Notes on the released Final Two Movies
by Sachi Sri Kantha, November 9, 2023
About the contents in Part 72 of this series, pal and fellow MGR biographer R. Kannan on Sept 3rd sent me the following comments.
“Thank you for part 72. You have pulled together the strands of that momentous period. Even AIADMK men do not remember the first six legislators who switched to MGR; hence, it is interesting information. The AIADMK employed several propaganda tools. The songs from MGR films are only one of those. Exclusive propaganda songs such as ‘Vaasalil rettai ilai kolam podungal‘ were also used. But MGR remained the prominent campaigner and the major crowd-puller. MGR’s switch to support Morarji Desai and later to Charan Singh (which I assume will be covered in the next part) was driven by his belief in non-confrontation with the Centre. After seeing what a strong Centre did to Karunanidhi, MGR steered away from confronting Delhi for as long as possible.”
My response to Kannan’s thoughts, sent the following day was,
“ I very much appreciate your thoughtful comments about part 72. I do agree with all your points. But, to reach Charan Singh’s prime minister period in 1979, it may take a few more chapters.
As you had superbly covered MGR’s Chief Minister phase, from 1977 to 1987, I plan to touch mostly on themes which you haven’t covered much – such as Eelam issue, as well as 1980 and 1984 election statistics, MGR’s ill health, and last but not the least his two final movies – Sridhar’s ‘Meenava Nanban‘ and the ‘Maduraiyai Meeta Sundara Pandiyan’. Other than passing mention about Jayalalitha in his movies in the previous chapters, I have yet to touch about her conflicting/disruptive role within the party.”
Why an enforced delay in MGR taking the Chief Minister oath?
Two sources disprove Karunanidhi’s ‘dig’ at MGR, that the two weeks delay in MGR taking the Chief Minister’s oath until June 30, 1977, was due to the pernicious influence of ‘Swamis, Hindu Mutts (monastery) and astrology’. In reality, this delay was due to MGR’s strong conviction that the movie producers and distributors who had risked in signing him for his final movies should NOT suffer due to the preferential political decision he had to make. Though the State Assembly election results were favorable to his party, MGR was too concerned about his prior commitments (few were made in 1974) to his movie producers, made before the elections.
Penultimate Movie – Sridhar’s ‘Meenava Nanban’ [A Pal of Fishermen]
Details offered by producer-director C.V. Sridhar (1933-2008) relating to two movies (‘Anna Nee En Theivam’ and ‘Meenava Nanban’) in which he was involved in producing and directing MGR are presented in translation below.
“While thinking about the next movie, financier named Mathan and Sadaiappa Chettiar approached me. ‘We three can become partners and make an MGR movie.’ I agreed. MGR, not only gave consent, but told ‘I don’t want to listen the story. Just describe me the character I’ve to play, before the day of the shooting; that’s enough’.
At the same time, Arumugam of Jay Ar movies approached me and requested enthusiastically that I should direct the MGR movie he is producing. I named that movie, ‘Anna – Nee En Theivam’ (Anna – You are my God). MGR had a liking to that name, and told ‘We need to produce this movie grandly’. Though this movie was developing strongly, it had to stop. The reason: an accident to me. One night, I slipped and fell down face forwards while coming out of bath room. An iron wire damaged my left eye, and eyeball had bulged out…Two months were needed for my recovery. Following that, I was directing busily both movies: ‘Anna Nee En Theivam’ featuring MGR, Latha and Sangita, as well as ‘Meenava Nanban’ starrign MGR, Latha, Vennira Aadai Nirmala.
For a few shots for the ‘Meenava Nanban’ movie, we had chosen Manipal. Two days ahead, we had gone there. Shooting scheduled for 20 days. But, while on the first day of shooting, Sadaiappa Chettiar had a heat attack. We had to admit Chettiar at the Kasturiba Medical Center, and informed his family in Chennai by phone. His son arrived. MGR also had arrived. I consulted MGR whether we continue to shooting or delay; we opted to visit Chettiar in the morning and evening, while continuing the shooting. I provided financial details on shooting to Chettiar’s son. Chettiar was also pleased that shooting was progressing as scheduled previously….
Simultaneously, shooting for ‘Anna Nee En Theivam’ was also being continued. We went to Merkara [Karnataka] for out-door location shooting. We held shooting for 4-5 days. In between, Latha’s dance recital was held in Bangalore, and as MGR presided that function, both left. The next day – the announcement for Tamil Nadu election came. To look after the Legislative Assembly election related work, MGR left for Chennai, directly from Bangalore. Because of that, we couldn’t continue the shooting and all ‘packed up’ and returned to Chennai.
Only climax scene was needed for completion of the ‘Meenava Nanban’ movie; ‘Anna Nee En Theivam’ shooting had progressed only 3,000 to 4,000 feet. Work for both movies stopped abruptly. MGR was active in election campaign all over Tamil Nadu constituencies. We were excited about this in one angle, but were worried ‘Suppose he wins the election and become the Chief Minister, what will be the plight of our movies?’
Eventually, MGR’s party was voted into power. And the day was fixed for MGR assuming the chief minister position. Ten days before that, MGR called me for a meeting. I met him guessing that he has a plan to complete the movie shootings which had been stopped abruptly. He asked, ‘How many days are needed for shooting to complete the ‘Meenava Nanban’? ‘Only two days are sufficient, I replied. He allotted dates immediately for this.
As per my planned climax, MGR had to chase Nambiar in the violent sea. Accordingly we had designed a set in the studio. I had also arranged the instruments to create the multiple effects of thunder, lightning, storm and rain on the day of the shooting. After MGR arrived, he asked about the scene sequence. I did explain and told him, ‘I’d prefer to omit the rain’. He asked, ‘why, why?’ I responded: “In a week, you will become the Chief Minister. Suppose, you suffer from cold and fever due to exposure to rain? Because of that, let’s shoot the ‘chase’ and ‘fight’. Rain to be avoided. If needed, let’s stop with storm, thunder and lightning.”
But, MGR wouldn’t agree. ‘Nothing will happen to me. Don’t be scared. Rain should be there. Then only, it becomes natural, and the effect will increase’. We took the climax scene, according to this arrangement. The movie was completed and released [on August 14, 1977]. MGR’s success in the election and he becoming the Chief Minister – both helped for the movie’s box office.
MGR was also prepared to complete the shootings of ‘Anna Nee En Theivam’ movie. But, producers couldn’t arrange for money so quickly. Later, these completed ‘shots’ were incorporated by K. Bhagyaraj, in his movie ‘Avasara Police 100’.” This Bhagyaraj movie was released posthumously, on Sept 17, 1990.
The final page of Sridhar’s memoirs contain the following appreciative sentiments of Sridhar to MGR.
“On the final day of the ‘Meenava Nanban’ shooting, when I wished MGR for his diligence in cooperating to the completion of the movie, he quipped ‘You should definitely attend the inauguration ceremony’. I replied, ‘Definitely I’ll come. It will be a historical event, isn’t it? Even though, I cannot be near to you like now, I’ll be there in a corner.’ MGR’s response was: ‘You had committed yourself, isn’t it. I’ll make sure.’
When I went to the inauguration ceremony, I was surprised. He had arranged for me to be seated in the row with VVIPs. MGR entered. He had a look at the faces of VVIPs sitting there. When he checked me, I nodded with the message ‘See, I’ve come now.’ His retaliatory smile showed me, ‘See, I’ve arranged for you to be seated appropriately.’ That smile also told me the satisfaction he had derived in keeping his word to a pal, despite all the time conflicts”.
Meenava Nanban was released on Aug 14, 1977 – almost 6 weeks after MGR had become the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, and turned out to be a box office hit.
Final Movie – Panthulu’s ‘Maduraiyai Meeta Sundara Pandiyan’[King Sundara Pandiyan who reclaimed Madurai]
The original story plot for the movie was based on renowned and prolific Tamil novelist Akilan’s (1922-1988) historical novel ‘Kayal Vizhi’[Carp-eyed], referring to the Pandyan princess. Pandya dynasty had ‘fish’ as its emblem. The story was set in a 12th century conflict between the two warring Tamil dynasties – Chola empire and the Pandiyas.
Few background details about the originator of MGR’s final movie, is not out of place here. Budaguru Ramakrishnaiah Panthulu (1910-1974), though 7 years senior to MGR, entered the South Indian movie industry with him simultaneously, first as an actor in Kannada language movies and drifted to Tamil movies as an actor in 1946. He gradually elevated his status as a producer and director in 1950s. For his earlier Tamil productions, Panthulu worked productively with Sivaji Ganesan, culminating in a biopic of a regional Tamil hero of 18th century Veera Pandiya Kattabomman (1959), who fought against the British imperialists. Subsequently, as his grandiose productions failed to ring the till boxes with Sivaji Ganesan in movies such as Kappal Ootiya Thamilzan (1961) – a biopic on the 20th century Tamil freedom fighter and Karnan (1964),a heroic character in the Mahabharatha epic. Panthulu’s split with Sivaji Ganesan was attributed to multiple causes, including a silly nit-picking demand made by the actor, on who should be used for playback singing for his voice- T.M. Soundararajan or Sirkazhi Govindarajan. While producer Panthulu and music director G. Ramanathan preferred Govindarajan, Sivaji Ganesan had opted for Soundararajan.
Panthulu shifted his camp to MGR’s side and produced the first MGR – Jayalalitha pairing in the Ayirathil Oruvan (One in a Thousand, 1965) – swashbuckler genre movie. This turned out to be a grand financial success. Subsequently, Panthulu produced three more movies, with MGR – Nadodi (Vagabond, 1966), Rahasya Police 115 (Secret Police 115, 1968) of spy film genre, Thedivantha Maapillai (The voluntary bridegroom, 1970). Among these three, the movie with MGR playing the role of a secret service agent was a box office hit, while other two movies Nadodi and Thedivantha Maapillai had moderate theatrical runs in their releases.
Why MGR picked up Panthulu as the main producer for this Tamil historical yarn in 1970s? The recognized producers who had specialized in such genre had died in 1960s; M. Somasundaram (Jupiter Pictures), T.R. Sundaram (Modern Theatres) and S.S. Vasan (Gemini). Other reputable producers like Meiyappa Chettiar (AVM), M.M.A. Sinnappa Devar (Devar Films) and T.R. Rammanna (R.R. Pictures) were still alive, but their specialties were of different taste. Only B.R. Panthulu remained, having a track record in producing historical biopics Veera Pandiya Kattabomman and Kappal Ootiya Thamizan with Sivaji Ganesan. MGR’s previous movie with Panthulu was completed, while he was in the DMK party. Prevailing political occasion in 1974 demanded that after MGR had formed a breakaway party from the DMK in late 1972, he badly needed a propaganda movie, to promote his claim as the patron of Tamil heritage, in rivalry against Karunanidhi, who had thrown him out from the DMK. His previous collaboration with Karunanidhi on producing a Tamil historial yarn (Kanchi Thalaivan, 1963) had failed in box office, due to political interference from the Censor Board, when Congress Party was ruling the state.
Now, I reproduce the details provided in MGR’s writing assistant Ravindar. “There was a heart-rending incident on the first day of shooting of ‘Maduraiyai Meeta Sundara Pandiyan’. [Note by Sachi: This was in 1974.] MGR was in his make-up room. Panthulu entered the room, after having a word with chief costumer M.G. Naidu. Usually, when Panthulu enters, MGR would stand up. While preventing MGR from standing up, Panthulu told him ‘Thamby, I came to work with you. Without any difficulty and loss, had made three movies. This is my fourth movie. My ideal movie. I will die after watching it’s success. You should help me, in this effort.’ [Note by Sachi: It should have been the 5th movie from 1965, as I had counted earlier, I’m not sure, whether Panthulu made a slip, or Ravindar had slipped, on the number of movies MGR collaborated with Panthulu.] Immediately, MGR got up from his make up chair, and embraced Mr. Panthulu and told, ‘Why you have to say such ill-omen words?’
Panthulu responded: ‘Whatever, my mind tells it. I will not be alive for long.’
MGR’s reaction was ‘No – No. You have to live long. Do produce many movies, as you wish. I’ll help, within my ability. For this movie, if you tell, how many days are needed, and on what days. I’ll abandon my other shootings, and also party work, and complete this.’
[One could see] tears in the eyes of both. Panthulu repeated ‘Whether this becomes my last movie, it should be grand.’ MGR sent him off with the words ‘HE is the one, who decides which should be the last movie. Please attend to the details of the shots. I’ll be there quickly.’
To finish the movie quickly, Panthulu went to meet his financiers; but only his corpse returned from Bangalore. [Note by Sachi: Panthulu died on Oct 8, 1974.] Following Banthulu’s death, MGR called Chitra Krishnaswamy and told ‘You are Mr. Panthulu’s dearest pal. I will finish this movie. How he had designed to complete this movie, I’ll do so promptly. To complete this task, please arrange a producer. And Krishnaswamy did so.
MGR told ‘As a mark of respect to Mr. Panthulu, I’ll take as payment only half of what was previously arranged. Mr. Panthulu was planning to direct. Now, he’s not here. As such, I’ll direct the movie. For this job, I don’t need remuneration….Due to political issues that intervened, MGR had the assistance of director K. Sankar.
Movie was finished. The election was finished too. MGR was chosen as the chief minister. But he postponed the oath taking function, to complete the dubbing routines of the final two movies. Once the final dubbing was over, MGR picked up the microphone to touch his eyes. He bent down to kiss the ground of Vauhini dubbing theater. When he came out, it was 11 pm, and there were many gathered with garlands, as well as police security details. MGR asked, ‘Is this garland for the completion of my movie life, or for the initiation of my political rule tomorrow?’
All were puzzled for a while. MGR continued, “I will answer my question. I entered the cinema field, with lot of hardship. But, my entry in politics is different. I wanted to fulfil a pledge. Some had thought that, because power was in their hands, they could destroy others. But, I felt that I could help and respect others. I entered the political ring with this vow. Now, I’ve succeeded. In my cinema career, I had played the role of kings and even emperor (Chakravarthi). What I assume tomorrow will be merely a Minister’s role. Compared to Raja, a minister is a degree below…Even if I become a minister tomorrow, this MGR will be MGR. To achieve this rank, I’m thankful to all of you. Thanks and greetings.”
Popular reception in theatrical collection for this movie, released on Jan 14, 1978 (six months after MGR had become the Chief Minister), was below expectations, by the yardstick of MGR movies. It’s only selling point was – the completed final movie of MGR. Was MGR unaware that costume dramas on historical plots, whether based on real history or fiction as Tamil movie genre had become passe, since the beginning of 1960s? His previous attempts to resurrect the genre in 1960s such as Kanchi Thalaivan (1963) and Arasa Kattalai (1967) – both in black and white – were scored as financial flops. However, his own production Adimai Penn (1969), in color, achieved success. This might have tempted MGR to repeat the effort. Change of political situation in the state, delay in wrapping up the movie quickly due to MGR’s political commitments and finally the questionable option to release the movie six months after he had been in the Chief Minister’s chair, contributed to labeling the movie as ‘a flop’. Had Sundara Pandiyan movie been released five months ahead, or simultaneously with Sridhar’s ‘Meenava Nanban’ in Aug 1977, it could have pulled the audience better.
The Ananda Vikatan weekly, in reviewing Sundara Pandiyan movie scored only 50.5/100. In a calibrated scale for 10 components of the movie, the review team ranked the performances as follows:
- Direction: MGR (5/10)
- Acting (3.5/10)
- Story: Akilan (5.5/10)
- Movie script: P. Neelakantan (2.5/10)
- Dialogue: P. Neelakantan (3.5/10)
- Camera: A. Sanmugam (5/10)
- Editing: Sundaram (6/10)
- Music: M.S.Viswanathan (6/10)
- Production: Soliswar Combines (7/10)
- Color: Gemini color lab (6.5/10)
TOTAL = 50.5/100
Among the critical thoughts on the movie, were the following notes: [camera man] As the story plot was set in the 12th century, appearance of electric bulbs in the scenes should have been prevented. Even if they were allowed, they should not have been lighted, and shown simply as ‘decorative stands’ for candles. [script writer: Neelakantan] ‘You’ve taken a new role, from that of your traditional director role. For the fans, written dialogue of Anna-Thambi [elder bro – younger bro] may listen to the ears as honey. But, if in excess…
Why did MGR chose to have Sundara Pandiyan movie tagged as his career’s swan song movie? Apart from the reason cited above that, MGR wanted to complete the pledge he had given to his senior colleague B.R. Panthulu, I suggest two other reasons, not divulged by MGR himself. The first – Sundara Pandiyan movie was aimed at Karunanidhi (a pal turned political foe) as a political arrow, to blunt latter’s campaign that ‘MGR was a Keralite, thus his pretense as a Tamil leader was a phony act’. By tackling a historical conflict between the two warring dynasties in the screen, MGR wanted to project the image that he was indeed a Tamil hero. Secondly, MGR chose a wider canvas to express farewell and thanks for his old pros who had collaborated with him since 1940s – seven actors (M.N. Nambiar, P.S. Veerappa, S.V. Subbiah, S.V. Sahasranamam, M.K. Mustafa, V.S. Raghavan and C.T. Rajakantam). Two directors (P. Neelakantan and K. Sankar) and his personal make up artist M. Peethambara had collaborated with MGR for a long time. Playback singer T.M. Soundararajan also deserves to be in this list, because he was first hired to offer his voice (an uncredited labor!) to MGR’s Manthiri Kumari (1950) movie.
It is somewhat a truism that for quite many of the ranking movie stars (Charlie Chaplin, Katherine Hepburn, Laurence Olivier, Jimmy Stewart, Ingrid Bergman, M.K. Thyagaraja bhagavathar and others) their final performance in the screen doesn’t glitter, and the theatrical runs of their swansong movies turn out to be duds. Whatever the bigger expectations he had, even MGR was also no exception to this truism.
Few Inferences on MGR and Panthulu collaboration
Considering the importance of MGR’s second muse Jayalalitha (1948-2016), who played a distinct role in MGR’s party from 1982 until her death, it’s of relevance to check, what she had recorded. In a feature published in Ananda Vikatan (Aug 10. 1969), Jayalalitha had stated,
“As for my cinematic career, I’m thankful to MGR. Our first meeting itself was hilarious. Before I had acted in ‘Vennira Aadai’ (White Dress, 1965), I have been acting in Kannada language movies. At that time, Panthulu had planned to make ‘Aayirathil Oruvan’. MGR was the hero in it. It was Panthulu’s interest that I should be acting the heroine role in ‘Aayirathil Oruvan’. Softly, he had placed a word about me, to MGR. To this, MGR had responded, that he would wish to see the Kannada movie I had acted. It was decided that once MGR had watched the Kannada movie and agreed, then only it will be confirmed.
I was in the theater with them, watching the Kannada movie. The movie was over. MGR got up, looked towards Panthulu and tilted his head – meaning ‘OK’ before leaving. It was only on that day, I felt so happy…
He was gregarious in mind set. There’s humor mixed in it. In response, I would ‘fire back’. Because of this, he nicknamed me as ‘loudmouth’….
Thus, it is indicated that Panthulu was the chief who introduced Jayalalitha to MGR. Nevertheless, Jayalalitha featured only in three of the 5 movies Panthulu produced with MGR. In the Nadodi (1966) movie, MGR was paired with B. Saroja Devi and a then new face Bharathi. In the final MGR-Panthulu collaboration movie, planned in 1974, Jayalalitha was missing; MGR’s two heroines were Latha (b. 1953) and Padmapriya (? – 1997). This was because, by 1970 when MGR was producing his 3rd own movie Ulagam Suttrum Vaaliban (released in 1973), MGR had moved away from Jayalalitha by choice or Jayalalitha had distanced herself from MGR.
Though Nadodi was a run of the mill MGR movie released in 1966, one particular lyric ‘Naadu –athai naadu – naadaviddal yethu veedu’ [Homeland – aim for that land – if you ain’t, where is your home?] written by Kannadasan and sung by T.M. Soundararajan and P. Susheela, for MGR and Saroja Devi characters in the movie, was an unforgettable gem of a song. This lyric is presented nearby. The Youtube link for the song, is as follows: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O7G06-xa5VU
Tuned by maestro M.S. Viswanathan, every line of this lyric was embellished with Kannadasan’s majestic word play, infusing heroism, beginning with the first word – ‘Naadu’, which in noun form means ‘a homeland’ and in it’s verb form means ‘reach out’. Subsequent descriptions have words specific to the Eelam land, and well as the tag word ‘tiger’ and the movement’s activities in the battle field. I wrote a brief commentary about this lyric in 2000. Excerpts follow:
“The Tamil poet laureate stressed it to us, that even if our homeland is a desert, let us have boundaries with rock and mountains. There are rivers which flow into the fields, and lets be proud of our heroic traditions.
Paalai vanam enra pothum nam naadu
Paarai malai kooda nam ellai kodu
Aaru nilam painthu vizhaiyadum thottam
Veera samuthayame engal koodam
The next four lines of this lyric also shows that Kannadasan had anticipated the emergence of Tamil Tigers a decade ahead. One can call it as a poet’s flight of fancy for word play or premonition of things to follow. But, these lines glitter like gems, and need no further explanation from me.
Pasi enru varuvoorku virunthaha maarum
Pahaivar muham paarthy puliyaaha cheerum
Nilathil uyir vaiththu urimai kondaadum
Ethirthu varuvorai uramaha poodum
The poet had noted, ‘[We] will provide food those those who come with hunger; to our adversaries, we turn into tigers; [We] will cherish our dear land, and will turn enemies into fertilizers for our land.”
Ananda Vikatan: review of Muthuraiyai Meeta Sundara Pandian movie. circa 1978.
- Karunanidhi: Nenjukku Neethi [Justice to the Heart], vol. 3, Thirumagal Nilayam, Chennai, 1997, pp. 82-130.
- Ravindar: Ponmana Chemmal MGR, ch. 18, Vijaya publicaions, Chennai, 2009. Pp. 127-130.
Raviprakash and Rajah (ed). Jayalalitha wishes to be a politician. Ananda Vikatan – Pokkisham, Vikatan publications no 632, 2013. 2nd print, pp. 20-23.
Sridhar: Thirumpi Paarkiren [(I) look back], written by S. Chandramouli, Arunthathi Nilayam, Chennai, 2002, pp. 352-360.
Sachi Sri Kantha: Peering into the future. Hot Spring (London), Jan-Feb 2000, p. 32.