At around 9 pm on 8 October 2015, near the bus stand at Mettupalayam, a town in Coimbatore, a crowd of around 200 people watched as an elderly woman danced on a makeshift stage with an actor impersonating the late actor and politician MGR. The elderly woman joyously stared at the impersonator as he put his hands around her face and presented her with a note of Rs 100. Many audience members stood up and cheered, while others filmed the performances on their cell phones. Some leaders of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) sat to the right of the stage. This was the last act in the two-hour-long event organised by the AIADMK's student wing to celebrate the achievements of chief minister and general secretary of the AIADMK Jayalalithaa, often referred to as Amma, or mother. The actors danced and pantomimed to popular songs from classic Tamil movies as members of the party distributed pamphlets listing accomplishments such as “Travellers and public get ‘Amma Water’ for Rs 10,” and “76.92 lakh students get free bus passes.”
The man on the stage, a 40-year-old popularly known as “MGR Bhaskar,” wore glittery clothes, with a moustache drawn in pencil and flashy bands tied around his head and wrists. He carried a stick, mimicking the character of a farmer that MGR had often played. In December 2011, The Caravan reported that such performances are common in Tamil Nadu; there are many troupes in the state that are often hired by political parties to warm the crowd before public meetings between officials and voters. “Normally, we do at least four events like these in a month. During elections, we end up working every day of the month,” Bhaskar later told me.
Marudhur Gopalan Ramachandran, an actor-turned politician more popularly known as MGR, founded the AIADMK, in 1972, at the height of his celluloid popularity. In 1977, MGR became the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, a post he held until his death in 1987. “Although he was an Anglo-Indian—an Indian born in Sri Lanka—he served the people of Tamil Nadu. He is a legend,” Bhaskar said.
The songs Bhaskar dances to are most often ones in which MGR played characters that were everyday, oppressed people. Bhaskar’s sentiments towards MGR, like those of many supporters of AIADMK, were a result of the public image of MGR in the 1960s and 70s. “[MGR’s] films are ostensibly about the oppression faced by the poor, with MGR of course, being constituted as one among them,” wrote MSS Pandian, a late professor at the Centre for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, in an article published in the Economic and Political Weekly in 1989. “A characteristic MGR role was that of a working man combating everyday oppression. Thus he had acted as a peasant, fisherman, rickshaw puller, carter, gardener…,” Pandian noted.
Among the artists on stage was a man called Sultan Badsha, the 74-year-old owner of a mobile repair shop from Udumalpet, playing the roles of Periyar, founder of the Dravidar Kazhagam party (DMK); an incarnation of MGR older than Bhaskar’s version; and CN Annadurai, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu from 1967 to 1969. Depending on which party his troupe is performing for, Badsha also impersonates politicians such as the current DMK head Karunanidhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former BJP stalwart Atal Bihari Vajpayee.