The second day of the first Test match between India and Australia has concluded. An elevator stops on the second level of the MA Chidambaram Stadium, also known as Chepauk. The metallic doors part. There are many people inside. At the front of the pack is a man wearing a pink suit, black wraparound sunglasses, and white fur cap. It is MG Ramachandran.
A decision has to be made. Attend the press conference where a player from either side will speak on the day’s game. Or follow this apparition. It is a no-contest. If you are in Chennai, MGR comes first. Even if it is faux MGR. And the theatre of the absurd is sometimes more compelling than cricket press conferences, which do throw up cricketing insights but are otherwise predictable.
TR Kailasam is the name of MGR’s doppelganger. He is almost 80 years old. Needless to say, he doesn’t exactly fly under the radar at public places. He is elderly and amusing, and so people indulge him. The Chennai police are a brutal bunch. But when Kailasam hobbles out of Gate No 10, their faces break into a smile. They bow and shake hands with him. Traffic is stopped so that Kailasam can cross the street and get into one of the city’s yellow-as-ripe- fruit rickshaws.
“I have lived the life of MGR for many years, since about 1996,” Kailasam says when we meet again the next day. Occasions when he is not costumed like MGR are rare. “When I dress like him, I see him,” he says. It also keeps him occupied. Kailasam is a retired state government employee and a bachelor. As an MGR double, he gets invited to various functions. He denies feeling alone. “I see this as public service. All people are my brothers and sisters.” He says he doesn’t take money for appearances. His monthly pension of Rs 14,000 helps him get by.
On this day, he is clad in something more sensible than the pink suit. Except for a green salwai with gold embroidery around the shoulders and his dark glasses, his attire is all white. On his right wrist is a metal strap digital watch. Whatever hair one can see under his fur cap looks like a wig. In the period he is with us, he never takes his glasses off. Sitting across him in a Saravana Bhavan outlet opposite Shanti Theatre, owned by Sivaji Ganesan, it feels as if you are talking to Phantom. In the background looms a giant image of Ganesan, grinning face and folded hands. “I respect Sivaji Ganesan. But…” The words that follow ‘but’ can be easily guessed. “MGR is the best. His films had a message.”
Kailasam admires MGR for his philanthropy. “MGR’s attitude was, ‘I have money, you are suffering, so I will help you’,” he says. He is happy with Jayalalithaa as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. “She is the only one capable of doing good things. That is because she was a student of MGR.”
Kailasam never met MGR. As a government official, he says, he had to abide by strict rules. He seems to say it would have been indecorous of him to meet the leader. What he does do, however, is visit MGR’s memorial at Marina Beach every 24 December, his death anniversary. “People feel as if they have seen MGR themselves.”
Kailasam despises all politicians except MGR and Jayalalithaa. They are all after money, he says, rubbing thumb against forefinger. Just mentioning their names makes him angry. At times, he gets so agitated that he grits his teeth and bites his lower lip. You wonder if he is losing it completely. “If only you come home, I can show you my file and we will be done with in five minutes,” he says. Or seems to say (across the language gap). When his words do register, he feels thrilled. He grins, draws back his fur-capped head and nods it vigorously.
He knows his cinema, and suddenly, at this table for four with plates of bonda and steel containers of coffee, he launches into a rendition of the song Awara hoon, complete with gestures and theatrics. He doesn’t know the rest of the lyrics, but he knows the tune. Afterwards, he sings Hum tum, ek kamre mein band ho. He is a fan of Raj Kapoor. He is a fan of Dilip Kumar. “Baiju Bawra, Ganga Jamuna,” he says (although Dilip Kumar did not act in Baiju Bawra). He salutes the power of music. “I have seen very few Hindi films, but see, I know the tunes,” he says. Again he draws his head back and flashes a grin, revealing a sparkling and even set of teeth that could be dentures.
Kailasam also speaks with clarity on cricket. “Dhoni,” he says, pausing his snack, “Dhoni is the best captain. He is cool. I’m not saying this because he scored a double century. He is also entertaining. The helicopter shot is great to see.” He speaks of players of older generations. Kapil Dev, the Nawab of Pataudi, Azharuddin, Lala Amarnath. He says they were great players but some of them would have lacked in the fielding department in modern cricket.
All the jabbering has left him tired. He wants Bournvita. Fuel arranged, he resumes talking, jumping between languages, subjects and moods. You truly don’t know what he is going to say next. “If you see me chest up, do I look 80?” he asks. He does have energy. He attributes it to eating small. “Take food,” he says, employing that classic Indianism, “only when you are hungry. If you are poor, have 100 gm of peanuts. If you are better off, 20 gm of cashewnut. If you are rich, have five almonds, five dates and milk. That is enough.”
Then in two more lines, MGR encapsulates his personality and philosophy of life. “I’ll always be on stage, I don’t worry about age. I don’t have any rage, I don’t take any wage.”
We step out. Heads turn. Kailasam has a wedding to attend later in the evening. After that, he will likely proceed to his home in T Nagar, and finally take off the mask he wears for the rest of the world—and for himself.