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Vol. XXXIII No. 20, February 1-15, 2024

MGR at Pongal, and other times

G. Sakunthala is remembered chiefly for her role in the film Manthiri Kumari but there was a lot more to her than that. A stage and radio artiste who also acted in films (her cameo in Uyarntha Manithan as Pankajam is brilliant to say the least), she was an associate of MGR. The following memories appear in the book MGR, Man of Humanity by Ithayakkani S Vijaya (publisher: The Alliance Co) and were translated into English by Varsha Venugopal. We reproduce the same here with permission from the author.

Pongal at MGR Nataka Manram

M.G.R did not celebrate any festival other than Pongal. The festivities each January included M.G.R’s family as well as the theatre troupe. On that day, we would all gather at the M.G.R Nataka Manram office on Lloyds (now V.P. Raman) Road at Royapettah, currently the AIADMK headquarters. We would arrive early in the morning and begin with peeling slices of sugarcane to offer to visitors as they arrived. When M.G.R came, the whole place would burst into life and overflow with joy. With piles of silk sarees and veshtis in every corner, the office would take on the appearance of a clothing shop. All the sarees and veshtis would look exactly the same, without any discrimination in quality or design. It wasn’t just the troupe members who wore them either; M.G.R’s family wore the same kind of clothes to celebrate Pongal too. For that matter, M.G.R himself would be sporting the same veshti, too. M.G.R’s wife Sathananthavathi, who was sickly would also participate in the Pongal celebrations and wear the same saree as the rest of us. 

Unmarked envelopes of cash were distributed to each member of the troupe, along with the sarees and veshtis. The amounts varied wildly; M.G.R would grab some currency notes and put them into the covers. So some people received a cash gift of Rs. 100 while others got Rs. 50 or Rs. 200. If anyone received a large amount, M.G.R would exclaim, “What luck!” and the rest of us would feel very irritated.

M.G. Ramachandran rescues G. Sakunthala in Manthri Kumari. Picture courtesy: Starlight Starbright by Randor Guy.

Then, the actors would sit down to be entertained. The non-acting members of the troupe – stagehands, musicians and the rest – would become the actors of the day, and put on shows to entertain the rest of us. They would enact the play Inba Kanavu and we actors would watch them, for a change. The whole thing would be very funny. M.G.R’s assistant Sabapathy would drape a saree around himself, and I would heckle him from the audience, “Hey mister! Did I act so terribly?” They never minded our remarks and continued acting with happy abandon, delivering the dialogues they were familiar with and merrily improvising the rest. We would dissolve into roars of laughter, which resounded throughout the area. The whole day would go by in such fun. It would usually be later than 10 p.m. by the time we returned home. We never again experienced such fun as we did in those days. 

After the Nadaga Mandram closed down, M.G.R had, on many occasions, reminisced with me about the Pongal celebrations we used to enjoy with the troupe. “Will we ever experience such happiness and sweetness again? It is a joy to even think of those memories,” he would say longingly. 

Acting for the Radio

Because M.G.R was a D.M.K party member, Chennai sabhas shunned his plays. Radio stations too gave him the cold shoulder for the same reason. However, M.G.R never bothered about all this. In those days, there was a show producer called Rashid who worked at the Madras AIR. I had acted in many radio plays on his invitation. Rashid wanted to broadcast radio plays with a political slant. So ‘Inba Kanavu’ received a chance as well, much to M.G.R’s delight. He condensed the three-hour stage play into one hour. Neither M.G.R nor Chakrapani had any experience in acting for the radio, but rose to the challenge. In fact, the radio play was put up entirely by actors from the M.G.R Nataka Manram troupe! 

The rehearsal for the play at the radio station proved to be a new experience for M.G.R. He found it a little difficult to get used to in the beginning – the actors had to wait at a distance and step up to the mike one by one to speak their dialogues. But he easily adapted to the situation and played his part naturally. I had no trouble acting myself, since I had worked on radio plays before. “You’re playing your part so effortlessly! Unlike you, we are ‘L’ boards – we have to learn from you,” teased Chakrapani and M.G.R.

Inba Kanavu was successfully broadcast as a radio play to great response. But Rashid earned the ire of the administration of those times – as a punishment for broadcasting the play he was transferred to a place in North India.

At the Nadigar Sangam

M.G.R faced many difficulties when he headed the actors’ guild – the Nadigar Sangam. In those days, even though it had a plot of land to its name, the association did not have the funds to build its headquarters. It was M.G.R who contributed his own funds as capital to help construct a thatched shed which also included the necessary office space. I was also part of the association’s execution committee. At that time, M.G.R and Sivaji Ganesan were fierce competitors in the film industry. So, Sivaji did not participate much in the Sangam’s affairs. In fact, he dismissed it, branding it the ‘D.M.K Nadigar Sangam’. 

Members of the actor’s association often did not even bother paying the monthly 5-rupee membership fee required of them. So, M.G.R appointed a couple of members to directly collect the membership fee from defaulters. When monthly collections were poor, M.G.R would provide his personal funds to cover the shortfall. 

Whenever the Sangam held a meeting, M.G.R would attend without fail even if he was working on a big project or was busy at a shoot. If he found himself delayed because of a shoot, he would apologize to the members as soon as he arrived. He did not discriminate between actors; even junior artistes who appeared in just a couple of scenes were welcome to join the association. They would raise questions at meetings, such as “Why hasn’t this work been completed?”, “Why were you late in attending the meeting?”, “Why wasn’t this actor accorded a respectful invitation?” etc. M.G.R would answer all their questions with grace. “How can they ask such questions? And how can you respond to them so patiently?” we would ask. “They are also actors, aren’t they? Just because I am the Sangam leader, does it mean that they cannot ask me questions?” he would counter, making us fall silent. 

One of M.G.R’s goals was to establish a colony for actors. Even though wealthy artists had independent houses to live in, he wanted them to be a part of the colony he envisioned. If anyone wanted to reach out to an actor, it would be easy to get in touch with them at the colony! But that vision proved difficult to achieve and did not come to pass. 

M.G.R also launched a magazine for the Sangam, called ‘Nadigan Kural.’ The Nadigar Sangam symbol is that of a mother embracing her four children. It was M.G.R who gave the idea for this design. 

Art does not discriminate over language. M.G.R stayed true to this principle by treating artistes hailing from the Kannada, Malayalam, Telugu & other languages in the same way as the rest of us. He even installed Telugu actress Anjali Devi as the head of the Nadigar Sangam. 

Pongal at the Nadigar Sangam

M.G.R ensured that the Sangam celebrated Pongal at its headquarters in a grand manner every year. In fact, the Sangam’s Pongal celebrations were more splendid than the ones that M.G.R organized for his own drama troupe. The celebrations were meant only for professionals from the film industry and their families. They included games such as running races, musical chairs, blindfold races, sack races, uri adithal and many more. We would all participate joyously. He however never joined in, preferring to watch and tease us instead. When I stumbled along in the last place in the blindfold race, he would trick me by shouting out, “Sakunthala, you have won!” 

Managing a Theatre Troupe

When artistes like me joined the M.G.R Nadaga Mandram, the terms of our contracts were strict. We were not allowed to act in other plays or movies when performing for the troupe. The initial monthly salary was set at Rs. 75. M.G.R was a socialist; the Nadaga Mandram was testimony to this fact. When the troupe grew busy and the number of plays put up in a month increased, the remuneration terms were revised to give members a percentage of the collections instead of a monthly sum. When the drama tours wrapped up at the end of each month and we returned home, we would make a follow-up visit to the office where our incomes would be distributed to us. Additionally, we would all purchase the specialities of each place we visited on our tour, as souvenirs – these expenses would be adjusted against our incomes later. When we left on drama tours, we would be empty-handed; when we returned to Chennai by train, our bags would be bursting at the seams with our newly-purchased wares. Chakrapani would purchase gifts for M.G.R’s family too. My car would wait for me at the Egmore Railway Station to pick me up. A separate van would be arranged for the women of the troupe. Men would be given a commuting allowance to get home. 

Feasts Galore

There was almost always a sumptuous feast at M.G.R’s house at Lloyds Road on any given day. Chakrapani had many children, so there was nearly always a birthday to celebrate. If not a birthday, the family would be celebrating a new arrival in the house. Apart from these occasions, the family also paid their respects to M.G.R’s father or mother on their death anniversaries. So there was always some event or the other to observe. As a result, Sathananthavathi and Chakrapani’s wife Meenakshi Kutty would wake up at 3 am to begin making idlis. They had to wake up early; there were so many people in the house that it would be impossible to make breakfast on time otherwise. After that, they would set the curd and begin making the tiffin items, which included many varieties of Kerala fare – they were kept quite busy. Whenever I visited the house, I was always given payasam to drink. When I took their leave, they would give me a potful of payasam to take home, too. Non-vegetarian items would be available in the evenings. So before I left, Sathananthavathi or Meenakshi Kutty anni would invite me to return, saying, “We’re planning to make karuvadu and fish fry in the evening. Come, join us!” Their hospitality resulted in me acquiring an inclination for the Malayalam language and a few Kerala customs, too. 

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