Maruthur Gopala Ramachandran (January 17, 1917 – December 24, 1987) was a greatly revered Tamil film actor and the only Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu to have won three consecutive state elections, holding the office from 1977 until his death in 1987.
M. G. Ramachandran, popularly known by his initials, MGR, was the one of the most popular Tamil stars of the silver screen during his time. He acted in more than 125 films in the middle of the 20th century. He was adored by the film audience and idolized by his supporters.
He believed that cinema was not only meant to entertain, but also to enrich and inculcate good values in people. He turned his huge success in movies into a platform for entering politics and met with unprecedented success as an administrator too.
M. G. Ramachandran was also known as Puratchi Thalaivar Dr MGR, Ponmana Chemmal, Puratchi Nadigar, and Makkal Thilagam.
Maruthur Gopala Ramachandran was born in Nawalapitiya, near Kandy, British Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka), to Gopalan and Maruthur Satyabhama. His family was originally from Vadavannur, Palakkad, Madras Presidency (later part of Kerala), but his father had migrated with his family to Sri Lanka.
After the death of his father, MGR moved to Kumbakonam with his mother and his brother, M.G. Chakrapani. He had five years of primary education; unfortunately, he had to quit his studies because of poverty.
At the beginning of his acting career, MGR, together with his brother, joined a drama troupe called “Original Boys Company.” Later, he embarked on his career in Tamil cinema.
He made his debut in the movie Sati Leelavathi, which was released in 1936. He first appeared in mythological movies, but he was soon portrayed as a modern Robin Hood in most of his films, representing himself as the savior of the poor. MGR’s first breakthrough movie, Malaikallan, was released in 1947.
In 1955, M. G. Ramachandran was cast as the hero in the Tamil film industry’s first color movie, Alibabavum 40 Thirudargalum (Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves). It was a blockbuster hit. He won many awards during his acting career. The National Award was given to him for the movie Rikshawkaran in 1972. He was also chosen for the Padma Shri award by the Government of India in 1960; however. he declined to accept the award, since the words on the medallion were imprinted in Hindi and he wanted the text to be in Tamil.
In 1956, MGR ventured into the field of directing and producing movies. His first film as director, Nadodi Mannan, was a mega-hit, with the audience packing the theaters. Following the success of Nadodi Mannan, he also directed and produced two other movies, Ulagam Sutrum Valiban and Madhurai Meetha Sundharapandian.
M. G. Ramachandran, influenced by Gandhian thoughts and principles, joined the Indian National Congress party and remained a member until 1953. Later, on the insistence of his friend, Karunanithi, he joined the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party that was led by Annadurai (Anna), who later became Chief Minister of the state of Tamil Nadu.
MGR had become the screen idol of the people of Tamil Nadu through his movies, and he added glamour to the DMK party that was sweeping the polls. He had a successful political career largely because of his immense popularity as an actor.
M. G. Ramachandran 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 Karunanidhi became the Chief Minister.
The death of Anna also meant the death of MGR’s career in DMK. He served the party until he was expelled in 1972 by the party’s high command. MGR thought that corruption was increasing within the party; hence, in a public meeting, he asked to publicize the financial details of the party, which enraged the leadership.
MGR left DMK and, being a sincere devotee of Anna, started a new political party: Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (ADMK), named after his mentor. The party was later renamed All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).
PATH TO SUCCESS
M. G. Ramachandran was also called Ezhai Pangalan (friend of the poor) by the people of Tamil Nadu. He carefully select his characters in movies in order to portray himself as a man who represented the poor and opposed the rulers and landlords.
MGR’s expulsion from the DMK created overwhelming sympathy for him among the people. This was evident from the Dindugal Parliament bye election results. Within few months of the party’s birth, ADMK candidate and lawyer Mayadevar was elected with a huge margin, pushing the ruling DMK into third place. The competition was virtually only between the Kamaraj-led Congress party and ADMK.
MGR’s popularity in politics grew, aided by the fact that Kamaraj had advocated that senior members in the Congress party not contest for power but serve people otherwise. MGR maintained a good rapport with the Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi. The Prime Minister was instrumental in dismissing the Karunanithi-led DMK government in 1976, citing corruption charges against Karunanithi and the imposition of President’s rule in the state.
The sixth legislative assembly election of Tamil Nadu was held on June 10, 1977, and MGR was sworn in as the Chief Minister for the first time. His government was dismissed in 1980 as the Congress party had withdrawn its support. When the elections were held again, ADMK won the majority by becoming the largest party.
MGR won the legislative assembly elections three times consecutively in 1977, 1980 and 1984, and he held his seat until 1987.
In 1967, MGR gained national attention after an incident in which he was shot in his neck by his fellow co-actor and politician, M. R. Radha. MGR tried to evade the gun shot, but the bullet struck his throat and he was rushed to the hospital. The bullet was permanently lodged in his throat and it damaged his voice for the rest of his life. The real reason why M. R. Radha shot MGR is unclear even today.
MGR was hospitalized for nearly two months. During that time the country realized how popular MGR was in Tamil Nadu. Thousands of people crowded in front of the hospital – refusing to move, praying, and monitoring the step-by-step improvement of their favorite leader’s health. While recuperating in the hospital, MGR ran for the Madras Legislative Assembly and won the election with twice the votes of his rival.
After Indira Gandhi passed away, MGR continued to maintain a good rapport with her son and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Some of the legacies of the MGR government are the Krishna Water Project, the Mid Day Meal Scheme (originally introduced by former Chief Minister Kamaraj), and Thanjavur Tamil University. MGR also introduced special buses for women passengers, a ban on liquor throughout the state of Tamil Nadu, restoration and renovation of historical monuments and temples, and the opening of a free school – MGR Primary and Higher Secondary School – for the children of cinema technicians.
His influence over the people of Tamil Nadu was such that MGR led his party to victory in the 1984 state elections, despite not being able to campaign while undergoing medical treatment in America. MGR enjoyed the continued support of the electorate and he still holds the record of being a Chief Minister for more than a decade.
M. G. Ramachandran had a great love for his mother, Sathyabama. He had a temple built for his mother and he named his company for her: Sathya Studios, the premises of which now stands a women’s college.
MGR was married three times. His first two wives, Barghavi and Sathanandavathhi, each died from illness. MGR’s third wife, V. N. Janaki, was a former Tamil film actress who divorced her husband, Ganapati Bhatt, in order to marry MGR.
MGR was diagnosed with kidney failure in 1984. He was taken to Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York, for treatment. He later had a kidney transplant at the same medical center. The people of Tamil Nadu were grief-stricken at his illness, and they offered prayers for the well-being of their great leader. After the failure of several treatments, Maruthur Gopala Ramachandran left the world on December 24, 1987.
Mourners rushed to MGR’s house for a last viewing. The government and police had difficulty controlling the rioting crowd. People fought and died in large numbers. Nearly 30 people committed suicide by setting themselves on fire.
After the death of MGR, the ADMK split into two parts—one under his wife, Janaki Ramachandran, and the other under J. Jayalalitha (the present Chief Minister). The party later reunited. MGR’s wife constructed a temple in his memory, and the MGR Samadhi (memorial) was constructed near Marina Beach, in Chennai, next to the memorial of his mentor, Annadurai.
Another temple was dedicated to MGR in Nathamedu near Thirunindravoor on August 15, 2011, by his devotees, Kalaivanan and his wife Shanthi Kalaivanan. The temple features three statues of MGR: a six-foot-tall idol in the inner sanctum, a two-foot-high idol inside the temple, and a third idol on the temple tower. Fans line up in the temple to collect the holy ash sachets and the milk which was used for abhishekam. These acts emphasize the enduring love that the people of Tamil Nadu have for MGR.