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15 JanuaryHome > Tamil National Forum > Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha > The Man from Marathur and Malai Nadu
Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha
MGR - the Man from Marathur and Malai Nadu
15 January 1992
Eighty two years ago, a baby boy was born to a migrant couple, Gopala Menon and Sathyabama, in a ‘line-room’ of a tea estate in Kandy. Later, this baby boy would grow into a leader with the name Maruthur Gopalan Ramachandran (popularly adored by Tamils all over the world with the acronym MGR).
Maruthur was the ancestral village in the Kerala state from where his parents hailed from. Many have ridiculed the uncertainty of his birth date, though MGR had used 17 January 1917 in his personal documents. One should sympathise with MGR on this matter because he was born to an Indian immigrant family in a tea plantation in Ceylon, which was then under British colonial rule. Way back in 1917, the health care facilities available for the plantation workers were atrocious, leave alone the requirements related to birth registration. That he survived into adulthood itself was an achievement.
Though as a two-year old he was taken to Kumbakonam by his mother (who had been widowed after the birth of MGR), the destiny would make it that in his last five years of life, MGR would again have close links with the Tamils in the land of his birth. After landing in Tamil Nadu, MGR would rise in his professional ranks with perseverance, hard work and the smile of Lady Luck. He reached the ‘top’, step by step; 10 years as a vaudeville child actor, 10 years as an apprentice actor with secondary roles in movies, 30 years as an ‘uncrowned king’ in the Tamil movie land and finally 10 years as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.
Having experienced poverty personally during his young days and forfeiting the opportunity to have a formal education, MGR would see to it that at least one song in his movie had some educational value to the average man.
He would take a keen interest in the theme of the song, its musical composition and its exact appearance in the movie. Not surprisingly, it would turn out to be a hit song. I can recollect a dozen of these songs here:
MGR would also make sure that he will teach good manners and discipline to the masses through the movies. Therefore, in the characters he played in 120-odd movies, he would never smoke or take alcoholic drinks. On top of that, he would never physically or mentally abuse women. This self-imposed rigidity restricted the character roles he would play and movie critics ridiculed him for this 'un-natural style' of his characters. But MGR would have the last word. Ultimately, he claimed the respected honorific ‘vaathiyar’ (teacher) in its proper sense of the word.
Call it a mere coincidence or the destiny of Eelam Tamils, that when the liberation struggle began earnestly in 1977, MGR would become the chief minister of the Tamil Nadu. Though his interest in the problems of Eelam Tamils remained passive till 1982, the ethnic holocaust of 1983 kindled his support for the Eelam cause. 1983 also saw the change in guard among the political leaders of the Eelam Tamils. MGR had never felt comfortable with the TULF leadership since he had perceived them as emotionally more close to the DMK leadership.
When the leadership mantle in the struggle for Eelam needed a change and a boost, MGR became the god-father of the LTTE and made sure that the ‘new born baby’ would not suffer a premature death in the hands of wily J.R.Jayewardene...
To his allies in politics, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, the link that MGR had with the LTTE proved embarrassing. But they simply had to ignore it for their own political survival in the South India. For the support that he extended to the Tamil Eelam cause, MGR became the arch-enemy of the Sinhalese power brokers from 1983 till his death in December 1987.
Many Eelam Tamils also did not expect much from MGR after his skirmish with the TULF leadership at the 1981 Madurai Tamil International Conference. But, now in hindsight, one can see how vital was the support of MGR for the Eelam cause from 1983 till his death.
That the admiration Tamil masses had for MGR was not purely a ‘cinema craze’ was proved in India, when movie stars of equal stature such as Sivaji Ganesan, N.T. Rama Rao and Amitabh Bachehan could not transfer their popularity in movies to the political world. The political careers of Sivaji Ganesan and Amitabh Bachehan never took off from the ground.
Only N.T.Rama Rao was able to become the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh and he too lost that position subsequently. To my friends in the USA, when I tried to explain the unusual career of MGR, I called him a "three-in-one". He had the movie magic of John Wayne, the political success of Ronald Reagan and the messianic appeal of Martin Luther King Jr.
How could one explain the extraordinary career of MGR, which began in Kandy and ended in Madras? Though not considered a native in the place of his birth or in Tamil Nadu where he grew up and called it home, he became the adored leader, who would be envied by every local politician.
At least Kavi Arasu Kannadasan (who had been a close friend and sometimes harshest critic of MGR) had an answer. In 1980, Kannadasan noted that MGR was blessed with an "Asura jathakam" (devil’s horoscope). Not everyone will agree with that assessment. But, considering the unfavourable odds he faced in his life and the ‘fights’ he won, definitely there should have been a blessing from the devil which protected him in so many trials.
Like other great leaders and revolutionaries, MGR also had his weaknesses. But these do not detract the good deeds he did for the down-trodden in Tamil Nadu and for Eelam Tamils who landed in India as refugees after 1983. MGR was neither an intellectual nor a folk philosopher. But his life-time teaching was short and simple; "Fight for your Rights". That’s what he preached in his 100-odd movies. ...We miss you, Vathiyar.