By Jyothi Venkatesh
If only the greatest thespian India has ever had were alive today, he would have turned 95 this year. I am extremely glad that I was one of the very few lucky film journalists in Mumbai to have not only ever met the great actor but also interviewed him at his modest bungalow in Madras around 50 years ago for the first time. At that time, not only was I a fledgling film journalist on the threshold of my career but also an ardent fan of the actor ever since I had seen his Tamil film Aalayamani way back in 1963 with my grandfather when I was just an 11-year-old schoolboy at Rivoli Cinema in Matunga Road.
It was interesting how he met me for the first time 50 years ago. One of the household guys had asked me to wait in a queue when I edged my way to his bungalow on Boag Road in Chennai. When Sivaji saw me approaching him, he gave me a warm smile and asked me where my autograph book was so that he could sign it for me, presuming me to be a crazy fan of his but explained to him that I was a journalist who had come from Bombay to interview him for a film monthly called Film World and he profusely apologised to me and said that I could begin the interview in Tamil as well as English after I gave him the autograph book which I had carried along with me to take his signature after the interview was over, to make him feel at ease.
Sivaji Sir who was born in Vizhupuram as Vizhupuram Chinnaiya Manrayar Ganesamoorthy made his debut with the film Parasakthi directed by the director duo Krishnan-Panju in the year 1952 when I was born and thus I have always felt that I had a ‘karmic’ connection with him. The interview with Sivaji Ganesan was published and overnight I became a known journalist at least among my peers in Bombay because getting an interview with Sivaji Ganesan was a dream come true.
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I continued to be in awe of Sivaji Sir and used to make it a point to go and meet him at Shanmukhananda Hall in Bombay whenever he used to come to stage his popular plays every year. However, unlike his contemporary MGR, Sivaji Ganesan was not overtly friendly with scribes or fans and used to maintain a kind of cold and safe distance from them whenever he used to interact with them in public.
I remember when I had gone to cover the shooting of a Tamil film starring Sivaji Sir in a studio in Chennai, when I made it a point to go near him to talk to him when he as taking a break during the shooting, he saw me approaching him but closed his eyes, pretending that he had not seen me at all, because he did not want to be disturbed during the shooting. A production guy immediately came to me and asked me to wait in Sivaji Sir’s make up room in the studio till the break in the shoot was announced.
Did you know that Sivaji Sir turned down the National award for his role in Thevar Magan a few years ago, because Kamal Haasan had convinced him to decline the National Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1993? Kamal Haasan rightly felt that the award did not do good justice to Sivaji Ganesan’s talent or stature as it was an award for a supporting actor. Kamal Haasan also said that everyone was upset because the acting legend got the award only for the role of a supporting actor and reportedly asked Sivaji Sir to wait and collect the Dadasaheb Phalke Award when he receives it. Then, in 1996, Sivaji Ganesan was honoured with Dadasaheb Phalke Award which is the highest honour in Indian cinema.
The last time I was lucky to be with Sivaji Sir was during a party held at the Taj Hotel during the International Film Festival in Bombay when IFFI used to be held every alternate year in New Delhi and different cities of India. It was nearing midnight and Sivaji wanted to go back to his suite because he was tired and wanted to say bye to Hema Malini who was also attending the party and asked me if I could tell Hema Malini that he was leaving the party. I rushed to Hema who was in another corner of the Banquets Room and told her that Sivaji Sir was leaving the party and she came along with me to Sivaji to bid him goodbye.
Alas. That was the last time that I had the good fortune to meet and talk to him ever since I was introduced to him 50 years ago at his bungalow in Madras, because he died a few years later, in 2001 to be precise at the age of 73 on 21 July 2001.
Sivaji Ganesan is acknowledged as one of the greatest Indian actors of all time and most imitated by other actors. He was known for his versatility and the variety of roles he depicted on screen and was adored as Nadigar Thilagam. In a career that spanned close to five decades, he acted in 288 films in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, and Hindi. Sivaji Ganesan is the only Tamil actor to have played the lead role in over 250 films.
Ganesan was the first Indian actor to win a “Best Actor” award in an International film festival, the Afro-Asian Film Festival held in Cairo, Egypt in 1960. Many leading South Indian actors have stated that their acting was influenced by Ganesan. In addition, he received four Filmfare Awards South and a National Film Award (Special Jury). In 1997, Ganesan has conferred the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, the highest honour for films in India. He was also the first Indian actor to be made a Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
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Ganesan started his political career as an activist of the Dravidar Kazhagam. Ganesan joined the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam after it was founded by C. N. Annadurai in 1949. Until 1956, Ganesan was a staunch supporter of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). In the 1950s, however, Sivaji Ganesan was criticized for going “against the stated values of rationalism” during a visit to Tirupati. He left the DMK and joined the Tamil National Party, which was founded by former DMK members. The Indian National Congress eventually absorbed the party. He embraced Congress leader K. Kamaraj’s leadership.
In 1962, Ganesan became a strong supporter of the Indian National Congress. Due to his popularity, he was requested to be part of the National Congress in Tamil Nadu. His respect for Kamaraj made him support Congress. He was made the Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Indira Gandhi’s death in 1984 also brought Ganesan’s political career to an end. Ganesan is remembered as an iconic figure of Tamil cinema. Upon his death, The Los Angeles Times described him as “the Marlon Brando of the South Indian film industry”.