MGR are magical letters in Tamil Nadu. They are spoken with the same sort of respect as the letters JFK, in other parts of the world. They belong to a hero of the people and one who, no matter how controversial his latter day followers and acolytes prove to be, is revered as a giant.
Marudhur Gopalan Ramachandran (MGR) was born in the highlands of Sri Lanka but moved at a young age to southern India (first to Pallakad District in Kerala and then to the big smoke of Chennai). After his father, who was expelled from his caste community for an adulterous affair, passed away MGR and his brother joined a travelling drama troupe with the delightful name of Madurai Original Boys Company! In 1936, at the age of 20, he scored a small part in a Tamil film (directed interestingly by an American!) and found he loved being in front of the camera and a large stage. He did well. Over the next several decades MGR’s name became synonymous with ‘hero’ for his enthralling portrayals of religious figures and gods as well as smartly dressed, moustachioed business men. He won the National Best Actor Award in 1972 and began to get a name beyond the conservative Tamil film world.
MGR had been a member of the anti-Brahmanical, rationalist party, DMK, from the early days of his career so politics was something that always interested him. But in a fashion as predictable as most Indian movie endings, MGR found himself in trouble with his party seniors. With a huge ego, a large charismatic presence (always hidden off screen topped with a white karakul cap and hidden behind dark glasses) and a sense of self righteousness he accused the leaders of DMK of corruption. They expelled him from the community in a similar pattern to that of his father. But unlike this father, MGR, went on to much greater things. He founded his own party (AIDMK) all the while continuing his acting career. In 1977 he was elected as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu a post he held and was repeatedly elected to until his death 10 years later.
When I lived in Chennai between 1977-78 MGR was at the very peak of his political charisma. He’d moved from being the hero to being a demi god. His picture was everywhere and it really seemed as if a new day had dawned in Indian politics. A film actor! The first of several that would follow, and three years before Ronald Reagan. Once elected he stopped his film career to focus on implementing a string of populist policies, especially introducing free noon meals for school age children.
After his death, his wife, herself a former film starlet, Jayalaitha, took over the AIDMK and today rules Tamil Nadu.
In the meantime, enjoy this collection of ‘sad songs’ from his films!
01 Tharamil Pirakka
02 Thanthaiyaipol Ulagile
04 Anbe Vaa
05 Naallu Perukku Nandri
06 Oruvan Manthu
08 Kadavul en Kalanar
09 Dhairyamaka Chol Nee
10 Thayin Madiyil
11 Naan Yaar Theriyuma
12 Pallakku Vangaponnen