November 30, 1994. Day 1. Annai Illam. 11 am. The imposing tiger at the entrance and the expansive centre-hall was intimidating yet had that lived-in warmth! His elder son Ramkumar was kind enough to arrange this ‘talk’ with his illustrious father as we were participating in a student-magazine competition held by Ananda Vikatan. Sivaji Ganesan entered a few short seconds after us, clad in a spotless-white dhothi and shirt; he apologised for the few seconds delay and said he was coming back from a check-up with his cardiologist! He asked the first question, “Have you seen
“Yes — Rangoon Radha (1956), Andha Naal (1954), Motor Sundaram Pillai (1970), Bale Pandiya (1962), Aalayamani (1962), Navarathiri, Uyarntha Manithan (1968), Ooty Varai Uravu (1967), Mudhal Mariyadhai (1985)...” I rattled off a few more in a mix of his off-beat roles with his popular ones and he said, “Not bad! So what are you going to ask me? I muster my courage...
“Do you think your famous histrionics is lost on the current generation?”
“You mean when they criticise me for over-acting?” he retorted with graceful candour and continued. “How would it sound if the lines ‘Kisthi, Thirai, Vari, Vaddi..’ from Kattabomman (1959) were spoken without that crescendo emotion?” He went on to modulate the lines in a normal tone — what a contrast! And what an impromptu humorous piece of acting! “I have to make you feel for me and with me when I’m acting. Unlike now, where there is so much technology available to enhance a performance, in my time, I had to sing, dance, fight and deliver dialogues in sync-sound like my very life depended on it. My theatre training helped; I’ve learnt Kathak and Bharatanatyam and know to play a few musical instruments too – I use these skills whenever a role demands it!” Case in point: The song Paattum naaney from Thiruvilaiyaadal (1965).
“When you watch yourself on screen do you think you could’ve enacted your roles differently?”
“Of course, I will enact all my characters twice as better as you see them now! Just that I’ve grown older, so my age won’t match some of those roles,” he laughs that hearty laugh one associates with a life well-lived.
“From working three shifts a day to settling down to a slower pace in life thereafter, what are your favourite things to do?”
“My wife Kamala manages my life, smart woman huh! (And as if on cue the lady of the house makes her appearance and arranges for some snacks and tea for us.) I like to travel; I like France, it’s one of the most well-planned cities in the world and artistic too, right?”
Our chat covered almost all things that stand as a symbol of Sivaji Ganesan’s Himalayan talent – his memory for recalling dialogues and incidents being foremost. “I am a fan of Nagesh’s clean comedy, which is difficult to re-enact! I also liked working with Ranga Rao, MR Radha and Savithri! An ego-less understanding between actors is important to create that magic on-screen...” he said and went on to elaborate on his 50-film pairing with Padmini and his successful later-year pair K R Vijaya.
December 1, 1994. Day 2. Annai Illam. 8 am. The central hall with the tusked-mirror beckoned us more affectionately today. He specified we come for breakfast and he also wanted to see the chat transcript. I sat on the edge of the single sofa, looking intently at his painting (his famous pose from Paasa Malar (1961) by Lata Mangeshkar’s sister Usha) I snapped from my reverie as he cleared his throat and sat down on the sofa to my right.
His demeanour was firm yet fond, like a patriarch who had indulged in friendly banter with a couple of 19-year olds! He had discussed his life’s journey, cracked the odd joke, posed for the camera like only he knew how with his quintessential actor’s charm intact. On that day, I felt like one of the grand-kids hovering around him in Devar Magan!
He busied himself and looked into my eyes and asked, “So are you ready?”
“Yess.. sir, here...” I mumbled, holding on to the sheaf of papers for kind support!
“Okay, read!” he boomed.
I paused and felt my empty stomach sink. How do I read Tamizh to a man who embodied it’ to such precision? I nodded a ‘yes’ but it should have ended in a ‘no’ because he asked, “Yenna Thamizh padikka theriyuma, theriyaadha..?” (Do you know to read Tamil – yes or no?) I quickly nodded a ‘yes’.
“Read, I will stop you if I have any doubt. I’m used to being read to — this is how I have learnt my lines for most of my films!” he chuckled.
Wow! So, the thundering lines from Manohara (1954), Veerapandiya Kattabomman, and Karnan, and all those plays he staged (with that famous monologue of the Maratha King Sivaji, from whence Villupuram Chinnaiyah Ganesan was bestowed the title Sivaji by EVR Periyar), was all rendered on someone else’s reading and on his single hearing?! The enormity of his talent hit me as I opened the print-out and looked at the man, the world respectfully called, (and continues to call) ‘Nadigar Thilakam’.
I began reading out from Page 1 of our Tamil transcript. I finished reading the last line of the transcript, which was on his Chevalier honour. The silence in the room now lasted only a minute. “That was good. Come let’s have breakfast...” he beamed.
I clung on to the transcript like it was my gold medal. The aroma of masala-dosai from his dining-hall lifted my stomach and spirits. He kept talking as he served us a few delicacies.
I don’t remember how much I ate but I did recall this quote by Kamal Haasan much later, “Sivaji Ganesan is the only actor who shot to superstardom in his first film itself. All of us learnt our craft after coming here but he ‘arrived’ as a complete actor.”
(The writer is a columnist with
‘The New Indian Express’)