retracted by the Blitz weekly, to receive the award was nonsensical. Movie critics were not wrong either. By general consensus, Rickshawkaran was NOT the movie, for which MGR’s (in a four decade span as a movie star) best acting performance had been attributed.
MGR’s own choice that Rickshawkaran was the 14th successful ‘turn’ in his career, need to be placed in proper prospective. All of his choice movies were tagged with reference to box office collections to producers, and not to his acting performance. With a few exceptions, movies where MGR had given his best performances (such as Andhaman Kaithi, Naam, Koondu KiLi and Paasam) were box office failures. Thus, MGR’s own selection relates to his self confidence that even at the age of 54, he could prove to the producers that he was a bankable action movie star.
To justify the selection of Rickshawkaran, one specific angle may be suggested – MGR as an artiste popularizing the traditional martial arts of India. In the Rickshawkaran movie, silambam fencing [staffplay] was featured. It’s one kind of martial arts which was dear to MGR; unlike many other actors, he had training in it. Silambam fencing art had been suppressed by the colonial British rulers, and MGR’s contribution to the retrieval and popularity of this art form through his movies deserved recognition.
Almost half a century had passed since the release of Rickshawkaran movie. The problems faced by the tribe of rickshaw pullers portrayed by MGR in that movie, reverberates in the lives of sexagenarians who still practice menial labor of pulling humans in Chennai and Tiruchi, as collected by journalist reporters Lassya Shekar and Jose Joseph. They still remain as die-hard fans of MGR. Not only in Tamilnadu, rickshaw pulling laborers still thrive in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) and New Delhi, as evinced by reported research studies by Kurosaki and colleagues (2012) as well as Hyrapiet and Greiner (2012). Here is a story of Mr. C. Maiyappan aka Selvan, from Tiruchy, Tamilnadu.
“I was selected as a worker in the Telephone department in 1982, but was unable to join as I had typhoid. Though I approached the department, they said they had appointed someone else. So, I started using my father’s cycle rickshaw to support my family. I tried my hand at several businesses and also drove an auto for some time to support the education of my children. Now, my son is an engineer. But due to some family issues, I am again back to Gandhi Market with my father’s rickshaw for survival. Many of these rickshaw drivers have a similar story and these senior citizens have on other option,” said C Maiyappan aka Selvan, a rickshaw driver.”
What MGR would think of this story, is anybody’s guess. As Otto Friedrich had noted in his 1987 essay, with passage of time, the controversy relating to the 1972 Bharat award to MGR the politician will be forgotten, while Rickshawkaran movie as an art form (promoting silambam fencing martial art) continues to thrive in the digital media.
Carlos Baker: Ernest Hemingway – A Life Story, The Literary Guild, London, 1969, pp. 11-16.
Otto Friedrich: What really mattered. Time, Oct 12, 1987, p. 45.
- Hyrapiet and A.L. Greiner: Calcutta’s hand-pulled rickshaws: cultural politics and place making in a globalizing city. Geographical Review, Oct. 2012; 102(4): 407-426.
Joseph JK. Tiruchy’s last generation of rickshaw pullers. New Indian Express, Aug. 10, 2019. https://www.newindianexpress.com/states/tamil-nadu/2019/aug/10/tiruchys-last-generation-of-rickshaw-pullers-2016802.html
- Karunanidhi: Nenjuku Neethi[Justice for the Mind], vol. 2, Thirumagal Nilayam, Chennai, 1987.
- Kirubakarn (ed): Naan Aanaiyittal [A random collection of 41 MGR-related documents]. 2nd ed.,Vikatan Pirasuram, Chennai, 2014, pp. 160-180.
Kurosaki, A. Banerji, S.N. Mishr and A.K. Mangal: Unorganized enterprices and rural-urban migration in India: The case of the cycle rickshaw sector in Delhi. PRIMCED Discussion paper series No. 28, Hitotsubashi University, Tokyo, July 2012, 54 pages.
MGR: Naan Yaen Piranthaen [Why I was Born?], vol.2, Kannadasan Pathippagam, Chennai, 2014, pp. 1350-1354.
Ravindar K: Ponmana Chemmal MGR, Vijaya Publications, Chennai, 2009, pp. 112-115.
- Shekar: A chat with Chennai’s last generation of rickshaw pullers. Mar 5, 2020.
Jeyaratnam Wilson: J.V. Chelvanayakam and the Crisis of Sri Lankan Tamil
Nationalism, 1947-1977 – a Political Biography, Hurst & Co., London, 1994, p.118.