Tamil Nadu Health Ministry renamed Medical: MGR has the last laugh

In renaming the Health Ministry as Medical, Stalin is only doing it the second time – 50 years ago, the party’s Treasurer and matinee idol MGR supposedly described it as such.
MG Ramachandran wears sunglasses, his fur cap and smiles for the camera
MG Ramachandran wears sunglasses, his fur cap and smiles for the camera
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The MK Stalin led DMK government in Tamil Nadu has renamed nine of the 34 ministries. Explaining the name change, Stalin said it was because functions, challenges, government’s targets and ideals have considerably changed over the times. Perhaps the most profound change was creating a separate ministry called Water Resources to fulfil the water needs of the state. The new ministry will ensure water for farmers’ needs, augment groundwater, desilt and maintain water bodies, and remove encroachments. In an earlier column, I had argued that there should be a separate directorate for water bodies headed by a civil servant at the Secretary level. 

The nine ministries that have been renamed are as follows:

Agriculture to Agriculture and Farmers Welfare

Environment to Environment – Climate Change

Health to Medical and Family Welfare

Fisheries to Fisheries and Fishermen Welfare

Labour Welfare to Labour Welfare and Skill Development

Information and Public Relations to Information and Publicity

Social Welfare to Social Welfare and Women’s Empowerment

Personnel and Administrative Reforms to Human Resources Management

Non-Resident Indians to Non-Resident Tamils Welfare

Stalin said that the changes were based on international best practices and proposed with the loftiest aims.

What Stalin may have not suspected is that in renaming the Health Ministry to the Medical Ministry he was only doing it the second time – 50 years ago, the party’s Treasurer and matinee idol MG Ramachandran (MGR) supposedly described the portfolio as such.

At the time of the 1971 general elections, MGR was shooting in Kashmir for Idhaya Veenai (Heart’s Veena, 1972). After the results were declared, he reached Delhi on March 14 and, according to Karunanidhi, hurriedly telephoned him suggesting that he consult him on ministry-making, subtly hinting that he wished to be ‘Medical Minister (sic)’ or Health Minister. Karunanidhi indicated that they could discuss anything that MGR wished once he reached Madras. MGR refuted this as fiction.

Karunanidhi is a good story writer and a powerful dialogue writer . . . Had he asked me not to act if I wanted to become a minister, could I have not asked him how he could continue to write stories and dialogues for films as Chief Minister? And if I really wanted a ministership, I could easily have requested the late Annadurai for one . . . In fact, many wanted me in the cabinet, but I declined.

It will remain a mystery as to why MGR wanted to be a minister in the first place. RM Veerappan, MGR’s right hand man, confirms that MGR had been put to the task by Jayalalithaa. Law Minister Madhavan told MGR that rules did not permit and asked him, “Why do you have to be minister? You can be above all of them. We will give you that stature and honour.”

Karunanidhi records that he told MGR he wished to accommodate him but the party’s General Secretary Navalar Nedunchezhiyan and the Industries and Law Minister, S Madhavan, were not in favour of it. Karunanidhi said that Madhavan had advised that rules did not allow for such a dual role. Karunanidhi adds that MGR wanted him to ‘insist’ that Indira Gandhi amend the rules. It would later transpire that there were no clear rules. Karunanidhi, however, told MGR that a minister-actor would have looked ‘odd’ regardless. MGR withdrew his request when Karunanidhi suggested he give up his film career. Karunanidhi says that MGR harboured a deep-seated resentment against him after this.

It is likely that all the above transpired as Karunanidhi has recorded. MGR was a reluctant politician and later a reluctant Chief Minister. He was in his element in the tinsel world. He itched to go back to acting and indicated it on a few occasions during his first term (1977-80). In fact, in 1978 he announced the movie Unnai Vidamatten (I Won’t Leave You) as his project even as Chief Minister. Poet Vaali writes that MGR called him during this time and asked him to check the newspapers. That day’s Indian Express had featured a story that said the Prime Minister had no objection to MGR’s film career provided it did not interfere with his official duties.

Vaali quickly prepared the screenplay and K Shankar was to direct the film. K Manoharan symbolically declared open the shooting at Prasad Studios. MGR said then that he would continue to act in movies that would serve the country well. On December 6, 1978, during a visit to Singapore, the Chief Minister made it clear that he had never made the transition to politics fully. “I’ve not left the film world. Therefore, the question of when I will return does not arise. I will continue to engage myself in acting without taking a salary from the government,” he said.

While MGR’s wish to be actor-minister or actor-CM – like BC Roy who practised medicine and served as Chief Minister – did not happen, his faux paus of terming the Health Ministry as Medical Ministry has been realised.

Following the publication of the story, a reader pointed out a scene from Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar (1997), a political drama based on the lives of MGR and Karunanidhi. 

Mohanlal (who plays Anandan, a character inspired by MGR), tells Prakash Raj (playing Tamizhselvan, inspired by Karunanidhi), that he heard the latter was expanding the ministry. 

“You should give me the portfolio of Medicine,” Anandan says. 

“Health Ministry?” Tamizhselvan responds. 

Anandan later asks, “Am I not worth the post of minister?” to which Tamizhselvan says he had put his name on the list when the ministry was first formed. “But the working committee said that if Anandan were to be made a minister, he should quit making films.”

R Kannan is the senior political officer with the UN in Darfur, Sudan. He is also the biographer of MGR.

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