An injured man with a plaster cast around his neck sitting shirtless on a hospital bed with his hands in obeisance. This photograph of MGR being treated for a bullet wound was the most extensively printed poster for the 1967 Madras state elections. The DMK ensured that the iconic snapshot of him was splashed across the state. And political analysts still argue if it turned the tide in favour of the 20-year-old party struggling to find its bearings.
On January 12, 1967, MGR fans were awaiting the release of Thalaivar’s new film Thaikku Thalaimagan. MGR had released nine films the previous year including major hits like Anbe Vaa.
The city was in a festive mood with Pongal and more importantly, the state assembly elections were in a month’s time. Many would not believe their ears as the news floated by word of mouth — superstar MGR had been shot by fellow actor MR Radha in Ramavaram at 5 pm.
Madras Rajagopalan Radhakrishnan, a film actor and political activist, advocating the radical notions of EV Ramasamy was the shooter. Both of them had been on friendly terms but had fallen out on some issue. Fans rushed to Royapettah hospital where MGR was taken for emergency treatment. Within hours, 50,000 people made it impossible for any vehicle to navigate and the police had to forcefully clear the crowd away. People were seen crying in the streets. Shops were closed. Livid fans on a rampage pelted stones on vehicles and a group of MGR fans vandalised Radha’s house.
A clearer picture started emerging. MGR, who was known to dodge hundreds of bullets in the movies, had one in the ear, shot at close quarters. But then an alert MGR rushed to his car before he lost consciousness and asked the driver to take him to the hospital. When doctors were alerted that MGR has been hurt in a shooting accident they mistook it for a cinema shooting accident. Dr Abraham, the duty surgeon, later said that he could not recognise MGR without makeup and wig.
Radha, after shooting MGR, had tried to commit suicide and was admitted to the same Royapettah Hospital. Ironically, both were shifted to Government General Hospital in the same ambulance and the same doctor did surgery on both.
The bullet had entered near MGR’s left ear and lodged behind the first vertebra. Doctors were apprehensive that displacing it would cause further impairment. (A few months later, when MGR coughed, that piece came out and he went on record and said it was God’s grace. His atheist party had no comment to offer).
MGR gained consciousness the following day. And in his first electoral feat, he won by a margin of 27,000 votes without even campaigning. But his voice was seriously affected by the shooting. With two movies — Arasa Kattalai and Kavalkaran — waiting for release, the cinema world was watching with baited breath whether his celebrated career would come to an end.
Arasa Kattalai already had MGR’s dialogues recorded and it went smoothly. There was a thoughtful submission by others for using a dubbing artist for Kavalkaran but MGR was adamant. He said, “For this movie and in future also, I will use my own voice. If not, I’ll stop acting in movies.”
MGR made efforts to regain his voice. He practiced speech while standing in neck-deep sea water. But still, in Kavalkaran there was noticeable slurring of words and mispronunciations. But his legion of fans encouraged him by making it a bigger hit. Though stand-up comedians imitated his speech for decades, MGR went on to speak in his voice for 42 movies and make political speeches in elections and legislature.
Six weeks after the shooting, the police filed a charge sheet accusing Radha of a murder attempt and a suicide bid. He was apprehensive that the newly-elected DMK government would deny him a fair trial. On Chief Minister C.N. Annadurai assuring that DMK would not ‘exert influence’, Radha withdrew a court transfer plea he had filed in the Supreme Court. Leading lawyers argued for both sides and Radha was sentenced to seven years of rigorous imprisonment which the Supreme Court reduced on humanitarian grounds to five.
When Radha died in 1979, MGR the then Chief Minister requested permission to pay last respects. But Radha’s family rejected the request.
— The writer is a historian and an author