Trivia question: Which is the only Indian movie that has, before the title credits, a few-seconds long clip of British mathematician, philosopher, and intellectual Betrand Russell while a voice over talks of his views on modern science?
The unlikely answer is M G Ramachandran's (MGR) Tamil film Ulagam Sutrum Valiban (USV), which released 50 years ago in May 1973.
The film starts off with the fear over the wrong usage of science triggering the Third World War, about which Russell had opined a lot.
Also, according to MGR's assistant Ravindar the former had developed a liking for Russell, so much so that when he became the chief minister in 1977, he wanted the intellectual's 1938 book Power: A New Social Analysis to be translated into Tamil.
But USV, one of the three films directed by MGR — Nadodi Mannan and his last movie Madhuraiyai Meetta Sundharapandiyan being the other two — will be remembered mostly for being politically very important in the career of MGR, even though the film as such had no local political content in it.
To understand Ulagam Sutrum Valiban (world trotting young man) is to verily comprehend the politics of that time in Tamil Nadu, which was no less nasty and acrimonious than it is now. USV was made and released when MGR's political life was at a crossroads of sorts.
The film had plenty of riding on it, as MGR had a point to prove to —
1) M Karunanidhi and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) that wanted to stall the film at all cost.
2) Jayalalithaa, who had prior to the film had mentioned, with typical cheek and braggadocio, that he owed his popularity to her.
It was in October 1972 that MGR, who had been chucked out of the DMK in 1970 after he had fallen out with Karunanidhi, launched the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) amidst questions whether he can translate his film popularity into winning political career all on his own.
Though Idhaya Veenai released exactly three days after the birth of the AIADMK, it was USV that is seen as his first film after he decided to go alone in politics.
Cinema-wise too, a lot was riding on USV as it was filmed extensively in locations like Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and Thailand. MGR was making a comeback as a director a good 15 years after Nadodi Mannan.
DMK's Dirty Tricks
USV was announced in 1970 but as MGR was getting busy as a political leader the film was delayed. As he was trying to sail in two boats simultaneously, there were many doubts whether he can be successful in both. The DMK and Karunanidhi tried to attack him on both the planks.
On the political platforms, the DMK men called, in pejorative tone, the AIDADMK as nadigarin katchi (actor's party).
The large irony that the same actor and the film power was the one piloting the DMK till then was as usual lost on the stage-speakers of the Dravidian party.
It was said that Karunanidhi himself wanted to get USV stalled on its tracks — and it was not just for political reasons.
It was in that period that the DMK leader was firmly pushing for his son Mu Ka Muthu as hero in films. And he was marketed as 'poor man's MGR'. It was an open news that Karunanidhi's plans for Muthu was among the reasons for MGR being ousted from the DMK.
As USV was taking time to get completed, rumours were spread that the film would never make it to the theatres. The misgivings also spread to the followers of the fledgling AIADMK and whenever MGR attended a political rally, the party workers would shout: "when will USV release?"
But MGR was never unsure. Even if it took time, he wanted to ensure that the film was good on its own. He was generous in spending on the film as a producer.
The movie, which was lavishly mounted and shot abroad (including at the Osaka Expo ’70), also had three Indian heroines. There was no Jayalalithaa in it. Instead, there was Manjula, and Latha, making her debut — both younger to Jayalalithaa by five years.
Talking of age, the fact MGR was around 55 years when the film was being made came in handy for the DMK to attack him. They said that the film was not Ulagam Sutrum Valiban but Ulagam Sutrum Kizhavan (world trotting oldie).
They also taunted by saying that the 50+ old man was playing hero to women who were not even out of their teens (both Latha and Manjula were 19).
Evidently, MGR did not heed the criticism. If anything, USV had two other ladies in important roles —the dancer Chandrakala and the Thailand actress Metta Roongrat. In all, USV had five duet songs for MGR and plenty of fights that were a de rigueur in his movies.
Meanwhile, not just content with spreading canards, the DMK's dirty tricks department actually got down to halt its release. It arm-twisted many of the theatre owners from accepting the film for release.
It was said that even the printing of the film at the local labs was prevented and MGR had it secretly processed at a Mumbai lab. The film's release date was also kept hidden for long, and only in the week prior, it was let known.
Again, the DMK cadre threatened to attack the cinema halls. The then DMK Mayor of Madurai, Muthu (he was known as Madurai Muthu) openly claimed that if USV was indeed released he will start wearing saris.
On the release day, in Muthu's Madurai, there was plenty of tumult. The screen at the Madurai Chinthamani theatre, where USV was to release, was set on fire.
But AIADMK men and MGR fans quickly managed to find another cinema hall — Madurai Meenakshi, to be precise — and USV arrived much to the delight of huge crowds. The queues in the front of the theatre, old-timers recall, ran till the next two streets.
The film quickly became a raging hit but there was also some disappointment that the film, which was about a scientist and his brother (MGR in dual roles) had nothing political in it.
The film does start with showing the AIADMK flag fluttering — first ever movie to show the flag of MGR's party.
But beyond the title song Vetriyai Naalai Sarithiram Sollum — intriguingly written by one Pulavar Vedha about whom little was known before and little else known after — the political messaging was largely absent.
USV's Success And Its Aftermath
But outside the theatres, politics quickly picked up from the film. An unheralded AIADMK functionary S Periyasamy set the ball rolling by dispatching a sari to Madurai Muthu. Following this, the AIADMK cadre besieged his house with packets of saris.
A beleaguered Muthu, who couldn't keep up his word, went into hiding. (That such a vehement and vitriolic critic later came back to MGR and also became the AIADMK's Madurai Mayor later is a different story altogether).
Periyasamy, for his faithful efforts, was given the party ticket to contest the general elections in 1977, and he duly won from Periyakulam against the DMK candidate Palanivel Rajan (the father of Palanivel Thiaga Rajan who has been shunted to the IT Ministry from the Finance Ministry recently).
The success of USV also gave confidence to MGR to continue as an actor even while being a full-fledged politician. USV also established Latha as the leading screen lady of MGR. She would end up as MGR's heroines in a total of 11 movies — one more than Jayalalithaa's 10.
Talking of Jayalalithaa, she did try to patch up with MGR. It is said that she visited the shooting of USV in Japan (September 1970) for reasons that can only be guessed. But that visit might have helped her to stay in MGR's reckoning at least politically later.
As is well known, there was to be a sequel to USV — they even mention it in the end-cards. It was to be christened Kizhakku Africavil Raju, but it never got made.
After USV, MGR acted in 15 more films. Though many of them were successful, none reached the heights of USV, which remains a milestone in his career — for sustaining his film legacy as well as providing his solo political career a much-needed boost in its infancy.
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