SALEM-BASED ‘MGR Raja’ is much sought after during the elections. The 52-year-old public performer, whose real name is Kaja Alauddin, is a lookalike of the late MG Ramachandran, the founder of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the party now led by J Jayalalithaa. Raja is light skinned and about the same height and build as MGR’s, the actor-turned-politician whose demise in 1987 marked the end of an era in Tamil Nadu politics.
MGR was the state Chief Minister from 1977 till his death a decade later, during which period his archrival and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leader, M Karunanidhi — the current Chief Minister — could never seize power in the state. MGR’s fans revered him. Many tried to immolate themselves — few even succeeded — when he died. Twenty-two years after his death, MGR’s name continues to reverberate during the election season in the southern state.
It’s been a decade since Alauddin joined the league of nearly 250 MGR lookalikes who make a living impersonating the former CM across the state. They perform in village and temple festivals round the year. Come elections, they are in demand from political parties, especially the AIADMK.
Soon as the AIADMK starts campaigning, lookalikes such as Alauddin will start their bookings, many of them for the entire period until voting. They expect it to be a hectic season, accompanying candidates in open jeeps, waving at crowds, and seeking votes dressed like MGR.
Alauddin enjoys the experience. “I’m an AIADMK member and a great fan of MGR,” he says. “I love campaigning for the party.” He charges about Rs 1,200 a day to imitate the legend’s mannerisms, don his trademark all-white attire — shirt, dhoti and fur cap — sport dark glasses, and wear a watch over the right hand sleeve in true MGR fashion. Alauddin gets the crowd roaring as he steps on the stage at rallies.
• A number of fans immolated themselves when MGR died in 1987 after a long illness
• While hospitalised in the US, MGR led AIADMK to victory in the 1984 assembly elections
• MGR won his election from the constituency of Andipatti without ever visiting it
Premnath, 27, is part of AIADMK’s propaganda wing in Chennai that hires the MGR lookalikes. He is raring to go and awaiting the signal from Jayalalithaa. Amma, as the party leader is widely known, usually addresses this propaganda wing before it hits the campaign trail. “Our job is to draw the crowds and keep them engaged till the leaders arrive,” he says. “We write our own songs during the elections, based on the political situation of the day.”
THE BIGGEST attraction for the crowds during the election meetings is when the MGR lookalike takes to the stage. The crowds go wild when at last the ‘puratchi thalaivar’ (revolutionary leader) — the title bestowed on MGR by his fans — has made his appearance. Whistles rend the air. Fans shake hands with the lookalike and fling garlands and currency notes at him. “The mood turns euphoric, as if the people have seen the real MGR,” says Premnath.
As a poll strategy, it also helps the AIADMK rejuvenate its cadres. The party hopes these roadshows will help consolidate their traditional MGR votebank. Even now, theatres showing old MGR films draw huge crowds, and some of them have set collection records on re-releases in the Tamil film industry.
MGR was immensely popular for his pro-poor policies. Starting with the Congress, he joined the DMK in the 1950s, splitting the party in 1972 to form the AIADMK. MGR implemented the midday meal scheme for schoolchildren with great vigour. While he was pilloried as populist for this move, it became one of the biggest political hits of all times and was subsequently adopted by most states in the country.
MGR was an ardent supporter of the cause of a separate Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka and donated liberally to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) when it began a separatist movement in the island nation. One of his biggest achievements was when he led his party, in absentia, to a dramatic victory in the 1984 assembly elections. He was undergoing treatment in a US hospital at that time. MGR himself won without ever visiting his constituency, Andipatti.
While many actors have ventured into politics hoping to become another MGR, none has succeeded as much as him. Vijaykanth, dubbed ‘Black MGR’ for his dark complexion, is the latest aspirant. A few years ago, MGR’s widow, Janaki, gifted his campaign van to Vijaykanth, whose party polled nearly eight percent votes in the last assembly elections.
Vijaykanth says he is inspired by MGR’s pro-poor policies. “MGR understood the difficulties of the common man and took steps to make life easy for the downtrodden,” he told TEHELKA. He recalls how MGR abolished a rule that forced cyclists to turn on lamps on their bicycles while riding at night. “MGR also allowed cyclists to ride ‘doubles’, which was illegal then.”
Sarath Kumar, another actor-turnedpolitician, says that MGR is his role model and the inspiration to join politics: “He was my mentor in films and in politics.” Like MGR, Sarath Kumar is a non-smoker and a teetotaller.
Alauddin charges Rs 1,200 to mimic MGR for a day, donning his all-white attire
Some commentators, however, believe that the hype about MGR is a myth. “MGR has more or less lost his relevance,” says MSS Pandian, who has authored a book on the late AIADMK founder, The Image Trap: MG Ramachandran in Film and Politics.Pandian says that the MGR vote-bank may have dissipated due to the emergence of new parties. “Parties like the PMK have created new identities and mobilised different sections of people under them.”
That said, such observations don’t deter MGR supporters in the AIADMK camp, who are all set for the poll circus in the politically volatile state.