M. G. R. was born in Nawalapitiya near Kandy, Sri Lanka, to Gopala Menon and Maruthur Satyabhama (Nairs are traditionally matrilineal, hence MGR shares his matrilineal family surname "Maruthur"). His family was originally from Vadavannur,Palakkad, Kerala, but his father had migrated with his family to Sri Lanka.
After his father's death, he could not pursue his studies beyond the primary stage due to poverty and joined a drama troupe called Original Boys. Gaining considerable experience on stage, he entered the world of cinema, becoming an actor, and later a director, producer, and editor. M. G. R. married V. N. Janaki a former Tamil film actress.
He founded the Tamil University, The Tamil Nadu Dr. MGR Medical University and the Women's University in Tamil Nadu.
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