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December 24, 1997


Sivaji rules!

V S Srinivasan chats with the chevalier

Sivaji Ganesan in Parasakti (1952)
"Ennappa eppadi irukkai(How are you keeping?)," Sivaji Ganesan greets you heartily as you walk in though the door. "Ellam Soukyamdhane? (Everything is fine, isn't it?)". It is chaste Tamil, the only variety he speaks. Ganesan is in Bombay on a personal visit. Accompanied, this time, by wife Kamala and son Ram Kumar.

His wife is busy chatting with some other guests, apparently Lata Mangeshkar's nephew and some of the singer's other relatives. "My wife and they like to talk a lot. The only hitch is that they don't know Tamil... But they still hold discussions for hours together." He laughs loudly, the rich and full-throated sound that charged many a theatre filling the small room.

Ganesan has this habit of laughing things off. And there is atmosphere of drama around that magnificent persona that few other Indian actors possess.

Ask him about the Dadasaheb Phalke Award he won this year, an award fans consider unduly delayed, and he smiles.

Sivaji Ganesan with Pandari Bai in Andha Naal (1954)
"Ah, awards! You tell me, are awards important as long as you are sincere about work? I am not at all concerned about awards. I am not running around telling the world that I have the Dadasaheb Phalke award now. But at the same time, I had never complained about not getting the award. If you feel, that I should have got the award earlier, that is because you respect my abilities as a professional actor. Many people say, that I act quite well," he smiles modestly with a faint hint of amusement.

But the Tamil thespian has won few awards in India though in Tamil Nadu he is dubbed the nadigar tilakam (greatest among actors). And, in 1995, he was accorded the title of chevalier by the French government, a slap in the face of Indian indolence, claim fans.

Tamil Nadu was quick to follow, naming the road on which his bungalow in Madras is situated Chevalier Sivaji Road.

"Although, I have not got any awards in India, I have got a lot of awards abroad. Sometime ago the United States of America invited me over, an honour accorded earlier only to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Isn't that enough. Previously, our government had thought that I still had a long way to go to get the award. Maybe that's why they did not give it to me. I think I must have come of age now," says Sivaji, sarcasm personified.

As you watch the man talk, you get the feeling that he still sees himself as being onstage. Sometimes he flings his arms up and, sometimes, he gesticulates dramatically, reminding you of one or the other of the innumerable roles he has essayed. It makes you wonder whether all along you've just been seeing Ganesan depict himself on screen, or whether the screen persona has infected the real man.

You don't spend time musing while the actor is gauging your reactions but ask him if son Prabhu is going to be his successor in Tamil cinema.

Again you get that feeling of deja vu, as he thunders in resonating tenor, his delivery gaining in power with righteousness, and ending in a quiet and undeniable assertion.

Sivaji Ganesan with S S Rajendran and Vijayakumari in Pachai Vilakku (1964)
"One has to work hard to become someone's successor. I'm not a man to parcel my success and give it to my son or anyone else in the world. He has to earn it! And that will be decided by the masses. The public will decide after it sees the man's talent.

"Can anyone say, for instance, that (Tamil Maanila Congress leader) G K Moopanar is a successor of that great leader, Kamraj? Never!"

Born Villipuram Chinnayya Ganesan, he earned the name of Sivaji after he excelled in the role of the Maratha chieftain in a Tamil film, in the wake of a play on which the film was based. The film was also a hit in Maharashtra, where Shivaji is a folk hero.

Did he do the role so well because he became the character?

"Aiyo. Never do that. An actor should never get into the shoes of the character he is playing. Suppose he is playing the role of Narsimha in Bhakta Prahlad and he decides to take on Hiranyakashpu and tear that poor guy's heart out, after kicking the sound and lights to one side and biting the heroine?" He laughs uncontrollably, looking far, far younger than his years.

But time has still left its mark. And now, Ganesan is getting more choosy about his roles, his last film being Kamal Hasan's Thevar Magan. But his following want more from him.

"It is very nice to know that there are people who want you to go on.... That is a great compliment to me. But then I am quite old now. I have ruined my health by working hard on my acting, and that too in many films. I would definitely act if I got a good role... There will be a demand for roses only if they are scarce and good... If I start acting in too many films, my value goes down."

Ganesan first entered theatre because his father, a freedom fighter, was more often in jail than out.

Sivaji Ganesan with Soucar Janaki in Uyarndha Manithan (1968)
"Theatre has taught me everything. My teacher (Chinna Ponniswamy Padayachi of Chidambaram) taught me Bharatnatyam, acting, body movements... Practically everything. My task was rendered more difficult by the fact that I had to play female characters... I was quite jealous of the rough and tough boys because they used to get to play the male roles."

Padayachi, Ganesan says, was himself an outstanding stage actor. And he learnt in an atmosphere that was reminiscent of an ashram school. Then, in a different vein, adds: "That was before you were born." He laughs.

After years on stage, Sivaji bagged a role in Parasakti in 1952. "The sound engineer faulted my dialogue delivery, complaining that I moved my lips like a fish. I was upset but the film's director Krishnan Panju encouraged me saying that I had performed well and a bright future awaited me."

Sivaji has now completed 45 years in filmdom, his peak being in Veerapandya Kattabomman, where he electrified audiences with his performance.

Sivaji Ganesan with Jayalalitha in Enga Maa (1968)
"I was inspired by the character of Kattabomman when I used to watch the theru koothus (street dramas) as a child. I had memorised all the dialogues. But that role is not my favourite. I like all my roles, because I do full justice to every one . All good artistes will tell you the same thing. If someone has his roots in theatre, he will definitely tell you that all his roles are the same," he smiles.

But then why, if he was so devoted to acting, did he enter politics?

"That was an adventure, or rather a misadventure," he says, unabashed. But would try again, given the chance?

Chance," he says heavily. "That is what people wait for. I am sitting here because I have not got a chance. If accorded an opportunity, I will certainly go in for it. I will be a liar if I told you that I don't want to re-enter politics."

Does he have any other future plans? And the hero smiles again.

"Plans are for businessmen. I am an actor. I will always remain an actor. What was my ambition when I started of is the same now. I still want to be a good actor!"

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