Chief Minister – Phase 1
by Sachi Sri Kantha, January 19, 2024
I provide below the comments received from pal and fellow MGR biographer R. Kannan on Nov. 21st about the contents in Part 73 of this series, and my response. Kannan had written,
“…thank you for part 73 of MGR-remembered [series]. Your eye for detail continues to amaze me. I am referring to you pointing out that Panthulu made five movies with MGR. I learnt much about Panthulu from the article.
Usually, one is sworn in in the next days following the results. The constitution doesn’t specify a time limit. MGR’s swearing-in was postponed by two weeks. True MGR had to shoot for Meenava Nanban and dub for Sundara Pandian. But these, even from Ravindar and Sridhar’s accounts, did not take more than a few days.
It is no secret that MGR was a believer and was also sentimental. I understand that Vidwan Lakshmanan marked the first and second swearing-in dates. But the constellation of the stars went haywire on both occasions. The first term ended in dismissal, and illness cut the second short.”
My response, to Kannan’s comments sent on the same day was as follows:
“Thanks a lot for your mail, the details therein and your appreciation. Your comments are well taken, in the spirit they are made. But, I believe there would have been quite many difficulties for MGR in wrapping up his prior commitments, and dubbing the last two movies. Though I had omitted one such issue of inclusion of a ‘dream song’ in the ‘Meenava Nanban‘ movie (once the movie was wrapped up by the director and the producer had agreed so), which was written by lyricist Muthulingam. MGR had intervened on behalf of Muthulingam, to add a new dream song ‘Thangathil muham eduthu‘, which later became the top hit song in that movie. This particular incidence, about adding the new lyric by Muthulingam to the ‘Meenava Nanban‘ movie at the insistence of MGR had been omitted by Sridhar, in his memoirs. I had presented only Sridhar’s version, in part 73.
But, recently (long after Sridhar’s death), Muthulingam had told the background story to Chitra Lakshmanan. MGR was upset that Sridhar was taking too much liberty on his munificence. You can check this Youtube link (from frame 5:05 to 8:00) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IHWkTco3xTY
Also, the health factor of exhaustion due to election campaigning for MGR, shouldn’t be discounted. I’m not at all disputing that Vidwan Lakshmanan’s influence on MGR’s decision making. Do you have any information, when did Vidwan Lakshmanan passed away?”
An old article in the ‘Filmfare’ magazine with MGR’s by-line in 1964
Recently, I picked up an old article posted in one of MGR’s fan websites, which deserves observation. It was entitled ‘My Memorable Roles’ and internal evidence suggests that this article was ‘written’ (or most probably dictated by MGR in Tamil, and translated into English). This was republished in the Filmfare magazine, as an eulogy to MGR, following his death, in Feb 1-15, 1988 issue. For those who are interested in reading it’s contents, I provide the article in a re-formatted version in pdf, and make my observations as follows:
MGR’s autobiographical memoirs appeared in weekly sequence in the Ananda Vikatan weekly, from April 1970 to October 1972. In it, he had mentioned about his early experiences and interactions with individuals in Tamil movie world from mid 1930s to 1960s. But, in many occasions he had noted about few personalities that ‘I will write more about him later in the series’ but it didn’t come to pass, as the series was abruptly stopped after his expulsion from DMK party. One may consider this 1964 article of 2,000 words as the fore-runner of his movie experiences that were expanded in his autobiographical memoirs subsequently. MGR had completed 66 movies by then (almost first half of his oeuvre, consisting of 133 movies), and provided some details about personalities and his two ‘flop movies’ (namely, Naam and Koondukili) which were MISSING in his memoirs.
Among the 66 movies he had completed by then, MGR had named 19 released movies, plus Chaaya movie – his first lead role movie in which he was ‘dropped’ half way and the movie itself was ‘finally shelved’ by the producers. Prominently, MGR had made reference to 7 of his early heroines (K. Malathi, V.N. Janaki, E.V. Saroja, Bhanumathi, B. Sarojadevi, Jamuna and Vyjayanthimala). He had also identified by name, 5 directors (Nandalal Jaswantlal, K. Ramnoth, S.M. Sriramulu Naidu, C.S. Narayanamurthi and P. Neelakantan) in gratitude. Other notable vignettes were, (1) MGR had recorded that while Balraj Sahni and Dilip Kumar played the roles later for the Hindi versions of the movies he did in Tamil – namely En Thangai (Choti Bahen, 1959) and Malai Kallan (Azaad, 1955), his Marma Yogi movie was dubbed in Hindi language with the title Ek The Raja. (2) He considers the role of poor elder brother taking care of a younger sister who had become blind in the En Thangai movie as “the best role I have ever portrayed”. (3) His goal was “to instill moral values both in my dialogue and in the interpretation of my role.”
MGR – a real hero or a phony hero?
Before I begin MGR’s political career as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, it’s opportune to introduce one of my earliest note on MGR, published 35 years ago – nine months after MGR’s death. It was a sort of my belated eulogy to MGR. This was a short item, limited to only one page in the Tamil Times (London) monthly. I reproduce excerpts of this note below.
“…Kavi Arasu Kannadasan expressed similar [heroic] sentiments in a lyric for one of MGR’s great movies – ‘Mannathi Mannan’ in mid 1950s. [Note by Sachi in 2024: this movie was released in 1960. It was the opening song ‘Achcham enpathu madamaiyada – Anjamai Dravidar udamaiyada. The Youtube link for this song sequence showing MGR lip synching, with his side-kick comedian V.R. Rajagopal nearby riding in a chariot, and Padmini traveling in a palanquin is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-nNyxg1PPf0. I provide two film grabs of this song sequence nearby.] In translation, the verses read like this:
Fear is none but cowardice- and
The symbol of Dravidas is chivalry
At six or at hundred one could die – but
Protection of homeland is the duty.
For the growing fetus in her body
A Tamil mother teaches bravery
In challenging times, to protect her face
There will rise her progeny
Many have lived and many have died – but
In the minds of masses who stay long?
Those blessed with great heroics and chivalry
Live forever in the annals of history.
In our times, it was MGR himself, by his more than 120-odd movies spanning four decades (1936-76), who instilled the ‘fighting spirit’ to the younger generation of Tamils. He was well versed in the traditional martial arts of Tamils such as horse riding, fencing, wrestling and silambam [staff fight]. Even MGR’s miraculous escape in real life, from a near fatal gun attack in 1967 seemed to infuse the sense of emulation among the young Tamils. As one journalist noted recently about MGR’s cinematic career, ‘He created the image of an action hero who used his fists more than his tongue. He showed the masses through his films the importance of fighting to help themselves’. [Far Eastern Economic Review, 4 Feb 1988]. It is a happy coincidence that the LTTE Tamil rebels who grew up watching MGR’s heroic exploits in the celluloid screen, received considerable emotional and material help from him in their struggle against their enemies….”
19 years later, I received a critical one page long email from a Sinhalese (Saman Jayanetty) residing in Australia, referring to the above my 1988 eulogy to MGR. Excerpts of this mail I provide below for its vitriol.
“2007 Jan 13
Dear Dr. Sri Kantha,
I read your article ‘Role Models for Heroism among Tamils’ on www.tamilnation.org
And found that it would be very helpful for creating Tamil ‘Heroes’ in the years to come. Being such an educated Tamil, you have done a great job for the Tamil nation by writing this article, which is a collection of some others’ poems/writings and some few words that you have created…Carry on your good work.
Needless to say the whole world is aware of the great Tamils all over the world who have excelled and are doing well in many disciplines. In my opinion, you too have demonstrated some standard in writing on Tamils, heroism, poems etc. What a talent!
I understand that you are double Doctorate Scientist too. Hope you will be able to contribute to Science in numerous ways. Given the fact that you are seemingly an MGR follower, you must be very intelligent and I am happy about that. You have shown your level of education by considering MGR actor who used his fist more than his tongue (this is from your own article, in fact), as a role model for Tamils. What great thinking! Hell to the tongue, fist will create ‘Heroes’, I think that’s the message you, as an educated adult, want to convey to the young Tamil kids. Your parents and teachers must be proud of your ideas….
Thank you for spending your valuable time (which would have spent more wisely, for instance, watching an MGR movie to get some ideas about real heroism) reading this email.”
Now, my memory had lapsed whether I did send a response to this Sinhalese correspondent. Maybe, I had simply acknowledged his email. In jest, I may note: here is a reason why I have labored for more than a decade in compiling this MGR biography. It was also for my Sinhalese readers like Saman Jayanetty. Most probably, this ardent Sinhalese nationalist was pissed off by MGR’s support to Prabhakaran’s LTTE. It was a given in Sri Lanka that those Indian politicians who voice support for the demands of Eelam Tamils have to be treated as ‘their adversaries’ by the Sinhalese. This applied even to non-Tamil Indian politicians like Indira Gandhi and George Fernandes (1930-2019). However, those Tamil politicians from Congress Party (like ex-President R. Venkataraman, Sivaji Ganesan, and P. Chidambaram) who mute their support for Eelam Tamils were/are treated as good, pragmatic politicians.
In an editorial entitled ‘Heroes’ published 20 years ago in the American Journal of Cardiology, Dr. John Cantwell presented a distinction made by recently deceased Henry Kissinger about superstars and heroes. In reviewing a book on Churchill, Kissinger had provided a comparison, as follows:
‘Superstars strive for approbation; heroes walk alone. Superstars crave consensus; heroes define themselves by the judgement of a future they see it as their task to bring about. Superstars seek success in a technique for eliciting support; heroes pursue success as the outgrowth of inner values.’
One may argue the case whether Churchill was a hero or not, and the partiality of Kissinger in choosing Churchill as a hero against Churchill’s detractors in Britain and elsewhere. But, Kissinger’s logic in distinguishing a superstar against a hero is NOT in error.
As the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu (1977-1987)
As I had indicated previously, nitty-gritty details of final decade of MGR’s life as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu has been covered in detail by biographer R. Kannan. As such, rather than following a chronological sequence, I’ll focus on particular aspects of Tamil Nadu politics, in which MGR played a distinct role until his death.
Why MGR was a hero for Tamils in the 20th century? I cite five of his major achievements in ten years, which could neither be claimed nor duplicated by either M. Karunanidhi or Jayalalitha who succeeded MGR between 1989 and 2016 – for 27 years.
Achievement 1: Recognition of Tamil literati – State’s poet laureate position to Kannadasan, Pulamaipithan and S. Muthulingam, in turns. Negotiating with Senegal’s leader and poet Leopold Senghor (1906-2001) in 1978, to hold the 5th International Tamil Research Conference in Madurai in 1980 (postponed twice, to be eventually held in January 1981). Establishing P.K. Raja Sandow Award to honor senior cinema artistes.
Achievement 2: Establishing a successful Nutritious Noon Meal Scheme at a state-wide scale in 1982, despite much criticism from economists and policy makers.
Achievement 3: Assisting Sri Lankan (Eelam) Tamil refugees, including fleeing TULF parliamentarians, since July 1983 in various routes. Significantly funding LTTE’s military campaign against the Sri Lankan government.
Achievement 4: Turning a blind eye to the designs of New Delhi policy makers, and recognizing the duplicity of RAW gumshoes in time by deflecting their anti-LTTE campaign.
Achievement 5: Opening a path for fellow movie stars to plunge in electoral politics in India and other Asian nations like Sri Lanka and Philippines. Literally dozens of movie stars followed MGR’s lead in electoral politics, but only three (MGR’s junior contemporary in Telugu cinema N.T. Rama Rao, MGR’s movie protégé Jayalalitha in India, and Joseph Estrada in Philippines) were able to reach success as the Chief Minister of a state in India or a President of a nation. Other than these three, it should be recognized that all other ‘MGR pretenders’ (including his erstwhile pal and rival Sivaji Ganesan, Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna, Shatrughan Sinha, MGR’s single-movie heroines Vyjayanthimala and Jamuna, Thesingu Rajendar, recently deceased Vijayakanth aka Vijayaraj Alagarswamy and Kamal Haasan aka Parthasarathy in India, Gamini Fonseka and Vijaya Kumaratunga in Sri Lanka) flopped badly in the political arena.
MGR’s Special Message to Tamil Nadu Public
After assuming the Chief Minister position on June 30, 1977, MGR delivered a Special Message to the Tamil Nadu public. In translation, it read:
“The Gods who keep me Alive:
With your blessing, I assume this position in Tamil Nadu with the thoughts promoted by late Anna, to offer a rule devoid of corruption, bribery by following the precepts – ‘All belong to one tribe’, ‘One Tribe and One God’, ‘All are equal, all are noble’.
In the position adorned by Honorable Omanthur Ramaswamy Reddy, scholar Rajaji and Arignar Anna, I sit with your trust.
As you had supported my deeds of following Anna’s policies in the past, with folded hands I request your kind support, while I assume this challenging position.
What needs to be noted is that, in this Special Message to the public, by design MGR had omitted mentioning the names of K. Kamaraj, M. Bhakthavatsalam and M. Karunanidhi, who had preceded him.
I provide below two periodic commentaries in entirety (a pro and a con assessments) on MGR’s performance in his first year as the Chief Minister. The pro-version (1,128 words) appeared in the Patriot (New Delhi), with the caption ‘Can MGR survive?’ It was critical of the deeds attempted by MGR’s rival and the DMK leader Karunanidhi to topple MGR. Included in two paragraphs were the actions taken by Karunanidhi following the anti-Tamil riots of August 1977 in Sri Lanka, to project himself as the ‘leader of International Tamils’ and how MGR blunted it. Unfortunately, I cannot decipher the abbreviations IPA, INTUC and CITU mentioned in this commentary.
Can MGR Survive?
Can MGR retain the Midas touch in politics too! Will he enjoy the phenomenal run of success he has had in the film world in the shifting sands of politics? These million dollar questions have been posed by his countless admirers as well as detractors since he took over as Tamilnadu Chief Minister some three months ago. If the performance of his Ministry in this brief span is any indication, the answer would seem to be an emphatic yes, says IPA.
Some political pundits have been arguing MGR’s lack of administrative experience and political grasp would bring him to grief in the discharge of his ardous duties as the State’s Chief Minister. Some cynics have been speaking of his Ministry proving no more than the proverbial nine days wonder. However, for all these prognostications, the prophets of doom have been proved wrong. Within the past three months MGR has proved that he can conduct the affairs of the Government well. He has not had a respite in the 3-month period even for a moment. There have been a number of crises too. But the AIADMK chief has met them with the aplomb and cool assurance which would be the envy of many a seasoned political veteran.
Immediately, after MGR’s assumption of power, leader of the Opposition M. Karunanidhi came out with the announcement that he would wait for six months before launching the ‘Operation Topple’. But when the events in Sri Lanka involving the Sri Lanka Tamils took place, Mr Karunanidhi conveniently forgot his promise. True, he was able to organize a massive demonstration in Madras to protest against the travails of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. It was a calculated move to extract as much political mileage as possible out of the unfortunate episode by whipping up Tamil sympathies. But MGR was not to be outsmarted.
Even before the DMK organized the demonstration, a resolution was passed in the Tamilnadu Assembly and a copy was sent to Prime Minister Morarji Desai. The resolution requested the Prime Minister to use the Centre’s influence with the Sri Lanka Government to undo the injustice to the Sri Lanka Tamils. This move not only took the wind out of Mr. Karunanidhi’s sails but also took the sting out of his criticism that MGR was indifferent to the plight of Sri Lanka Tamils.
Thus, the first round saw Mr Karunanidhi down, but not out. His nothing if not a fighter. His next chance for a major assault on the Government came when the workers of the state owned Pallavan Road Transport Corporation went on strike. The former Chief Minister grasped the chance with undisguised glee. As a matter of fact trouble had been brewing among the transport workers even earlier. The master tactician that he is, Mr Karunanidhi had little difficulty in wrestling the initiative from the INTUC and CITU. The strike saw the CPI and DMK, former enemies, ranged on the same side. The trade union affiliated to the AIADMK kept out of the strike.
Earlier, the Tamilnadu Government made some important gestures to the transport workers. It announced on its own a minimum bonus and other concessions. Emboldened by this and the all round support to the strike, the workers pitched their demands a trifle too high. They wanted interim relief at the rate of Rs 100 per month. The strike was no doubt a success with the road transport system coming to a near standstill. Here also the State Government handled the situation with remarkable tact. All schools and colleges were closd. Private buses were requisitioned to run a skeletal service while negotiations with the workers were kept going. Ultimately a settlement was arrived at by which the workers got an interim relief of Rs 27. Once again the DMK chief’s attempts to put the Government on the mat fell through.
And now, for want of a better issue to fight, the Opposition leader has threatened to launch an agitation on his demand for installing a statue of ‘Anna’, on the Anna Salai, the city’s main throughfare. The Government has firmly rejected the demand. But all the same, it is ready to consider installing a statue for the departed leader at an alternative site. It is a measure of Mr Karunanidhi’s desperation that he has had to fall back on such a trivial issue to harass the Government.
But then, the reason for Mr Karunanidhi’s anxiety to topple the MGR ministry is not far to seek. The new Chief Minister has set himself firmly against corruption. The Central theme of his speeches has been that the corruption will not go scot free. Those who have helped themselves to huge sums of money at the cost of the common man will be meted out their just deserts, declared MGR.
This unequivocal announcement plus the Prime Minister’s statement that the Sarkaria Commission would continue its work has struck terror in the DMK camp. Moreover, MGR has not confined himself to mere statements. He has already taken into custody some of the DMK big shots for alleged corrupt practices. The talk of the town is that the net is fast closing in on Mr Karunanidhi himself. Hence his desperation bordering on utter panic.
Another major development in the State has been the merger of the Makkal DMK led by former DMK general secretary, Mr Nedunchezhian, with the AIADMK. Mr Nedunchezhian left the DMK along with his colleagues Mr Rajaram and Mr S. Madhavan on the eve of the poll, protesting against the ‘dictatorial’ attitude of the party chief Mr Karunanidhi. He first formed a party called Makkal DMK. Later on the decision to merge with AIADMK, was taken at the party’s general council meeting. And Mr Nedunchezhian has been appointed chairman of the AIADMK. There is speculation here of a possible Cabinet expansion to accommodate Mr Nedunchezhian and a few other AIADMK stalwarts. While Mr Nedunchezhian has a somewhat clean image, the same cannot be said about his colleagues Rajaram and Madhavan. Many in the AIADMK feel that the entry of these ‘discredited politicians’ would do more harm than good to the party.
The State Janata Party unit is in poor shape. The party has not yet recovered from the trauma of its electoral debacle in the Assembly poll. Besides, it is finding it hard to live down its ‘North Indian’ image. The excessive enthusiasm of some Central Ministers for Hindi has not helped matters either. For instance, Mr Raj Narain’s derogatory reference to Tamil as being a ‘dasi’ of English has added insult to injury. The Tamils have not taken kindly to the remark. A new set-up with Mr S.V. Lakshmanan as the president has been knocked together. But nursing the party back to its normal health is no easy task.
[Patriot, Oct 2, 1977]
The con version of MGR’s performance as the Chief Minister appeared in the India Today magazine (May 31, 1978), with a caption ‘In just nine months as Tamil Nadu CM, MGR finds his popularity on the wane’, in almost 900 words.
In just nine months as Tamil Nadu CM, MGR finds his popularity on the wane
M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) Tamil Nadu chief minister, is an enigma even to the people of his state. The late C.N. Annadurai, founder of the DMK, said of him: “When he shows his face we get 40,000 votes, when he speaks a few words, we get 400,000 votes.” This statement was proved right in the June assembly elections when his AIADMK was voted to power and he became the first film star to head a state Government.
In the short span of nine months in office, MGR finds his popularity on the wane and the task of heading the administration more demanding than his limited skills can cope with. This realization has led him to re-enter films and shed some of his onerous governmental responsibilites by expanding his 14 member cabinet. And in the process, he has been caught in a whirlpool, largely of his own making.
The film world is reluctant to receive him back with open arms. Two of his latest films, completed just before he assumed chief ministership, contrary to popular expectations have not fared well at all. In fact, Madurai Meetta Soundrapandian (Soundrapandian who redeemed Madurai) was a total flop and Meenava Namban (Fishermen’s Friend) barely managed to scrape through. Producers are no longer willing to invest huge sums by casting him in the star role. The stage has already reached when he has to send his emissaries to scout for film assignments.
Apart from the compulsions of pecuniary rewards – on the salary of chief minister he is unable even to keep up payment of income tax arrears – MGR feels that film is the only effective medium to contain the propaganda onslaught of his arch foe and leader of the Opposition DMK, M. Karunanidhi, who, as a skilful scriptwriter, is having a whale of a time pillorying the AIADMK Government and its chief.
By expanding his Cabinet, MGR, apart from earning the odium of having the largest ever ministry in Tamil Nadu, even larger than the Rajaji government when the state included most of Andhra Pradesh and the northern districts of Kerala, has stirred a hornets nest by making most of his colleagues unhappy. If none of them protested openly, it only shows the inherent weakness of the AIADMK, which is nothing but a one man show. A disgruntled cabinet team is no asset to the chief minister, especially when he is so dependent on others to provide a smooth administration. The entry of four ministers, one of them has been a film extra, on May 7, has raised the size of the Cabinet to 18. The resultant re-allocation of portfolios could have been carried out with the minimum dislocation. But, MGR chose the occasion to reward two of his favourites, R.M. Veerappan and P. Kolandaivelu, with additional responsibilities, while four senior colleagues, including his number two in the cabinet K. Manoharan, and the two minority community members, G.R. Edmund, and K. Raja Mohammed, were deprived of some of the key portfolios held by them. Even after the cabinet expansion, MGR, who can be termed a part time chief minister, continues to be in charge of general administration, Indian administrative service officers, district revenue officers, deputy collectors, police, passport, prohibition, prevention of corruption, large scale industries and mines and minerals.
That he has not parted with any of these portfolios is a measure of lack of confidence in his cabinet colleagues. To assist them he has announced the appointment of eight parliamentary secretaries. Another innovation is the appointment of the former minister, K. Rajaram, as a sort of plenipotentiary of the AIADMK in the Janata court in New Delhi. By this appointment, MGR hopes to avoid having to go to Delhi frequently.
To any impartial observer, the entire AIADMK administration looks rather amateurish with some rare exceptions. Files put up by officials to their ministers literally get “filed” in their bureaux for the simple reason most of them are not familiar with file work. They are afraid of passing orders for fear of the chief minister, who is popularly known as “vadhyar” (teacher), and their relationship with him is like that of the teacher and his pupils.
Like the escapist Tamil films in which the ageing hero swings on creepers to scale high walls and rescues damsels in distress or jumps from a hundred metres high cliff to fight a gang of armed dacoits alone and unarmed and comes out victoriously without a scratch, an air of unreality pervades Fort Saint George which houses the Government secretariat. One Monday last month a group of top professional men called at the Chief Minister’s office to invite MGR to preside over an important function which was of great significance to the states industrial progress. First they were told the Chief Minister was too busy to receive them. When they insisted on meeting him, they were told he was spending the day at the IIT campus in South Madras. People at the IIT, when contacted, pleaded ignorance of the Chief Minister’s whereabouts. Eventually he was tracked down to a studio where MGR’s latest film Unnai Vidamatten (I Won’t Leave You) is being filmed. He was there from morning till evening even though he publicly announced that he would keep his shooting engagements for after office hours. This incident just about sums up the kind of Government activities that go on under the benign leadership of MGR. [India Today, May 31, 1978]
For those interested in Karunanidhi’s version of events described in the Patriot commentary of Oct 2, 1977, I recommend his own description in vol. 3 of his autobiography. One caveat! this was published after a lapse of two decades, and one decade following the death of MGR.
John D Cantwell: Heroes. American Journal of Cardiology, 2004; 94: 169-171.
Karunanidhi: Nenjukku Neethi [Justice to the Heart], vol. 3, Thirumagal Nilayam, Chennai, 1997, pp. 176-184.
Sachi Sri Kantha: Role models for heroism among Tamils. Tamil Times (London), Sept 1988, p. 19.