MG Ramachandran’s birth centenary falls on January 17, 2017. He was born a hundred years ago in Sri Lanka and went on to become one of the most popular matinee idols of Tamil cinema and one of Tamil Nadu’s most popular chief ministers. In edited excerpts from MGR A Biography, Shrikanth Veeravalli traces the origins of the man who indelibly shaped cinema and politics in Tamil Nadu.

It was a time when casteism was at its peak and Kerala was no exception. The Namboodris were the upper caste and there as a rule that men and women belonging to the supposedly lower caste could not wear anything on the upper portion of their bodies.

There was one Namboodri who exploited this cruel practice by stopping the women of the lower caste on his way and enjoyed their embarrassment while indulging in voyeurism. A magistrate who came across this audacity knew only one way to react. The ubiquitous umbrella of the Kerala monsoon came in handy as a weapon. He gave a few whacks to the Namboodiri as a precursor to the whips that MGR would crack on wrongdoing in his movies in the years to come. His name was Gopala Menon.

Menon was a righteous magistrate who truly cared about the downtrodden and made his share of enemies among the powers that be. He was shunted from one position to another as life was after all not a movie script. At some point in time, he had to choose to move out of Kerala and Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, beckoned to him.

Gopala Menon married Marudur Sathyabama and had two children, a girl and a boy. There are unconfirmed versions that Goplala Menon had three daughters by his first wife, and that Sathyabama, his second wife, was from a lower caste. However, life in Ceylon was much better with Menon finding himself a good position as the principal of a college in Kandy.

A star is born

In the year 1917, the fifth member of the family was born. He was named Ramachandran. The date of birth is uncertain since plantations in Kandy in 1917 probably did not maintain proper records. The date 17 January was chosen later by MGR himself, and some say that it was the day when he was pronounced to be completely out of danger after the gunshot wound… Even as a baby, Ramachandran was extremely fair in complexion; this attribute would later make millions of Tamil swoon, while still identifying him as one amongst them.

When Ramachandran was just two and a half years old, GopalaMenon died. Russell said, ‘Extreme hopes are born from extreme misery.’ And extreme it was to Sathyabama. Just after her husband, her daughter died due to ill health and she was left with just two sons, one still very young. She did not subscribe to what Russell said; life was a struggle and she moved back to India instead of toiling in a foreign land.

She first went to Kerala and was driven away by relatives, some of whom were loyal to Menon’s first wife and some who harboured animosity against her family. There was one kind soul though in Velu Nair who was at Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu. He welcomed the Menons with open arms and helped them settle, while Sathyabama found work as a housemaid.

Sathyabama put both her children in school with her paltry earnings. Young Ramachandran by virtue of his complexion and energetic nature was noticed by a teacher who cast him in a stage play at school.

Despite wish to educate both the boys, fate willed otherwise. It was more important for her to feed their stomachs than their brains; and yet, despite all her efforts, the boys had to hungry many times.

Drama school and the first big break

It makes an interesting study that Ramachandran’s evolution as an individual had all the bearings of childhood struggle. Be it a genuine wish to help the subaltern masses, the Midday Meal Scheme or the attraction to the Dravidar Kazhagam ideals against the hegemony of Brahmins; all his actions had their roots in what happened during his childhood.

Those days there was easy employment in what were called drama troupes. While the Boys Company was the most famous of them all, it was not for the weak-hearted. In the process of becoming a versatile actor, one had to be adept at singing, dancing, sword fighting, diction and memory. This was inculcated with diligence and loads of punishment.

But the young Ramachandran enjoyed the rigour. He was not one to shy away from the gruelling physical exercises; on the contrary, he demanded more as though he was raring to garner meaty roles in the acts.

The class divisions prevalent in society plagued the drama troupes too. The only difference was that divisions were not based on caste but on the pecking order. Consequently, the main actors ate separately from the extras who also had to make do with a diluted menu. Ramachandran was unhappy about this arrangement and quizzed his elder brother.

Several roles came to Ramachandran, and he made the most of every opportunity that came his way. But his first stab of fear of failure happened when he was around fourteen.

He was practicing singing during rehearsals, when he suddenly found that his voice was not cooperating. Ramachandran was at the onset of puberty, and as with all adolescents, his voice was breaking. It broke his heart too. He knew that singing was an integral part of an acting career. He rushed back to his mentor and was advised to practise better and beat the problem.

Madras Kandasamy Mudaliar was an ardent drama fan besides having a BA in English literature. It was Kandasamy Mudaliar that Ramachandran ran to in distress. Mudaliar eventually gave in and went to Sathyabama to ask if he could take her sons to stage dramas in Singapore and Rangoon. She immediately accepted and with the same verve walked up to the owner of Boys Company demanding the release of her sons.

Kandasamy Mudaliar kept his promise and. he took the boys to Rangoon where he was staging plays. Ramachandran was offered the role of the heroine when all he wanted was to become a hero. But being so many miles away from home and homeland, he did not really have a choice.

Ramachandran’s eyes were firmly set on cinema. An invitation from Boys Company came as a reprieve. He was now about sixteen or seventeen years old and had sought Mudaliar’s assistance to escape the tyranny and possible expulsion from the Boys Company. However, he was an invitation from the same company and now he was faced with the prospect of abandoning Mudaliar, his erstwhile redeemer.

Here again was a demonstration of the strong willed personality Ramachandran was. So he chose Boys Company once again and his return also marked his ascent as a hero. The opportunities he had yearned for were now gifted to him on a platter.

Excerpted with permission from MGR: A Biography, Shrikanth Veeravalli, Rupa Publications.