The myth that has preserved MGR as an unassailable vote-bank for the AIADMK is being deconstructed – ironically by the leaders from the party founded by him.

The undoing of MGR How the AIADMK is slowly wiping out his legacy
Voices Politics Monday, December 25, 2017 - 12:25

After attending a seminar on gender and social change on December 5 at the University of Madras, writer Salma and I impulsively decided to hop across the road and pay a visit to J Jayalalithaa’s memorial.

It was Jayalalithaa’s first anniversary and our first visit to the memorial. A particular image at MG Ramachandran’s memorial – which, incidentally, was not as crowded as Jayalalithaa’s was – caught our eye. An old lady, blissfully oblivious to the environment around her, was loudly singing hit numbers from MGR’s movies, gesticulating her hands wildly. Throughout, her gaze was transfixed at the place where MGR’s face would have been resting.

For many, the image was something that merely invoked their curiosity.

A few years ago, however, such a scene would not have been out of place. As children, we were regaled with tales of villagers from every nook and corner of Tamil Nadu queuing up at MGR’s grave and placing their ears on it to hear his watch ticking.

These tales of hearing MGR’s watch still ticking were legendary. So was the public’s love for him. For several years, a section of rural voters had steadfastly refused to believe that he was dead. Someone like him ought to live forever.

MGR worked hard to build that kind of myth around his name. Film after film, he would play ordinary roles taken out from real lives. From a farmer to a fisherman, there is possibly no ‘proletariat’ role that MGR has not played in his entire film career.

By doing so, he established a bond with the audiences that paved way for his political success and established his cult-like status in the Tamil political milieu. Eminent social scientist MSS Pandian in his seminal essay ‘Image Trap’ has argued that MGR had carefully constructed a subaltern narrative in his films that made it possible for the ordinary viewers to identify themselves with the hero. His entire success as an actor and politician probably rests on that premise.

Yet, three decades after his death, the myth that has preserved MGR as an unassailable vote-bank for the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) is being deconstructed – ironically by the leaders from the party founded by him.

In setting out to celebrate MGR’s birth centenary, the party has clearly done more damage than good to his name and, in doing so, they have probably killed the goose that laid the golden egg.

The celebrations around his birth centenary have run into one controversy after the other. In Coimbatore, prior to the celebrations in the first week of December, several small vendors in and around the venue were asked to remove their shops by the local administration. Local reports say at least 50 such vendors were advised not to put up their roadside shops for a week. Ironically for most of them, MGR was a favourite. When US-returned techie Raghu died after his motorbike hit an MGR banner, the government chose to turn a blind eye to the tragedy and continued with the celebrations.

When Cyclone Ockhi struck Kanyakumari, a seemingly indifferent government still went ahead with the functions. “When fishermen were dying, the government was busy conducting celebrations for ‘Meenava Nanban’ (Fishermen’s friend – the title of a film featuring MGR),” wrote Vikatan, in a telling commentary of our times.

What exactly was the government’s idea in conducting a year-long celebration for MGR’s birth centenary?

Clearly, the new dispensation in place after Jayalalithaa’s death was keen on carving out an identity for itself that would help them survive the state’s tough political landscape. Celebrating MGR – who had remained popular and influential across generations – seemed like a harmless way to achieve it. After all, MGR was the one who gave Jayalalithaa her political identity. Election after election, Jayalalithaa would never wrap up her campaign speeches without invoking the names of CN Annadurai and MGR. The two leaves symbol held a special place in the Tamil psyche.

But, if the RK Nagar verdict is anything to go by, the symbol and the name are not going to help the AIADMK retain its public image. When TTV Dhinakaran said the symbol would have been of no use if it were in the hands of PS Veerappa or MN Nambiar (who played the villains in several MGR movies), he was just reflecting public opinion.

As Vijayan, editor of Idhayakkani – a magazine dedicated to MGR – once pointed out to this writer, it is equally important to live up to the carefully constructed image, just as MGR did. He made sure his subaltern identity remained intact in politics too.

Pictures of MGR hugging an old woman or eating among the poor in a samapandhi virundhu (a feast where everyone is seated equally) told us, even till recently, how entrenched his legend is in public memory.

In MGR’s centenary year, however, the images have probably been replaced by Raghu and Cyclone Ockhi. And that is perhaps the saddest thing that could happen to a leader who only projected himself as a friend of the poor.

Views expressed are the author's own.