Watching Karunanidhi-MGR Relationship Through a Mani Ratnam Film

Through the film Iruvar, one gets insight into Karunanidhi & MGR’s relationship —and Dravidian politics.

4 min read
Iruvar protagonist Prakash Raj (L) and M Karunanidhi (R).

Those few acres of land on the picturesque Marina beach in Chennai can now finally tell, for generations to come, the story of a leader, a script writer — and a star who defined Dravidian electoral politics.

All three — CN Annadurai (founder of DMK party), MGR, and now Karunanidhi — will rest by the cool winds and warm sands of India’s longest beach.

While CN Annadurai heralded the DMK to power in Tamil Nadu in 1967, he passed away in 1969. Since then, it is the relationship between Karunanidhi the script writer, and MG Ramachandran (MGR) the star, that has defined the political narrative in Tamil Nadu.

The 1997 Tamil film Iruvar by director Mani Ratnam, attempts to narrate the MGR – Karunanidhi story, albeit, as a work of fiction.

There are several historically significant moments in the relationship that the film captures accurately, but it is still a work of fiction, and ends with MGR’s demise in 1987.

The relationship, however, defined Dravidian politics even after MGR’s departure. Through it, perhaps, we get a better understanding of the state and its polity.


That relationship does not start on a political platform. Instead, it starts as a friendship between an actor trying to establish himself, and a budding script writer. The first time MGR and Karunanidhi worked together was in 1947, in the film Rajakumari.

MGR had not yet established himself as the hero, and Karunanidhi’s scripts had just begun to make their mark. But the two grew steadily in stature, and so did their friendship.


Author R Kannan in his book Anna, recounts how it was M Karunanidhi’s script for the film Marutha Nattu Illavarasu in 1950, that helped establish MGR as a valiant warrior and revolutionary against social evils. This was an image that became the formula for success for several MGR films.

The book also records that it was Karunanidhi who gave MGR the title puratchi nadigar (revolutionary actor) in 1952.

That title was the basis for the title he adorned as a politician — Puratchi Thalaivar (revolutionary leader).

By this time, M Karunanidhi as a script writer was an established force, and his script for the film Parasakthi (1952), starring Sivaji Ganesan, had created a massive impact. Karunanidhi was an ardent follower of Anna, and had been amongst the founding members of the party.

In fact, it was Karunanidhi who introduced MGR to CN Annadurai’s writings and convinced MGR to formally associate with the DMK at the Trichy conference of the party in 1953. Slowly, the duo started to complement each other, and MGR grew to become the party’s No. 1 thespian.


By this time, neither the script writer nor the star was considered obvious successors to Annadurai in 1969, when he passed away. This only stands testimony to the fact that the DMK was a strong grassroots organisation, and was rooted in democratic tradition.

The party had to elect its new leader.

It is through careful manipulation and the support of MGR, that M Karunanidhi took charge of the party.

He took over as chief minister, and created the post of president in the party for himself. MGR was appointed treasurer of the party, a post that Karunanidhi had held under Anna.


In its first post-Anna elections in 1971, the DMK returned to power, and M Karunanidhi continued to be Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. It is around this time that the rift between MGR and Karunanidhi seems to have begun.

Senior Journalist MR Venkatesh recounts that Karunanidhi was willing to accommodate MGR as a Cabinet Minister, but wanted him to stop acting in movies. The film Iruvar too reflects this situation.

“This was the tipping point in their relationship,” says Venkatesh. Following this, MGR made allegations of corruption in the party and was soon expelled from it.


Many observers point out that Karunanidhi underestimated the power of MGR, and believed that the DMK, as the original Dravidian party, and himself as the custodian of Anna’s legacy, were unbeatable in Tamil Nadu. In fact, some DMK leaders had suggested that Karunanidhi thought it was the Congress that would be his bigger rival.

MGR went on to launch the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in 1972, and his star power, coupled with the maverick of seasoned DMK leaders who left the parent party with him, proved to be a powerful combination. The party did not immediately come to power, but went on to repeatedly win by-elections, since 1973.

While it was yet to come to power in the state, MGR became the face of the opposition to the DMK. The personality rivalry had begun, and in the battle between the two, all other opposition parties — including the Congress — began being pushed to the corner. ‘MGR vs Karunanidhi’ became the central theme of Tamil Nadu politics.


In 1975, M Karunanidhi, as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, opposed Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, and his government was dismissed.

In 1977, MGR forged an alliance with the Congress, and won the post-Emergency elections in the state.

Since then, until 1987 when he departed the scene, MGR never lost an election, and Karunanidhi had to pay the price for underestimating MGR as a political leader. The AIADMK had become a powerful force, and that brought a new question into TN politics — who is the custodian of Annadurai’s Dravidian legacy —was it MGR’s AIADMK, or Karunanidhi’s DMK?

The script writer and star who were friends and comrades, had become competitors for a place in history, as custodians of Anna’s legacy.

The fact that both MGR and Karunanidhi represented the same ideology, meant that the ‘difference’ between them was only in the eyes of the electorate. This is the reason for the bitter personality-driven rivalry in Tamil Nadu politics.

This is also why a resting place next to CN Annadurai is a symbolic assertion for the DMK — of Karunanidhi’s role as the custodian of the Anna legacy.

(The writer is an independent journalist. He can be reached @TMVRaghav . This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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