The father-in-law of Malayalam superstar, Mohanlal, Balaji has the distinction of producing the maximum number of Sivaji films and acting as Sivaji’s brother in many films.
"With his death, I lost my own brother,” said Balaji, his eyes moist:
I still remember I had to stand in a queue for two days to get a ticket of Sivaji’s first film, Parasakthi. He was amazing in the film. People talked only about him those days. He was a craze in Tamil Nadu.
At the time, I was working as a production assistant at Narasu’s Studio. When I heard that my boss Narasu had booked Sivaji for A S A Swamy's Thulivisham, my happiness knew no bounds. Ever since I saw Parasakthi, I was eager to meet him.
When Sivaji came to the studio, Narasu introduced us. What I liked most about him was that he did not behave like a star. When he came to know I was also interested in acting, he asked the director to give me a role too. That's how I got a small role in the film. It was another matter that only one scene of mine escaped the editor’s scissors.
Even though he had become a major star acting in all the major production companies, Sivaji was extremely friendly with everyone.
Whatever I have achieved in life is thanks to three people: my schoolmaster S S Subbaraman (who made me act in school dramas), Gemini Ganesan (who introduced me to films and is like a godfather to me), and Sivaji Ganesan. Gemini Ganesan had given me a chance to act in Avvayyar in 1950.
In 1952, I was introduced to Sivaji.
He and I were not in touch between 1954 and 1960. In 1960, Gemini was to act as Sivaji’s brother in Padithal Mattum Potuma, but was not very keen on it. So he asked me to step in. When he introduced me to Sivaji after a gap of six years, Sivaji said, "As if I do not know Balaji! I know him very well!"
My role in the film was a major one, and the film became a huge hit in Tamil Nadu. Afterwards, Sivaji started recommending me if there was a second role in any of his films.
That was the beginning of our friendship. It strengthened further when I started producing my own films.
I made my first film in 1965 with Gemini Ganesan. It was my way of thanking him and showing my gratitude.
My second film was Thangai with Sivaji. Do you know how I signed him? One day I met him at Gemini studios and said, "Annai, I am producing a film and you should act in it."
Immediately, he brushed me aside, saying, "Poda, you a producer? You must be joking!"
He did not believe me. But when he realised that I was serious about making a film, without even batting his eyes, he said, “Get a good story and a director, and I'm in!"
The funniest thing was that Thangai was an action film. Sivaji was known as an emotional hero. It was M G Ramachandran who did all the fights in his films.
Sivaji was very sceptical about the action scenes. But I assured him the film would give him a new image. He agreed reluctantly. He was so sure that people would not accept him as a fighting hero.
Fortunately, the film was ame a big success! Till then, only MGR was applauded when he fought, but with Thangai, Sivaji also started getting credit for his fight scenes. After that, every film of his had at least one fight!
As an actor, he was phenomenal. He would ask me whether he had performed well after each shot. Was it necessary for a person of his stature to ask me that question? Still, he wanted assurance from the producer.
Sometimes I used to say, "No, that was not good. We will have one more take."
Immediately, he would say, “Balaji didn’t like the shot. Let me do it again." He wanted everything to be perfect.
I am also a perfectionist. That was why he liked me as a producer. All the 16 films that we made together were successes. He used to do two films a year for me, while other producers had to wait for years to get his dates. That was not because he considered me his friend or a brother; it was only because I am a disciplined and meticulous filmmaker.
Later, I made films with Kamal Haasan and Rajnikanth. That did not affect our friendship. He knew I am a producer and I had to make films. He was very understanding and open-hearted. Soon, I stopped production because of ill health. He, too, stopped acting.
The beauty of our relationship is that it went beyond films and production. Whenever he passed my house, he would drop in. The truth was he just couldn’t pass by without coming home. I would also visit him regularly.
We are on poda-vada (informal) terms! He was a very reserved person, and friendly, too. He was one of my closest friends. We were always there for each other. He was by my side when my wife passed away. He took control of the situation and saw to it that everything was done properly.
Whenever he introduced me to some overseas dignitary, he would say, "Meet Balaji, my boss." The moment they left, he would tell me, “Now, don’t think too much of yourself just because I called you my boss."
I never thought that he would leave this world so soon.
Just two days before his death, I met him at the hospital. He was reluctant to get up. Then his wife said, “Your friend has come. Won’t you get up?”
He just looked at me and said, “I can’t, my friend.” I felt very bad. To cheer him, I said, "Annai, you are okay and you are getting up and talking to me."
He asked the nurse to prop the bed, and the first thing he asked me was, “Did you drive?” He knew I always drove my vehicle, and he objected to me driving after my two kidney transplants. That day, we talked for a very long time about the good old days.
I used to pick him up every day when he was shooting for my films -- I enjoy driving and he enjoyed sitting in the car when I drove!
I still remember once we were going to shoot the film Neethi in Mysore. We flew from Madras to Mysore and my car was waiting for us at the airport. As usual, I drove. Sivaji's wife was also there.
Suddenly one of the tyres got punctured. I was really worried. It was 2000 hrs, not a soul visible anywhere. In the car was one of the top actors and it was dark everywhere but Sivaji was calmness personified.
He got out and took the stepney and changed the tyre himself. Imagine Sivaji Ganesan changing a car tyre. Later, I used to tease him about it.
Of late, we used to talk only about the old times. During rainy days, he would call me for a drive and we would drive to the beach. We loved drinking gin mixed with tender coconut water when it rained.
Two months back ago, he called me and said it's been a long time we enjoyed the rain together.
What more can I say, with his passing away, I have lost my brother.
As told to Shobha Warrier
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