Tamil Nadu’s political turf is one that has been carefully and repeatedly scrutinised by many. “There are hardly any parallels elsewhere in the world for the way in which relations between the institutions of cinema and politics have evolved in post-independence India,” begins M Madhava Prasad in his essay titled ‘Cine Politics: On the Political Significance of Cinema in South India.’
The ‘MGR phenomenon’ is one of the most widely discussed subjects pertaining to Indian politics and political history. What makes it relevant to this day, on MG Ramachandran’s 101st birth anniversary, is the state’s close-encounters between its on-screen idols and politics.
It is a widely known fact that MGR used his film career as a platform to create his political persona. His political plunge is one of the most scripted and carefully constructed events that had the workings of more than just one mind behind it.
He enjoyed his greatest support from the poorest of the poor, even as his detractors criticised his government's taxation policies and populist schemes. In his book The Image Trap, MSS Pandian speaks of the mirage that MGR’s image inflicted on the people of Tamil Nadu: “Paradoxically, this political devotion of the subaltern classes to MGR was not because he had pursued radical economic policies during his 11 year rule. His rule saw no major structural change in the economy nor lessened the suffering of the poor.”
Nevertheless, many years after his death, several still see him as a god who is capable of wiping away their tears.
The party he established, the AIADMK, has slipped into difficult times, and people have become more aware of the difference between cinema and reality. However, it still remains relevant for us to understand the magic spell cast upon Tamil Nadu by MG Ramachandran though cinema.
MG Ramesh runs the water business in his area and is an ardent MGR devotee who prays to his idol every day. His water cans are labelled 'MGR Water' - which refers to the political leader and himself (MG Ramesh). “I was born in the year Anbe Vaa released (1966). I have read that Vadhiyaar brought home water from the Cauvery and now, I do my bit by supplying water to hospitals,” he says in all seriousness.
It is through MGR's songs that Ramesh obtained his leader’s guidance.
“What I didn't get from my parents, I found in MGR. ‘Odi odi uzhaikanum, oorukellam kodukanum’ (you should run and work hard, you should give to society) is a song that I live by even to this date. When I opened an optical shop, I gave away close to 3000 glasses for the old and poor. ‘Dhairiyamaga sol’ (speak courageously) is another song that inspires me to stay clean and keep away from bad habits. Look at me, I am 52 years old today and I have no health problems at all,” he says.
Ramesh is just one grain in the universe that MGR painstakingly created with his on-screen persona and his thoughtfully charted out political journey.
It can be said that the practice of mouthing mass/punch dialogues traces back to MGR. MGR always played the hero who was capable of rescuing an entire community and in his films, he appealed to his diverse fans.
In Malai Kallan (1954) he played the role of Robin Hood, a virtuous thief. Madurai Veeran (1956) in that way, is also a significant film. Based on the very famous legend of Madurai Veeran, MGR played the role of a Captain (Senathipathi) who does everything he can for the upliftment of his people even until his last breath. Both these films were astounding successes. Nadodi Mannan (1958) again is an important film that was produced by MGR himself. Its success was hailed and praised by the DMK for being true to its ideologies.
Padagotti (1964) where he plays a fisherman, Thozhilali (1964) where he appeals to the working class, Ayirathil Oruvan (1965), Nadodi (1966) where MGR plays a lower caste man, Vivasayee (1967) where MGR triumphs over heartless landlords, Rickshwakaran (1971) where he plays a rickshaw driver, are some of the films through which he appealed to specific sections of the audience.
Image courtesy: Balaji Maheshwar
In his film career that spanned four decades, MGR did around 136 films. Post Independence, Tamil Nadu’s political ideologies were appropriated in films as a means of propaganda and MGR in particular paid a lot of attention to his song lyrics and dialogues. He made sure that what he said on screen sat well with the image he intended to create.
MGR began his film career in 1936 (Sati Leelavathy) and was playing only minor roles until 1947 when he became the hero in Jupiter Pictures’ Rajakumari.
Even before him joining Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in 1953, a pattern emerged in portrayal of characters on screen in Tamil Cinema. Mandrikumari (1950), Marmayogi (1951), Parasakthi (1952) were some of the early, ideologically strong films. Chakravarthy (1957), Malai Kallan (1954), Nadodi Mannan (1958), etc were some of his most successful films that were soaked with Dravidian symbols and references.
1962 was the year when MGR became aware of his appeal and the power he wielded over the masses. It took him almost a decade after joining the party to become a Member of Legislative Council (MLC from 1962-1964) and another five years before he became Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA in 1967).
Between 1962 and 1968, MGR did a great number of films. 1962 and 1966 alone registered the highest number of films he did a year - a whopping nine films each.
Despite his films having regressive ideas when it came to women, his major vote bank consisted of them. Venkatesh Chakravarthy, a film historian and writer says, “That women look up to him is an enigma. When MGR came to power, a lot of them tattooed his name on their thigh. That was the kind of appeal he had on women.”
Writer and author Jeeva Sundari adds, “I personally know many young women who were daily-wage labourers, who used to save up money to buy tickets to watch MGR films.”
Although MGR glorified motherhood on screen with his ‘Thai’ series - Thaikupin Tharam (1956), Thai Solai Thattathe (1961), Thayai Kaatha Thanaian (1962), Theiva Thaai (1964), Thayin Madiyil (1964), Thaiku Thalaimagan (1967) etc, the heroines were not given the same dignity. Jeeva Sundari says, “All MGR films glamourised their leading ladies. 17-year -old girls were paired with him in skinny clothing and were present mainly for glamour.”
Looking back at the songs he made popular back then, the patriarchal values in them become evident. The lyrics of songs like 'Ponna porandha', 'Paarappa Pazhaniappa' or 'Idhazhe idhazhe' are hugely problematic when we listen to them today. Nevertheless, he managed to win the hearts of women voters with his appeal.
Coming from the Dravidian ideology, MG Ramachandran rose to steer his own ship, all the while pledging his alliance to his mentor, ‘Anna’. His party is now trying to hold on to his legacy, and hoping to gather strength from his name and identity. The celluloid god who charmed his voters is still alive in their minds - but that alone is no longer enough for the AIADMK to win the state.