Marudur Gopalamenon Ramachandran a.k.a. MGR - Lazy Fly
One of my mentors in journalism is the immortal Behram Contractor a.k.a. Busybee who wrote a short, humorous column every day.
It was called Round and About.
I am no patch on him and cannot match his crisp essays in substance and in humour.
So I call myself Lazy Fly and have named my series of writing endeavours Square And Straight.
One day before Christmas, the thespian called Marudur Gopalamenon Ramachandran or MGR for short passed away while in harness – as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. Since the beginning of 1985 till he breathed his last in 1987, the actor CM could not speak … or to put it better, speak properly. ’
But, during the last two autumn years of his life, though he could make himself understood orally, yet – being a master of communication – he managed to do exactly that very, very well.
I have some memories of MGR.
For most of my reporting days in Tamil Nadu – I had chosen to give MGR - when he was alive - the short shrift … for his political antics, in my opinion, were strictly for the birds.
I have my reasons. He had the temerity to tell all and sundry publicly in so many words the following:
“Rather than listening to their husbands, women prefer to obey me much more.”
“Once upon a time, women were chattels of males earning the sobriquet – Daasi Kulam [menial lineage]. But, they are much more advanced today and I refer to them as Thaai Kulam [mother lineage].”
“Minority religions in India say that humanity came of a single man and a single woman. Marriage is a pious institution. So, people at large can think what the minority religions mean by saying humanity evolved from the offspring of a single man and woman. Some people [an obvious reference to Karunanidhi] have crossed all barriers of decency in public and private life. I am demanding to know openly now – where is the wife of OP Raman?”
The above was part of a speech made outside the Karumari Amman Temple in Chennai on August 15 1980 – a few months after being sworn in Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu for a second time. MGR had offered worship in a temple openly for the first time in the state on the independence day, organised a public – classless feast [Samapanthi Bhojanam] and helped the marriage of a couple who belonged to a Dalit community.
The loony left always carried a chip on their shoulder against MGR.
Someone with the last name Nelson, said to have belonged to a Dalit community – circulated a pamphlet in which asked MGR a rather silly question : Samapanthi Bhojanam ellaam irukkattum. Sampanthi Bhojanam enraikku poadappoareenga? [The common feast is okay, but when would feed us as family equals?]
Though MGR never had revealed his caste, [in a census, he referred to his natal origins Dravidian” [in my opinion, silliness raised to the power of infinity] it was an open secret that he belonged to the warrior Menon caste of Kerala – something comparable with the Thakur of the north and a Thevar of Tamil Nadu. Even today, if some Dalit has the guts to demand the hand of an upper caste girl anywhere in India, there would riots as the upper caste persons consider all those below their caste hierarchy as low life. It is very, very wrong, but that is the way India is.
The points that MGR never revealed during that speech were:
OP Raman – a former minister in Karunanidhi’s cabinet had married the elder sister of Kanti – the wife of Karunanidhi’s son MK Alagiri. Kanti had been born in a Dalit household.
Karunanidhi was accused of having an affair with OP Raman’s wife – which was akin to having an affair with one’s daughter – as the daughter-in-law is to be deemed as one’s offspring.
Indirectly, when MGR referred to minority religions, he was making a snide remark about the religious denomination of the publisher of the pamphlet – i.e. Christianity.
By referring to OP Raman’s wife and her alleged affair, MGR was passing casting aspersions on the morals of the Dalit community – something one should never, never do, but MGR was like that and was venting his anger at his political bête noire – Karunanidhi and also remarking on the behavioural pattern in the DMK boss’s household.
I heard from my friend, the late Murasoli Maran, the above details. Maran had added tongue in cheek thus: You are supposed to be a wonder-kid investigative journalist. Did you bother finding out why me and my children live separately from my uncle’s household – just two buildings away? After all, that home is large enough to hold both of our families..
I had replied in the negative.
Maran senior revealed that he had learnt that some of Karunanidhi’s male offspring played indecent voyeurs as his wife Mallika [mother of Kalanidhi and Dayanidhi] took her morning bath when the nephew had stayed with his uncle as one joint family. Maran senior was referred to as the conscience of Karunanidhi. If this statement was to be true, Karunanidhi’s conscience had little respect for him.
I had been aghast.
But, I met him at his residence upon his return from abroad – at the invitation of MGR himself. The CM was then recovering from a near paralytic stroke – triggered by severe diabetes, coupled with total renal failure and came away with a totally different impression of the most successful matinee idol to ever walk on the soil of India – in terms of power, fame and a lot more. That he was never much of an actor, is an aside I will not go into in detail. But, I did tell him to his face that he and his bête noire Villipuram Chinnaiah Ganeshan – more famous as Shivaji Ganeshan had a serious problem.
“Shivaji cannot perform if there is no camera in front of him and a script to back him. You are the exact opposite. You get a bit finicky and panicky when in front of a camera – and become extra careful to ensure that others do not overshadow you,” I said in chaste Malayalam.
He threw back his head and laughed.
None would have dared to say that to him. I did and got away with that kind of blue murder.
But then, that was nothing new. In the eighties, when he was in full flow, during a press conference in his T’ Nagar office, I snapped my fingers pointed my index finger and told him something very, very bluntly.
In a question, I had referred to the current CM by her name – Jayalalithaa.
MGR corrected me and said, “You should refer to her respectfully and only as the Propaganda Secretary.”
Mr. MGR! Jayalalithaa is your party’s Propaganda Secretary. I am referring to her respectfully by name. That is it. Answer the question please, I had snapped.
After the presser, quite a few friends who worked for papers that owed allegiance to the then main opposition [and currently on the verge of disappearing] – the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam [DMK] hugged me and said, “You are the only one amongst us who can proudly twirl your moustache!” [Parenthesis] I had begun contributing to Thuglak magazine then. I continue writing in it and consider it an honour to do so. Mr. Cho carries them only whenever he finds my articles acceptable. Those days, Mr. Cho had taken a conscious decision – never to publish Jayalalithaa’s picture. Even in cartoons – only her strange costume was depicted from behind – indicating it was her – but never her face. During the press conference, I had done the opposite – but with the same effect – to register my disapproval of her dictatorial ways. [Parenthesis ends]
I had told that journalistic colleague that notwithstanding my argument with MGR, I always respected him as a movie-technician par excellence and a good human being. And I do till this day. And, I had pointed to the possibility of crossing Karunanidhi in the same way in press conferences. I have done that as well as I have in the case of Mrs. Indira Gandhi when she had been PM. To come back to MGR, I respect him as a good human being due to the following incidents. -
In the 70’s, Mu Ka Muthu, Karunanidhi’s eldest son, had been projected as the main competitor of MGR and the actor had gone nowhere, very, very fast.
Before long, Muthu totally vanished from showbiz horizons, was rumoured to have turned into a washed up lush. The story goes that he one day walked into the Ramavaram Gardens’ residence of MGR fully drunk and began abusing his father in colourful expletives. Without any warning, MGR is supposed to have caught him by his balls, squeezed and said with a voice like that of the Devil Himself, “Are you aware that your father is my friend for well over 40 years, you ungrateful wretch? Think of what all he did to prop your career and what you did in return to besmirch his name. If you think you can use me to settle your imaginary scores with your father, think again. If you have come to me for money, I will send you a tidy sum every month. But, one wrong word about your father, I will have your guts for garters. Is that understood?”
Muthu had reportedly squirmed helplessly throughout the angry expressions from MGR out of sheer pain and had complied. MGR had given him a huge suit case believed to have contained a few lakhs of rupees. The money, it is said, used to reach Muthu unerringly on the first of every month. And when Karunanidhi heard about the good deed, he had apparently, profusely thanked the actor.
The recounting was done by none other than the smartest cop to walk the Indian earth – the late DGP K Mohandas and personally to me.
If he had wanted, MGR could have destroyed Karunanidhi’s reputation using, misusing and abusing Muthu. That the actor chose not to, if Mohandas is to be believed [I do believe the tale] it only shows that MGR was a good man, who never hit below the belt.
There are two stories for which my mentor in Tamil journalism – Mr. Cho S Ramaswamy is the source. And I firmly believe them to be true.
Before appointing Jayalalithaa as the propaganda secretary, Jayalalithaa had called Mr. Cho on the phone and revealed the details of the olive branch extended by MGR.
“You seem to have taken the decision already at the behest of MGR. So why ask me? Surely, MGR must be somewhere near you. Give the phone to him and I will tell him my opinion,” Mr. Cho had said.
Jayalalithaa is said to have snapped the connection.
Soon MGR had called and confirmed the tidings.
Mr. Cho had approved and said, “Jayalalithaa has an axe to grind against Karunanidhi and her attacking him verbally would do wonders for the AIADMK.” And that piece of advice is holding good to this day. Mr. Cho has never written about this anywhere.
Once, Mr. Cho had accompanied MGR after shooting hours twice, spotted an aged Brahmin priest standing outside the Ramavaram Gardens’ bungalow. MGR had invited the Brahmin into the house, heard his need for money to celebrate his daughter’s marriage and given him a huge sum of money, plus, a vehicle to take the old man home to Tirunelveli district, bearing the fuel costs.
“The old tried falling at MGR’s feet. But the thespian prevented it. Those who have learnt the Vedas should not fall at lesser mortals’ feet, .MGR had said. Instead MGR sought the old man’s blessings commenting, please bless me so that I have the money and mind to help people just as I have in your case. .Whatever one can say about MGR, he had a streak of magnanimity rarely seen in persons of his stature. For such deeds, MGR never sought publicity,” Mr. Cho has been quoted as saying.
Upon MGR’s orders, the police had broken my leg. Ill-advised about my origins and political outlook, MGR had believed that I was a left-wing extremist whose political allegiances were with Karunanidhi. When MGR was told that I had played a small role in Mohandas’s endeavour to thwart Karunanidhi’s evil designs to usurp power and rule through proxies like Nedunchezhiyan, Veerappan and the then Chief Secretary Chokkalingam, MGR had invited me for breakfast and offered me a vast sum of money … something I had turned down.
Upon MGR’s orders, the police had broken my leg in 1981 in Madurai. Apparently, he had been ill-informed about my origins and political outlook, MGR had believed that I was an extremeist left-wing extremist whose political allegiance were with Karunanidhi. When MGR was informed that I had played a small role in Mohandas’s endeavour to thwart Karunanidhi’s evil designs to usurp power and rule through political proxies like Nedunchezhiyan, Veerappan and the then Chief Secretary Chokkalingam, MGR had invited me for breakfast and offered me a vast sum of money … something I had turned down.
If I accept this, I would be like the rest of the parasites who pretend to be journalists and sail with the unsavory currents. You had been given a wrong picture about me. Now, I can say that not only that I knew MGR, MGR too knew me and considers me a friend. That friendship is worth much more than the money you are offering and I am turning the offer of money down and will uphold this offer of friendship to the extent of respecting the fact that you indeed are a good human being. Let us be clear about one thing. My friendship will not deter me from criticising your political actions when I hit the street again after this meeting,” I had said.
Despite having suffered a paralytic stroke, despite having been weakened by the kidney transplant and all, MGR had hugged me tightly that day with surprising strength, tousled my hair and muttered something intelligible. I had guessed that he was calling me a person not in tune with the changing times. I asked him whether I had guessed correctly. He had nodded in agreement. I am still the same. I evolve but rigidly stick to my principles.
MGR had had his darker sides. He had encouraged the terrorist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, primarily because they had only contempt for Karunanidhi. The best part of it was that the LTTE chaps expressed their utter contempt for Karunanidhi rather openly then. They do so now as well. Of course, due to his Lankan origins, MGR had sympathised with the linguistic minority in the Emerald Isle. Nevertheless, MGR never went beyond the point of no return. Not many know that it was MGR who had authorised the seizure of all the arms belonging to the Tamil militants and it was MGR again who had buckled down under pressure from the centre and ordered the return of all weapons to the boys. Those were the contradictions of the man.
MGR had looked away when some of his ministers had been found to be corrupt. There are many who even believe that he even encouraged the corruption. I do not think he did. If MGR had wanted money from industrialists – all he needed to do was – ask one of his aides to make a phone call. So, MGR did not have to be corrupt in the strictest sense of the word, though he did accept sin money.
His friendship with liquor baron NPV Ramaswamy Udayar, to my knowledge, had crossed all limits of favouritism. Yet, MGR was much more of a man and many times a better human being than his political foe Karunanidhi and his female political heiress – Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa.
Sadly, on that count, I miss the old man called Marudur Gopalamenon Ramachandran a.k.a. MGR, a man who called me his friend. And I cherish that friendship, Mr MGR Sir! I am indeed hounoured to have been called your friend, by you, Sir! I know, wherever you are, Sir, you continue to do so, Sir! .And so do I, Sir!
Thank you readers! Each of my blogs are being read by more and more people! At the last count, the number of readers per URL has crossed 120,000! I am bloody thrilled!