Atlas Ramachandran, the gold tycoon who made a place for himself in Malayali hearts.

Though he fell foul of the law and spent time in jail, Atlas Ramachandran will be remembered as a maverick businessman, film producer and philanthropist.

ByK A Shaji

Published Oct 05, 2022 | 8:30 AMUpdatedOct 05, 2022 | 8:30 AM

Atlas Ramachandra

Business tycoon, film producer-director, lover of literature, philanthropist.

Each of these could describe MM Ramachandran, whose rags-to-riches and down-again story — also involving a stint in jail — reads like a thriller.

And, going by the outpouring of emotion on social media when he breathed his last in Dubai on Sunday, 2 October, aged 80, the village boy who rose to make a mark in the gold business in the Gulf had, along the way, established an inexplicable connect with Malayalis worldwide.

That connect can be traced back to Ramachandran’s decision, more than a quarter of a century ago, to himself appear in the TV commercials of his gold business, something unheard of at that time.

His initial foray, clad in an ill-fitting suit, was met with derision by people who were used to seeing film stars and celebrities promoting brands. And it provided fodder for Kerala’s ubiquitous and merciless mimicry artists.

‘Atlas’ Ramachandra is born

But the maverick Ramachandran persisted, and Malayalis somehow got used to him, and to his famous punch line, delivered in his native Thrissur twang: “Atlas Jewellery: Janakodikalude Vishwastha Sthapanam”, or Atlas Jewellery: A Company Trusted by Millions.

For many years, he stuffed all the commercial breaks on Malayalam channels with Atlas Jewellery advertisements, an important reason why people got used to him. They even began appreciating him and avidly following the many ups and downs in his career that ensued.

The making of a gold tycoon

Born on July 31, 1942, to M Karunakara Menon and Rugminiamma at Mullassery Madhukkara in Thrissur, Ramachandran joined Canara Bank after completing his education in his native town. After a brief stint there, he joined the State Bank of India.

In the 1970s, he joined the stream of Malayalis then leaving for the Gulf and landed in Kuwait, where he began working at a bank. It was in the late 1980s that he finally left the banking sector and started his jewellery business —. the Atlas Jewellery Group.

When  Saddam Hussain’s Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, he shifted his business base to Dubai. There began the success story of Atlas.

The group expanded its operations and at its peak had 62 branches in the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Branches were opened in Kerala’s metros too.

Over the years, he expanded his business to the healthcare and real estate sectors, and into film production.

A tycoon’s fall

In 2015, a Dubai court sentenced him to three years in jail after a cheque he issued for Dh 3.40 crore — ₹61.2 crore — bounced. As it often happens in such cases, more problems surfaced. News of a default on a ₹1,000 crore loan followed.

Ramachandran spent the next three years in jail, with the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in India attaching his assets in Kerala in connection with a case of alleged financial fraud.

Acting on a complaint filed by the Thrissur-based South Indian Bank, the central agency attached gold, silver, diamonds, and bank investments worth over ₹57 crore. The bank had accused him of submitting fake documents in the name of Atlas Jewellery to avail a ₹242 crore loan.

The agency also attached the personal assets of Ramachandran and his wife, Indira.

Till his last breath, Ramachandran believed that dishonest people among his own staff and business rivals were behind the cases. The sudden denial of advances by two banks that had guaranteed loans to his group also created an adverse situation.

Release and after

After being released from Aweer Jail in Dubai following a protracted legal war, Ramachandran used to say that it was loneliness that troubled him most during imprisonment. He said that he had to switch off the light of life while in prison.

It was wife Indira’s selling of two hospitals under her that facilitated repaying some of his debts and led to his release from jail.

By the time he came out of jail, Ramachandran had, by some estimates, lost over 3,000 kilograms of gold ornaments worth ₹1,583.77 crore from 44 shops in six Gulf Cooperation Council countries.

After his death, many in the Dubai business community have termed him an honest and sincere person who fell accidentally into the unseen traps of the business sector.

His wife recalled that, post-release, Ramachandran spent hours consulting financial advisors and lawyers to rebuild his business from scratch.

Foray into cinema

Even while devoting himself to the yellow metal in the Gulf, Atlas Ramachandran, as he was popularly known, retained his passion for art, literature, and cinema.

A small-scale film actor himself, Ramachandran will be remembered as a producer of some of the evergreen Malayalam films that went on to win wide critical acclaim.

When he produced the movie Vaishali, a major milestone in the Malayalam film industry penned by Jnanpith laureate MT Vasudevan Nair and directed by the late Bharathan, it proved his commitment to quality cinema.

His film distribution company, Chandrakanth Films, also promoted Malayalam films Innale, Kauravar, Vengalam and Chakoram. He forayed into film direction once, but his movie Holy Days failed to make an impact.

He had appeared in 13 Malayalam films in minor roles.

In Dubai and his native Thrissur, he reached out to writers and readers in Malayalam and organised sessions of Akshara Slokam, competitions in a poetry recital, that he had seen his poet father host at their house when he was a child.

Both in his adopted home in the Gulf and in India, his community initiatives had a special focus on education. He awarded scores students in UAE schools with gold medals and instituted scholarships for deserving students of limited means in Kerala.

Through all this, and despite his troubles with law, Atlas Ramachandran retained the affection he had built in the hearts of the average Malayali. And the outpouring of emotion on social media was a testimony to that.