Strangers Truth

MGR is the unofficial hero to all the Tamil boys my age when I was going up. Mention “MGR”, and all the Tamil boys’ eyes brightened up.

The only thing I know about MGR is what I have seen on the RTM movie channel. The Tamil actor was undoubtedly one of the most popular Tamil actors, if not, the most popular Indian actor of his time.

Every Indian boy growing up in my neighbourhood secretly harbours the desire to be “just like MGR” when they grow up. On screen, MGR fights like a tiger, he wins the hearts of all the pretty women and he’s fiercely loyal to his mother and walks the path of righteousness all the time.

My closest childhood friend was this guy who was a couple of years older than me called Anbalagan. He stayed opposite my house together with his two younger brothers Nathan and Vasugan. But it was Anba who always gave me the rundown on the famous MGR and the wondrous things he did in his acting roles.

Later, of course, he introduced me to Sivaji Ganesan and another actor called Radha (I think). That was how we passed our time after school in the evenings, if we were not playing badminton.

I remember once telling Anba, “how does MGR remember all that monologue?” I was relating to the previous night’s MGR movie where he went on and on about his family, his mother and his filial responsibilities.

Tamil movies, especially those in which MGR starred in, tended to have very long monologues at crucial junctures. And the director had an inclination to pan rather quickly the scene where a statue of a diety is housed to the facial expression of MGR.

The famous actor also tended to talk very fast and amazingly, he never missed a beat, especially all those important lines. All the time, speaking with great passion and conviction.

With Anba’s help and sometimes his brother Nathan’s narration, I got sucked into the Tamil movie world, too. What is a Chinese boy to do? We don’t have that many film heroes of our own. At least I don’t have. I almost never have any pocket money to see even the cheap matinees which cost only about 60 cents (not sen in those days!).

MGR’s name in full is Marudur Gopalamenon Ramachandran. He was born on January 17, 1917 in Kandy, Sri Lanka. His parents were Marudhar Gopalan and Satyabhama.

After his father died, his family moved to Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu. Extreme poverty forced him to leave school at the primary level. At the age of six, he joined a theatre group called the Madurai Original Boys. It was here that he learnt acting, dancing and swordplay.

MGR excelled in acting which turned out to be his true calling. From then on, he gradually rose to prominence in the film industry. His first movie was Sati Leelavathi in 1936. Nothing unusual happened at first.

Eleven years later in 1947, MGR gained immense popularity with the movie Rajakumari. MGR’s forte was his realistic portrayal of a hero who always champion the poor.

The impoverished millions in India loved him. The movie Madurai Veeran further boosted his acting career when he was cast as the leader of the Dalits.

MGR is a member of the Dravidian movement which he joined in 1953. He is labelled as a Dravidian nationalist. The DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) gained popularity with MGR’s entry.

In 1967, MGR was elected into the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly. In 1972, he had a falling-out with the DMK, and subsequently formed the AIADMK or the All India Anna Dravidian Progressive Federation. MGR reached the pinnacle of his political career when he became the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu in 1977.

He held on to the post until his death on Dec 24, 1987. When he died, Tamil Nadu practically came to a standstill, such was his popularity and, the respect that the Tamils had for him.

His funeral procession was attended by about two million people. In Madras today, there’s a temple built in honour of MGR with him as a diety.

In his lifetime, MGR acted in 139 movies, an acting career that stretched from 1935 to about 1970. MGR’s life was filled with real-life dramas that mirrored some of his movie roles.

In 1967, he was shot by a fellow actor Mr Radha. MGR survived and became even more popular. Actually, MGR continues to be as popular as before. In some circles, MGR is also known as the “Jewel of the Masses”.

Today, whenever any of my Indian friends mentioned MGR, I will inadvertently think back of my childhood friend Anba and his family.

I recall those Deepavali celebrations when I would be invited to his house and helped myself with all the apom and Etalli that were available. Anba’s mother and sisters were great cooks so we usually had our fill before we sauntered home, only about 20 yards away!

In a way, MGR had helped to cement a great friendship that stretched across the decades. This report is in honour of my boyhood friend Anba, and also to say “thank you” for all those free meals I had at his house. Hey, those Indian fish and chicken curries were great!

For further reading and photos click here: http://www.nst.com.my/blogs/fillips/48

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