Sivaji Ganesan: Tamil cinema’s versatile actor par excellence


D.B.S. Jeyaraj

( The great Tamil film actor Sivaji Ganesan was born on October 1st 1928. This article written in 2014 is re-posted here without any changes to commemorate the “Nadighar Thilagham”s Birth anniversary)

The first Tamil film which impacted on me greatly during childhood was ‘Veera Pandiya Kattabomman’. It was a kind of bio-picture about a ‘Paalayakkaaran’ or Polygar (feudal chieftain) who defied the British during the last decade of the 18th Century and paid the supreme penalty. Kattabomman whose full name was Veera Pandiya Kattabomma Karuthaiyya Nayakkar governed an area known as Paanchaalankurichi which is in the Thoothukkudi District of Tamil Nadu state in India.


Sivaji Ganesan (1 October 1928-21 July 2001) in “Veera Pandiya Kattabomman”

I was five years old when I first saw the film with my parents at Elphinstone Theatre. The upper portions of the theatre were encased in hardboard, resembling the structure of a fortress. There were two cut-outs on either side of two men with upraised swords on horses. In the middle was another cut-out of a man literally taking a bull by its horns. The two horsemen were Kattabomman played by the actor Sivaji Ganesan and his brother Kumaraswamy alias Ommaithurai played by OAK Devar. The man taming the bull was Vellaiyhathevan, the commander of Kattabomman’s forces. The actor was Gemini Ganesan.

My family was living in Hulftsdorp then. The film which played at Elphinstone, Maradana moved on to Gaiety, Kotahena. I can recall seeing the film four times at Elphinstone and twice at Gaiety.

This was because several relatives and family friends took me along when they went to see the film as those in our family circle knew how crazy I was about this particular film Kattabomman. Even in later years I never missed seeing it when an old print was screened in a theatre. Nowadays in Canada I have a DVD of the film which I view occasionally if not regularly.

The magic of the movie

The magic of the movie to me at that time was the portrayal of Kattabomman by the doyen of Tamil actors, Sivaji Ganesan. The highlight of that performance was the powerful delivery of fiery dialogue by the film hero Kattabomman played by Sivaji. I memorised the dialogue (written by Sakthi T.K. Krishnasamy) from ‘Veera Pandiya Kattabomman’ in those days and repeated them with appropriate mannerisms to entertain family, relatives, classmates and friends.

Veera Pandiya Kattabomman

Two remarkable passages lingering in memory still are the verbal duels between Kattabomman and Jackson (played by C.R. Parthiban) and Kattabomman and Bannerman (played by Javer Seetharaman). Unlike most of the actors seen in the Tamil films of today, Sivaji Ganesan spoke Tamil on screen the way the mellifluous, vibrant language should be spoken. It is no exaggeration to say that he was the role model for many of my generation in pronouncing Tamil dialogue in dramas.

It is in this context of reviving memories about the first Tamil film to impact upon me greatly that I focus the ‘Spotlight’ this time on its hero Sivaji Ganesan, about whom I have written extensively in the past. The man regarded as the greatest thespian of post-Independence Tamil cinema passed away on 21 July 2001, three months short of his 73rd birthday. Though known as Sivaji, that was not his real name. It was a name bestowed upon him for playing the role of Sivaji in a popular drama.

No stranger to Sri Lanka

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 the films ‘Pilot Premnath’ and ‘Mohanapunnagai’ starring Sivaji were shot in Sri Lankan locales with Sri Lankan artistes Malani Fonseka and Geetha Kumarasinghe in the lead female roles.

Pilot Premnath ♥ Malani Fonseka ♫ ‘Ilankayin Ilankuyil’

‘Pilot Premnath’ in 1978 was an Indo-Sri Lankan co-production directed by A.C. Trilokachander. Shot in many scenic places in Sri Lanka, the film had a lively Baila type song ‘Udarata Menike’ sung in lilting tones by L.R. Easwari and A.E. Manoharan, which had audiences’ foot-tapping in India and Sri Lanka. But the most popular song was ‘Ilankayin Ilankuyil’ (the young cuckoo of Sri Lanka) with Vani Jayaram lending her voice to Malani, and T.M. Soundararajan voicing for Sivaji. Music was by M.S. Viswanathan. Shot in Eastman colour, this film was about an Air Ceylon pilot and his family. It ran for more than 100 days both in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka.

‘Mohana Punnagai’ starring Sivaji Ganesan and Geetha Kumarasinghe was made in 1981. The film directed by C.V. Sridhar did well in Sri Lanka but had an average run in Tamil Nadu despite the fact that it had Sivaji in the lead. The beautiful song sequence picturised on Geetha bathing in a waterfall-stream with Sivaji taking photos from different angles was unforgettable. The song ‘Thennilankai Mangai’ (south Sri Lanka maiden) is sung by S. Janaki to music composed by M.S. Viswanathan.

P.K. Balachandran, the ‘New Indian Express’ Correspondent in Colombo, in a recent article interviewed both Malani and Geetha about Sivaji Ganesan. Here are excerpts:

“Sivaji Ganesan was a great actor and a great human being too,” enthused Malani Fonseka, who was his leading lady in the 1978 Tamil blockbuster Pilot Premnath. “It was Sivaji who urged me to become a producer. He would say ‘Malani, you should make a No. 1 Sri Lankan creation,’” Malani disclosed. “A warm and friendly man, Sivaji introduced me to his wife and children and invited me for dinner at his house. I was very happy to work with him. In fact, it was an honour to work with him,” Malani said in a fulsome tribute to the thespian, who is no more.

“Thennilangai Mangai” ♥ Geetha Kumarasinghe ♫ Mohana Punnagai

Geetha Kumarasinghe, the Lankan leading lady of yore, who was paired with the Tamil thespian in Mohana Punnagai (1981) directed by C.V. Sridhar, said Sivaji was a thorough gentleman. “We got along very well even though he was in his fifties and I was only 26. He was very knowledgeable, not just on film making, but about many other subjects, though he had not gone to any university,” Geetha recalled. Geetha said she got offers from Madras film makers after Mohana Punnagai but could not take them because she got married.

Sivaji Ganesan’s acting career

Vizhuppuram Chinniah Ganesan

Vizhuppuram Chinniah Ganesan-as thespian Sivaji Ganesan

Sivaji Ganesan’s 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. 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.

Vizhuppuram Chinniah Ganesan, or V.C. Ganesan, was born on 1 October 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 fought 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 in 2012) 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 Indhu Rajyam’ 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.

Big break

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.

Court scene: Parasakthi

Song in Parasakthi ♫ rendered by C.S. Jayaraman ♫ Desa Gnanam Kalvi

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.

There were many notable 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, Veera Pandiya Kattabomman, 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’.

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.

In drama as Socrates in “Raja Rani”

Akbar’s son Salim ♥ Drama in “Iillara jothi”

Akbar’s son Salim ♫ song sequence in “Uthaman”

Emperor Asoka

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 but 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 Thrishoolam, Deiva Magan and Bale Pandiya in which he did three roles each.

Nalandana Nalandana ♫ Sivaji Ganesan, Padmini ♥ Thillaanaa Mohanambal

From god and king to commoner

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.

Patriotic lawyer Chidambaram Pillai in Kappalottiya Thamizhan ♥ Voice of Seerkazhi Govindarajan ♫ for Bharathiyar Song

♫ ‘Yaaradi Nee Mohini’ ♥ 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.

T.M. Soundarajan’s voice for Sivaji ♫ “Malligai Mullai”

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,’ 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. T.M. Soundarajan’s voice suited Sivaji most. Sivaji’s own voice was woven into songs at times. Two memorable songs are ‘Vannathamizh Pennoruthi Vandhaal’ by C.S. Jayaraman in Paavai Vilakku and ‘Thendrolodu Udan Piranthaal Senthamizh Pennaal’ by T.R. Mahalingam in Rajarajachozhan. There is also ‘Poatrippaaradi Pennae in “Devar Magan’.

‘Vannathamizh Pennoruthi Vandhaal’ ♥ by C.S. Jayaraman

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 himself paid tribute to L.V. Prasad saying it was Prasad who taught him the rudiments of acting for the camera.

Sivaji’s chief lead actor contemporaries were “puratchi nadigar” M.G. Ramachandran (MGR), his namesake Gemini Ganesan (kadhal Mannan) and “ilatchiya nadigar” S.S. Rajendran (SSR). The only film he acted together with MGR was the controversial ‘Koondukkili’ by T.R. 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, Pachai Vizhakku, Pzhani, Kaikodutha Deivam, etc

His younger son Prabhu known as “Ilaya Thilagham” has also made his mark in films as an actor. Prabhu was a very successful hero in the eighties and nineties with many of his movies breaking box office records. Sivaji’s elder son Ramkumar keeps the home production company Sivaji films ticking. The box-office record breaking ‘Chandramukhi’ starring Rajnikanth was their production. Now Prabu’s son and Sivaji’s grandson Vikram Prabu too has begun acting and done well in films like ‘Kumki’ and ‘Arima nambi’.

Sivaji’s tragedy

Sivaji Ganesan in Devar Magan

Sivaji Ganesan in Devar Magan

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.The Tamil 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.

Sivaji’s singing in Devar Magan ♥ Potripadadi Ponne ♫

Sivaji Ganesan passed away at a Chennai hospital on 21 July 2011.

Although the brightest star in the Tamil film firmament is no more, Sivaji Ganesan’s films are there to provide pleasure to his fans and keep his memory alive.

Spotlight new

“Spotlight” column appears in the “Daily FT” of July 26th 2014. It can be accessed via ~

DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at