Sivaji Ganesan: A doyen among actors in Tamil cinema

By D.B.S. Jeyaraj

Hello Friends

Sivaji Ganesan who passed away on July 21st 2001 is widely regarded as the greatest thespian of post-independence Tamil cinema. This doyen among Tamil actors was one of my favourites.

Like many of my generation I memorized the dialogue from “Veera Pandiya Kattabomman” during my childhood and repeated them with appropriate mannerisms to entertain family, relatives ,classmates and friends.

Sivaji spoke Tamil on screen the way it should be spoken.It is no exaggeration to say that he was the role model for many in pronouncing Tamil dialogue in dramas.

I also had an opportunity of meeting him in person at Hotel Ranmuthu in Kollupitiya when he came down to Sri Lanka in 1978 for the shooting of
“Pilot Premnath”

When Sivaji passed away in 2001 I penned an article about him for the Indian newsmagazine “Frontline”dated August 4th-17th 2001(Vol 19 NO 16)

I am reproducing that article without any changes on my blog as tribute to his memory on the tenth anniversary of his death

Here it is friends - DBSJ

Jayalalithaa and Sivaji Ganeshan in Engirundho Vandhaal

SIVAJI GANESAN:A DOYEN AMONG ACTORS IN TAMIL CINEMA

BY D.B.S.JEYARAJ

SIVAJI GANESAN, 72, one of the brightest stars on the Tamil film firmament for nearly five decades, passed away at a Chennai hospital on July 21. With more than 300 film roles to his credit, he inspired a whole generation of artists, virtually creating a new school of acting.

His acting career, which began at the age of eight, could be divided into three phases – 1936 to 1952, when he acted only on stage; 1952 to 1974, when he acted for the big screen and also gave stage performances; and 1974 to 1999, when he acted only in films. (His last film was Pooparikka Varigirom.)

Villupuram Chinniah Ganesan, or V.C. Ganesan, was born on October 1, 1928, in Villupuram, which was then in Tamil Nadu’s South Arcot district, to Chinnaiapillai, a railway employee and freedom fighter, and Rajamani, in whose name he was to launch later a successful film company, Rajamani Pictures.

Smitten by a street drama about Kattabomman, the feudal Polagar of Panchalan-kurichi who defied the British, young Ganesan became enamoured of acting and abandoned school when he was in Class Two. Forsaking home, he joined the Madurai-based Bala Gana Sabha drama troupe first, and later the troupe run by Ethaartham Ponnusamipillai. From child roles he graduated to female roles and then on to the “raja part”, the role of the hero, as it was known then. The first landmark in his career was his portrayal of the Maratha warrior Sivaji in the drama ”Sivaji Kanda Samrajyam” written by Dravida Munnetra Kazha-gam leader C.N. Annadurai, who went on to become the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister. E.V. Ramaswamy, the patriarch of the Dravidian movement, acclaimed his stellar performance and referred to Ganesan as ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan. This was in 1946. The sobriquet stuck.

The big break in Sivaji’s career came in 1952, when he acted as the hero in Parasakthi, a film directed by Krishnan-Panju. The dialogue, written by DMK leader and former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi in fiery and flowery prose with a surfeit of alliterations, the hallmark of Karunanidhi’s style, came powerfully alive in a stunning performance by Sivaji, unparalleled in Tamil cinema. The monologue uttered as an address to Tamil Nadu in the earlier scenes and the courthouse speech in the closing stages of the film were classic instances of delightful oratory. A star had arrived in Tamil cinema.

The Karunanidhi-Sivaji combination made an explosive impact. The writer’s rich prose, brimming with vitality, was given emotive and impressive expression by the actor. Every film in which they collaborated was a success. Notable among them were Thirumbi Paar, Manohara, Kuravanji and Iruvar Ullam.

Sivaji had an extraordinary flair for dialogue delivery. He pioneered an exquisite style, diction, tone and tenor. (Later other scriptwriters, such as Solaimalai, Sakthi Krishnaswamy, Aroor Das, and ‘Vietnam Veedu’ Sundaram, were to provide dialogue that tapped his diction, which rendered the Tamil language euphonious.)

A generation of actors and aspirants modelled themselves on his style. Despite this mass attempt to imitate and emulate him there was no replicating or duplicating the veteran. This stylish, dramatic presentation was essentially considered to be a feature suitable for the stage rather than the screen. A device used frequently in his earlier films to give an outlet to his histrionic talents was the inclusion of short historical dramas – on the Chera King Senkuttuvan, Akbar’s son Salim or Jahangir, Socrates, Emperor Asoka among others – within the main plot, often dealing with a social theme.

His acting ability received maximum exposure in the bantering arguments Veerapandiya Kattabomman has with his British adversaries in the eponymous film. Sivaji received the best actor award for this role at the Afro-Asian film festival held in Cairo in 1960.

Sivaji’s talents were by no means restricted to his oratorical prowess and powerful dialogue delivery. He could emote all the nine moods (navarasas) realistically. This skill found scope in all his films and came out into full play in his 100th film Navarathri in 1964, in which he played nine different characters signifying wonder, fear, compassion, anger, gentleness, revulsion, romantic passion, courage and happiness.

His other commendable multi-role performances were in Uthama Puthiran in a dual role, and Deiva Magan and Bale Pandiya in which he did three roles each.

Sivaji Ganesan played a wide range of characters, from god and king to commoner. Whether it was the mercurial Chola emperor Raja Raja Cholan, Lord Siva, Lord Muruga, Saivite saint Appar, Vaishnavite saint Periyaalvar or Tamil poet Ambigapathy, Sivaji was always at his scintillating best. He was equally splendid in contemporary roles and stereotypes making every performance a memorable one.

Superb among them are his roles as Bharatha in Sampoorna Ramayanam, the patriotic lawyer Chidambaram Pillai in Kappalottiya Thamizhan, the nagaswaram player Sikkal Shanmugasundaram in Thillana Mohanambal, Prestige Padma-nadha Aiyer in Vietnam Veedu, Barrister Rajanikanth in Gauravam and Police Superintendent Chaudhury in Thangapadhakkam.

Despite achieving stupendous success on the screen, Sivaji remained faithful to his first love, the stage, and acted in plays for decades. Scenes from some of his films remain etched in memory: the ‘Yaaradi Nee Mohini’ song sequence in Uttama Puthiran, where Sivaji’s mannerisms would remind present day movie-goers of Rajnikanth’s style; the physically challenged Ponniah in Bhagapirivinai, the inimitable gait as the fisherman in Thiruvilayadal and the clash with Tamil scholar Nakkeeran in the same film; his duel over artistic superiority with Padmini in Thillana Mohanambal; particularly during the ‘Nalanthaana?’ song sequence; and the Othello drama sequence in English with Savithri as Desdemona in Iratha Thilakam.

Portrait of Sivaji Ganesan by the Filmfare magazine on August 24, 1962

Sivaji had an astounding capacity to synchronise lip and body movements to playback renditions making it appear as if he was actually rendering these songs. Singers Chidambaram Jeyaraman, Tiruchi Loganathan, Seerkazhi Govindarajan and A.M. Raja in the earlier days and T.M. Soundararajan later gave voice to his songs, making the singing and speaking voices blend as an indivisible entity.

Several directors, among them Krishnan-Panju, T.R. Sundaram, L.V. Prasad, B.R. Panthulu, T. Prakash Rao, A. Bhim Singh, K. Shankar, A.P. Nagarajan, A.C. Tirulokchandar, Sridhar, P. Madh-avan, K.S. Gopalakrishnan and K. Vijayan, directed Sivaji in vastly different roles, bringing out his versatility.

It was Sivaji’s tragedy that as the years progressed, opportunities for him to display his acting talent became scarce. But he did act in cameo roles, often stealing the scenes, as in Thevar Magan, which won him the National Awards Jury’s Special Jury award in 1993. (Sivaji, incidentally, declined the award.)

Ironically, the man hailed as a great thespian never won a national award for best actor. He was conferred the Dadasaheb Phalke lifetime achievement award for meritorious service to Indian cinema in 1997.

THE film journal Pesum Padam gave him the honorific ‘Nadigar Thilagam’ (doyen of actors). Sivaji was honoured with the titles Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan and the Tamil Nadu government conferred on him the Kalaimamani award. The French government honoured him with Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Literature.

Sivaji served as a member of the Rajya Sabha. But despite his vast popularity as a film actor he was not successful in politics. Starting out as a Dravida Kazhagam and later DMK activist, he crossed over to the Congress in the late 1950s. When the Congress split in 1969 he stayed with the ‘old’ Congress of Kamaraj. After Kamaraj’s death he joined the Congress led by Indira Gandhi. In 1989, he formed his own Tamizhaga Munnetra Munnani and struck out alone only to suffer a humiliating defeat in the elections.

Later he functioned as leader of the Tamil Nadu Janata Dal for a while, but soon ceased to be active in politics.

Essentially a creature of the stage when he entered films, Sivaji Ganesan brought that baggage with him and superimposed it effectively on the film medium. Yet his brilliant acting made this so-called violation of screen norms the accepted norm of film acting. Generations of Tamils learnt to appreciate the beauty and power of the Tamil language because Sivaji Ganesan breathed new life into it.

Sivaji was no stranger to Sri Lanka. His movies ran to packed houses in the island. Several of his films were adapted and remade in Sinhala. Substantial portions of Pilot Premnath and Mohanapunnagai were shot in Sri Lankan locales with Sri Lankan artists Malini Fonseka and Geetha Kumarasinghe in the lead female roles.

DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com