It was ten years ago March 14, 1995, to be precise -- that I met 'Gemini' Ganesan for an interview for the first time in my life. I was new to Madras (it was not Chennai then) and new to the world of Tamil cinema. To my relief, he chose not to talk about films at all. In fact, I felt he detested talking about films.
When he said, 'Let's talk something else, let's talk philosophy, let's talk science and not cinema,' that suited me fine.
He was reading a book and watching a tennis match on television simultaneously when I entered his house, which was right next to GG Hospital run by his daughter, Dr Kamala Selvaraj. What struck me first was the house itself. There was nothing in the house to show that a film star lived there. I could not spot anything that was remotely connected to films. I could only see family pictures of him with his wife and children. There was also a huge temple like structure with pictures of gods and goddesses.
He proudly told me that his family consisted mainly of academicians and doctors. Though he had lost his father at the age of ten, his mother, a courageous woman encouraged him to study hard and become an ICS (Indian Civil Service) officer.
After his schooling at Pudukkottai, he was packed off to Madras for higher studies. But he was not fated to become an ICS officer; he became a chemistry professor at the Madras Christian College instead. His mother was disappointed.
But when he quit his job as a college lecturer to join Gemini Studios as a production executive, she was even more disappointed. "In a man's life, so many fortunate and unfortunate things happen. It is the will of God, if you believe in a God. But I strongly believe in fate. Certain things will happen and no human power can stop them. In Tamil we have a saying, 'you can conquer your fate by your intellect and hard work, but to do that you must have fate on your side'," he had said, as he explained his decision to join the studio.
He swore he was not interested in acting but when he was offered a role in 1953 in Manampol Mangalyam, he accepted it nevertheless. "Though I was 34, I looked 18," he told me with a chuckle. Yes, even at 75, he looked a decade younger, I replied.
"Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind. Years may wrinkle the skin but lack of enthusiasm wrinkles the soul. You must be inquisitive. You should be child-like and not childish. I try to stay in the company of the young. I play tennis, table tennis, billiards, badminton and golf, I swim, I am a good horse rider, I am a rover, I travel a lot, I read "
Manampol Mangalyam did not make him a star overnight. It took about six or seven years for him to become 'Gemini' Ganesan and kadal mannan (King of Romance). He also became a kadal mannan in real life.
I had only heard vaguely at that time about his private life, and had no intention of asking him about it. But to my surprise, he opened up about his life. "My life is an open book. The tea-shop owner opposite my house will tell you my story. I have no secrets. Perhaps that is not a good thing; unfortunately, it happened that way for me. There are rascals who stray, leave their women at home and go to so many places and yet not admit it. But whatever Gemini Ganesan does, everyone knows. I do not know how. Anyway, it doesn't matter now."
He told me that he was repentant only about one thing -- the hurt he had caused his wife, Bobji. She became his life partner at the age of 14. He was 19 then. "My conscience was hurting very badly. I had done a great wrong to my wife. I felt very guilty, extremely guilty. I felt like committing suicide when I went to a second woman in my life. The Shastras say it is a mistake. These adventures and misadventures gave me a feeling that I should take care of my family hundred times more than what I had, which I would have, had I not strayed. I took care of my wife; I took good care of my children. All of them have come up brilliantly in life. So my conscience is now clear. I am satisfied. I have made amends. That was the only mistake I have done. Gemini Ganesan is not a Rama, he is a Krishna."
As he talked about his wife and children, a frail old woman walked in with two cups of coffee. Yes, she was his wife of many, many years, and the mother of four of his children -- Dr Revathi Swaminathan, a radiation oncologist practising in Illinois in the US, Dr Kamala Selvaraj, who runs the GG Hospital in Chennai, Narayani Ganesan, a journalist with The Times Of India in Delhi and Dr Jaya Shreedhar, a doctor who works as a health advisor with Inter News Network.
Recently, his youngest daughter, Dr Jaya told me with a smile, "Our father is very affectionate; very, very affectionate but I wouldn't call him responsible."
Ganesan continued: "Every man is a dual personality, and the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde need not be bad persons at all. Dr Jekyll might be a serious intellectual and Mr Hyde might be a jovial man who goes to a club, who is a sportsman and who plays around with girls, which is not very bad. To appease gods and goddesses, sacrifices are made. Likewise, one has to be a Mr Hyde sometimes to appease the Dr Jekyll. I believe man is made to live a good life and enjoy it."
He then wanted to know about me and where I had my education. When I said I had my initial schooling at the Ramakrishna Mission school in Calicut, he went into a reverie. "I was confused and restless when I was 13. I was trying to get answers for many questions. So I stayed for a year at the Ramakrishna Ashram, and that rejuvenated me, gave me a fillip, taught me to look at the world from different angles. It taught me spiritualism. I learnt the Vedas, the Bhagavat Gita and yoga. Later on in life, this has helped me become an optimist; see only the roses and not the thorns. Many people, men and women, have taken me for a ride but God never took me for a ride; he only tested me with pinpricks."
When he caught me looking at the temple in his house, he said, "Religion should not make you a fanatic. Even if you are a Hindu or a Muslim or a Buddhist or a Confucian or just a confused man, you will realise that a force is guiding you all the time."
He then asked me, "Do you know Sanksrit?" When I replied in the negative, he quoted from the Brahadupanishad and then translated it for me. "Infinity multiplied, divided, subtracted and added by infinity is infinity. Infinity is infinite, an endless thing, so the universe is also an endless thing in which we are nothing; we are not even an atom or an electron or proton."
He narrated a meeting he had with the statesman and educationist Sir Visvesvaraya. When Gemini Ganesan was introduced as an actor from Tamil Nadu, the former asked him, 'Son, is the world fair to you?'
"I was taken aback. I expected him to ask me about films and here he was asking me a philosophical question. I replied to him that the world had been fair to me. I told him, I am also trying to contribute to the world. 'In short, may I say, sir, I am contented?'
'Contentment is a good trait but are you ambitious?' The scientist then asked me.
I said, 'I am ambitious but not avaricious, sir.'
"Remember, I am not avaricious. I never was," he repeated his answer to me.
It was time for me to leave. He sprang up from his chair to see me off, quite unlike a 75 year old. "You know why I am young? I never get up uttering, amma I get up like a sprightly young man. The moment you start getting up supporting your knee and calling all the Gods and the Goddesses, you are old. Remember my words when you also grow old."
As I drove back, I felt he did not want to be remembered as a film star but wanted to project himself as a knowledgeable person, a philosopher. Did he regret the decision to chuck his professor's job to be a film star? The answer to that, I do not know.
Also read: Gemini remembers his peer