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The rise of a colossus

Villupuram Chinniah Pillai Ganesan was born on October 1, 1927, to humble parents who named him after Lord Ganesa whom they worshipped. Little did they know that their son, who began his career as a rationalist, would himself be worshipped by the acting fraternity for decades in Tamil Nadu and even entire south India.

His father Chinniah Pillai worked for the railways and was involved in the Indian Freedom Movement. Being in and out of jail, his father could not spend much time with him and, therefore, Ganesan’s mother Rajamani Ammal brought him up, giving him education. But he soon knew his future did not lie with education. There were other frontiers, other peaks beckoning him.

However, like many other illustrious sons of India, he dropped out of school and showed interest in theatre. He wanted to act and so ran away from home to join the Boys Company, a famous theatre group.

As a youth, he made a mark straightaway in the company. Even at that early stage, his wonderful asset was the range of his voice. He was thin and lanky but his voice had a mesmerizing strength and power.

Like many others in the company, he had to play female roles as well.

His first appearance was as Sita in the play Ramayana.

Ganesan’s outstanding performance as the character ‘Chatrapati Sivaji,’ the great Maratha warrior, in the stage play ‘Sivaji Kanda Hindu Samrajyam’ earned him the title of ‘SIVAJI’.

The title was conferred on him by the founder of the Dravidar Kazhagam, ‘Periyar’ E V Ramasamy Naickar, the social reformer who inspired the leaders of the Dravidian movement, including DMK founder C N Annadurai, M Karunanidhi, and later M G Ramachandran.

Ganesan thus came to be called Sivaji Ganesan.

The story of Sivaji Ganesan was a saga of success.

In 1952, in his twenties, he got the offer of the main role in Parasakthi by P.A. Perumal Mudaliar of National Pictures. The film was a box office hit.

He never looked back after that. His powerful dialogue in films like ‘Parasakthi’, ‘Veerapandiya Kattabomman’ with patriotic fervour, and in a mythological format in ‘Thiruvilaiyadal’, have inspired actors and actresses down the years.

He acted in at least 300 more movies after Parasakthi. He starred as the hero in 285 films and was even sought after in films of other south Indian languages, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam.

He also acted in a few Hindi films. He was highly regarded by actors like Dilip Kumar, Rajendra Kumar and other heroes of Bollywood.

Awards poured in thick and fast as a wide variety of roles were embellished by the fine actor, who could emote and actually transform himself into the character he played.

Unlike his film world rival, MGR, Sivaji saw himself as an actor on the screen and did not worry about his image. He would smoke, drink and womanise if the role required. MGR wouldn’t do that.

He also revelled in anti-hero roles like that of a villain in ‘Andha Naal’, a record of sorts as the film had no songs, or as in ‘Puthiya Paravai’, where he murders his wife.

Later, he moved away from rationalism towards the Congress. His powerful portrayal of patriotic characters strengthened this bond. His roles in films like ‘Veerapandiya Kattabomman’, ‘Kappalottiya Tamizhan’, ‘Ratha Thilagam’ and ‘Bharata Vilas’, to mention a few, inspired patriotism and nationalism in a land which was coming increasingly under the grip of regionalism and rationalism.

He took part in the Police Centenary Documentary, ‘Ungal Nanban’ (Your Friend), the National Defence Documentary, ‘Thai Nadu’ (Motherland), and in ‘Singa Natham Ketkuthu’ (Lion's Roar is Heard).

He could speak good English and would even essay a Shakesperean character on stage and in films. His style of delivery, a loud and powerful voice (it earned him the title of ‘Simha Kuralon’ - Lion’s Voice), sense of timing and ability to reel off pages and pages of dialogue at a fast and furious pace, set him apart as an actor.

Producers and directors readily testify to his skill to reproduce even lengthy dialogues at will after just one reading during a take. His memory was truly phenomenal.

‘Veerapandiya Kattabomman’ delivered to him the Best Actor Award at the Afro-Asian Film Festival in Cairo in 1960. Many international and national awards came his way.

From ‘Parasakthi’ in (1952) to ‘Thevar Magan’, a special performance for Kamal Haasan in (1992), Sivaji Ganesan played every conceivable character on screen - son, father, brother (his performance in ‘Paasa Malar’ on affection for his sister is considered a landmark performance in Tamil film history), hero, anti-hero, action and comedy.

He even made an attempt at a James Bond-type film in ‘Thanga Churangam’ but the film failed at the box office.

He had a remarkable penchant for comedy as seen in films like ‘Sabhash Meena’, ‘Arivali’, ‘Galatta Kalyanam’ and ‘Ooty Varai Uravu’ in later years.

However, he was more renowned for his emotional characters, having the uncanny ability to make audiences weep over his portrayal of tragic characters.

Films in the “P” series like ‘Paalum Pazhamum’, ‘Paava Mannippu’, ‘Pasa Malar’, ‘Paadhakanikkai’, ‘Paar Magale Paar’, were outstanding and still draw good crowds wherever released.

The immortal compositions of Viswanathan-Ramamurthy to lyrics of Kannadasan acquired special lustre and meaning when Sivaji Ganesan sang those lines for the silver screen. The combination was a winning one.

Endowed with a good physique, a mobile face capable of reproducing any human emotion, Sivaji Ganesan could use his facial muscles to emote, a rare quality. His eyes and face could narrate a thousand stories, reel off chunks of dialogue.

Unfortunately for him, he worked in an era which was dominated by the melodramatic theatre, with loud and powerful portrayals (necessitated by the need to be heard even at the rear portion of a drama auditorium) with an excessive concentration on dialogue.

A young director like Bharatiraaja showed how Sivaji could have won greater international and national acclaim if he was fashioned by the directors of today. In ‘Mudhal Mariyaadhai’, Bharatiraaja brought out the excellence of Sivaji in a role underplayed and stripped of excessive melodrama.

The film was a super hit, a reward to Sivaji’s painstaking search for excellence all his life.

The will to experiment, be noticed, be seen as standing out from the crop of actors, always motivated Sivaji to better and better performances, scales which other actors wouldn’t dream of attempting.

Some of the roles were truly off-beat. He did not mind acting as a blind man, a handicapped as in ‘Bhagaprivinai’, and a man with an ugly face in ‘Deiva Magan’, and never worried about his image of a handsome man.

He dared to differ, to breathe challenge, to attempt a dalliance with the unknown.

Though he could not reach the popular appeal of matinee idol MGR, both in films and in the political world, he had a special place of his own as an actor where he had no challenge. If MGR was seen as a matinee idol known for his swashbuckling and populist roles, Sivaji was seen as the ultimate actor.

Though he received the Padmashri award in 1966, was nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1983, received the Dadasaheb Phalke award, the national award for best actor eluded him.

He acted in countless movies, played a wide range of characters, yet it was always a sore point for him that he didn’t get the nod of the jury year after year. Ironically, it was his special appearance on Kamal Haasan’s insistence in ‘Thevar Magan’ that got him a special award.

Known as ‘Nadigar Thilagam’, the best of actors, his only flaw was the reluctance in later years to gauge the change in film dynamics in Tamil Nadu after the entry of the Bharatiraaja-Ilayaraja school breathing realism and fresh air into the Tamil Nadu film scene, based on rural pockets of the state.

However, there is little doubt that he strode like a colossus, with a phenomenal impact for nearly 50 years on the Tamil Nadu film industry, inspiring actors and actresses, taking Tamil Nadu film histrionics to new heights.

A stickler for discipline, both on and off the sets, Sivaji Ganesan was known for his punctuality and dedication during shooting. He was almost the first to turn up for shooting in the morning, even if it was at 8 a.m.

What will remain etched forever in people’s mind are his portrayal of a wide range of characters, social, political, historical, mythological with equal finesse and felicity of expression, taking dialogue delivery to new heights, living and breathing those characters, leaving them behind for posterity and continuing to inspire generations to follow.

Sivaji Ganesan would have a special, unquestioned place in the history of the Tamil race, and would be held with pride and esteem as an achiever-Tamilian for his outstanding contribution to Tamil language, theatre, films and culture, as long as Tamil language and culture exist.

The Man, The Actor - Pics

R Rangaraj

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