MGR was considered god on earth. Once, a Pondicherry farmer insisted on taking MGR to his land saying, ‘Your feet should touch my earth’ as it would bring him prosperity. Such was the faith among the uneducated in him.

Although the Kalaignar–Sivaji Ganesan combination had raised dialogues in film and their delivery to a new level, somehow fans never conflated Sivaji Ganesan with the message of his dialogues. MGR’s fans, on the contrary, did. Marmayogi was perhaps the first of MGR’s films where the dialogues were conjoined with the hero even outside of the movie. Rajakumari, Marudhanaatu Ilavarasi and Mandhirikumari had established MGR as a dashing hero who valiantly fought for justice. Marmayogi portrayed MGR’s precocious fighting skills, but A.S.A Samy’s dialogues were pregnant with innuendo and multilayered meanings competing for equal attention with the hero’s fighting in the movie. The line, ‘Naan kuri vaithaal thavara maatten! Thavarumey aanaal kuri vaikka maatten (I will not miss if I aim! I will not aim if I were to miss)!’ and the hero’s declaration, ‘Whenever oppression and authoritarianism hurt people, I will appear there in a flash’, much like Krishna in the Gita, resonated with the audience. In Mandhirikumari, MGR had mouthed Kalaignar’s rousing dialogues as commander Veeramohan: ‘They are few . . . We are many! They are conspirators . . . We are the daring! Oh, lion Tamils! Rise snarling!’

Rajinikanth and MGR. Image credit: Penguin Random House India.

MGR had figured out early on that there was no difference between the screen hero and the real one—at least in his case. He portrayed what he was—or so he claimed. In 1974, MGR told the New York Times, ‘What I say in my films, what I do, I try to live up to in my personal life.’

Cinema was more than a livelihood—it was his life and a vehicle for his latent aspirations. The budding hero chose his roles and lines carefully, never essaying a negative role. Sivaji Ganesan on the contrary saw movies purely as a profession and took up any role, sometimes to the detriment of his public image. For instance, Thirumbipaar, his fifth movie, cast him as a womanizer.

Sivaji Ganesan said in an interview in 1997:

“MGR is the chief among those who understood themselves. He had decided early on to succeed in a big way in politics. Therefore, he played roles that would bring him respect from people. I thought that there was no connection between acting and politics. But people have proven that there is a connection. That is why MGR succeeded in politics. For me, politics was only secondary. I acted as a drunk, a womanizer, murderer and rowdy many times. That is why I was able to star in 300 films . . .

[Within the Congress] they did not allow my growth . . . I have not gained anything from politics. [In fact] I have only been humiliated.

I realized only later that people did not wish to see me as a politician. They had wished to see me only as an actor. So many actors have come to politics. Have all of them become leaders?”

As late as 1978, MGR himself said:

For any man, it is not enough what he thinks of himself. The people should believe what he is. If I was not really what I am projecting on the screen, then the people would have abandoned me long ago . . . I live as simply as possible, despite what I can otherwise afford.

Thus, in Panam Padaithavan, terrified at the thought of being shown as going to a cabaret, MGR asked director Ramanna, ‘What would my fans think of me? Is this necessary?’ Thankfully for MGR, the sequence did not survive the censors.

Poet Vaali once suggested that MGR play the role of Devdas, who takes to drinking and a courtesan because of his unfulfilled love. Declining the suggestion, MGR reasoned:

“After singing songs that have a message for society, how can I, even if it is necessary for the plot, act as a drunk? I naturally do not have the habit. It’s one thing to act as a drunk and another to pretend to be intoxicated in a scene. I have done the latter in many movies to befool villains and to find their shortcomings . . . You would’ve seen this. Even when the villain would give me a glass of alcohol, I would throw its contents into a nearby flowerpot and pretend as though I have consumed it.”

MGR’s films personify the Hindu philosophy of the triumph of good over evil, with MGR embodying the good. The evil villain could be a tyrant, counterfeiter, gangster, a rogue scientist, a feudal landlord, an imposter, a corrupt official, a press tycoon and so on. MGR, the underdog, is intelligent and physically invincible, overcoming all the plots, however, malevolent or complicated. He would single-handedly beat up the villain and his henchmen. He would intercede on behalf of the meek for a cause, always fight honourably, save damsels in distress and worship his mother. The villain’s daughter, however, rich or of a higher-caste, would invariably fall in love with him. It was only a matter of time before MGR became ‘vathiyar’ or teacher to the working class, and the epitome of the perfect man to womenfolk.

As MGR rose up the ladder, producers chose stories that matched his persona, even as scriptwriters and lyricists took it upon themselves to craft lines that established and perpetuated the MGR image, turning him into a cult. In 1974, when asked about his success as opposed to the actors of the north, MGR himself noted that ‘producers and film scriptwriters did not engage in a concerted way [in this direction]’ as they did for him. He could have added that even if they had, it would have not congealed like it did in his case.

MGR and Jayalalithaa in Nama Nadu (1969).

MGR was obsessed with his image. A very sensitive person, he wished to project an aura of gravitas, respect and importance around him. His interactions with others in public were also carefully crafted. Arurdhas provided insight into how MGR’s and Sivaji Ganesan’s styles and perspectives differed. On their second film together, Thaaiaiy Kaatha Thanayan (The Son Who Saved His Mother, 1962), MGR stopped a scene midway. Arurdhas, as was his wont with Ganesan, shouted across the set to prompt MGR. The take was then continued and was successfully shot. MGR later called Arurdhas to tell him:

“When you prompt me, shouting from across the sets, I don’t feel anger but embarrassment. I will never allow an inch of my respect to be lost in the eyes of others. I have been thus from my youth . . . In the future, if you wish to prompt me, come close and do so, not loudly.”

He was, unsurprisingly, very selective about his public appearances and similarly kept his trade a secret. Rarely was his shooting public. Fight and romance sequences were filmed privately. MGR wanted cinema to remain magical—a mystery and a wonder. It was after the launch of his AIADMK that he had to show up more often in public. The man was so gifted that this frequent exposure only added to his image, charisma and connection with the people.

Part of MGR’s image was that he was a good fighter and a swashbuckler. Fighting sequences became a must in MGR’s films, so he would lament that ‘with the passage of time, it has somehow come to be established that all my movies must have fight sequences’. However, when it came to fighting with animals, MGR appears to have been very careful.

Many of MGR’s films are entertainers and Ramanna’s Gulebakavali is one such film, known for its songs, dances and fights, especially the one between MGR and a tiger. A cut-up Chandrababu, who co-starred in the film, wrote about how the famous tiger fight in the movie was filmed. Coming in two hours late for the shot, MGR was keen to know that the tiger was drugged and in the cage, and he kept his gaze completely fixed on the animal. He deftly ducked and somewhat hid himself as the tiger leapt and the director said ‘cut’. MGR was drenched in sweat as he left the cage and beckoned Chandrababu for a chat, even as Ramanna kept filming the tiger. ‘I should not describe how this was done. That is a professional secret. MGR was next to me [all the time]. But the tiger fight [with him] was being filmed,’ wrote Chandrababu impishly. In Thaaikupin Thaaram he refused to tame a bull and a double was used instead.

If he was careful about fighting with animals, MGR equally felt the weight of his fans’ adulation and the responsibility it had created. Even titles were chosen very carefully. For Thirudaathae (Do Not Steal, 1961) M. Lakshmanan, a scriptwriter for the film, came up with Thirudaathae and Nalladhuku Kaalamillai (Goodness Stands No Chance), recommending the latter as the title. MGR said: If we were to name it Nalladhuku Kaalamillai, people would think that MGR himself has said that goodness stands no chance, then why should we be good? Thirudaathae is not like that. It exhorts them not to do wrong. It has a good message. We should always convey good message[s] to people.

MGR had a keen sense for good lines and punchlines. He knew roles, dialogues and songs were central in perpetuating the MGR myth and image. While heroines sang paeans of his praise, while other characters spoke of his virtue, the most potent lines, be it a song or a script line, emanated from him. For instance, in Chakravarthi Thirumagal (The Emperor’s Daughter, 1957), in a song sequence, NSK asks MGR what is on fire without fire and smoke. As NSK looks puzzled, MGR answers his question: ‘The poor’s hungry stomach.’

Excerpted with permission from MGR A Life, R Kannan, Penguin Random House India.