The Man they called God (Asiaweek posthumous 1988 cover story on MGR)
At times, the grief of the crowd seemed almost palpable. Hundreds of thousands of weeping mourners lined the 10 km route of the cortege, in some places standing 20 deep. Many had clambered onto billboards or lampposts to bid a final farewell to their dead anna (elder brother). As the funeral procession departed from the stately Rajaji Hall in Madras, a cry rang out: ‘MGR vazhga’ (‘Long live MGR’). Women beat their breasts and sobbed bitterly as their menfolk picked up the refrain: ‘MGR vazhga, MGR vazhga.’ The body of the man they worshipped as a near-god lay on a spotless white sheet, covered by the flag of India. Still attired in his customary white shirt and dhoti, dark glasses and custom-made fur cap, Maruthur Gopalamenon Ramachandran, chief minister of India’s Tamil Nadu State for more than a decade, was making his final journey.
On the pristine white sands of Marina Beach, the movie star-turned-politician who had captured the imagination of millions of Tamils was buried in a sandalwood casket with gold handles. The black marble slab that covered the grave was just a stone’s throw from the resting place of his political mentor, C.N. Annadurai. Although he had been a Hindu, MGR’s body was not cremated. Some say he was buried according to Christian custom because he died of a heart attack on Dec. 24, just a day before Christmas. Others believe it was because Annadurai, a co-religionist, had also been interred. ‘MGR didn’t leave any instructions,’ said M.P. Paramasivam, a long-time aide to the chief minister. ‘We thought it better to do it this way.’
As the smoke curled upward from a small fire of sandalwood and camphor, the crowd went out of control, pushing hard against a police cordon. Teargas canisters spewed fumes around the grave, but had little effect on the surging mob. Finally, worried about the security of assembled dignitaries, including Home Minister Buta Singh, the police levelled their rifles to restore order. At least twelve people died in rioting across the city; dozens more reportedly committed suicide in grief.
The scene had been equally violent the day before, outside the gates of Rajaji Hall, where MGR’s body had lain in state for a full day. At one point, more than 100,000 screaming, hysterical mourners tried to rush through the doors of the building, demanding to see their beloved leader. The numbers grew to an estimated 1.2 million as more wailing mourners joined the queues. Several women pulled at their hair in grief, others tore off stuck-on red dots on their foreheads in a gesture of mourning for a dead husband. ‘Why should I not weep?’ sobbed Mangayarkarasi, 45, ‘MGR was my brother. He was my father. He was my husband.’
There were few dry eyes among the members of MGR’s All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party who squatted on the steps at the foot of the bier. Jayalalitha Jayaram, an MP and propaganda secretary for the AIADMK, sat at his head, occasionally wiping his face gently with the pallav of her sari. The one-time actress, for whom MGR was rumoured to nurse a secret passion, had earlier been turned away from the Ramachandran residence at the insistence of his widow, V.N. Janaki. Inevitably, some humbug was mixed with the genuine grief. Several people seized the opportunity to be filmed next to the body or to issue statements of condolence.
Though MGR had been ailing ever since a massive stroke and a kidney transplant in 1984, the end was nonetheless sudden. On Dec. 23, he had retired to bed early. At about 11 pm, he woke up feeling nauseous but asked for soup. He had just sipped the last drop when he suffered a heart attack. His personal physician managed to revive him for a short while before he collapsed again. Three specialists then tried cardiac massage; one even ignored the sick man’s bad breath to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Finally in desperation they injected medication straight into the heart to kick it back to life. That, too, failed. Recalls one eyewitness: ‘Every time the doctors tried something, the monitor would start picking up signals [of MGR’s heart], but soon they would weaken. About 1:15 am [on Dec. 24] the signals stopped. It took some time for us to believe he was really dead.’
The news was promptly conveyed to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in New Delhi. The ruling Congress (I) party is an ally of the AUADMK and is expected to play a pivotal role in deciding MGR’s successor. Besides acting chief minister V. Nedunchezhian, the top contenders are state food minister S. Ramachandran, Jayalalitha and R.M. Veerappan, whom MGR had rehabilitated from disgrace last month soon after the chief minister’s return from medical treatment in the US. Observers say Veerappan has already earned points by praising Gandhi for rushing down to share the Tamilians’ grief.
An AIADMK meeting scheduled for this week will discuss the issue, but highly placed sources told Asiaweek’s Ravi Velloor in Tamil Nadu that for the moment the party had decided to back the interim chief minister. The only problem is that Nedunchezhiyan does not have a mass base. Jayalalitha can pull the crowds, but her elevation would probably be resented by two other Tamil movie star-politicians: Congress (I) MPs Vyjayantimala and Sivaji Ganesan. New Delhi’s choice, however, would likely be S. Ramachandran, who negotiated on its behalf with Colombo for last July’s peace accord aimed at ending Tamil separatism in Sri Lanka.
Indeed, MGR’s death was a grievous blow to the island’s militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. MGR had been the Tiger’s godfather, supplying them with refuge and military training in Tamil Nadu. But the militants soon grew out of control in the state, acutely embarrassing their sponsor. Many place a great deal of the blame for Sri Lanka’s current troubles at the chief minister’s doorstep. Finally, Gandhi persuaded MGR to cage the Tigers. After the Indo-Sri Lankan accord was signed, MGR began distancing himself from the militants. Their top leaders were placed under house arrest in Madras. When state police turned down a Tiger leader’s request to lay a wreath at MGR’s funeral, it signalled the end of Tamil Nadu’s support for the Tigers.
Good or bad, the political impact of MGR’s decade was profound. That was something recognised even by Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa, a virulent critics of the man. In a message of condolence to Janaki, he said: ‘Mr Ramachandran contributed much to South India and its people. His contributions to the people of Sri Lanka, too, cannot be forgotten.’ MGR’s concern for the poor was genuine, perhaps because he keenly remembered his own deprived childhood. Each year, for instance, he would distribute free raincoats to rickshaw pullers in Madras; later he even acted in a sympathetic movie about them, titled Rickshawkaran. The state became the benefactor of the underprivileged. Electricity was subsidised for farmers and school education was made free. In a scheme that benefited some 8.8 million children, state-run schools offered students a free midday meal. The drop-out rate fell.
Even is highly unsuccessful prohibition policy had an altruistic motive: he believed a ban on the sale of liquor would ensure that working class pay packets reached home. Prohibition failed miserably because surrounding states weren’t ‘dry’, thus encouraging liquor smuggling into Tamil Nadu. But when MGR, himself a teetotaller, reluctantly lifted the ban, it was partly to use the revenue from liquor taxes to finance his welfare schemes.
In the eyes of the common people, the chief minister became indistinguishable from the generous-hearted, larger-tan-life heroes he portrayed on screen. Few understood that his welfare schemes, however well-intentioned, were at the expense of developing the state’s infrastructure. Under MGR, Tamil Nadu slipped from second to tenth place among India’s 25 states in industrialisation. By some accounts, MGR virtually ran a police state, aided by his one-time intelligence chief, P.K. Mohandas. Overly centralised administration encouraged inefficiency and corruption. No decision could be taken without the chief minister’s go-ahead.
MGR brooked no challenge to his authority or to his eminence as a Tamil leader – a fact which was brought home firmly to Malaysian Indian Congress President S. Samy Vellu. In early 1987, the MIC chief had travelled to Madras to invite MGR to a world Tamil conference in Malaysia. But he made the mistake of also inviting MGR’s arch-rival, Muthuvel Karunanidhi, leader of the oppositionist Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Peeved at being equated with any other Tamil leader, MGR refused to attend the conference.
To his adoring millions, however, the human foibles of Tamil Nadu’s ‘god’ were irrelevant. A combination of his superstar image, the opposition’s blunders and his own personal charisma catapulted MGR to the status of legend. As noted Tamil journalist and playwright Cho Ramaswamy put it: ‘These aren’t days when one expects political leaders to leave a philosophy or message behind them. In MGR’s case, the man was the message.’
Profile: Tamil Nadu’s ‘God’
His Tamil fans knew him by many names: Ponmana Chemmal or ‘Golden-Hearted One’, Makkal Thilakam or ‘Darling of the Masses’, and the one he encouraged in his later years, Puratchi Thailaivar or ‘Revolutionary Leader’. To the teeming millions in Tamil Nadu, Maruthur Gopalamenon Ramachandran was not merely chief minister of the south Indian state. He remained a larger-than-life celluloid hero who never lost a fight and always protected his woman. MGR, they called him fondly.
Interestingly, he was not a Tamil himself, although he tried to obscure the fact. MGR once wrote that his father was a magistrate, but biographers say he was the fifth child of a Sri Lankan tea plantation worker who hailed from Kerala State bordering Tamil Nadu. The actor-turned-politician was born in 1917 in a squalid tea estate ‘line room’ in Kandy. When he died Dec. 24, the people who still live in those dormitories stayed away from work for two days to mourn his passing.
When MGR was only 2, his father died and the family migrated to Tamil Nadu, then known as Madras State. His mother found work as a domestic helper but could not afford to educate her son. MGR was forced to quit school to earn money in a travelling drama troupe. It turned out to be his passport to super-stardom. In the late 1930s, he joined the glittering movie world and became an instant hit as a swashbuckling hero who could expertly fly a plane with his feet while slugging a villain perched on its wing. In a state where people put a high premium on light complexions, MGR’s fair skin helped make him a megastar – he featured in some 160 films.
The Indian National Congress, then fighting against British rule, gave MGR his first taste of politics. After independence in 1947, he was attracted to the secularistic ideals of E.V. Ramaswamy ‘Periyar’ Naicker, who had founded the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam movement in Tamil Nadu. In 1967, DMK leader C.N. Annadurai recruited the film star to contest state assembly polls. When MGR asked how much he should contribute towards the campaign, Annadurai is said to have replied: ‘I don’t need money. Your face is worth millions.’
MGR won, but spent the campaign in a hospital bed after being shot by screen villain and bitter real-life rival, M.R. Radha. Though the bullet damaged his voice permanently, it also heightened his charisma. For a month, thousands kept vigil outside the Madras hospital where he was convalescing. Some 30 people, many of them women, took their own lives in grief.
Five years later, he left the DMK in a huff and formed his own party, the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. The famous face launched the AIADMK ship with a landslide win in 1977 state assembly polls. But when Indira Gandhi returned to power as prime minister three years later, she sacked the MGR government and helf fresh polls for the state. The one-time matinee idol again proved politically invincible. Yet the years were taking a toll on that million dollar face: his trademark fur cap and dark glasses, it was whispered, were to hide his balding pate and the tell-tale crow’s feet around his eyes. There were other intimations of physical mortality: a massive stroke combined with kidney failure in 1984 left him with seriously impaired speech and movement. Only his immense will power kept him going in the end.
Twice married, MGR had no children. His first wife, coincidentally named Satya like his mother, died of cancer. A few years later, in 1956, he elped with actress V.N. Janaki, who was then still married to film makeup man Ganapathy Bhat. The lovers subsequently wed. In his later years, MGR’s name was linked to one-time co-star Jayalalitha Jayaram, now 39, an MP and AIADMK propaganda secretary. It was well known in Madras, where the Ramachandrans lived, that Janaki deeply resented Jayalalitha. Perhaps not without reason – the buxom young actress is reportedly now threatening to reveal details of secret nuptials with MGR if her position in the party is challenged. Tamil Nadu’s ‘god’, it seems, was only human.