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MGR: The Evergreen Legend – 105th Birthday Special!

MGR’s 105th birthday interview by Jyothi Venkatesh who knew him well




By Jyothi Venkatesh

(To commemorate the 105th birthday of the late doyen of the Tamil film industry MGR today on January 17, we reproduce this rare interview of MGR by JYOTHI VENKATESH, which appeared in the now defunct The Illustrated Weekly of India dt August 5, 1973, exactly 49 years ago)

Nobody in the film industry expected that the Bharat Award for the Best Actor of 1971 would go to M.G.R at least not for his hotchpotch and lackluster performance in Rickshawkkaran. But that does not necessarily mean that his acting talent is questionable. After all, he has been associated with the South Indian film industry for the past 37 years- no mean achievement by any account.

If Padmashri Sivaji Ganesan made his debut as a raw hero in Parashakti, Maruthur Gopalan Ramachandran, M.L.A groped his way to the status of a matinee idol after his share of bit roles like that of an ideal police Inspector  in Gemini’s Sati Leelavathi and that of the obedient disciple in Ashok Kumar, in which the superstar of the 40’s M.L.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar played the lead.

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Ramachandran, who has received the titles Makkal Thilagam (Idol of the People) and Puratchi Nadigar (Revolutionary Actor), has since developed the art of wresting the box office honours year by year. MGR got the big break of his screen career in Rajakumari. It was Maruthanattu Ilavarasi which once and for all cleared all doubts about his capacity to play leading roles. And MGR’s depiction of the perplexing character in Marmayogi, which incidentally was the first Tamil film to get an A certificate tag attached to it and of the benevolent dacoit in Malaikkallan (Mountain Robber) established his position in Tamil films.

Like Sivaji, MGR too has had his long training in Tamil plays-he is a product of the erstwhile Madurai Original Boys Company. The only difference is that unlike Sivaji, he has no time to devote to the stage. MGR has transformed himself with ease in the title roles of his evergreen films like Padagotti (Boatman), Vivasaayi (Peasant) Thozhilali (Worker), Vettaikkaran (Hunter), Kavalkkaran (Guard) and Rickshawkkaran (Richshawpuller).

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Ramachandran has a long list of talented artistes, both male and female, opposite whom he has tested his worth. The list includes greats like Savitri, Padmini, the living legend B. Sarojadevi, Sunderarajan, Gemini Ganesh, Jai Shankar, Muthuraman, Jayalalitha, K.R. Vijaya and even Sivaji. Yes. MGR and Sivaji starred together in Koondukkili (he Caged Parrot) in which MGR sacrifices his all for the sake of his dear friend Sivaji. He goes to jail, entrusting Sivaji with the care of his wife. The latter has evil designs on her but eventually loses his eye sight, only to be looked after by MGR and his wife. To this date, it is the only film in which both the matinee idols have acted together.

Talking star pairs, the MGR-Sarojadevi team tops the list with more than 30 films. MGR is known for his ‘short lived’ loyalty to his leading ladies. After Sarojadevi, it was K.R. Vijaya, with whom he was seen in Thazhamboo, Naan Aaanai Ittal, Vivasayi and Panam Padaithavan, Nalla Neram and Naan Yen Pirandhen. Then came the turn of Jayalalitha, with whom MGR starred in more than 25 films right from their first film Aayirathil Oruvan, when Jayalalitha was a struggling newcomer to Raman Thediya Seethai.

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The next star pair to emerge is the MGR-Manjula team in Rickshawkkaran. While MGR is nearly 58 years old, his leading lady is just 18. And before their movies Ninaithathai Mudippavan, Netru Indru Naalai and Ulagam Sutrum Vaaliban were released, Manjula was flooded with offers to team up with Sivaji, Jai Shankar and Mu.Ka Muthu, the son of the Chief Minister Karunanidhi.

Ramachandran continues to play lead roles at an age when all his juniors on the Hindi screen- Ashok Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Shammi Kapoor and Dilip Kumar are regarded as unsuitable for hero roles. Even in Tamil films, his juniors Asokan, Nambiar, Pandaribai etc now play aged characters. According to Ramachandran, “A 58 year old MGR acting in a film as a 25 year old youngster or 45 year old Sivaji acting as an 80 year old man is what we call acting.”

MGR has to his credit several firsts. His progress in films is intertwined with the history of the growth of the Tamil film industry. His Alibababavum 40 Thirudargalum (1955) was the first colour film in Tamil. Malaikallan (1954) in which he gave a soul stirring performance in the title role fetched the President’s award for the best Tamil film for the first time. When the DMK government, at the instance of the then Chief Minister C.N. Annadurai  started the system of giving awards  to the best film every year, it was again MGR’s Kaavalkkaran that bagged the best film award of 1968.

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The Bharat Award for the best actor of 1971 has gone to MGR for his role in the potboiler Rickshawkkaran. It is rather unfortunate that this has led to a controversy all over India, particularly in the South. While some hold that Sivaji’s performance in Savale Samaali better merited the award  than MGR’s portrayal in Rickshawkkaran, most of the Keralites- MGR too is one, though he was born in Kandy in Ceylon, argue that the late Satyan  should have been given the award posthumously for his role in the Malayalam film Sarasayya. It is true that all these three films figured in the Selection Panel, while MGR emerged the triumphant hero, thanks to the majority votes.

Whereas Sivaji has not stepped into the field of direction, MGR ventured into it with Nadodi Mannan in 1958.Though MGR is well known for his staunch belief in prohibition and his instinctive antipathy for smoking, he readily accepted the late S.S. Vasan’s offer to cast him in the role of a habitual drunkard and pickpocket in Olivilakku, the Tamil version of Phool Aur Paththar. The film turned out to be his 100th one. It should be noted that his first movie Sati Leelavathi was under the Gemini banner. One could easily feel the absence of the gusto and liveliness which Dharmendra had generously sprinkled in his Pathar role with Meena Kumari as his phool. But that could be attributed to the absurd change in the Tamil version of the character of Meena Kumari and the addition of glamor in Jayalalitha’s tailor made character. Yet one thing is certain-the film proved to be no Oli Vilakku (Beacon Light) in MGR’s career.

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In the uncertain field of films, success has come to be measured, not in the least by the histrionics of the star but by the proportion of the ‘daulat’ it fetches. Judging by the same standard, all MGR starrers have had a royal run fetching more than a mere substantial surplus for its producers. His Anbe Vaa ran for 200 days all over Tamil Nadu which is unmatched even by any film of Sivaji. Surprisingly it was an outright entertainer with no moral attached to it and came as a whiff of fragrance to uncomprehending MGR fans.

According to MGR, “Films aren’t merely meant to entertain the masses but also teach them to be better in their lives”. Both Anbe Vaa and Enga Veettu Pillai (the remake of Ram Aur Shyam) helped him reassert his credentials as a big star. MGR is eulogized for his convincing portrayals which smack of reality and natural flavour, seldom seen on the Tamil screen, reputed for its boisterous stars with lion-like voices, audible for more than a mile.

Ramachandran’s first wife expired soon after their marriage. Then he met V.N. Janaki, the erstwhile hit heroine of the Tamil screen during the shooting of Maruthanaattu Ilavarasi, proposed and married her. MGR has no children. His elder brother M.G. Chakrapani is his manager. MGR has toiled with “heart and soul” to reap the benefits of success that has come his way today. What imprints his name especially in the industry are his tact and diplomacy. He pleaded for his co-star M.R. Radha’s release, who after a heated argument with him, tried to shoot him and commit suicide some years back.

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It is surprising that at gala functions, he strikes one as probably the only star who is not glamorous. Yet he has a genuine fashion sense. He wears a charming smile and looks marvellously stark and simple in his white mundu, black goggles and fluffy white cap, done in exclusively MGR style. Yet on the screen, he puts on an image of debonair youngster which would prompt one to regard him as the most flamboyantly dressed star among the older generation of actors. One refreshing aspect about him, so unlike that of our Hindi stars, is that he does not sail into customary inanities in the presence of fans, talking for effect without any substance. Though he agrees that type casting is a cardinal sin, in most of his films, he has wilfully been typed in the typical Madras film hero style and what’s more, the fawning public still holds him in awe. After all, it has become a plus point in our show business dictum.