Two kings: MGR’s Nadodi Mannan took Madras by a storm

In this series, we take a trip down memory lane, back to the Madras of the 1900s, as we unravel tales and secrets of the city through its most iconic personalities and episodes
Two kings: MGR’s Nadodi Mannan took Madras by a storm

CHENNAI: Many a European classic was based on a commoner looking like the king and a subsequent switching of their roles. The Prisoner of Zenda considered a minor classic was a popular version written by Anthony hope.

A 1937 Hollywood film starring Douglas Fairbanks had been seen by a young supporting actor doing a Tamil film in the early forties. The story stuck in his mind and when he became a successful hero decided to produce a Tamil version of it. Struggling to get a steady foothold in a vacillating industry MGR was already 41 years of age when he entered production and direction.

MGR’s foray into production was ominous, for his first venture was shelved halfway into preproduction when his story writer, Karunanidhi, was arrested for an agitation. The same unlucky trend seemed to follow in this film too when the appointed director of Nadodi Mannan, Ramnoth died. MGR took up that task as well, other than doing a double role in the film.

The film orbits around a prince being switched by a look-alike after getting kidnapped who begin to implement social reforms to uplift the poor. In the end, the two look-alikes declare the kingdom a democracy.

The agenda of the proxy king was almost like an election manifesto for the fledgling DMK to which MGR had moved to. The black and red colours of the party flag as well as the rising sun symbol were often seen in the background.

When MGR was actively planning the film, he learnt that his co-star in mega hits like Alibaba and Madurai Veeran, Bhanumathi, was also planning to make a similar movie. They compared notes and the two co-stars even strove to persuade each other to modify their film’s storyline.

The next few days were frustrating for MGR who had much riding on this film. Suddenly Bhanumathi shelved her project and accepted a role in MGR’s film. It is even reported she gave the full script of her film to MGR to mix and match with his.

The film was proving expensive with outdoor shootings in Munnar and even an underwater sequence. Two halves of the film were filmed in both black and white and colour. Technically superior filmmaking techniques were used to film MGR’s dual roles. MGR’s obsession with perfection in directing costs twice the raw film with every scene being reshot again and again. For the first time, songs took weeks to picturise and sword fights coming for a couple of minutes took as much. Bhanumathi refused to tow his line and exited the film. MGR responded by killing her character in the storyline.

Kalki’s Parthiban Kanavu was being made as a film at that time and rather slowly (for 5 years). A young Kannadiga girl who acted as an extra, as a handmaid to the Pallava princess Kundavi played by Vyjayanthimala got a chance to be a heroine in Nadodi Mannan. Saroja Devi was credited in Parthiban Kanavu as a guest star, for by that time it was released Nadodi Mannan had propelled her to superstardom

Poet Kanadasan while not writing the songs for the film wrote the fiery dialogues instead proving cinematic rhetoric could build an image much of which laid the foundation for MGR’s do-gooder image. It was a costly miss for the bard since songs from the soundtrack like Thoongathey Thambi Thoongathey, (don’t sleep brother) became trendy hits. Ever since then every MGR film has an advisory song for the public.

MGR borrowed every asset he had and still struggled to complete the film. He would say with sardonic humour that if the film flopped, he would be a nadodi (vagabond) and if it was a hit he would be the mannan (king). However, the response was overwhelming and the film ran for 100 days in 20 theatres.

As it turned out, MGR became a king as he forecast with Nadodi Mannan being the first Tamil film to amass more than a crore. The DMK party celebrated the success of the film as its own achievement. With MGR being brought to the venues in horse-drawn chariots and presented golden swords, wordsmith Annadurai refused to extol MGR saying, “Praising MGR is like me praising myself.”

Those words from his mentor firmly established the hierarchy in the DMK with MGR being recognised as its biggest vote catcher. It may not be a coincidence that the DMK won its first major victory in the Madras Corporation Council while the movie was still in theatres.

— The writer is a historian and an author

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