At a time when the Tamil movie industry was ruled by MG Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan, a young, good-looking man with tangled hair charmed audiences with his on-screen romantic persona and completed the holy trinity of the golden era of Tamil cinema. Unlike the other two towering icons, Gemini Ganesan did not come from the stage yet he impressed with his understated performances and paved the way for the latter-day chocolate boys in Tamil cinema — Arvind Swami and R Madhavan.
On his death anniversary, a look at the superstar’s life and work.
The King of Romance, on and off screen
Born on 17th November 1920 to a middle-class Brahmin family in Pudukottai, Ganesan stayed with his grandfather, a college principal, until he was 10 years old, after which he moved to Chennai and stayed with his aunt. He graduated from Madras Christian College and later began teaching chemistry at his alma mater before he moved to work with the prestigious Gemini Studios as a casting assistant. While he was there, artists including Sivaji Ganesan approached him for a role. His association with Gemini Studios gave him the name Gemini Ganesan. But Ganesan wasn’t content with casting, and wanted to be on screen himself.
From a minor role in Miss Malini (1947), Ganesan acted in close to 200 films in his five-decade career, across Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu and Hindi. Some of the notable ones are Thai Ullam (1953) in which he played the villain and Manampol Mangalyam (1953), which was his first film as the lead and also where he met his future partner Savitri. Vanjikottai Valiban (1958), said to be adapted from The Count of Monte Cristo, was a massive multistarrer (including Vyjanthimala, PS Veerappa and Padmini) and a big hit. It was later remade as a Hindi film, Raj Tilak, with the same cast.
Films like Kalayana Parisu (1959), Kalathur Kannama (1960) and Then Nilavu (1961) cemented Gemini Ganesan’s tag as the first-ever ‘romantic hero’ in the Tamil film industry. It was such films that earned him the name Kaadhal Mannan (King of Romance), and it was a moniker that his personal life did not contradict.
Gemini married Alamelu (Bobji) at the age of 19, and they had four daughters (Revathi, Kamala, Jayalakshami and Narayani). He also lived with actors Pushpavalli (with whom he fathered Radha and Bhanurekha, whom we know today as Rekha, the Bollywood superstar, whom he did not acknowledge for a long time) and Savitri (with whom he had a daughter, Vijaya Chamundeshwari, and a son, Satheesh Kumar). While he did not marry Pushpavalli, he did marry Savitri while still married to Alamelu. At 78, he married 36-year-old Juliana Andrews in 1998.
His daughter, journalist Narayani Ganesh, remembers him as “a very witty person”. She recalls, “He had a good sense of humour. When everyone took things seriously, he was the only one who saw the lighter side of things. He was always the one who motivated us, not towards attaining fame but to acquiring a skill that would make us independent. Professionally, people remember him as romantic because he was an empathetic person who would then involve himself emotionally. He was a voracious reader who visited second-hand book shops in Chennai’s Moore market every weekend. His collections had a lot of adventures, science fiction, biographies and philosophy. But there was not a single romantic novel we could find.”
Gemini Ganesan died on 22 March 2005. Cremated with full state honours, the prolific actor received, in his lifetime, the Kalaimamani Award, the Tamil Nadu State Film Award for Best Actor for Kaaviya Thalaivi, the Padma Shri, a Filmfare Best Actor Award for Naan Avanillai (1974) and Filmfare and Screen Lifetime Achievement Awards.