RM Veerappan turns 95: A driving force in Tamil cinema and politics

RMV, who has had an enviable innings in both films and politics, remains a father figure to AIADMK men of the MGR era and commands much respect amongst the political ilk.
CN Annadurai (extreme left) greeting RM Veerappan as MGR looks on smiling
CN Annadurai (extreme left) greeting RM Veerappan as MGR looks on smiling
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Behind every successful man is a woman, goes the adage. Not in legendary actor-politician MG Ramachandran’s (MGR) case. Behind MGR was RM Veerappan (RMV). In 1984, as his boss – matinee idol and Chief Minister MGR – lay speechless in a United States hospital after a kidney transplant and later with his speech impaired, RMV led the campaign to counter the opposition propaganda that MGR was not alive and even if he was, was not in a condition to govern.

RMV first released a photograph of MGR smiling from his hospital bed in the US, holding up two fingers in a victory symbol. Other photographs included the leader eating followed by a slick video of MGR holding and reading newspapers, eating and smiling. Indira Gandhi’s funeral footage was attached to this with Valampuri John providing the commentary. Titled Vetrithirumagan or The Victorious, the video evoked a huge emotional response wherever it was screened. Taken aback at this turn of events, DMK leader M Karunanidhi tried to debunk the video asking, “I will book a trunk-call to America, will MGR come on the line and talk to me?”

In the aftermath of the AIADMK victory as it became clear that MGR’s health would be an impediment for the discharge of his duties, an unhappy Governor SL Khurana received legal opinion terming the hiatus without an elected government untenable. Seeing RMV’s leadership and organisational skills, Khurana suggested that RMV, many years junior to Navalar Nedunchezhian and the number 2 in MGR’s outgoing cabinet, take over the reins. Not a leader with a popular base, RMV nonetheless commanded respect among fellow political leaders, not to mention the allegiance of most party legislators. Loyal and pragmatic, RMV flatly refused and worked the contacts in Delhi to keep the Governor at bay.

Post MGR’s death in 1987, although he commanded a sizeable following in the AIADMK legislative party, RMV snuffed out his own ambition to stand by Janaki Ramachandran, who decided to succeed her late husband as Chief Minister. The party split into two factions, one led by MGR’s widow and the other by Jayalalithaa, thus reducing the Janaki government to a minority.

When Janaki Ramachandran’s ministry was unceremoniously dismissed on the afternoon of January 28, 1988 for the farce of enacting a majority, she had been CM for 22 days. A wizened Janaki retired and made way for the reunification of the AIADMK. RMV was also reconciled with Jayalalithaa and in 1989 was made joint General Secretary of the reunited AIADMK along with Jayalalitha. He was the first and the last to hold that post in Jayalalithaa’s era.

The truce was to end soon – for pompous, arrogant and under the sway of the Sasikala clan, Jayalalithaa, wary of RMV’s wide contacts and his close association with superstar Rajinikanth, began to cold-shoulder him. RMV founded the MGR Kazhagam in 1995 and extended support to the DMK alliance the following year. When Rajinikanth spoke against Jayalalithaa, her fate was sealed in the 1996 election.

Enviable innings in both films and politics

RMV, who has had an enviable innings in both films and politics, remains a father figure to AIADMK men of the MGR era and commands much respect amongst the political ilk. Born as the last of seven children in a modest family, RMV was drawn to theatre and singing even as a child. His father’s death and the family’s financial situation ended his education at Class 9. He was sent to assist at his brother-in-law’s shop in Nachiarpuram.

As a child, RMV was naughty and hard to discipline, so it was decided to pack him off as an assistant to a relative in Singapore, as was the prevalent practice at that time in those parts of the state. Standing by his leader, friends and followers, the same child would as an adult be an embodiment of duty, loyalty and commitment. Poet Kannadasan hailed RMV as his friend’s keeper and the custodian of temples.

One day after dropping his sister halfway to a pilgrimage, Veerappan literally came to a road that forked. Instead of taking the road to Nachiarpuram from where he would have sailed to a dull and insipid career, he travelled instead to Karaikudi, where the famous stage artists, TK Shanmugam brothers, were camping.

Once his singing ability was tested, the brothers welcomed him into their troupe, with whom seniors like DV Narayanasamy, KR Ramasamy, Narayana Pillai and others performed. What marked them out in addition to their love for the stage was also their interest in the Dravidian movement and their affection for the young and upcoming CN Annadurai. An impressionable RMV soon came under their influence.

One day as an 18-year-old he stood in for Rama Subbiah, one of the early converts to Periyar’s self-respect cause, assisting EVR on his tour of the region. RMV’s discipline, dynamism, resourcefulness and integrity soon saw Periyar asking him if he would like to join him. As the Tamil adage goes, ‘does one charge to eat sugarcane?’ and thus, RMV jumped at the offer.

Smitten by the theatre bug, however, RMV returned this time to assist KR Ramasamy to run the Krishna Nadaga Sabha. Some in the troupe did not take kindly to RMV being visited by a stream of Periyar’s Dravidar Kazhagam colleagues, prompting RMV to write to Anna who counselled him to be patient, and for the first time penning the immortal lines that the youngster needed a Edhaiyum thaangum idhayam vendum (a heart to bear anything).

However, RMV’s patience wore thin and he left the troupe. Anna took him under his wing. Ten months later as KR Ramasamy sought RMV again, Anna sent RMV back to him.

Joining MGR in the movie world

A man of great organisational skills, word of RMV’s work had reached MGR, who had joined the DMK in 1953 and had his own theatre troupe, the MGR Nadaga Mandram. MGR was looking for a manager. RMV fit the bill.

RMV soon discovered that MGR was a maverick and prone to rash decisions and judgements. RMV had thought that he had learnt to adapt to MGR’s ways. Within five years RMV’s sincerity and industry saw him move up the ladder from manager of the troupe to managing director of Emgeeyar Pictures in 1958, with a 10% stake along with MGR and his elder brother MG Chakrapani.

MGR had taken to wearing DMK colours, a red and black shawl, in his public appearances. Nadodi Mannan, produced by Emgeeyar Pictures, showed a youth and a maiden holding aloft the DMK flag, thus taking MGR’s DMK connection to the next level, and making fans cheer wildly. RMV’s catchy lines, ‘Veeramaa mugam theriyudhae/Adhu vetri punnagai puriyudhae’ (The brave face is seen/sporting the victory smile) in the advertisements took the movie’s publicity to another level. The film, an adaptation of the Prisoner of Zenda, spelt out what could pass off as the DMK’s manifesto. MGR’s magnum opus, the film catapulted the star to dizzying heights and cult status. In the film’s victory, the Dharmapuri bye-poll defeat of the party was forgotten, said Anna. RMV was the driving force behind the film’s success, although MGR’s ascent would usher in newer problems in the party.

In Nadodi Mannan’s aftermath, MGR unilaterally made an announcement of making Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan (currently being made by director Mani Ratnam;) however, it would never come to fruition. RMV carried the burden of translating MGR’s impractical and on the spur decisions. Hurt that MGR had not consulted him, he left only to be counselled by Anna that he should never leave MGR without consulting him (MGR). RMV did not understand the significance of Anna’s advice then. Anna’s wisdom would become clear later.

MGR’s fan associations were becoming a major force in the party, for the party flag was being known as the ‘MGR flag’ and DMK itself as MGR’s party. Anna saw MGR’s rise as the DMK’s rise. Yet, EVK Sampath and poet Kannadasan were convinced that the party was being led by actors and scriptwriters. Some busybodies instigated an already stardom-conscious MGR that the party could not do without him.

In 1960, to prove his cult following, efforts were underway for a conference of the fan clubs. RMV learnt of the conference at the last minute and penned a letter in great alarm, explaining how it would not benefit MGR. Within an hour MGR wrote back assuring RMV that he would act in a way that RMV would be ‘pleased’ and he or his actions would not be ‘out of control’ so as to cause ‘anxiety’ to him. The mega fans meet did not come to pass. RMV now understood Anna’s advice for him to stay put with MGR. He was the moderating force to the tsunami of MGR’s cult status.

But the malaise was deeper than what the symptoms showed, for Sampath and Kannadasan exited in 1961. This was only the first time that MGR and his fan associations would become an issue. At the second instance in 1972, the party expelled MGR leading to a vertical split and the birth of the AIADMK.

Behind MGR’s political success

In the 1967 elections, a recovering MGR, shot by cine villain MR Radha, was induced by RMV to appeal to voters from his hospital in all his bandaged glory. Anna had made it clear that neither he nor the other leaders would campaign against Kamaraj for P Srinivasan, the DMK’s student candidate pitted against the Congress leader. An anxious Srinivasan had turned to MGR for help and thus, RMV hatched the idea of the wounded MGR’s appeal to the masses.

The day prior to the election, paid advertisements from the DMK saw MGR make the following appeal: “I was to come to your homes but couldn’t. Now I’m asking for your hearts… I, who have been raised by you, I, who live because of you, kneel before you to seek just this one thing!” That ‘one thing’ was for them to vote for DMK candidates. Similarly, RMV created history when he crossed all bureaucratic hurdles to see that the mountain came to Mohammed, bringing the returning officer to MGR so that the latter could file his nomination. This will not be the last time.

In 1969, post the Anna phase, MGR and RMV’s roles in facilitating Karunanidhi to succeed Anna as Chief Minister and as head of the party were seminal. However, from then on, things began to sour between Karunanidhi and MGR. Ego and competition had both leaders trying to checkmate each other. Following the victory in the 1971 general elections, MGR unwittingly aspired for a ministership and to clip his wings, Karunanidhi put down the condition that he quit films. MGR saw Karunanidhi’s sponsorship of his eldest son MK Muthu as a film star and his fan clubs as a threat to his career and mass base. This and other differences between the two major forces in the DMK saw MGR being expelled from the party on October 14, 1972. RMV’s efforts at rapprochement between MGR and Karunanidhi failed as had all other efforts.

When the ADMK (later AIADMK) was founded on October 18, 1972, RMV was its moving force. RMV organised the first public meeting of the party on October 27 the same year in Kanchipuram. It was such a huge success that in its aftermath the DMK administration shifted the district collector for letting it happen.

RMV turned down MGR’s offer to contest the 1977 elections to plot the AIADMK campaign. He helped choose candidates, and later along with Nanjil Manoharan put together the first MGR cabinet. Although not a member of the Assembly or the Council, MGR invited him to join his ministry. RMV excelled as a minister.

Even as a filmmaker RMV had viewed Jayalalithaa a distraction for MGR and had tried to reduce her influence on the leader. In MGR’s last term between 1985-87, the MGR-Jayalalithaa relationship was a seesaw, sometimes up and sometimes down. RMV and others such as K Rajaram indicate that Jayalalithaa was scheming with the Union government to take over from a still ailing MGR during this time. In 1986, RMV was among the 10 ministers sacked by MGR showing that Jayalalithaa held sway over his decisions. But in the end on November 5, 1987, only six weeks prior to his death, MGR brought RMV back as a colleague. He left the other nine out, sending a clear message of his faith in RMV’s loyalty.

Poet lyricist Vaali, who was closely associated with both RMV and MGR, opines that RMV should have succeeded MGR. Why that did not happen would remain one of the many unanswered questions in this world, he concludes. RMV himself maintains that MGR fully understood Jayalalithaa’s designs and if he had lived for another week, he would have completely discredited her. History would have certainly been very different if it was so, but we will never know.

R Kannan is the biographer of Anna and MGR. He serves with the UN’s political and mediation group in Somalia.

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