MGRs of the World, Unite!

Mimicry artistes complete the picture in Tamil Nadu politics

MGR Muthu dances to a song from Rickshawkaran in Karur, Tamil Nadu,during the AIADMK campaign for the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. COURTESY NAVARASA PANEER
01 December, 2011

CONFLICT IS OFTEN THE CLINCHER for life’s big decisions. For Vasu, it was when the mighty MGR jumped from a building in a fight sequence from the movie Engal Thangam (1970). “I realised, I wanted to be like him,” says Vasu aka MGR Vasu, who has been playing his idol for 40 years.

Vasu is a member of Navarasa Paneer Kalai Kuzhu, a 15-person troupe of mimicry artistes considered a top choice for ‘start-up’ entertainment before AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) public meetings and election campaigns. The group, based out of Tondiarpet in North Chennai, is one of 43 troupes in Tamil Nadu that perform exclusively for the AIADMK, a party that MGR founded in 1972 on the strength of his popularity as a film actor.

All major state parties patronise a number of drama troupes, each of which features mimicry artistes who copy the vocabulary, voice and mannerisms of major leaders to a fault. The demand for their performances soars at the time of local body elections, when personality matters more than the party, and when the artistes often stand in for the leaders, who can’t visit every corner of the state.

The public meetings proceed much like rock concerts—the troupe warms up the crowd for the headliner, which could be anyone from a local council member to the chief minister herself.

In a state where politics and the entertainment industry have fed off each other for generations, performers like Vasu are the first link between the voter and the party. “I know many people who still vote for the party purely out of the goodwill that MGR accumulated. When they see us performing like him, it is as if he’s brought back to life, and our actors do such a good job that it really does seem like he has come back,” says Paneer, the coordinator of the group.

The actors tend to mimic a specific set of personalities throughout their career and are celebrated for them. In every troupe affiliated to the AIADMK, there are at least three MGRs, a couple of Annas (CN Annadurai, after whom the party is named) and a collection of other characters, including Kalaignar, or Karunanidhi, head of the AIADMK’s archrival, the DMK, who is portrayed in a slightly cynical light. (In one act, ‘MGR’ mocks ‘Karunanidhi’ through the popular song ‘Unnai paarthu indha ulagam sirikirathu’ or ‘The world will be laughing at you’.) Amma (Jayalalithaa) is off limits, though, since mimicking the party matriarch would be considered disrespectful.

Paneer’s troupe performs 12 to 15 shows a month, each of which lasts two hours or longer, and whose lineup is dominated by famous songs from MGR films. Depending upon the nature and location of the meeting, other popular songs are parodied to work in the party agenda. Additionally, there are skits between the songs during which either an AIDMK achievement is showcased—such as distribution of free cycles to schoolchildren—or the opposition is mocked.

“I have managed to see my three girls through school and college, and now they are all married and have children of their own. All this through working with the troupe and with the party,” says Meenakshi, the makeup artist who has been with Paneer’s group for decades.

While the group makes only `10,000 on an average per show, steady income is guaranteed, especially at a time when the AIADMK is in power. And for the party, it is a small price to pay to cash in on the goodwill that MGR accumulated in his lifetime.