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Sivaji Ganesan: Greatest Thespian of Post-Independence Tamil Cinema



October 1st was the 85th birthday of Sivaji Ganesan one of the brightest stars among the Tamil Film firmament. V.C. Ganesan known as Sivaji Ganesan was widely regarded as the greatest Thespian of Post –Independence Tamil Cinema. This doyen among Tamil actors was one of my favourites. An updated version of an article written by me earlier is being posted now to commemorate his birthday.

Sivaji Ganesan (October 1, 1928-July 21, 2001)

Sivaji Ganesan (October 1, 1928-July 21, 2001)

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.

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.

Apart from Veera Pandiya Kattabomman there were many other films where his remarkably resonating dialogue delivery delighted and enthralled fans. Starting from his brilliant debut in “Parasakthi” film after film made indelible impressions in this regard. Thirumbipaar, Manohara, Thookkuthookki , Illara Jyothi, Anbu, Rajarani,Ethirpaaraathathu, Annayin Aanai, Kuravanji,Maruthanaatu Veeran,Ambikapathy, Kappalotiya Thamizhan, Paasamalar, Aalayamani, Karnan, Thiruvilaiyaadal, Saraswathi Sabatham, Kandan Karunai, “Thirumaal Perumai”,Sivantha Mann, Gauravam, Rajaraja Chozhan, Thangapathakkam etc are but some of the films remembered still for the Sivaji’s sparkling “vasanam”.

Ponmagal Vanthall~Sorgam

Vizhuppuram Chinniah Ganesan, or V.C. Ganesan, was born on October 1, 1928, in Vizhuppuram, which was then in the Arcot district of the former Madras Presidency. His parents were Chinnaiapillai Mandrayer , a railway employee and freedom fighter, and Rajamani, in whose name he was to launch later a successful film company, Rajamani Pictures. Ganesan belonged to the Kallar division of the Mukkulathor caste .His ancestors hailed from Soorakkottai in Thanjavoor district.

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 along with his boyhood chum “Kaka”Radhakrishnan (veteran comedian who passed away this year)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 Kazhagham and later Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam 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.

Sivaji As Saamraat Asokan in Annaiyin Annai

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.

Avanthaan Manithan

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

Kattabomman’s conversation with Jackson Thurai

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 and Enga Oor Raja in dual roles, 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 Padmanadha Aiyer in Vietnam Veedu, Barrister Rajanikanth in Gauravam and Police Superintendent Chaudhury in Thangapadhakkam.

Uttama Puthiran

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.

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.) Despite achieving stupendous success on the screen, Sivaji remained faithful to his first love, the stage, and acted in plays for decades. With more than 300 film roles to his credit, he inspired a whole generation of artistes, virtually creating a new school of acting.

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.

Chidambaram Jeyaraman renders for Sivaji in Parasakthi

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.


Sivaji’s own voice was woven into songs at times. Two memorable songs are “Vannathamizh Pennoruthi Vandhaal” by CS Jayaraman in Paavai Vilakku and “thendrolodu Udan Piranthaal Senthamizh Pennaal” by TR Mahalingam in Rajarajachozhan.

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.

Sivaji’s chief lead actor contemporaries were “puratchi nadigar” MG Ramachandran (MGR), his namesake Gemini Ganesan (kadhal Mannan) and “ilatchiya nadigar” SS Rajendran(SSR).

The only film he acted together with MGR was the controversial “Koondukkili” by TR Ramanna. With Gemini he acted in many hits like Pennin Perumai, Pathi bhakthi, Veerapandiya Kattabomman, Paarthaal Pasi theerrum, paasamalar, Pandha pasam, Kappalottiya Thamizhan, Saraswathy Sabatham, Thiruvarutselvar and Unakkaaha Naan. He also acted with SSR in films like Parasakthi, Rajarani, Aalayamani, Shanthi, Kaikodutha Deivam etc

His son Prabhu known as “ilaya Thilagham” has also made his mark in films as an actor. His other son Ramkumar keeps the home production company Sivaji films ticking. The box –office record breaking “Chandramukhi”starring Rajnikanth was their production.

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 the greatest actor of Tamil cinema never won an Indian national award for best actor. He was conferred the Dadasaheb Phalke lifetime achievement award for meritorious service to Indian cinema in 1997.

Rajapart Rangadurai ~ Nandanar

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.In Sri Lanka he received the title “Kalaikkurusil”from the then Radio Ceylon.

Rajapart Rangadurai ~ Thirupoor Kumaran

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.

Sivaji Ganesan & Geetha Kumarasinghe

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. 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”.

Sivaji Ganesan passed away at a Chennai hospital on July 21st 2011.Although Sivaji is no more his films are there to keep his memory alive. It is a fitting tribute to “nadigar Thilagam” that his restored copies of his film “Karnan” made in 1964 was screened in 2012 and ran for more than 175 days in Chennai.


I too saw it in a theatre in Toronto and was enchanted. Now I wait like many of his fans for more releases of his films on the big screen.

DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at djeyaraj2005@yahoo.com