For me, Sivaji Ganesan is the greatest actor the world has seen. Period. Of the 288 films he has acted, more than 80% movies are probably trash. But in the remaining movies, he has left a legacy which cannot be even matched let alone surpassed.
First the name. Only people who were contemporary to him, called him ‘Ganesan’ his real name. For all the others he was just known as Sivaji/Shivaji, named after the great Maratha Warrior. He acted the role of the Maratha King on a stage play and was called Sivaji and the name struck.
It was not the ‘only King role’ he played. There was this King Kattabomman ruler of a Small Kingdom in down Tamil Nadu. The king refused to pay taxes to the British, fought a war with them, was captured and hanged for treason. He would have remained a footnote in history. But Sivaji Ganesan played the role in a movie Verapandiya Kattabomman (Kattabomman the brave warrior). The movie was released in 1959. Ever since the release of the movie, for last six decades plus, every single aspiring actor in Kindergarten, Primary and High School, College and social club in Tamil Nadu played that role to get some recognition and applause from audience. Can any actor inspire generations of people with only one act?
For the baby boomer generation of Tamil Nadu, we know most of the great personalities of the state only from the role Sivaji Ganesan played. From the warrior kings to freedom fighters to Alvars and Nayanars (Poet saints of Tamil who lived more than a thousand years ago) to Gods to heroes of the epics, we identified everyone as Sivaji Ganesan depicted them. I was searching for a poem by Thondaradipodi Alwar of 8th Century. And I ended up Sivaji Ganesan reciting it in a movie. No one knows how Thondaradipodi Alwar looked. But for us, he looked like how Sivaji made him out to be.
And yes, we know how Lord Shiva looks like. As the role of the God played by Sivaji in ‘Thiruvilayadal.’ And Karnan, the most selfless warrior in the epic Mahabharata? Well! Sivaji played the titular role in the movie ‘Karnan.’
Not only he played the roles of kings and poets, but he also acted in most of the tearjerkers that were produced from 1950s to 1970s. When these movies were popular, he made everyone who came to watch him cry and flood the movie hall with tears. I actually wonder why anyone would go to a theatre, pay hard earned money and cry for three hours and forty-five minutes. That’s not relevant here. He could play the role of a worker who would raise against the tyrannical owner of a factory, an engine driver who spends all his earnings to make his sister a doctor, a doctor who buries his loved one who dies of cancer, a physically challenged man who herds cows. He played them all and with aplomb.
He was an outstanding comedian and would rank among the best. He could play slapstick and was extraordinary in satire. His comedy roles in Sabash Meena, Bale Pandiya and Kalyanam Panniyum Brahmachari are some of the best movies in comedy genre. And these roles are timeless. You can watch them even today without getting bored for a second.
He was not just a gifted actor. He combined that with his hard work, discipline, phenomenal memory power and devotion to his craft. He would just glance through a twenty-page dialogue, emote and deliver it within minutes. Every actor (male or female) who has acted with him recalls how Sivaji was always the first to arrive at the set in complete make up though he was the senior most actor. Such was his discipline. He was a director’s dream. He always delivered what the director wanted. One of the best movies of his later years was ‘Muthal Mariyathai’ (First Honours). The director wanted him to walk in a certain way and deliver the dialogue and was not happy with the scene. It is said that Sivaji understood what the director wanted and walked in seventeen different ways and asked the director to choose one. And he always delivered his best. His friends in the industry said, in every movie Sivaji delivered a million-dollar performance whether you paid him one dollar or one hundred thousand dollars.
Probably that was also his Achilles’ heel. He kept acting in movies which had no merit in them and delivered sub-par performances. I think for close a decade Tamil Cinema went through a crisis with no imaginative stories, no good directors and the producers who just wanted to produce movies without even a good story. He was caught in this whirlpool. Not only these roles did not do any justice to his talent, but he was also called an ‘over acting’ actor.
I am not a great movie buff, but I have seen some good movies in English, Hindi, Tamil, Bengali, Marathi and French. Of all the movies I have seen and the actors who performed in them, I can’t equate one actor who can match Sivaji in his versatility. From Brando (Marlon) to Bachchan, from Dilip Kumar to Dustin Hoffman to Denzel Washington, from Soumitra Chatterjee to Naseeruddin Shah to Kamal Hassan no one has even attempted to play the variety of roles Sivaji has played.
My father was a great fan of Sivaji Ganesan. He would always refer to him as Ganesan as he had seen him performing in stage plays before he earned his nickname Sivaji. He had watched some of the actor’s movies more than a dozen times and his first movie ‘Parasakthi’ a whooping seventeen times. An amateur actor, my father often said that there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that he would go on to become a famous actor. And Sivaji did become one and the greatest ever actor in my mind.
Villupuram Chinnaiya Manrayar Ganesamoorthy also known as Sivaji Ganesan was born on 1st October 1928. I need to thank Naga for sending me a message about Sivaji in the morning, a timely reminder to write a tribute to ‘The Actor of our Ages.‘