Tackling rivals Karunanidhi – Kamaraj and tending Sridhar
by Sachi Sri Kantha, March 15, 2021
Fellow MGR biographer R. Kannan’s comments on the previous chapter Part 59, which I received by email of Jan. 22, 2021, are as follows:
“A well-documented piece again. The Malayali police officer who was quoted in Junior Vikatan is considered Lakshminarayanan IPS who is Krishna Iyer’s younger brother. Also, as you rightly pointed out corruption is not an issue in India. Indira Gandhi did not dismiss the DMK government for corruption. The complaints were lodged by MGR and Kalyanasundaram soon after the birth of the AIADMK in 1972 and were not considered until early 1976 when the government was dismissed. Mohan Kumaramangalam and others conjured up a separatist Karunanidhi and cohorts that was given credence by a combative and yet fully seasoned Karunanidhi who referred to Mujibur Rahman sometimes while articulating state autonomy. Karunanidhi’s opposition to the Emergency came as the last straw. He had to be shown his place. DMK’s second rung and frontline leaders like Maran, Veersamy, Chittibabu and Stalin suffered much in internment. Some 400 DMK men were interned. In 1977 the DMK protest against Indira Gandhi in Madurai turned violent. Indira Gandhi was unfazed but her cohorts said the DMK tried to “murder” her. The Madras High Court would exonerate all including Karunanidhi later. Neither leader thought of any of this when they hurriedly entered into a poll alliance only three years later in 1980 for their own reasons – Karunanidhi to fell MGR and Indira to end her isolation and return to power. Indira succeeded but the latter had to wait until MGR was no more.
On the national awards, it is not clear to me if the prime minister is involved in every one of these selections. It is tre some if not most of these are made with political forethought and calculation. And as for Karunanidhi painting MGR as a non-Tamil – he was 48 then, rather desperate to keep his flock together and hoped that the non-Tamil labe would dent MGR’s allure. Except for MGR, no one was bothered about the insinuation. MGR went to great lengths to establish a Tamil ancestry and one of his followers traced MGR’s genealogy to the Kongu region’s Gounders a claim that Kovai Chezhian from there and others pedaled further.
No one cared for image more than MGR. Karunanidhi was equally careful and it was only in the last days that I am told he sported a stubble on occasions.”
I do respect Kannan’s comments. My reply, sent on Jan. 24, 2021 was as follows:
“As for your candid thoughts, I do agree with all. They do provide clarifications on the issues covered by me. One clarification, as for the National Awards, my point is that, it’s not that Indira was involved in the selection process. But, the award committee members (to be on the favorable side of Indira or her immediate circle) made the selections, in anticipation of Indira’s mood or whims) and prevailing political currents. Even prior to the Emergency period, majority of the decisions by officials were made in anticipation of satisfying Sanjay Gandhi and his cronies, isn’t it so? Otherwise, how can one justify the selection of ‘Rickshawkaran’ for MGR’s ‘best acting’?
Even MGR’s movies (released after his expulsion from DMK) had this tinge. His choice preference to include Hindi actresses like Radha Saluja, Zarina Wahab, villain Shetty, woman playback singer (was it Usha Uthup?) were made in anticipation to ‘wet’ Indira’s thinking and court the Hindi circle with ‘national unity’ theme. Recently, I watched A.P.Nagarajan directed MGR movie ‘Navarathinam’ in the Youtube. This was so obvious, and typically un-Nagarajan format. The Youtube version seems shortened by 15 or 20 min., I guessed. No wonder, it was a ‘flop’ by MGR’s standard.”
Kumarasamy Kamaraj – Another rival MGR had to face
Kamaraj (1903-75), the traditional rival of DMK party since 1957 in the political battleground, then nearing 70 and in his twilight years, was the second rival apart from Karnanidhi, MGR had to tackle in 1973. After being defeated at the 1967 general election at Virudunagar constituency by a young DMK student leader and had his nose thumped by Indira Gandhi in 1969, Kamaraj had something to prove in gaining his lost prestige at the state level as well as national level. At the national level, Kamaraj’s rival was Indira Gandhi.
At the state level, Kamaraj hardly expected that MGR would turn out to be a political force that he needed to tackle, for his own recovery. For him, MGR was simply an upstart who had moved into his political turf. Though MGR had been courteous to Kamaraj in the past, and even suffered the stings from DMK’s sympathizers by praising Kamaraj as his ‘leader’, the wily Congress leader hardly reciprocated MGR’s attentiveness. Kamaraj derided both parties (the DMK led Karunanidhi and it’s offshoot of MGR) publicly in a folksy Tamil phrase – Ore kuddaiyil ooriya iru maddaikal [‘two rotten planks from the same puddle’].
What sort of a political animal, Kamaraj was? An interesting profile of in the New York Times, by Anthony Lukas with a caption ‘Political python of India’ had appeared in 1966, prior to his fall in 1967. Excerpts:
“…Blessed with a prodigious memory, Kamaraj plays on each man’s weakest point, and often does it so neatly that the subject hardly realizes what is happening. One man who has observed him for years says: ‘He does not conquer his enemies. He believes in crushing them as smoothly and slickly as possible, all the time making them feel better and better. He is a veritable political python.’….
His critics find little to work on in his personal life, however. So far as anyone can tell, it is as bland as the buffalo curds he eats twice daily. The party is Kamaraj’s life and he allows few distractions to break his single-minded concentration on it.
He has never married. Some say this is because he pledged early in life to follow Gandhi’s examply of celibacy, at least until the country attained independence (although the name Kamaraj means ‘Prince of Carnal Love’). Others say he had a brief and painful love affair at an early age which left him with no taste for women.
His only close relatives are his 87 year-old mother and his widowed sister, who live simply in a small Madras town. This frees him from the usual charges of nepotism leveled at most Indian politicians. He cleverly exploits this advantage by telling reporters, ‘My mother keeps asking me for more money, but I tell her I don’t have any’.
Aside from his celibacy, he has none of the other fads associated with Gandhi. He is not a vegetarian and enjoys a good Madras lamb or chicken curry. He is addicted to Gold Flake cigarettes and though he does not drink, his toddy-tapping background gives him a relaxed tolerance for those who do.”
This evaluation by Anthony Lukas on Kamaraj’s political instinct had been subsequently endorsed by poet Kannadasan, in his 2nd volume of autobiography ‘Manavasam’. Kannadasan should know, because he was in Kamaraj’s camp in 1960s, before he moved over to Indira Gandhi’s Congress Party in 1969.
Kamaraj and MGR share one common issue between them. Both were childless – Kamaraj by choice, MGR by fate. It may be said that Kamaraj was less troubled by childlessness (probably because he remained a bachelor). But, for MGR it was an emotional wound which pricked his heart deeply, and confided it script writer Aroordhas. To quote Aroordhas,
“I have two big deficiencies in life, despite all the wealth I have earned now. First, childlessness. The other one..!”
I interrupted him to say,
“Why great leader Kamaraj also is childless? Because of that, his standing among the public hasn’t depreciated, isn’t it?”
“It’s not so. What you say is inappropriate. Kamaraj didn’t marry. As such, he is childless. But for me, though I had married two or three times, I’m without a child. Won’t any lucky lady would carry my fetus in her womb and hand me a child in ten months? This worry still permanently remains in my heart and hurts me….
God, who had blessed my brother with so many children, why he had ignored me without even one kid, did you see? The same blood which runs in his body also runs in me too. So, why this discrimination?
So many sisters and mothers push their babies in my hands and ask me to name their babies. Though my heart cries internally, ignoring that whatever names comes to my mind, I suggest and fulfill their wishes. Let it be, that’s my fate.”
MGR did express his agony vicariously for the second time, via a Kannadasan lyric that appeared in the 1973 movie, ‘Pattikattu Ponnaiya’ [Simpleton Ponnaiya]– the last movie he paired with Jayalalitha. It followed his Ulagam Suttrum Vaaliban. The duet song, ‘Oru varusham kaathiruntha Kaiyil Oru Paapa’ [The Youtube link is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6LQxkixodb8] This particular song had all the flourishes of Kannadasan’s word play and euphemism on foreplay for coitus by a couple. That MGR did approve such a song in his movie was an indicator that he wished that lyric to be a balm for his wounded psyche. Previously, in a 1966 black and white movie ‘Panam Padaithavan’[The Rich Guy], a solo lyric by Vaali also expressed the same wish fulfillment by MGR, about having a son. The Youtube link for this song is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DGpjKCDashs
Dindigul by-election of May 20, 1973
This by-election caused by the death of Mayandi Thevar Rajangam had a historical significance in the Tamilnadu’s political map. The first one, in which MGR’s new party entered the electoral fray, and tested it’s strength against it’s parent DMK party and the two national parties – Congress Party (Old) of Kamaraj and Congress Party (Indira). At the Mar.1, 1971 General election, Rajangam (DMK) had won the constituency, by polling 56.6% of the votes. In this election, Congress Party (Indira) was aligned with DMK.
Rajangam (DMK) – 248,638 votes (56.6%)
Chemachamy (Swantara Party) – 151,003 votes (34.4%)
K.P. Kuppusamy Moopanar (Independent) – 15,610 votes (3.6%)
For this 1973 by-election, MGR chose Karuppa Thevar Maya Thevar (b. 1934), a 38 year old advocate, who practiced at the Madras High Court, as his party’s nominee. Previously, he had been an activist of Forward Bloc Party, till 1967. While Kamaraj’s selection was V.C. Sitthan, Karunanidhi chose Pon Muthuramalingam as DMK’s nominee. These candidates were merely proxies to the high profile four cornered contest, in which the de facto representatives were MGR, Karunanidhi, Kamaraj and Indira Gandhi. At the end, MGR’s popular appeal to Tamil masses bested that of his two prominent rivals – Kamaraj and Karunanidhi. The results were,
Maya Thevar (Anna DMK) – 260,824 votes (52%)
N.S.V. Sitthan (Congress – Old) – 119,032 votes
Pon Muthuramalingam (DMK) – 93, 496 votes
Seemaisamy (Congress – Indira) – 11,423 votes
Indira Congress Party’s candidate lost his deposit. Mathan’s cartoon, captioned ‘Dindigul election result’ in the Ananda Vikatan weekly (June 6, 1973), aptly presented the popular appeal of MGR to Tamil Nadu voters; MGR’s No.1 standing was indicated only with the legs, Kamaraj (No. 2) and Karunanidhi (No. 3) looking up and the Indira Congress Party’s representative (No. 4) shown only with a head strutting from a pit. As it happens often in politics, Maya Thevar (who was a sort of ‘nobody’ before 1973, but became so popular in Tamil Nadu due to MGR), showed his ingratitude to MGR, and moved into DMK camp in 1980.
It is somewhat interesting to note that Karunanidhi makes no mention about Dindigul by-election, in his autobiography, though he derided the result as voters’ fancy to ‘cinema craze’. This was akin to the pot calling the kettle black.
After the release of ‘Ulagam Suttrum Vaaliban’ Movie
MGR’s third production, ‘Ulagam Suttrum Vaaliban’ was released on May 11, 1973, less than 10 days prior to the Dindigul by election. As Kannan had indicated, “‘Ulagam Suttrum Vaaliban’ would do its bit for the ADMK’s success in the [Dindigul by-election] story…Fans simply transposed the situation [where MGR fights with his villain] to Dindigul.” [see, chapter 55 of this series. https://sangam.org/mgr-remembered-part-55/
Ravindar, the writing assistant for MGR, had reminisced about MGR’s thoughts and actions, in a chapter of his memoirs. This chapter was titled, ‘Foundation not viewed’.
I provide below word for word translation from a section. Ravindar had used the honorific word ‘Chemmal’ (which figuratively means, elder) for MGR.
“You didn’t tell me anything about the Vaaliban movie, the elder asked.
“What is there for me to convey?’ I said.
“You shouldn’t say that. What is missing? Please let me know,” the elder persisted.
“I cannot say anything. Everything appears perfect.” I said.
“Oh- you fool. You didn’t notice that your name was missing?”
“So, what?” I quipped.
“I realized just now that you have many enemies in my organization. They didn’t let you being named.” he said.
“That’s OK. If Ravindar is mentioned, I have a name now that combining your three letters my name is linked to that and being asked. That’s enough.” I said.
“Is that so? At the end of the movie, there’s an advertisement mentioning that our next production will be ‘Raju in East Africa’. It’s for completely for You. I’ll not allow anyone to interfere. When I visited Africa, what I saw, and how this story has to be told. You can relax and write at the Arkadu Muthali Road office.”
He gave me a big scrap book album prepared by ‘Ithayam Pesukirathu’ Manian’s photos relating to East Africa. After looking those notes, I went to ask him about the story plot.
“This is what he told. [We] need to think on three angles. One is, father-son story. I want to act the roles of father and son. Let this wish be fulfilled. The second is, while I was in bed after the leg injury, I saw many 16 mm movies. One I remember well now was ‘The Purple Plain’. [Note by Sachi: This was a 1954 British war movie, based on the 2nd World War British campaign in Burma. Gregory Peck was the hero. Shooting was done, even in Sigiriya rock, Ceylon. This fact may provide a hint, why among all the Hollywood actors MGR specifically met Gregory Peck during his first visit to USA in 1974.] The story should begin from the final shot of Ulagam Suttrum Valiban. You can try to link that scene with an idea of changing the plane’s directional compass with a magnet. Then, think of a problem that has to be dealt at global level. Few problems are common to folks all over the globe. You need to create a character to tackle this. You have to link it to Africa. This story has to be shot in Africa. That’s why I gave this book to you. If you have any further doubts, you can check with Manian.”
The following week, I went to meet him, after preparing three sets of story plots.
Then, the elder told me a new development.
“I cannot listen to Raju [story] now. Let’s wait for a month. I’ve to finish a new movie quickly. Sridhar visited me.”
I was surprised!
I knew what happened to the ‘Andru Sinthiya Ratham’ movie. [Note by Sachi: ‘The blood that was spilled’ was one of the unfinished movies of MGR, which was supposed to be produced and directed by Sridhar in the 1960s. Due to some misunderstanding among the principals, it was abruptly abandoned. See below]
Looking at my facial reaction, he said “Are you surprised? Poor soul…When he came to me telling his financial troubles, I was so saddened. I made this arrangement, so that he should earn ten times more than what he had planned for. Telugu story. Nageswara Rao had acted in it. I want to do it, after watching it [Telugu movie]. I didn’t ask [advance] money first. I had told him, to make use of Satya Studio for sets. Once he sells the rights to distributors, he’ll settle whatever agreed for me. When he told me his difficulties, my eyes teared. What an intellectual. How much he infused as new ideas? We need to build a temple for producing ‘Nenjil Oor Alayam’ movie. How many can be counted now, who were raised by him? His knowledge and experience became the foundation step for others. But, foundation is invisible.”
When I was leaving, the elder told me, “As an advance for this movie, I won’t give you cash. But, I’ll give you as an item. Come to the office tomorrow.”
As I’m used to his style of suspense, I left him.”
From Sridhar’s Memoirs
Chithamoor Vijayaragavalu Sridharakrishnan aka Sridhar (1933-2008) was one of the trendy script writer-director and producer of movies from 1950s to 1970s. He did introduce quite a number of stars, including Jayalalitha to the Tamil movies in 1965. Alternating between comedy and tragedy genres, Sridhar was also interested in expanding his horizons to the Hindi movies; some became big hits, a few flopped. From 1971, Lady Luck deserted Sridhar who had invested in his Hindi movies, Duniya Kya Jaane [What does the World know?] starring Nasir Hussain and Gehri Chaal [Deep Trap] and starring Amitabh Bachchan – Hema Malini pair. An experimental Tamil movie Alaigal introducing Kannada actor Vishnuvardhan (1950-2009) to Tamil screen as well as call sheet problems Sridhar had with Sivaji Ganesan in developing the Hero -72 movie also added to Sridhar’s financial worries.
Now, let us follow Sridhar’s description of what transpired between MGR and him, as recorded by Ravindar. Rather than paraphrasing, I translate Sridhar’s version directly. Because, in Sridhar’s words the story gains authenticity. [Isn’t he a great story teller?] Not only that, the story also shows how much MGR’s philanthropic nature was appreciated by non-Tamil movie personalities like Hindi actor Rajendrakumar, as well as how much Sridhar appreciated the worthy suggestion from him and his gratitude to MGR. Previously, in part 18, I had partially mentioned this, while reviewing a biography on MGR by S. Veeravalli [see, https://sangam.org/mgr-remembered-part-18/]
Excerpts from Sridhar’s memoirs in translation, follows:
“Hindi actor Rajendra Kumar is a close friend of mine. Whenever he comes to Chennai, he will visit my house, have meal and discuss projects. This time when he visited Chennai, he inquired about the status of Chitralaya.
The Hindi Hero-72 [movie] offered me little economic relief, though I’m not out of the woods yet’, I told him.
‘What happened to the Tamil Hero-72?’
‘However I tried, Sivaji and his brother Shanmugam are not giving me call sheets. As such, this movie is still hanging uncomfortably.’
Rajendra Kumar listened seriously, and after being silent for a while, advised me, ‘Why Sridhar? Why don’t you make a movie with MGR?’
I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t even respond promptly. He persisted, ‘I feel that my suggestion is the best route, to solve your problem.’
With restraint, I replied, ‘I do understand your concern about the problems facing me. But, it may not be feasible practically.’
‘Why? Will MGR not give a call sheet to you?’
‘It’s not that. Already I had a movie arrangement with MGR. We shot few scenes. Then, it had to be stopped due to MGR’s non-support. Then, I had to change the story plot and made a movie with Sivaji. This also MGR knows. In this situation…’
‘Sridhar! Your thinking that MGR will not support you now, remembering past events, may be incorrect.’
‘What you say may be correct. But, still I have to solve an issue. Suppose if MGR gives me call sheet, what will Sivaji think? ‘Oho’- while our movie is still dangling half way, Sridhar had gone to MGR’ Sivaji may misunderstand. Or else, even MGR may tell, ‘First you finish your Sivaji movie, and then come to me.’
Rajendrakumar never accepted my reasoning or logic. He said, ‘Sridhar, don’t worry yourself and be reluctant. Please approach MGR. To solve all your problems, this is the correct step.’
‘Isn’t it a big risk?’
‘Of course, it’s a risk. Take this risk valiantly.’
Eventually, I decided to accept Rajendrakumar’s suggestion. Even before this, on one or two occasions when I met MGR I remember what he had told me. ‘We need to make a movie; even the one which was begun earlier had to be stopped.’ I wondered whether he had told that for simple courtesy. Nevertheless, I had decided that I need to approach MGR, despite criticism by others. However, I retained a reluctance. Rather than approaching him directly, I expressed my wish to a friend named Kanniah.
The director P. Vasu, who directed movies like ‘Sinna Thambi’, was the son of Peethambaram, who was MGR’s make up man. Kanniah passed my wish to Vasu, and through Peethambaram it reached MGR. MGR’s response also returned via Kanniah. In it, I recognized MGR’s greatness. The reply was,
‘I’m willing to act in Sridhar’s movie. We need to talk on this. Our meeting should neither be at Sridhar’s house nor at my house. Let’s choose a common friend’s place. If it’s Nambiar’s house, I’m ready.’
Hearing this, I was so appreciative and felt [his] kindness. It’s not good if MGR came to my house. Similarly, if I go to his house, others would gyp that I had gone to his house to fall on his feet. He had felt that I shouldn’t suffer that disgrace. So, he sent the message of meeting at a common friend’s house.
I replied to Kanniah. ‘It’s my obligation to meet MGR. I don’t feel any reluctance or discomfort on this. I had felt his kind heart. So, please tell him that I’ll go and meet him at his thottam [i.e., MGR’s Ramavaram house].
I got the message to come to thottam, the next day morning. At Ramawaram, there was amazing welcome with foods. I told him, ‘I’m so proud to make a movie with you’. MGR replied, ‘I’m also pleased to work with you’. Then, I told, ‘I wish to talk a few items freely’. He replied with his sweet smile, ‘Of course, do tell me.’
‘You should know that I have been involved with a movie with Sivaji, and it’s hanging in balance. Whatever the delay is, some day I’ll complete it and release it. But, the financial circumstances of Chitralaya [Sridhar’s company] won’t permit us to wait that long. If I receive your complete support for this proposal, I have confidence that I’ll be able to stand up now.’
‘Understood. Anything else?’
‘I have something more.’, I said. I opened my heart to MGR. ‘Those who were jealous of me earlier, are enjoying my pathetic plight now. Suppose, if I joined hands with you now, they will worry that I’ll recover my status. Therefore, they may indulge in spreading rumors to split us. As such, my request is, whatever you hear about me from other sources, please do not believe them. You should ask me for explanation.’
‘Srdhar, you need not worry a bit on this. How many days you need call sheet, I’ll give preference to you first. Somehow, I’ll complete your movie within three months. Get rid of your worry, and attend to related business.’
We finished our breakfast, and I was about to leave. MGR stopped me saying, ‘Wait a minute.’ He directed his assistant to prepare a letter and after placing his signature in it, handed it to me. After reading it, I was mesmerized. What did MGR write in it?
‘I give consent to Sridhar to act in his movie. I’ll give preference to it, and complete it within three months.’
Nervously with appreciation, in soft voice I blurted, ‘Isn’t your word enough? Do you have to write and give me with your signature?’
With his typical smile, MGR explained. ‘Sridhar, this is NOT for you. It’s for financiers. This is a big budget movie. Whether you have enough money is doubtful. You shouldn’t worry unnecessarily. If you show this letter, any financier will give you advance sum.’
Once I heard this explanation, I couldn’t stabilize myself. My eyes teared.
I had gone to him and was well satisfied that he is acting in my movie. Then, I experienced his sympathy that he had gone beyond my expectations to help me in other different angles. Many know about MGR’s philanthropy. Beyond that, this is an example of his helping attitude to those who work in movie industry. He did it subtly as a business step, while not being in an overtly philanthropy move. By this, he helped me to stand up with self respect.”
A few (like poet Kannadasan and comedian J.P. Chandrababu) had the courage to write nastily about MGR pulling their legs when they attempted to produce movies on their own. In contrast to this, Sridhar’s experience with MGR was all positive. Why this had to be so? It may be interpreted that, MGR liked those (1) who had sincerity of purpose in life, and (2) who trusted him. With Kannadasan, he did make an exception, in deference to Kannadasan’s prodigious talent. In Part 54 of this series [see, MGR Remembered – Part 54 – Ilankai Tamil Sangam] I had already provided details from Sridhar’s memoirs about how MGR magnanimity in approving Kannadasan’s lyrics for the ‘Urimai Kural’ movie, despite the reluctance of Sridhar and movie distributors. But, Chandrababu’s erratic life style and over-indulging egoism was a turn off for MGR. His conflict with MGR had been aptly described by script writer Aroordhas. Kannadasan also had his share of egoism, but it was tempered with his self-deprecating mannerism. Even in his political career since 1973, MGR had received those DMK members who had severely rebuked him publicly, into his party. The two Muthus – Madurai S. Muthu (1915-1984) and Ms Satyavani Muthu (1923-1999), and V.R. Nedunchezhiyan are good examples.
Aroordhas: Naan Mugam Paartha Cinema Kannadigal, Kalaignan Pathippagam, Chennai, 2002, pp. 47-48, 184-201.
Chandramouli : Thirumpi Parkiren – Director Sridhar, Arunthathi Nilayam, Chennai, 2002, pp. 323-360.
Kannan: MGR – A Life, Penguin Random House, India, Gurgaon, Haryana, 2017.
Kannadasan: Vanavaasam (2nd vol. of autobiography), 5th ed., Vanathi Pathipagam, Chennai, 1991, pp. 128-129, 132-133.
Anthony Lukas: The Congress Party dominates India and Kamaraj dominates the Congress Party ‘Political Python of India’, New York Times, Feb.20, 1966.
Karunanidhi: Nenjukku Neethi autobiography, vol.2, Thirumagal Nilayam, Chennai, 1987, ch. 52 to 55, pp. 376 – 403. (in Tamil).
Muthukumar: Vaadhyar: MGR Vazhkkai, Kizhakku Pathippgam, Chennai, 2009. (in Tamil)
Sanjit Narwekar (Ed): Directory of Indian Film Makers and Films, Greenwood Press, Westport, CT, 1994, p. 317.
Ravindar: Pon Mana Chemmal MGR, Vijaya Publications, Chennai, 2009. Pp. 110 – 112.