MGR’s car pulled up suddenly. He asked one of the men traveling with him in the car to get out, leaving him stranded in the middle of nowhere. The man, JP Pankaraj or JPR, one of MGR’s staunchest lieutenants who would later become the founder of several ranking educational institutions in MGR’s mother Sathyabama’s name, had – much to MGR’s dislike – referred to the DMK leader M Karunanidhi as Karunanidhi, and not by his honorific Kalaignar – an artist.
MGR had broken company with the DMK and had founded the ADMK (later AIADMK) on October 18, 1972. The ADMK’s one-point agenda was simply to isolate Kalaignar Karunanidhi, the leader of the DMK, and until January 30, 1976, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. But the agenda did not take away from the respect MGR had for his former leader.
In fact, he himself continued to address Kalaignar as ‘Andavanae’ or ‘god’ even after their 27-year friendship had ended on October 8, 1972 when, as treasurer of the DMK, MGR publicly sought accounts of DMK functionaries and those in government in meetings in Thirukazhukundram town, and later that evening in Royapettah, Chennai.
He was peeved that during the 1971 election campaign many of the financial dealings of the party were kept away from him. There were other reasons as well. Shared poverty, ambition and dreams had drawn them together as friends. Success had brought along ego, and the fallout was inevitable. Even his closest associates were caught off guard, but Chief Minister Kalaignar had been listening to the rebellious speech on a police wireless in Madurai.
Events cascaded. The DMK suspended MGR on October 10, and four days later expelled him when he refused to express regret despite Dravidian patriarch Periyar EV Ramasamy’s counsel and an olive branch from the party, with a goodwill delegation led by MP Nanjil K Manoharan.
The next months and years would see much bad blood between the two leaders. DMK organ Murasoli caricatured MGR as an old man and a buffoon on a daily basis. The ADMK was referred to as the “actor’s party”, and MGR’s following was put down as “cine glamour.” Kalaignar described the MGR administration as a “Jester Government”. Worse, MGR’s ancestry was invoked.
MGR for his part outlandishly charged that Kalaignar Karunanidhi was tainted, but almost everyone else in the DMK was clean. His charges would lead to the Sarkaria probe.
The DMK administration wanted to nip MGR’s ADMK in the bud. It unleashed its police on ADMK cadres, slapped cases on party functionaries and MGR himself faced some nine defamation cases.
MGR himself repaid in kind when the tables were turned. His administration lost no opportunity to foist charges, litigation, raids, arrests and confinement on Kalaignar Karunanidhi and his associates. He appeared more vengeful in his third and last term, when he abolished the Legislative Council. It was a preemptive strike, for Kalaignar was to take over as the Leader of the Opposition in the upper house.
In December 1986, ten DMK MLAs were jailed and later disqualified for an agitation against Hindi as the official language. In the Opposition now, Kalaignar Karunanidhi would at every turn embarrass and expose the MGR administration as inept, kowtowing to the Centre and famously corrupt. MGR himself would set up two commissions to probe these charges of corruption, and the Centre would oblige Kalaignar Karunanidhi – an ally then – by naming the Ray Commission.
Nevertheless, despite all this recrimination and enmity, the two leaders showed much respect, decorum and bonhomie in the Legislative Assembly.
And on 24 December 1987 when MGR breathed his last, Kalaignar Karunanidhi’s condolence message was gracious, and revealed the depth of their friendship amidst the political enmity:
“I am overcome with shock and melancholy on hearing that my dear friend Dr MGR has passed away. Our friendship blossomed in 1945 with Jupiter Pictures’ Rajakumari, directed by A.S.A. Samy, in which he starred as the hero and I was the scriptwriter. The memories of us staying in Coimbatore in the same house, exchanging views on politics and society, working together in the film world—our friendship maturing to the point of us serving in the same movement—cannot be forgotten and will forever remain green. Our comradeship in the film world would grow strong through our association in several films such as Abhimanyu, Marudhanaatu Ilavarasi, Mandhirikumari, Naam, Malaikallan, Kanchi Thalaivan, Engal Thangam, Pudhumaipithan and Arasilangkumari. With that same sense of friendship, we were inseparable and as one in politics, up to 1972. We remained extremely friendly even in the aftermath of the changed political circumstances and through our differences.
“[MGR] reigned as the unparalleled hero of Tamilagam’s (Tamil Nadu) film world. He created a new era in the film arena. Few had made the film world theirs as he did and conquered it the way he did. He has the honour of making his party, the ADMK he founded in 1972, rise to power in a short span of time. There is none who would not praise his resolute will to serve tirelessly—even through his two-three years of illness—during the ten years he served as Chief Minister. By his ceaseless hard work and not giving up, he shone, winning people’s affection.”
Before that, when MGR took seriously ill in October 1984, Kalaignar Karunanidhi in an open letter titled ‘I Too Am Offering Prayers’ said:
My dear friend!
The Governor has appealed for prayers for you and your health!
Those belonging to different beliefs are offering prayers for you to get well and regain your former health!
Your party men – who look up to your leadership, frontline leaders – are going to various temples offering prayers to see you back like before!
I have been raised even from my early years without such belief, having followed Periyar’s and Anna’s path. Therefore I am someone who considers that begging with open arms before the gods for a boon is fruitless. That is my ideal!
Just because that is my faith, I would not fault the prayers that others are carrying out for you.
If the faith in their prayers were to bear fruit – if you were to get well and walk like before – the happiness that I would experience will not be any less to the ones offering prayers...
I had not offered prayers; nor did I circumambulate the concentric rectangular enclosures or prakarams. Even now I have not engaged in such divine prayer. Periyar and Anna have raised me so.
But my sweet friend! Let those prayers that are carried out for you bear fruit!
My affectionate old time friend! Come back with your smiling face to see us!
We have no permission to see you!
It does not matter; it is enough if you get well and come to see us!
The word “prarthanai” not only has the meaning “thuthi” or worship but also the meaning “appeal”.
In that sense if needed I too will pray; amidst the differences to carry out warm conversations wish you a speedy recovery! Like the fog that disperses with the rays of the sun, let your illness disperse!
Ever your friend
The two had met on the sets of Rajakumari (Princess, 1946). MGR had been introduced to the Dravidian movement and to CN Annadurai (Anna) by stage artist DV Narayanaswamy in 1944. However, the movement was in its early stages and its future remained uncertain in an ubiquitous Congress era.
MGR, who was to have played the lead in Anna’s play, had backed off at the last minute fearing that an association with the radical Dravidian movement might jeopardize his budding film career. He would not have guessed that he would one day become its torchbearer and a leader. The man who should be credited for converting him is Kalaignar Karunanidhi, only 22 years old, seven years younger than him.
A friendship grew between the gifted scriptwriter yet to be Kalaignar, and the dashingly handsome hero MGR. They would visit each other and would be unfailingly fed by the other’s mother. At one point, MGR and Kalaignar would live under the same roof sharing the twelve rupee rent. Kalaignar would introduce Anna’s works to MGR, a Congress man at heart, who reciprocated by introducing Kalaignar to Gandhi’s works.
Kalaignar recalled MGR’s conversion:
My contact and friendship with MGR, a Gandhi devotee, who wore homespun [cloth] and a necklace made of lotus seeds began then. I would give Anna’s books to him, while he gave me Gandhi’s. We would frequently engage in debates. The result was that he became part of the Kazhagam.
In his missive, the DMK patriarch recalled their more than four-decade-long friendship, them sharing a small flat in Coimbatore, their horse-cart ride around the town for two annas, and how they ate and hung out together. Kalaignar also movingly noted how MGR had carried him through the surging crowd at Egmore railway station in Madras, where he arrived after serving a six-month sentence for leading the party’s historic 1953 Kallakudi agitation, and how MGR had lost his expensive watch in the process. The potent and sentimental missive said the last fifteen years of discord could not erase their earlier friendship of twenty-seven years.
In five years, the friendship grew so thick that Kalaignar Karunanidhi, as he came to be known from 1948, would insist on MGR as the hero in Mandhirikumari and MGR would repay this debt, demanding that the barely 26-year-old Karunanidhi be hired as the scriptwriter for Marudha Naatu Ilavarasi. The MGR brothers (MG Chakrapani was MGR’s sole elder brother) would bring Kalaignar to Chennai for Marudha Naatu Ilavarasi. Kalaignar would write the story during the nights and meet at MGR’s place in the mornings for discussions. Kalaignar would play the devil’s advocate, arguing against the sequence and rationale of his own storyline. The brothers found this brave, unique and generous on the part of Kalaignar.
After they would agree on the ‘story so far’, Kalaignar would go back to writing. This is how Marudha Naatu Ilavarasi’s story was sculpted in a record one week.
Later, MGR and Kalaignar would float Mekala Pictures which would produce Naam. Naam’s failure would see MGR leaving the company. However, they would be associated with other films which would bring them success and fame together.
Mandhirikumari’s extraordinary success secured MGR his place as a hero and Kalaignar Karunanidhi as the hottest scriptwriter. The following year, MGR formally associated himself with the DMK, courtesy Kalaignar Karunanidhi. The relationship had grown so much that Kalaignar’s children called MGR periyappa (uncle, father’s older brother). The DMK was a large family with the party head leading the siblings.
The following year, Kalaignar would bestow on MGR the moniker Puratchi Nadigar or revolutionary actor. His Murasoli would sing paeans of praise for MGR on a daily basis, playing no small role in building an image for MGR.
In 1969, Anna’s death would bring to the fore the question of succession. MGR would stand by Kalaignar. Kalaignar would become Chief Minister and later the party head. In turn, Kalaignar saw to it that MGR got the party’s third senior-most post – treasurer.
In the 1971 elections, Kalaignar’s strategic decision to advance the Legislative Assembly elections by a year to coincide with the parliamentary elections won rich dividends. But MGR’s campaign had been equally important. The relationship was still strong enough for MGR to openly exhort MK Stalin to give up his dalliance with the stage (he had staged the play Murase Muzhangu 40 times as part of the election campaign). “I, periyappa, am telling you and you should heed. Dad is very worried. You should stop staging plays and concentrate on your studies.”
However, all this was to change. The same Kalaignar who wished for his son Stalin to give up theatre would be supportive of his eldest son MK Muthu’s film ambitions. This time, it was MGR’s turn to be concerned. He saw Muthu as a competitor sponsored by his father. And Engal Thangam (Our Gold, 1970) would be the last movie that the two leaders collaborated in. Kalaignar’s nephew Maran had produced the movie.
MGR did not take a fee and had prevailed on his screen heroine Jayalalithaa to do the same.
While writing the song ‘Naan alavodu rasippavan’ for the movie, poet Vaali struggled for a matching second line. Kalaignar, instinctively suggested, ‘Edhayum alavindri koduppavan’, clearly displaying what he thought of MGR.
Although it appeared to be the apogee of their cooperation, the two had some “small cold wars”. Maran appeared in no hurry to complete the movie. When Jayalalithaa pointed this out, MGR began probing, only to learn that the producers were deeply engaged in discussions on Kalaignar’s eldest son, MK Muthu’s Pillayo Pillai (Oh! The Son, 1972). Clearly, MGR was not ‘Engal Thangam’ any more.
Besides, MGR did not forget the affront of being asked to quit films to join Kalaignar’s cabinet. MGR’s relationship with Jayalalithaa was spilling into the DMK and was also a sore point, with MGR wanting Jayalalithaa to be part of the party but there was fierce opposition to it. Additionally, the Chief Minister ploughed a lonely furrow on state autonomy, which was problematic for the Centre. MGR, who had his own difficulties with income tax, played into the hands of a Centre which weaned MGR away from the DMK.
However, in hindsight, it is clear that a stage had been reached where there was no more room for two people who considered themselves as equals in the party anymore. And there were enough people on both sides to benefit from the divide.
The rest is history. So is their unique friendship – epochal and grudging mutual respect and continuing affection for each other throughout the last 15 years of political enmity.
R Kannan is the deputy head of the UN Assistance Mission in Somalia’s HirShabelle office. He is also the biographer of Anna and MGR.