Book Review: வாத்யார் எம். ஜி. ஆரின் வாழ்க்கை – Vathiyar – MGRin Vazhkai – Kizhakku Pathipagam

MGRin vazhkai.

The book “”

For a long time, until I switched to Rajnikanth, MGR was my favorite hero. Besides, that MGR is a Malayali. So, I bought this book 6 years late at the Bangalore Book Fair of 2014.

By a strange coincidence, I had just finished reading another book from the same publishers, Kizhakku Pathipagam ( I bought that book some years ago but found time to read it only recently. It was ராஜீவ் கொலை வழக்கு (Rajiv Assasination Case). In that book, the author Raghothaman mentions a name – Suba Sundaram, an accused in the Rajiv assasination case and the one who gave the first leads in the investigation. Raghothaman mentions this guy as a man well-known to top politicians, journalists and VIPs in the 80s. Now, I know to what extent.

In page 118 of வாத்யார், the author R Muthukumar mentions that the flag of ADMK (now AIADMK) was designed in the studio of Suba Sundaram. There were many such interesting tidbits in the book. I marked a few:

  • MGR’s father was from Nallepalli in Palakkad District. MGR’s father was a teacher and later a judge. His judgements against some relatives and friends created problems later and he left for Ceylon to start life in Kandy. Unfortunately, he died while MGR was just 3. Except for his older brother Chakrapani, other siblings died from childhood diseases and poverty. His mother came to Madras to live with some help from a relative. Unable to beat poverty, his mother sent both her kids to work in a drama company. Both of them worked in drama as it offered free food. Later when they got serious roles, they got paid. Eventually, they moved to films. Now, this left me in doubt as to why Jayakanthan named his biography of MGR as சினிமாவுக்கு வந்த சித்தாளு (The mason who came to Cinema).
  • MGR and Sivaji Ganesan competed with each other. However, I was disappointed to read on page 65 that MGR made deals with film producers to keep Sivaji out of their pictures.
  • MGR was harrassed by the central government on IT and FERA (forex) issues. In page 104, it is mentioned that in 1992, Junior Vikatan published a series of articles under the title போலீஸ் மனிதர்கள் (literally Police Men). In one of the articles, a retired intelligence official recounts that MGR’s split from DMK was helped in great deal by the Centre and the harassment meted out to him was to make him seek Indira’s help.
  • Indian government started 10 armed groups against Sri Lanka. Of these 5 were well armed – EPRLF, TELO, PLOT, EROS and LTTE, and were receiving training in secret camps all over India. LTTE’s Prabhakaran was holed up in Tamil Nadu. Prabhakaran knew that India was using these groups to obtain leverage with Sri Lanka and that Eelam independence was not its goal, and was not very suspicious of Indian governments intentions. The weapons supplied to the groups were of a light useless variety. Of late, Indian government seemed to be favouring groups other than LTTE. There were shootouts between them but the police were not allowed to put them in jail. MGR and central goverment ensured that they went unharmed.
  • MGR invited the five groups to meet him. To trump that, Karunanidhi invited them meet him before they went to MGR. MGR withdrew invitation to those three groups. LTTE was not one of them. They read the political situation accurately and did not go to Karunanidhi. MGR and LTTE’s Anton BalaSingham and others hit off splendidly with MGR. MGR asked them if they wanted anything. Anton Balasingham said they wanted 2 crores, which seemed big for them but small for MGR. Anyway, MGR asked them to come to his Parangimalai (now St. Thomas Mount) residence at night. There, in an underground floor, accessed by a lift, MGR had a room full of suitcases with two guards watching the stash! LTTE took that money to Europe and brought a shipment of arms to Madras, where the customs impounded it. MGR got it released. Prabhakaran gave MGR an AK-47 as a gift.
  • When a SAARC summit was held in India, Indian government asked TN govt to disarm the Tamil groups to remove threat to the Sri Lankan President who would be visiting. MGR’s police asked all Tamil groups to surrender their weapons, and after the SAARC summit gave all the weapons to LTTE!.
  • DMK’s rise to power can be solely attributed to MGR. Despite all the dramas, films, and screenplays and actors who tried to win over Tamil Nadu with Dravidian ideology, DMK could not win many seats. With MGR’s films and campaigning DMK started winning more seats but not enough to win form government. Kamaraj’s Congress was entrenched in Tamil Nadu. Things changed when actor MR Radha, a DK veteran, shot MGR. During the trial, MR Radha mysteriously claimed that he killed MGR because he thought MGR planned to kill Kamaraj, an arch enemy of DK and DMK! DMK used the photograph of a bandaged MGR filing his nomination on posters all over Tamil Nadu and won the election.

Later, I did some search on what happened to MR Radha after he shot MGR. I found this interesting account by Dr. Abraham Sukumar who was the duty surgeon at the Royapettah GGH on that evening when Radha shot MGR.


Thursday 12 January 1967

I was duty assistant surgeon for the day in the Govt Royapettah Hospital, Madras. I was in my room after evening OP. It had been an unusually quiet day. Traffic accidents in that busy residential district and on the main arterial Mount Road that runs close by usually come straight to GRH. In those days general surgeons had to see all surgical emergences for though Orthopaedics, ENT and other departments existed they did not have sufficient number of assistants for night duty postings. At about 5 PM the casualty medical officer called wanting me to come urgently to the department. ‘MGR has been brought here after a shooting accident,’ he said.

I was in the casualty soon after. The familiar figure of MGR was on one of the two couches of the casualty theatre. Without makeup and wig he looked more handsome than he did on the screen. I asked him what happened and he said that M.R. Radha (the popular movie villain/comedian) had shot him in the ear. I had come with the notion that during film shooting an accident had occurred. Apparently it was not an accident and the shooting was not with camera by with a gun. I examined the ear wound. There was tattooing round the entry wound indicating that the nozzle of the gun was almost touching the skin when the trigger was pulled.

For a person who has received a bullet into his head from such close quarters MGR was quite comfortable. He was not agitated by an event that could well have ended his life and there is no doubt that the passage of the bullet into the sensitive tissues of the back of the throat would have been severely discomforting. But his total nonchalance was quite remarkable. In true life he proved to be the as much the hero he was on the silver screen.

MGR could hear my watch in the affected ear and there was no facial paralysis His familiar voice was unchanged. Some weeks later when he emerged from hospital his voice was slurred. As the first doctor to have seen him after the injury I can say with certainty that the nerve damage that caused the slurring was not by the bullet. (The Wikipedia entry that says he was shot in the throat and that affected his voice is incorrect.)

The casualty officer now came in with the news that M.R. Radha the person who had shot MGR was being wheeled into the casualty. It appears that he had shot himself in the temple after shooting MGR. I moved to the passage. Radha lay on the stretcher eyes open and alert. He spoke in his familiar rasping voice.

“Naan thaan sutteen. Policeukku statement koduthacchu.” (I was the one who shot. I have given statement to the police.)

There was a bullet entry hole in the temple and a swelling surrounding the wound. Both had been shot from close quarters but other than the entry wound neither had any other demonstrable damage to their tissues. The bullets had lodged in the tissues for there were no exit wounds. Later it came to be known that the pistol and bullets had remained unused for years. As I was examining him Radha spoke again. In movies he had two voices. His usual voice was the rasping one. He had another shriller voice much loved by audiences that he used for his punch lines. He now spoke in that voice.
“Are any of you Brahmins?” he asked. Even though he was a high profile member of E.V. Ramaswamy Periyar’s anti-Brahmin DK party it was very surprising that a man who had just tried to kill himself should raise that question. In trauma wards accident victims cowering with fear or being hysterical is a common sight. Here two men with fresh bullets in their heads were unconcerned about it. Show business must be a good training ground for meeting crises in life. A lifetime spent pandering to the unpredictable tastes of the fickle public is good training ground for political life too. When actors take to political leadership no doubt they do well. Radha soon found himself on the other couch next to where MGR lay. There were only two couches in the casualty. The aggressor and victim lay hardly a metre from each other. This is not an uncommon situation in hospital trauma wards. It never causes problems.

It was then that I noted that the news had spread and a crowd was gathering. In fact in that short while the crowd had become quite dense. The hospital compound was kept relatively free by police but Westcott road in front of the hospital was jam packed and blocked by a mass of humanity. People packed the veranda and terrace of the YMCA building opposite. Senior police officers were active in the casualty. Leading Madras doctors appeared as if by magic though none was called in consultation except my chief Dr. Saratchandra. The ENT surgeon appeared with his head mirror. He demanded that his name must be entered in the accident register. ‘I must be called to court to give evidence,’ he said. The desire for publicity is not confined to those in the show business. MGR personal doctor Dr. B.R. Subramanium now joined the team that had unofficially formed. With the hospital superintendent Dr. M.V. Krishamurthi in charge my role as duty surgeon was not mine anymore not that there was anything to be done in the casualty. I saw to it that only medical personal entered the casualty theatre.

There were two unusual visitors. A middle aged woman of a rural cast rushed in anxiously asking if Radha was in danger. The nurse assured her that he was not and sent her away with some difficulty. Soon another woman came in with the same agitated query. We reassured her also of Radha’s safety and sent her away. Off duty nurses from the quarters now came in a group to see the matinee idol suitably dressed for the occasion. I asked them to have a peep and then go away lest they be mistaken for M.R. Radha’s friends. They took the hint and left.

Four men were standing at the casualty theatre door in clear view of the patients. They stood there with respect to hospital regulations without trying to get in though they would have been bursting with desire to have a word with MGR. Three of them I recognized. One was actor Asokan. He was visibly upset. The other was C.N. Annadurai head of the DMK party of which MGR was a prominent member and was in fact a candidate in the election due shortly. Standing by his side was M. Karunanithi. I have attended C.N. Annadurai’s meetings and heard his fiery speeches. I have not seen M. Karunanithi before. He was youthful and handsome and in spite of his relatively small size had a presence. They stood there quite calm and collected. If anyone had told me at that moment that three future Chief Ministers of Tamilnadu were in within metres of each other in that small space I would have put that man down as a lunatic.

The DMK party was then not a force in Madras state politics. (It was not Tamilnadu then. Annadurai had it renamed Tamilnadu in 1968). The seats they won in successive assembly elections were too small for them to make an impact as an opposition. In every election the people voted Kamaraj’s Congress into power by large majorities. It was not expected to be different in the election that was due in a month’s time. The DMK was so sure of NOT winning that their leader C.N. Annadurai was standing not for the state assembly as a prospective Chief Ministers would but for the Lok Sabha.
Kamaraj however had no doubts of the results. Injured in a car accident he lay in a Tirunelveli hospital. When reporters asked him if his absence in campaigning will affect his party he made one of those statements one can never live down: ‘I can win lying in my hospital bed,’ he said. What happened is history. Kamaraj lost his seat to an unknown DMK candidate as did the Chief Minister M Bakthavatsalam and other Congress stalwarts. The DMK won in a landslide. Politicians and pundits, the losers and particularly the victors had no clue of why it happened. Bakthavatsalam said that a virus has affected the voters. (When the public objected he said that he really meant not virus but bacteria!) Kamaraj said they will abide by the decision of the electorate as if he had a choice.

But why did Congress lose? What happened between the previous election and this election that voters should change preferences so drastically? Apparently one has to think ‘out of the box’ which many learned political commentators did not. Something very significant had in fact happened in between. Nehru was dead (1964) his successor Lal Bahadur Shastri had passed away too (1966) and Nehru’s daughter Indira was the Prime Minister. The passing of Nehru was a factor of utmost importance but it could not be the complete answer for after all Tamilnadu Congress was not bereft of leadership. The gigantic figure of Kamaraj, now an All-India figure, was dominating the political scene.

Kamaraj and others of his party gradually veered to the view that the result of the election was an aberration that they can set aright in the next election. Kamaraj, a master in tactics, left no stone unturned. Recognising the value of association with the movie world in politics he recruited Sivaji Ganesan to his cause. He organized DMK type rallies and processions and when five years later the next election was on he was prepared. Kamaraj had reason to hope for reversal of fortune. Intelligence gathered by the civil service and the police showed a strong trend towards a Congress victory so much so that the Chief Secretary Royappa and the Inspector General of police Mahadevan were emboldened to visit Kamaraj in his home and garland him. (This childish gesture effectively ended their careers.)

On the last day of electioneering Kamaraj organized a meeting in the beach. A crowd of a million for a political meeting had never gathered in marina beach before or since. On the podium were Kamaraj and Rajaji. The finale was dramatic with Rajaji planting a tilak on Kamaraj’s forehead in a blessing of victory. Once again the prediction of pundits went wrong; DMK won in a landslide. The writing was on the wall for the Congress party. It now had no choice but to accept a peripheral status in Tamilnadu politics and there the party has remained for the four decades that have followed.
A strange phenomenon that occurred after the election may give a clue of what went wrong with the Congress. Swarms of common people from all over the state descended on Fort St. George walking the Secretariat corridors and the halls with the confidence of people who owned the place. They seemed to feel it was now their government. Kamaraj and his mostly bureaucratic type cabinet colleagues were aloof from the public. They gave good government, efficient and incorruptible, but then so had the British.

Back in GRH it was apparent that the patients needed to be in the General Hospital. Soon a convoy led by a lorry packed with MGR fans with the president of the fans association standing on top shouting slogans left for General Hospital. Westcott road reopened to the public and once again asthmatics could come to the casualty for their injections. In GH surgeons failed to extract the bullet. Some days after discharge feeling something loose in the back of his throat MGR went back to hospital where a surgeon removed the bullet by a simple incision. The bullet had loosened and eroded towards the surface as foreign bodies often do. In the court case that followed M.R. Radha was sentenced to a term of imprisonment. He was released in due course and died a free man. C.N. Annadurai became chief minister but he passed away within two years (3 Feb 1969) and M. Karunanithi took over. The M. Karunanithi – MGR rivalry that followed is too fresh to need retelling. MGR’s splinter party won the election in 1977 and he was Chief Minister till his death in 1987 after a long illness. M. Karunanithi again became Chief Minister and now in his eighties continues in the post as alert and nimble of speech as ever.

I was happy that the patients had left for a very special reason. I had tickets for the test match in nearby Chepauk grounds that was to start the next day when India was to meet the West Indies led by Sobers with Kanhai and Wes Hall in the team. The next five playing days the packed stadium watched exhilarating cricket. On day one Engineer missed a century before lunch by 4 runs, Kanhai scored 80 and Sobers scored 95 in the first innings and a match saving 75 not out in the second. The sight that endures in memory is that of Sobers standing languidly bat in hand facing Chandrasekar, and Bedi and Prasanna. The cover point and mid off fielders are on the boundary. When Sobers is on song he times his drives with such ferocity that only boundary riders have any hope of fielding the ball.

From this, it is clear that MGR’s famous lisp was not because of the shot but because of the surgical operation that followed it.