July 22, 2001
1205 IST


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Sivaji: Actor who revolutionised Tamil cinema

N Sathiya Moorthy in Madras

Villupuram Chinnayamandayar Ganesan took Tamil filmdom by surprise in 1952 when his maiden venture, Parasakthi, penned by rising Dravidian ideologue Muthuvel Karunanidhi, was released. The sharp, powerful dialogues running into reams and reams of pages and conveying strong social messages, delivered by a smart actor with 'chinky' eyes, were very different from the song-and-dance sequences that had been the staple of Tamil cinema from the beginning.

Till then, Tamil films, the craze of the southern peninsula, were publicised for the 55 song sequences they portrayed. The films themselves were mostly mythological or historical, with contemporary social issues almost non-existent as themes.

The Karunanidhi-Ganesan duo broke this monotony and went on to produce such all-time classics as Manohara and Raja-Rani, where the upcoming star is believed to have delivered a poetic piece of dialogue extending up to five minutes, with the correct diction and intonation, after hearing it just once.

"Sivaji Ganesan introduced a revolutionary phase in Tamil cinema," Karunanidhi said on hearing about the departure of his "dear friend".

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalitha, who had starred with Sivaji in such movie hits as Savaale Samali, Sumathi en Sundari and Engirintho Vandal, expressed grief at his death, describing it as an irreparable loss to Tamil cinema, and extended her condolences to his family.

Top Tamil film stars, including Rajnikanth, Kamal Haasan, Vijaykanth and a host of others visited the Apollo Hospitals and paid their respects to the "star of the century", as they described him.

"There is not an eye in Tamil Nadu that had not shed a tear at the very least after seeing one or the other of his great performances," said many of them, though outside the Tamil film world some of these portrayals were seeing as overacted monologues.

But considering that Tamil has a long history of drama and poetry dating back to the Sangam era more than 2,000 years ago, neither Ganesan nor his generation could really be blamed for this style of acting. If anything, that generation revolutionised the themes of Tamil cinema.

Ganesan was an actor par excellence. Not one star appeared in southern cinema in the era in which he dominated Tamil films with the late M G Ramachandran, who remained unaffected by his stylish portrayals in films as varied as Padikkatha Medhai, Baga Pirivinai, Thillana Mohanambal, Vietnam Veedu and a whole slew of others.

For an entire generation of Tamil movie-goers, Sivaji's portrayal of an advocate in Gowravam was their own image of a lawyer, and his characterisation of Superintendent of Police Chowdhury in Thanga Pathakkam became a role model for aspiring young police officers.

His portrayal of Lord Shiva in Thiru-vilayadal and of freedom-fighters Veerapandia Kattabomman and Kappalottia Thamizhan V O Chidambaram have become symbolic of the very characters in the average Tamil mind across the world.

It was not just Parasakthi that made a difference to Tamil cinema. Sivaji's second film, Andha Naal, had no songs or dances, which was a huge risk for an upcoming star. The film also projected Sivaji as an anti-hero, a traitor to the nation, another huge risk that he did not flinch from taking.

Koondu Kili, the only movie in which he starred with MGR, his political rival, also had Sivaji playing an anti-hero, but he did not flinch. For him, the character and his own presentation was all that mattered.

So was his punctuality, which made film schedules in the South the envy of the far less efficient movie industries elsewhere in the country.

The last of Sivaji's great films, Thevar Magan, paired him with Kamal Haasan, a star of the next generation, who always looked upon him as a father figure, both on and off the screen.

Winner of a host of awards, including the Afro-Asian Award presented by the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt at the Cairo international film festival, and the Padma Bhushan, Sivaji was conferred the title of 'Chevalier' by the government of France in 1995. Yet, he always felt a little sad at never having been nominated for the prestigious national award even once, though his comeback film Mudhal Mariyadai was considered for the nomination.

Even the Dadasaheb Phalke Award for a lifetime's contribution to cinema came to him only in the late 1990s.

That way, Sivaji could not be said to have got the best of everything in life. In his earlier years he had a satisfying family life and his entry into politics made some difference. But Ganesan, who was conferred the title of 'Sivaji' by the founder of the Dravidian movement, the late 'Periyar' E V Ramaswamy Naicker, for his portrayal of the Maratha warrior king on stage, was soon elbowed out of Dravidian politics in favour of the more egalitarian MGR.

His entry into the Congress in the sixties too did not work very well, though his Sivaji Fans Association contributed a great deal to keeping the party alive in the state after the party's historic electoral defeat of 1967.

An admirer of the late K Kamaraj, Sivaji got increasingly marginalised in the state Congress after the death of his mentor in 1975, despite his direct links with the late Indira Gandhi. The party he floated in the late eighties, the Tamizhaga Munnetra Munnani, also drew a blank, with Sivaji himself losing his security deposit in the 1991 assembly election.

Sivaji's personal life also saw much sadness in his later years. While the 'Sivaji Productions' he founded with Pudhiya Paravai in the late Sixties ran into financial difficulty after he withdrew into semi-retirement, the marriage of his granddaughter Sathyalakshmi to Sudhagaran was a cause for concern in the family.

The septuagenarian never quite recovered from the shock of the political scandals attending on Sudhagaran, who was arrested last month on charges of possessing heroin and making death threats. Though doubts were expressed about the truth of the charges, the shock of the incident was enough to push Sivaji back into hospital, from which he never came out again.

Pay your respects to the legend
'Every year I tied a raakhi on Sivaji'
An actor who revolutionised cinema
Sivaji Ganesan dead
Sivaji rules!

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