Marudhur Gopalan Ramachandran (17 January 1917 – 24 December 1987), popularly known by his initials MGR, was an Indian Tamil film actor who worked primarily in Tamil films as an actor, director, producer, and politician who also served as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu successively for three terms.
In his youth, MGR and his elder brother, M. G. Chakrapani, became members of a drama troupe to support their family. Influenced by Gandhian ideals, MGR joined the Indian National Congress. After a few years of acting in plays, he made his film debut in the 1936 film Sathi Leelavathi in a supporting role. In the late 1940s he graduated to leading roles and for the next three decades dominated the Tamil film industry.
He became a member of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and rose rapidly through its ranks. He successfully used his popularity as a film hero to build a large political base. In 1972, he left the DMK to form his own party the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (ADMK). In 1977 he became the chief minister of Tamil Nadu – the first film actor in India to become the chief minister of a state. He remained as chief minister till his death in 1987.
MGR was born in Nawalapitiya near Kandy, Sri Lanka, to Melakkath Gopala Menon and Maruthur Satyabhama. Melakkath Gopala Menon was staying in Vadavannur, in Palakkad District, Kerala before he was excommunicated in 1903, regarding an allegation that dealt with an illicit relationship with a widowed namboothri woman; he left his family and married Maruthur Satyabhama.
In his early days, MGR was a devout Hindu and a devotee of Murugan, and his mother’s favorite god guruvayoorappan. Later, when he joined the DMK, a pro-rationalist party, he followed the rationalist ideology, though not appearing very aggressively atheistic. In later days after he founded his own party following his expulsion from the DMK, he seems to have shown some leaning towards religious faith. He had asked his followers to pray for the success of his AIADMK party.
His followers prayed for him when it was determined that he had a kidney illness. After his demise, his wife opened up a temple in his name.
After his father’s death, he joined a drama company called “Madurai Original Boys company”. Later, he entered the world of cinema, becoming an actor, director, producer, and editor. MGR married chitarikulam Bargavi also known as Thangamani who died early due to illness. He later married Sathanandavathhi who died soon due to tuberculosis. M.G.R. married V. N. Janaki a former Tamil film actress. Janaki divorced her husband, Ganapati Bhatt, to marry MGR.
He made his film debut in 1936, in the film Sathi Leelavathi, directed by Ellis Dungan, an American-born film director. Generally starring in romance or action films, MGR got his big breakthrough in the 1950 film Manthiri Kumari, written by M. Karunanidhi. Soon he rose to popularity with the 1954 Malaikkallan.
He acted as hero in the Tamil film industry’s first ever geva colour movie, the 1955 Alibabavum 40 Thirudargalum. He rose to become the heart throb of millions of tamilians with movies such as Thirudadhe, Enga Veettu Pillai, Aayirathil Oruvan, Anbe Vaa, Mahadevi, Panam Padaithavan, Ulagam Sutrum Vaalibhan, etc. He won the National Film Award for Best Actor for the film Rickshawkaran in 1972. His film Nadodi Mannan, released in 1958, was a Tamil version of the interpretation of the Prisoner of Zenda, produced and directed by himself and released in 1956, did well.
He began to act in many movies that appealed to the direct sentiments of the common man and the rich as well. His 1973 blockbuster Ulagam Sutrum Vaalibhan broke previous box office records of his movies. It was one of the few movies filmed abroad in those days. It was shot in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong and Japan. The DMK unsuccessfully tried to curtail that movie. His acting career ended in 1984 with his last film, Ullagam Suthi Paru, which he acted when he was diagnosed with kidney failure.
MGR was a member of the Congress Party till 1953, and he used to wear khādī. In 1953 MGR joined the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) attracted by founder C.N.Annadurai. He became a vocal Tamil and Dravidian nationalist and prominent member of the DMK (“Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam” aka Dravidian Progressive Federation). He added glamour to the Dravidian movement which was sweeping Tamil Nadu. MGR became a member of the state Legislative Council in 1962. He was first elected to the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly in 1967. After the death of his mentor, Annadurai, MGR became the treasurer of DMK in 1969 after Muthuvel Karunanidhi became the chief minister.
M.R. Radha and MGR had worked in 25 films together. On 12 January 1967 M.R. Radha with a producer visited MGR to talk about a future project. During the conversation M.R. Radha stood up and shot MGR in his left ear twice and then pretended to shoot himself. MGR drove to the hospital by himself and spoke to the doctor with his own voice for the last time. After the operation his voice changed. Since he had been shot in his ear MGR lost hearing in his left ear and had ringing in the ear problems but never complained until he had kidney problems in the early 1983.
When Sinnappa Devar paid his first visit to see MGR at the hospital after the shooting incident he paid an advance for the next MGR’s movie. So after getting released from the hospital and finishing Arasakattalai MGR acted in Devar’s movie Vivasaayee against doctors’ advice. When finishing the movie Kaavalkaaran MGR’s speaking parts were reduced. This was the only movie MGR spoke with old and new voices between scenes: When MGR was acting in Kaavalkaran in 1967 opposite J. Jayalalithaa the shooting happened.
Petralthaan Pillaya was the last movie of MGR-MR Radha together. Shooting ended just few days before MGR was shot at. The bullet was permanently lodged in his neck and his voice damaged. Within hours of the shooting, some 50,000 fans had gathered at the hospital where MGR had been taken. People cried in the streets. For six weeks, he lay in the hospital as fans awaited each report of his health. He was visited by a steady stream of commoners and luminaries of film industry, polity and bureaucracy. From his hospital bed, he conducted his campaign for Madras Legislative Assembly. He won twice the number of votes polled by his Congress rival and the largest vote polled by any candidate for the Assembly.
In 1972, DMK leader Karunanidhi started to project his first son M.K. Muthu in a big way in film and politics. Understanding the tactics played by Karunanidhi to corner him, MGR started to claim that corruption had grown in the party after the demise of Annadurai and in a public meeting asked for the financial details of the party to be publicised, which enraged the leadership of DMK. Consequently, MGR was expelled from the party as per Karunanidhi’s plan. He forcefully floated a new party named Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (ADMK), later renamed All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the only powerful opponent of the DMK. He mobilised between 1972 and 1977 to spread and preach his party ambition with films like Netru Indru Naalai (1974), Idhayakani (1975), Indru Pol Endrum Vazhga (1977), etc.
He became Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu on 30 June 1977, remaining in office till his death in 1987. In 1979, members of his party Satyavani Muthu and Aravinda Bala Pajanor became the first non-Congress politicians from Tamil Nadu to be ministers in the Union Cabinet. The AIADMK won every state assembly election as long as MGR was alive. Although Anna Durai and Karunanidhi had acted in stage plays in trivial roles, in their younger days, before becoming chief minister, MGR was the first popular film actor to be a Chief Minister in India.
Though the Congress won by a small margin of votes with the DMK in the 1980 parliamentary elections, the AIADMK under MGR won the state elections the same year. This made the Congress to ally with the AIADMK in the 1984 elections. MGR ended his acting career in 1977.
Once he became Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, he placed great emphasis on social development, especially education. One of his most successful policies was the conversion of the “Midday Meal Scheme” introduced by the popular Congress Chief Minister and kingmaker K Kamaraj, which already was encouraging underprivileged children to attend school, into “MGR’s Nutritious Meal Scheme” in the government-run and -aided schools in Tamil Nadu by adding saththurundai – a nutritious sugary flour dumpling.
This scheme was at a cost of Rs. 1 billion and was imposed in 1982. A little more than 120,000 children of the state were benefited. He also introduced Women’s Special buses. He introduced a liquor ban in the state and preservation of old temples and historical monuments, ultimately increasing the state’s tourist income. He set up a free school for the cinema technicians children in Kodambakkam called MGR Primary & Higher Secondary School which provided free mid-day meals in the 1950s.
He led the ADMK to victory in the 1984 assembly elections despite not taking part in the campaigning. At that time he was undergoing medical treatment in America and his images were broadcast in Tamil Nadu through cinema halls. This was an effective campaign tactic and ADMK won the elections claiming around 56% of assembly seats, indicating the depth of his popular support. He won his seat in a double landslide victory in 1984. He still holds the record of being the chief minister with the highest consistent longevity of more than a decade.
Karunanidhi claimed on 1 April 2009 and again on 13 May 2012 that MGR was ready for the merger of his party with the DMK in 1979, with Biju Patnaik acting as the mediator. The plan failed, because Panruti Ramachandran, who was close to MGR acted as a spoiler and MGR changed his mind.
Even after his death, MGR proved to be very popular in the state and his rule has been cited by many of his contemporaries as best in the country. However, his rule is not without criticism, most of them coming from analysts outside of Tamil Nadu. Economic data under his rule showed that annual growth and per capita income was lower than national average and the state went from being second among 25 industrialised states in development after Kamaraj’s rule to tenth.
This decline according to critics have been due to shift of government resources from power and irrigation to social and agriculture sector according to Madras Institute of Development Studies reported in 1988. In addition, the emphasis on “welfare schemes” such as free electricity to farmers, mid-day meal schemes, etc. has been seen by many as taking money away from infrastructure development that could have benefited the poor. In addition, the liquor tax imposed during his rule was considered to contribute to a regressive tax mostly affecting the poor.
Other criticisms have been on MGR’s centralised decision-making which many blame led to inefficiency and corruption to take hold of his administration. Some examples stated by the critics include Goondas act in 1982 and other acts that limited political criticism in the media which led to a “police state” during his administration. While these criticisms have been in the minority, supporters of MGR counter that most of these problems were a result of the party members serving MGR rather than the leader himself. While he is not considered a divisive figure in the state, critics and supporters alike agree that his charisma and popularity trumped policy decisions that led to his eventual success during his tenure as chief minister.
Natwar Singh in his autobiography One Life is Not Enough alleges that M.G.Ramachandra covertly supported and financed the LTTE and their cadres were being given military training in Tamil Nadu. He also alleges that M.G.R considered Jaffna an extension of Tamil Nadu and without informing the Indian Government at the time, had gifted 40 million rupees to the LTTE.
After his death in 1987, he became the third Chief Minister from the state of Tamil Nadu to receive the Bharat Ratna. The timing of the award was controversial, due to the fact that it was given so quickly after his death and he was elected as Chief Minister only 11 years before the award. Many opponents, mostly outside Tamil Nadu, criticised the current ruling party INC, under Rajiv Gandhi to have influenced the selection committee to give the award to help win the upcoming 1989 Lok Sabha election. The ruling party forming a coalition with Jayalalithaa, successor to MGR at that time were able to sweep Tamil Nadu winning 38 out of 39 seats, INC were however unable to win nationally.