Chennai: It is believed that the city of Madras (now Chennai) witnessed one of the world’s largest funeral processions in 1987, when one of the biggest phenomena in Indian politics, Marudur Gopalamenon Ramachandran, passed away on Christmas eve.
Shops remained closed, transportation came to a halt, routine life was crippled and dozens committed suicide. Millions filled the streets as crowds travelled from all parts of the state for a final glimpse of the man called MGR.
The kind of adulation MGR enjoyed is unique to the politics of South India, and continues undiminished on the eve of his birth centenary that falls on 17 January.
What is even more surprising is that it came right after E.V. Ramasamy’s Periyar’s Self-Respect movement, which propelled the DMK to the fore. In fact, the DMK—a breakaway unit of Periyar’s Dravida Kazhagam, which eulogized Periyar’s rationalism—idolised MGR for its political gains.
As social scientist M.S.S. Pandian points in his book The Image Trap, “Having ousted God from his customary space, the DMK and the AIADMK leaders constituted their own pantheon. MGR was the most successful of this pantheon."
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“MGR was the tool used in cinema—the Dravidian films. The scripts were written by C.N. Annadurai, Karunanidhi and others in the DMK. They were all ideologically oriented and they spoke politics to the audience," said Sadanand Menon, an art and culture critic.
Close friends MGR and Karunanidhi were to soon become arch rivals and the matinee idol was to eventually outgrow the politician Karunanidhi to emerge as the undisputed monarch of Tamil Nadu.
MGR, born in Kandy, Sri Lanka, on 17 January 1917 as the fifth and the last child of Sathyabama and Gopala Menon, faced extreme poverty after losing his father before he was three. He lost two of his sisters and a brother to poverty, something he often mentioned to identify himself with the common man.
The crowds followed him everywhere—when he was hospitalized after being shot by his co-actor M.R. Radha; when he suffered a paralytic stroke in October 1984.
Back in 1972, the crowds included a 12-year-old boy who had travelled nearly 85km to Chennai to welcome MGR who was returning after shooting a film, Ulagam Sutrum Valiban.
“Two buses, brimming with people set out from our village. And, by the time we reached Chennai, we knew that it was not possible to navigate through the burgeoning crowd to reach the airport. So we waited near the Anna Statue on the arterial Mount Road (or Anna Salai), where MGR came to garland the statue, as soon as he landed in the city," recollects S. Thangavelu, a native of Thakkolam, Vellore district.
It was also the year when MGR split from DMK to form the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (ADMK, which later became the All India ADMK).
“When MGR stepped in and remained the chief minister of Tamil Nadu (1977-87), he completely destroyed the base for DMK. People moved from the DMK to his party," said Sadanand Menon.
Of the 133 Tamil films MGR acted in from 1936 to 1978, nearly one fourth spoke about the Dravidian ideology.
MGR also epitomized the proletariat by playing the role of a fisherman, peasant, rickshaw-puller, etc.—a consciously constructed image that aided the Dravidian movement and later swelled up into idolatry as MGR became the ithaya deivam (lord of the hearts) of the Tamil masses.
MGR became the symbol that captured the imagination of the subalterns, and the Irattai Ilai (two leaves)—the AIADMK’s symbol—continues to be an extension of the MGR metaphor, still holding sway by representing the Puratchi Thalaivar (revolutionary leader) to party supporters.
His successor J. Jayalalithaa, who died on 5 December, effectively carried the MGR aura for the next 25 years and carefully constructed her image around the MGR idea and the party symbol.
In the assembly election in May, Jayalalithaa allied with smaller parties, made them contest on the AIADMK’s symbol and demonstrated the supremacy of the ‘two leaves’.
“Almost on every front, Jayalalithaa followed up on MGR’s success formula or improvised upon her mentor to suit her times. In areas like fiscal reforms, salary and subsidy-cuts, where she tried something totally different, she flopped miserably. It looked as if neither Jayalalithaa, nor the party nor the government machinery was tuned into the changes she thought would bring in elitist approval," said N. Sathiya Moorthy, director of New Delhi-based think thank Observer Research Foundation’s Chennai chapter.