In a 40-year career, Sivaji Ganesan emerged as the doyen of Tamil cinema, a rare actor who used the method acting style to reach the top.
New Delhi: Monday marks the 90th birth anniversary of a legend of Indian cinema in general and Tamil cinema in particular — an actor so gifted that he was given the honorific ‘Nadigar Thilagam’ (doyen of acting).
Sivaji Ganesan — with his distinctive body language, his clear, powerful voice, matchless dialogue delivery, mastery over three different classical dance forms and method acting prowess — was often called the Marlon Brando of south India. In fact, legend has it that Brando once met him and said: “Sivaji can act like me, but I cannot act like him.”
Ganesan passed away on 21 July, 2001, due to long-standing heart problems and respiratory troubles.
The making of a star
He was born Chinnaiahpillai Ganesan on 1 October, 1928, in Villupuram. But he came to be known as ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan because of his performance as the Maratha ruler Chhatrapati Shivaji in C.N. Annadurai’s play ‘Sivaji Kanda Hindu Samrajyam’ (Sivaji’s Hindu kingdom). The Tamil reformer and ideologue E.V. Ramasamy ‘Periyar’ was so impressed by his performance that he called him ‘Sivaji’, and the name stuck.
He made his debut with the 1952 classic Parashakti, which was penned by M. Karunanidhi. Karunanidhi’s perfect script and Ganesan’s beautiful delivery made it impeccable beyond its time.
They also came together for another blockbuster Manohara (1954). These blockbusters made Ganesan a much sought-after actor.
Rise to reverence
Ganesan had once said: “Acting is like going for a tiger hunt. You need to aim for a headshot, otherwise the tiger will eat you. This fear made me rehearse every time before a shot for 40 years.”
And unlike his rival M.G. Ramachandran, who attained stardom primarily through his charisma, Ganesan got there through his innate acting ability and adherence to Stanislavski’s school of method acting. A prime example of this was the 1969 classic Deiva Magan.
The post-Independence generation saw the greatest freedom fighters of the land — like Veerapandiya Kattabomman and V.O. Chidambaram Pillai — come to life through him.
One of his most appreciated performances came in Karnan (1964), an adaptation of the Hindu epic Mahabharata, while his performance as Lord Shiva in Tiruvilayadal (1965) was also acclaimed.
Some of his other blockbuster movies include Pasamalar (1961), which is still the go-to Tamil movie for kinship; Navarathri (1964), in which he played nine different roles; and Thillana Mohanambal (1968), in which he portrayed a musician.
Even after new entrants like Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan started dominating the industry, he gave megahit with a cop movie, Thanga Pathakkam(1974).
Towards the end of his career, he starred with Kamal Haasan in Thevar Magan (1992), and almost ended up eclipsing his younger peer.
Many millennial critics have hit out at Ganesan’s “stylised” and “flamboyant” acting, but many of today’s superstars have cited him as a role model.
Involvement in politics
Ganesan was part of the Dravidian movement and was a supporter of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam until 1955. He then became an ardent devotee of K. Kamaraj and joined the Congress in 1961. When the Congress split, he was with Kamaraj initially and then moved to Congress (I).
When nominated Rajya Sabha MP Nargis Dutt passed away in 1981, Ganesan was nominated to take her seat.
In the late 1980s, he floated his own party Tamizhaga Munnetra Munnani, which backed MGR’s wife Janaki Ramachandran’s faction of the AIADMK in the 1989 elections. The party lost all the seats it contested, with Ganesan himself losing in Thiruvaiyaru. He merged his party with the Janata Dal and quit politics soon after.
Honours and recognition
Ganesan was honoured with India’s third-highest civilian award, the Padma Bhushan, as well as the top cinematic honour, the Dadasaheb Phalke award. France also honoured him with the title Chevalier.
The government of Tamil Nadu recently announced his birthday would be marked every year by a state function.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.