Tamil cinema's lodestar

Print edition : August 04, 2001

"VICTORY, victory," shouts Villupuram Chinniah Ganesan as he makes his first appearance in his debut film Parasakthi, released in 1952. When he acted in that opening scene, he was stepping into a career that would take him to the heights of success, winning the admiration of Tamils across the globe as the versatile actor Sivaji Ganesan.

It was, therefore, not surprising that the death of Sivaji Ganesan was mourned by the entire Tamil-speaking community. Thousands of people, including hundreds of film artists and technicians, attended his funeral held in Chennai on July 23 with state honours; thousands more watched it on television. Kannada actor Raj Kumar, Telugu actors A. Nageswara Rao and Chiranjeevi and Malayalam actor Mammooty joined their film fraternity in Tamil Nadu in paying homage to the thespian.

Sivaji Ganesan's rich and varied contribution to Tamil cinema was recalled by President K.R. Narayanan, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, Tamil Nadu's acting Governor Dr. C. Rangarajan, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa (who co-starred with him in a number of films) and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president M. Karunanidhi (who wrote the script for Parasakthi). Homage was paid to the veteran actor in the Rajya Sabha, of which he was a member for a term from 1983 to 1989.

More than 300 films in Tamil, Hindi, Telugu and Malayalam - from Parasakthi to Pooparikka Varigirom - an impressive record indeed. For every three years in his first two decades in the profession, he acted in 25 films. Even more impressive is the fact that 65 per cent of his films were hits; they ran for 100 days and more, according to film historians. More than the number of the films he acted in, it was his versatility that earned for him wide admiration.

Critics list several films as his best in terms of performance. However, according to the actor, his career best was Kappalottiya Thamizhan, which tells the life of a freedom fighter, V.O. Chidambaram.

Sivaji Ganesan's forte was dialogue delivery, and it was this aspect of his performance that attracted youth to his films, at least in the first decade of his career. Film historian and media analyst S. Krishna-swamy observes in a tribute: "Sivaji Ganesan's voice and diction not only changed the course of dialogue delivery in Tamil films and plays, but also had a deep impact on the manner in which the language is spoken by narrators on radio and television. This is perhaps the most impressive contribution of the late thespian."

Two factors contributed to this success. First, the principal actors in Tamil films of the 1940s and the 1950s were Telugus, whose talent in acting was not matched by the way they delivered dialogues in Tamil. In fact, Sivaji Ganesan himself lent his voice to Mukkammala Krishnamurthy, a Telugu actor, for a Tamil film, Niraparathi, before the making of Parasakthi, and the film was well-received by the Tamil audience. Secondly, the 1950s saw the growth of the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu, thanks to the forceful oratory of leaders such as C.N. Annadurai and Karunanidhi. They transferred their language skill to the film medium in the scripts they wrote, ensuring their instant acceptance.

Sivaji Ganesan with his extraordinary memory and stentorian voice could captivate his fans with long spells of dialogues in chaste Tamil. He said in an interview that Parasakthi marked a break with the past, when Tamil films used to have 15 or more songs each. "Moreover," he said, "dialogue for me is poetry. I have a passion for poetry. And so, there was no problem for me in rendering it effectively."

ONE major criticism about Sivaji Ganesan is that he "overacted" his roles. Writer and film critic Jnani does not agree with this perception. He observes: "This criticism arises only when one sees Tamil art, and Indian art in general, through the prism of European art tradition. Tamil - and Indian - art traditions basically differ from those of Western realistic art. Therukkoothu (Tamil), Yakshagana Bayalatta (Kannada) and Jatra (Bengali) fall under the category of stylisation, which the West today considers as magical realism. Just as the Puranas and Indian mythology explain real-life situations and truths through fantasies, in art acting depicts reality through stylisation. That is our tradition. Sivaji was an outstanding representative of this tradition." Krishnaswamy, who holds a similar view, says: "If your theme is melodrama, your performance has to match it. But Sivaji Ganesan's range and immense versatility did not confine him to this stylised performance. He could challenge an actor of the realistic school when the story and the character demanded it."

Cho S. Ramaswamy, the actor-turned-journalist, who acted with Sivaji Ganesan in many films, brought up the criticism of "overacting" to the notice of Sivaji Ganesan with reference to a particular scene in a film. The thespian, according to Cho, demonstrated the same role in a subdued way. Asked why he did not do so in the film, Sivaji Ganesan replied: "In that case only you and me may enjoy the film, not the common people." Sivaji himself attributed his histrionic ability to his vast stage experience that preceded his entry into cinema. He recalled that he used to do four roles in the Ramayana staged by a drama troupe of which he was a part for over 10 years.

How did he manage to have a five-decade-long innings in a highly competitive industry? Some say that it was mainly owing to his strict discipline on the sets, punctuality and willing cooperation with his co-artists and technicians, and, above all, humility. He believed that only team spirit could ensure a film's success.

Unlike his one-time associate and main competitor M.G. Ramachandran, who later became Chief Minister, Sivaji Ganesan did not appear to have had any significant influence over the people at the mass level. His encounter with active politics ended in a fiasco. An admirer of E.V. Ramasamy in his youth, he soon joined the DMK. His admiration for Congress stalwart K. Kamaraj brought him to the Congress. He left it to form his own outfit but disbanded it after burning his fingers in the 1989 elections. Ultimately he landed in the Janata Dal. Soon he realised that he was not made for politics and called it a day.

Sivaji Ganesan was perhaps the first film personality in Tamil Nadu to be loved and respected in such large measure merely for his excellence in acting. Many characters in his films have had an impact on the general psyche of the people. As expressed by several fans in their letters to newspapers paying homage to the actor, his films created many role-models in human and familial relations. His heading a large joint family of at least three generations, at a time when joint families are cracking everywhere, has also been a talking point for his admirers. What is certain, however, is that through the effective use of the medium of cinema, one can win the hearts of the people, with no motive and without any prop. And that is Sivaji Ganesan's singular success.

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