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One of the all-time blockbusters of MGR, Ulagam Sutrum Valiban (1973), was just yet another characteristic pastiche of song, dance, fight and emotional overkill. Yet it was in the eye of a political storm in the early 1970s well before its release; no stone was left unturned to stop it seeing the light of day. 

The film had no ideological message, nor was it anti-establishment unlike the cult film, Parasakthi in 1952. But MGR had stirred a hornet’s nest in the DMK, a party he had grown with and did all to grow, by leaving it. And the turmoil he engineered cast a shadow on Valiban.

A few days after he questioned the then DMK leader and his long-time friend M. Karunanidhi at a public meeting in Tirukazhukundram near Chennai, he was thrown out of the party on October 10, 1972.  Anti-MGR  partymen and leaders started abusing him.  MGR, the actor, had a taste of the diabolical face of power as he was left racking his brains over how to release his film long in the making that he had invested heavily in.

In retrospect, it was the run-up to the release rather than the film itself that was more interesting, exciting and edgy

Pushed to the wall, he finally launched his party Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam on October 17, 1972. Seven months thereafter, he released Ulagam Sutrum Valiban after a long ordeal.

In retrospect, it was the run-up to the release rather than the film itself that was more interesting, exciting and edgy.  A film that might have passed off silently as yet another mediocre MGR potboiler was unwantedly and wantonly blown out of proportions to the point of being a launch pad for a commercially successful actor into a politician.

Also Read: MGR crafted his style on Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn

The then Chief Minister Karunanidhi tried to checkmate him in cinema, propping up his own son M.K. Muthu as a rival. Muthu’s debutant film Pillaiyo Pillai, aping the charismatic MGR formula, was a runaway success, probably making the matinee idol jittery.

Besides, there were already some problems regarding income tax and foreign exchange for MGR from the union government led by Indira Gandhi.

The MGR fan clubs, which had functioned as a de facto media wing of the DMK, got dissolved all over the state and replaced with M. K. Muthu fan clubs. The pro-establishment media houses were on a smear campaign and the DMK platform speakers questioned MGR’s ethnic origin, hurling expletives at him.  

At a time when print journalism and radio were the only media channels, wall posters were the prominent vehicle of film promotion.  The Chennai Corporation imposed hefty taxes on wall posters so Ulagum Sutrum Valiban’s posters were denied wallspace.   Yet pro-MGR dailies featured ads showing MGR wearing sunglasses, holding a briefcase, head held high. That visual in the ad did the work of several promotional events.  Instead of wall posters, MGR got stickers of his film pasted on all vehicles, autorickshaws, cycles, vans, two-wheelers. Incidentally the late film comedian  Paandu was said to have designed the impressive stickers and also the party flag.

Muthu, a veteran DMK leader and Mayor of Madurai, said he would wear a saree if the film was released. But Ulagam Sutrum Valiban sprinted its way through all hurdles to the theatres. Thereafter graffiti sprouted on the long walls near the Madurai railway station that said: “Here are the sarees! Where are you, Muthu?”.  Ironically, the same firebrand Muthu, later, had differences with Karunanidhi and joined the ADMK.

The main attraction of the film was the Expo-70, a mammoth exhibition in Osaka, Japan, around which the fast-paced climax was woven, featuring, apart from MGR in the lead (dual role), the three  main heroines – Manjula, Chandrakala and Latha

Though theatre owners were reportedly warned against releasing the film, several, being MGR fans themselves, took the risk of exhibiting the film. According to some reports, MGR’s professional competitor, thespian Sivaji Ganesan volunteered to show the film at his Santhi theatre.  Yet MGR declined the offer, fearing reprisals from the government to the Nadigar Thilagam.

Interestingly, it was not only Ulagam Sutrum Valiban which faced the informal ban from the ruling party, but also other old box-office hits of MGR such as Kudiyirunthakoil, Enga Veetu Pillai, Adimai Pen etc, which were stopped from getting  re-released. Bomb scares became common, keeping women off theatres showing MGR hits.

However, well-known for turning adversities into advantages all through his life, MGR, intimately familiar as he was with Karunanidhi’s flair for strategies and intrigues, got the negatives of his film clandestinely transported from Chennai to Bombay where they were processed. This he had to do in the wake of rumors that secret attempts were on to burn the rolls of the film shot mainly in Singapore, Bangkok and Hong Kong.  

Also Read: Bhagyaraj films were silly and smart; his politics is just silly

The main attraction of the film was the Expo-70, a mammoth exhibition in Osaka, Japan, around which the fast-paced climax was woven, featuring, apart from MGR in the lead (dual role), the three  main heroines – Manjula, Chandrakala and Latha. The nearly 20-minute shots involved the dedicated workmanship of various artistes and technicians. MGR was assisted by his favorite journalist Maniyan (editor of the then Tamil magazine Idhayam Pesukirathu) in finishing procedural formalities to get Japan’s permission for the shoot. His aide and confidante R. M. Veerappan, his favorite director P. Neelakantan, and film stalwarts contributed much to the making of the film.

With anti-Karunanidhi and pro-MGR waves sweeping the state since the late 1972, the political air was thick with various kinds of expectations, from admirers as well as detractors, over Ulagam Sutrum Valiban.  People above 60 years now recall how schools and colleges across the state were shut from November, 1972 to January, 1973 following unrest among the students over what was branded as ‘McCarthyist witch-hunting’ of MGR fans.

Moreover, the ADMK, just a seven-month-old party then, had a compulsion to prove its mettle in the Dindigul parliamentary by-election scheduled for May 21, 1973. 

So, MGR, caught in the political vortex, was in a fix. Old timers in the present AIADMK recall that MGR wanted to put off the release of his film to some date after the election. But fortune set to favor him, on the advice of Veerappan, he released the film that ended up being a runaway success.

Within two weeks, MGR’s fledgling party tasted its maiden electoral victory in Dindigul, pushing the DMK to the third spot. All skepticism over an actor’s chance of donning a ruler’s mantle was broken to pieces. MGR never looked back.

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