Sri MGR Year 96, 4th August, Sunday
The Man of the Masses an article written by Randor Guy, a film historian, he has done extensive study of Cinema, written English songs for regional films. Has done songs for MGR movies Oorukku Uzhaipavan and Idhayakani.
A fine, breezy, summer evening in the sea kissed sun splashed city, Madras, some thirty odd years ago… prize distribution ceremony was on, in local professional college. Its Tamil Association had as part of its promotional and cultural activities organised competitions and contests, debates and discussions and winners in them all were being honoured with silver cups and medals. And the Chief guest of the evening, a handsome man unusually light skinned for a South Indian, in spotless white dhoti and shirt the common man’s costume in Madras was on his feet, congratulating the winners and handing over the prizes as their names were being called and they came up the dais sheathed in smiles and sprinkled with the sweet smell of success.
And then a spark of restlessness developed behind the line of VIPs and others seated amidst the cluster of young men on the dais, student office bearers of Tamil Association. They were all frantically looking for something. Tick – tock – tick – tock moments melted away… now they were in a near frenzy, searching for something. What? the Chief guest, shrewd and observant, had noticed it all and insisted on knowing. Helpless and on the verge of tears the nail biting boys blurted out… a silver cup was missing! It was there, earlier on the table, but now vamoose!. It was intended for the student for the best essay in Tamil. And the winner was a Gujarati boy whose mother tongue was not Tamil! He was from Sowcarpet, a busy locality of Madras and a stronghold of Gujarathis, Marwaris, Sindhis and such non-Tamil speaking citizens, who were present in large numbers in the audience to applaud this unique achievement.
Obviously some one had pinched the silver cup, a master stroke of mischief. Unperturbed, the chief guest advised the boys to take it easy. The bewildered office bearers wondered quaking in every limb how it would all end. And then the Gujarati student’s name was called. Wild cheering filled the air while the proud winner trotted his way to the dais. The office bearers were now biting the skin of their fingertips. But the chief guest was sunny smiles and effervescent cheer. Patting the winner he made a short speech… “a boy whose mother tongue is not Tamil, wins a Tamil essay contest… a rare feet… deserves a special award…. not a mere silver cup… So I told my young friends here not to give him the cup. I wish to reward this boy on behalf of all of us here”. And he took out his wrist watch and presented it to the surprised student. It was a foreign wrist alarm… a rare novelty in those days in Madras and of course, very expensive.
The audience, especially the stunned Sowcarpet wallah, went wild with sheer delight and cheers there and then some more raised the roof beams high. And the chief guest’s image brightened up by many kilowatts in mere minutes.
The chief guest was Marudhur Gopalan Ramachandran, more popularly known in India and beyond as MGR.
Another time, another place… burly, bearded, box office film producer Krishnamachari Balaji was driving down a lonely deserted bone dry highway in his imported car when a shriveled, shivering old lady stopped and asked for alms. Taking pity he pulled out a hundred rupee note from his well lined wallet and gave it to the poor woman. She thanked him profusely and blessed him and his family and said “Thanks, once more, you must be MGR.”
A man of the masses, for the masses, they, the masses called him Makkal Thilagam (darling of the people) Puratchi Thalaivar (revolutionary leader)… his fans affectionately refer to him a Vadhyar (Ustad). One of the most popular Indians of our time, his following among the masses is phenomenal. The crowds that assemble to hear him are incredibly vast, like the ones of yester years that turned up to hear Gandhiji, Pandit Nehru and the likes.
His charisma is unbelievable and popularity stunning. According to some he is the second most well known India abroad, the first being Indira Gandhi.
He is a movie star turned chief minister. True, but he is not as his critics and political foes tick him off, a mere movie matinee idol who has made it to the top exploiting his film-star-handsomeness, his box office draw and all. He, a hundred times, no!. Indeed in Tamil Nadu, movie stars, good looking and box office bahadurs have tried their hand, shoulder and sinew in politics, but nobody ever reached even the first base. In fact MGR would have made it in politics and public service even if he had never seen a movie camera or heard anyone yelling cut!
MGR born was born in Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon where, in Kandy, his father Mr.M.Gopalan was a popular Principal of a college. The family consisting of the college Principal father, a doting dear mother Satyabhama and the two sons, Chakrapani and Ramachandran the blue eyed baby of the house looked forward to happy, peaceful middle class life. But the cruel claws of destiny took away the loving father suddenly. Widowed at a young age, friendless and helpless in an alien land, alone with two small kids poor Satyabhama had no option than to return to her native land.
She settled down in the temple town, Kumbakonam near Tanjore, where young Ramachandran and his elder brother attended school. Life in Kumbakonam was a long, lingering struggle. Money was a scarce commodity and the lot of any widow, in those days in a typical small town was harsh, hard and heartrending. And she was no exception. Making both ends meet was a day to day challenge and the hear crushing decision could no longer be put off. Her sons could not go to school any more.
She took her sons and had them admitted in the Madurai Original Boys Drama company to be trained as stage artistes. In those days the play was the thing and movies were still a far away novelty. There was a renaissance in Tamil theatre and dramatic troupes like the Madurai Original Boys played a unique role. These groups had a special feature. The troupes consisted only of boys and hence its name mostly in their early and pre-teens who donned even female roles with long hair wigs, coconut shell falsies and all. The boys were fed, clothed and housed and in the process of growing they learnt a calling too. The future superstar was taken charge of by the moving spirit of the MOBDC, Madras Kandaswamy Mudaliar a pioneer of the Tamil stage theatre was in his blood and he sacrificed his all for his love. His son M.K.Radha latter a movie hero famous for his roles in Gemini’s super movie hits, like Chandralekha, Strange Brothers, Samsaram and others, recalls the early days of MGR with nostalgic delight. Elder by a few years Radha filled the real life role of elder brother teaching and taking care of him through thick and thin.
Life as a stage actor growing into a young man was no bed of roses. Indeed it was more thorns that petals. Young Ramachandran struggled hard to make the grade and make his mother happy. “I have known and seen her struggle to feed us and it is my ambition to see that no mother ever undergoes such hardships”, he would say years later to his fellow men.
Movies had begun to talk even in India and the struggling young stage actor began to look for chances to face a movie camera. In the world of lens and lights even talent of high order has never been recognised fast unlike the other fields of human endeavour. Not surprisingly he had to pound on many doors before he could done pancake and powder for a Tamil talking movie named Sati Leelavathi. It had a somewhat misleading title for it was not a page from any Hindu epic. It was, in the peculiar and private lingo of the film world a social written by an enterprising magazine editor destined to create history later in the world of entertainment. His name was T.S.Srinivasan, better known as S.S.Vasan MGR played that lingo again a side role as a police inspector wearing khaki shorts laced turban, stick and all. It was in 1936.