Riding through the countryside in Tamil Nadu, you see him everywhere. Who is this somewhat manically smiling old man, always pictured with his fur (?) hat, dark suglasses and prominently displayed expensive looking watch? (Actually, the whole image has a glamorous sheen, including the positioning of his hand.) I was certainly curious, and did some research (though I opted not to buy the book, MGR: The Man and the Myth–I read a review later saying that it’s not that great anyway).
M.G. Ramachandran (1917-1987), usually referred to as MGR, was a Tamil actor turned politican. A huge Tamil language movie star starting in the 1930s and 40s (Tamil film, called Kollywood, is third in India after Hindi and Telugu films, made in Bombay and Hyderabad, respectively), MGR was deeply interested in politics and eventually ran for office under the DMK (Dravidian Progress Federation) party, which was a Tamil ethnic/linguistic-centered party in Tamil Nadu. He launched a successful breakaway party called the ADMK (later AIADMK) in 1972, became Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu in 1977 and died in 1987. He was so popular that his death led to widespread mourning and chaos throughout the state, including numerous suicides, rioting and looting.
MGR being used to sell silk.
The first thing that I found strange about MGR, even before I knew who he was (though it was clear that he was a politician, from the posters he appeared on), was that each representation of him was essentially identical–he always has his hat, sunglasses and watch, and is often in exactly the same pose. I believe this is for a few reasons. One suggestion is that this fits well with an audience accustomed to Hindu iconography. Just as in Christianity Peter is presented with the keys to the Church and Paul with his sword, Hindu gods usually appear with set props in set poses. More generally in that same theme, these props help identify MGR immediately. Visual identification is of course important in societies that are not fully literate. I recall that Mexico City subway stations have icons that are prominently featured in addition to names, and in one visit to an Anglican church in Madurai we saw ballots for church committees which had photographs in addition to names. I imagine that ballots for state and national office in India may also have pictures, since political ads almost always feature what look like mug shots of the candidates. Easy and quick recognition is of course important for the literate, as well.
The other major thing that occurred to me, perhaps because I am unaware of more subtle meanings of MGR’s life and career, is the difference between Tamil and U.S. politics in their recognition of wealth and celebrity. Politicians in the U.S. are generally reluctant to display their wealth, instead identifying themselves as everymen (Kerry in a Carhartt vs. Kerry windsurfing or vacationing in Sun Valley; Bloomberg taking the subway (after riding to the station in a car); folksiness of Reagan or Perot). On the other hand, here’s MGR, who seems to have used (and his political successors continue to use) his superstar status in full, by presentation in such a glamorous/ritzy aspect. One person we spoke to said that MGR’s watch was like a computer, and stored large amounts of important information as well as performed calculations, assigning MGR a sort of superhero tool. To this day, people lay their ears on MGR’s well-visited tomb located off of the beach in central Madras to hear if the watch is ticking (he was buried also with his sunglasses and hat, we were told).
The cause for the difference may be twofold. First, wealth impresses in India. Like many Asian societies, India is wealth and status conscious, and the glamorous aspect of MGR and his fancy toys must have struck a sense of awe in some of the public. Wealth would also have contributed to an aura of incorruptability (just as it does in the U.S.), and MGR reportedly started his own party because he was concerned that the other members of the DMK were not sufficiently transparent. [One of MGR’s most popular programs was free meals at schools for students, and he was clearly a populist–I suppose if MGR was promoting more elite-favoring policies, it would have done him well to look less rich.]
But I think the more important difference, and why MGR’s moviestar status was played up, may be that MGR’s political success was directly related to his pop/mass culture superstardom. MGR wasn’t a movie star who happened to become a politician, but a movie star who was always political, even by wearing party colors in his roles. By being such a visible member of the Tamil-language culture (to be sure, Tamil-language movies would be something that Tamil speakers would have in common more than their compatriots who speak other languages, including especially the numerically and politically dominant Hindi speakers), who better than MGR to lead a party that was centered in part on being Tamil? The Tamils celebrate the fact that their language and culture are ancient, and do not want to feel secondary to Hindi speakers from up north (Tamil Nadu schools uniquely in India do not require the learning of Hindi, I read in one place). While not the equivalent of having Thiruvallular (the man whose statue stands on the island next to the Vivekananda Memorial in Cape Comorin, sort of like the Tamil Homer or Shakespeare it seems) as Chief Minister, having MGR as Chief Minister certainly highlights your Tamil-ness. And it seems that MGR was successful, someone around whom the Tamils could rally, and during his leadership Tamils gained representation at the some of highest levels of the national government.
MGR Memorial in Madras
Speaking of Tamils, as an aside one might be curious what the relationship between the Tamils of Sri Lanka and the Tamils of Tamil Nadu in India is. Sri Lanka is of course extremely close to Tamil Nadu, separated by the narrow Palk Strait and almost connected by Adam’s Bridge (a natural or man-made near-causeway connecting Sri Lanka to mainland India). The Tamils in Sri Lanka are Hindu and mainly located in the north and east, especially along the coasts [I believe they were more generally distributed throughout the island at one point, but the country has segregated to a certain extent in part due to the widespread mutual violence], while the Singhalese majority is Buddhist. Although MGR himself was born in Sri Lanka, near Kandy in the central highlands, it appears that there was no general support of Sri Lankan Tamils or the Tamil separatist movement by the Tamil Nadu government (perhaps such support would be too controversial, given that there is quite literally a war going on in Sri Lanka). And I believe India has tried to maintain an ability to intermediate between the Tamil separatists and the Sri Lankan government, to promote stability. No doubt though that Tamils in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka share a common culture, by virtue of history, religion, language and family connections.
Listening for the watch.