R Kannan is the deputy head of the HirShabelle State office of the UN Mission in Somalia. The 55-year-old is better known in political circles in Tamil Nadu as a keen follower of Dravidian politics, and is the author of Anna-The Life and Times of C.N. Annadurai and MGR: A Life. On the occasion of MGR’s 101st birth anniversary earlier this month, Kannan delves on the chemistry and backdrop that helped the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) founder transition from being a silver screen star to a successful politician. Excerpts from an interview:
You show in your book that MG Ramachandran was someone who knew almost instinctively what the people wanted, and how to satisfy them. You also describe MGR as having “a keen native intelligence”, and unlike popularly portrayed, being “an astute politician”. Which of the two dominated MGR? And what explains his god-like status among the Tamil people?
It was an era when literacy was low. Cinema had a monopoly over entertainment and many trusted that there was no difference between the reel and the real. MGR had uncannily figured this out early on, and essayed only positive roles. A quarter century of such heroic showmanship stuck to the man for another 10 years after he ceased to act. MGR’s native intelligence was by default. Having not had the privilege of studying beyond third grade, MGR had to be street smart. But his association with the Dravidian movement and formal entry into the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) from 1952 had given him a ringside view of power politics.
In 1977, although he had fought the Parliamentary polls in the company of the Congress-I, when it came to the Legislature, he did not wish to share power with them and upended the alliance talks by giving them a raw deal. However, having seen what had happened to Kalaignar Karunanidhi’s combative politics with the Centre, MGR towed a soft line towards prime ministers. So, he withdrew support for Indira Gandhi at the last minute in the 1979 Thanjavur Parliamentary by-poll but in 1980, although he won with the help of the Left and smaller parties, he was astute enough to repair his relationship with Indira Gandhi, who had bounced back. He could see that the Congress-I could tip the balance in favour of the DMK or the AIADMK. MGR was both street smart and astute but it must be said that circumstances also helped him die in harness.
At one point in the book, you say that the DMK’s rise was the rise of MGR and that both grew “hand in hand”. Is the DMK’s role in the creation of the MGR phenomenon overlooked today? MGR was no matinee idol who went into politics but rather a cinema star who was created to fulfill a political need. How did MGR claim ownership of this idea after he launched his own party and why did it work?
Many born after the 70s might not be aware of the DMK’s salient role in showcasing and building MGR as a phenomenon. All DMK-sympathetic organs, especially Kalaignar Karunanidhi’s (Tamil daily) Murasoli played a vital role in promoting MGR. Even in the mid-50s, MGR and the party had blended so seamlessly that the DMK flag was called by the rural folk as MGR’s flag. MGR had declared early on that his aim was to use his films to propagate the party’s ideals. His plays formed an integral part of early party conferences. He was ubiquitous, and the party and MGR became indistinguishable from each other. His work in taking the party to the nooks and crannies of the state was well known.
When MGR rebelled and was shown the door, his fans broke company with the DMK. Non-DMK people sympathised with him as they knew his role in building the DMK. So, when he said his was the real DMK that followed founder Anna’s ideals, those who were disillusioned by the DMK’s high-handedness and overreach, shifted their loyalties. Also, MGR cleverly painted Kalaignar Karunanidhi as his villain. And as in his movies, the hero trounced his villain.
What was the Anna-MGR relationship like? MGR, unlike his own successor, J. Jayalalithaa, placed Anna at the center of the ADMK’s (Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) political identity. He even coined a term for the ideology of the ADMK – “Annaism.” Would it be right to say that this idea never really took off? Is this the reason why the AIADMK became hostage to personality-driven politics under MGR and later, Jayalalithaa?
The relationship was good and mutually beneficial. Anna knew MGR’s elephantine strength. He had singled out MGR from a star-filled DMK sky to help the party in the 1962 and 1967 elections. Yet MGR’s crowd-pulling ability did not awe him. He was confident and gracious towards MGR. To MGR, Anna was a real leader. He felt very comfortable with him. After Anna’s death, MGR probably appreciated Anna’s approach and affection towards him more than ever. “Annaism” was a response to those, especially the DMK and the Marxists who rightly pointed to the policy vacuum in MGR. Yes, Annaism did not take off. It was a mishmash of good ideas, plenty of welfare schemes and a mixed economy. It had everything for everyone: women, labour, farmers, etc. The idea of constitutional amendment to recall elected representatives who failed to perform their job satisfactorily (one of the main proposals in a September 1973 note released by the fledgling ADMK on what constituted Annaism) was perhaps the only MGResque idea. It was born out of the frustration that despite the crowds he was able to attract, MGR could not wean away legislators from Kalaignar Karunanidhi.
M Karunanidhi and MGR were close friends and associates initially. Yet they fell apart. What was the main reason for this rift? What was this relationship like in the years when MGR was chief minister from 1977 to 1987?
The two had reached a stage where they had become equals. Ego was the principal culprit. Kalaignar Karunandihi felt that MGR was acting like a regent. He wished to be freed. Mutual suspicion led to a break in cooperation and even acts to checkmate each other. As the party’s treasurer, MGR was upset with the way party president Kalaignar Karunanidhi had distributed campaign funds to candidates in the 1971 elections. He felt that it had been whimsical. Karunanidhi’s son MK Muthu’s debut in films and the party’s exhibition of him also caused MGR much angst. The Congress also had a role to play in the parting of ways of the one-time friends and collaborators. It wanted to cut down the DMK and Kalaignar Karunanidhi to size. MGR’s heartburn and disillusionment was exploited. The rest is history.
However, as chief minister and leader of the Opposition, the relationship was mutually respectful and reminiscent of their old ties. Remember there was even a well-publicised attempt to re-unite the two parties in 1979. However, competitive politics also led to some unsavoury incidents like the abolition of the Legislative Council to preempt Kalaignar Karunanidhi from becoming the leader of the Opposition in the Council and the disqualification of DMK MLAs for burning the Constitution to protest Hindi imposition. Till the end, the personal friendship of some 27 years stood in good stead that withstood the difficulties of the altered relationship from 1972 till 1987.
MGR’s personal life was full of difficulties. His relationships with women, especially, seem to be marked by a sense of loss. Did MGR find it difficult to establish and maintain close personal relationships with women? If so, why?
MGR was an actor. There were many women in his life. However, he badly desired to be a father, which was not to be.
The MGR-Jayalalithaa relationship was complex. He seems to have been fascinated by her independent streak, while also eager to keep her under his control. Would he have wanted Jayalalithaa to succeed him? Or rather, even if he had doubts about whether it would work, would she have managed to convince him to lead the party after him?
She might have convinced him. However, according to RM Veerapan (politician and film producer close to both the DMK and AIADMK), MGR had reached a point where he had “seen through” Jayalalithaa, and if he had lived for another week, he would have consigned her to the pages of history.
Now that both MGR and Jayalalithaa are no more, what will be the glue that holds the AIADMK together? This is a question that the DMK too will have to face in the post-Karunanidhi phase, given that the ideological platform which launched the party, the Dravidian movement, is in many ways a thing of the past.
The ideology of the Dravidian parties is Dravidian pride (read Tamil pride), Tamil Nadu first and an equal place for Tamils in an otherwise Hindi majority-centric India. This will continue to be important for some more time. Therefore, the post-Jayalalithaa AIADMK might not wither away soon. We will have to see how many of the ordinary cadre will gravitate towards Rajinikanth or Kamal Haasan or other alternatives. The DMK will thrive under MK Stalin. The party cadre find him charismatic and a deserving heir to the DMK patriarch’s political legacy.
Kalaignar Karunandihi felt that MGR was acting like a regent. He wished to be freed. Mutual suspicion led to a break in cooperation and even acts to checkmate each other.R Kannan, Author of MGR: A Life and of Anna-The Life and Times of C.N. Annadurai
As someone who saw and imbibed the ideas of the Dravidian movement and witnessed its impact, how did it shape your understanding of contemporary politics and the wider world?
I realised early on that despite the large heartedness of Tamils, we were greatly misunderstood as narrow-minded people because of our attachment to our Tamil identity. I also realised that when you are a minority, you need to keep fighting until the very end. This fort of linguistic pluralism would have fallen long ago if not for EV Ramasamy Periyar, Anna and the DMK. I also realise that language politics will not appeal as much to the younger generation unless language can provide jobs. The movement has made me aware of the struggles of ethnic minorities around the world, their quest for self-determination and identity. This is why I follow Kosovo, Catalonia, Iraqi Kurdistan, Scotland, Somalia and the likes with some interest. India’s pluralism stands out as one of the more successful examples of accommodating competing interests with give and take.
Can we say that the bridge between politics and cinema, and now, politics, media and celebrity, in Tamil Nadu is a direct fallout of Anna’s move to induct filmstars and artists into the Dravidian fold? Do you think if he were alive today, he may have wanted to do it differently?
I think Anna had only emulated a successful formula introduced by S Sathyamurthy, (K) Kamaraj’s mentor in the Congress during the independence struggle. Sathyamurthy donned roles in stage plays and brought those like (actor-singer) KB Sundarambal to rouse emotions at Congress rallies. Anna used both the stage and the cinema. Although successful, the formula was vehemently opposed by those like (politician) EVK Sampath, who desired that the party get serious and bank on ideology. Cinema had become a tautology after the DMK had come to office. That is why till today, no one from the film world, be it an actor or a script writer, has been able to fill the shoes of Anna, Kalaignar Karunanidhi, MGR or Jayalalithaa. The excitement about Rajini and Kamal is because of the political vacuum and not because of the political wares they peddle through their films.
Along with MGR: A Life you are also the author of Anna: The Life and Times of C.N. Annadurai. The two books read differently. Would it be right to say that the Anna biography was a subject close to your heart? Was your approach to the two subjects different?
I personally liked the Anna book better. But these were two different personalities and the books unavoidably had to be different. I respected Anna as a leader even before I began to write about him. MGR was a tall figure. In retrospect, I have much respect for him but Anna was even MGR’s leader.
You mention in the introduction to the MGR book that there is no dependable standard biography in English on MGR. Why do you think this is the case? We see this lack in literature about the lives of leaders from the South, whether it is NT Ramarao or even Karunanidhi. Did you make any discoveries about MGR during the writing?
Indian history has always been North centric. Besides, these are regional leaders and the readership for them would naturally be small. So, there are also commercial reasons for the absence of literature in English on regional leaders. My interviews and reading of MGR made me realise that this was a man who enjoyed giving. I also realised that he had not really thought through all his actions before he launched a political party. I think events overtook him.