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Book Review: Autobiography of Actor-Politician Sivaji Ganesan

by Sachi Sri Kantha, November 9, 2008

Akin to Brando’s story, we have Sivaji Ganesan, hailed as the Marlon Brando of Indian stage and screen, who seized an opportunity of his life time in 1946, at the age of 18, when he was offered the role of Maratha king Sivaji, for a play authored by C.N. Annadurai (Anna) – a role that was rejected by M.G. Ramachandran (MGR), at the last moment.

Sivaji Ganesan: Autobiography of An Actor. Compiled and edited by T.S.Narayana Swamy (in Tamil), English translation by Sabita Radhakrishna; Sivaji Prabhu Charities Trust, Chennai, 2007, 250 pp.

Brando and Ganesan

Marlon Brando (1924-2004) in the USA and Sivaji Ganesan (1928-2001) in South India were talented contemporaries. Both set the definitions for what acting is, both on the stage and in movies in their cultural milieu. Both were school dropouts; while Brando left school during his high school years, Sivaji Ganesan never even completed his primary schooling. Both blossomed as talent that has been unseen and unheard of; Brando in the hands of Elia Kazan, and Sivaji in delivering the scripts of Anna and Karunanidhi. In late career, both had their critics; Brando was lampooned for his ‘method acting’ and Sivaji was critiqued for his ‘overacting’. One day in 1962, both Brando and Ganesan met for lunch and exchanged pleasantries in Hollywood.

The motif of a new face seizing an opportunity of a lifetime when the chosen star rejects the role in stage or cinema is a recurrent theme. In his autobiography, Marlon Brando noted that his big break on stage in 1947, for a Tennessee Williams play, A Streetcar Named Desire, came when he was the third choice as the lead male cast. Two established movie stars, first John Garfield (1913-1952) and then Burt Lancaster (1913-1994) had to turn down the role. Then, the director and producer of the play felt that Brando was ‘probably too young’, but left the final decision of selection to playwright Tennessee Williams, who wanted Brando to ‘have the role’. A Streetcar Named Desire play opened in New York on Dec.3, 1947 and a 23 year old Brando became the talk of the town.

Akin to Brando’s story, we have Sivaji Ganesan, hailed as the Marlon Brando of Indian stage and screen, who seized an opportunity of his life time in 1946, at the age of 18, when he was offered the role of Maratha king Sivaji, for a play authored by C.N. Annadurai (Anna) – a role that was rejected by M.G. Ramachandran (MGR), at the last moment. Here are excerpts from Ganesan’s reminiscences of his lucky break:

“Anna wrote the play Sivaji kanda Hindu Rajyam. Originally, M.G. Ramachandran was chosen to play the role of Sivaji and the costumes tailored for him. For some reason MGR turned down the offer. With hardly a week left for the play, D.V. Narayanaswamy, the stage manager, was extremely worried. He told Anna that MGR had refused to act this role. Both had a brainstorming session to find alternatives…Anna thought a beard would look good on me. He put the question to me very directly. ‘Ganesa, are you willing to act as Sivaji?’ I perspired profusely at this question…Anna asked me to try it out. Moreover he had the confidence that I could do it. He handed me a 90 page dialogue manuscript and adviced me to go through it. He was going home and on his return would audition me for the role. Anna gave me the manuscript at eleven in the morning and he came back around six in the evening…I managed to memorise so much in merely seven hours. ‘You are Sivaji’, he announced, his voice choking with emotion. If I could memorise a 90 page manuscript in a relatively short time, it was only because of my passion for acting, you could even call it addiction…There were only four days left for the play to be staged and all the costumes tailored for MGR had to be downsized to suit me. They had to pad cotton in some places to correct the size difference as I was a mere boy and was slightly built at that time.”

Thus, at the age of 18, Ganesan received his moniker ‘Sivaji’ in 1946, and comfortably carried it to this tomb. “I am not very sure of the day of the week, but I know I was born on October 1, 1928.” said he. That day was a Monday, and on that day his father Chinnaiya mandrayar was arrested for taking part in an anti-British campaign in Villupuram. This autobiography of Villupuram Chinnaiya Ganesa Moorthy (Ganesa Moorthy was his original name) first appeared in Tamil on Oct.1, 2002, on the first posthumous birthday of Sivaji. It consists of a question and answer format. The questions were formulated by Dr. T.S. Narayana Swamy, and Sivaji provides reminiscences of his notable life. The English version appeared five years later on Oct.1, 2007.

For a comparison on the influence of maternal love, here is Brando’s reminiscences: “The money that came with A Streetcar Named Desire was less important to me, however, than something else: every night after the performance, there would be seven or eight girls waiting in my dressing room. I looked them over and choose one for the night. For a twenty four year old who was eager to follow his penis wherever it could go, it was wonderful. It was more than that; to be able to get just about any woman I wanted into bed was intoxicating.” Brando was unlucky in that his mother turned out to be an alcoholic and he suffered badly from lack of maternal love and direction.

For Sivaji, his mother Rajamani Ammal, though illiterate had a mother’s common sense in directing her prodigious son’s family life. Ganesan reminise’s in gratitude: “The film Parasakti was released in 1952 and I got married the same year…My mother decided that it was time for me to tie the knot and arranged to get me married to my cousin’s daughter Kamala…The simplicity of the wedding made it a revolutionary ceremony. I was married on May 1st 1952 at Swamimalai, a place close to my cousin’s house. Sri P.A. Perumal, annan MGR, Sri Karunanidhi, the poet Kannadasan, Smt. T.A. Maduram, Sri. S.V. Sahasranamam, along with directors Krishnan and Panju attended my wedding…Nowadays much emphasis is placed on celebrating weddings extravagantly with glitz and glamour. My wedding was devoid of that and my total expenditure was only five hundred rupees! I confess that I did not have the means to spend more.”

For the uninitiated, P.A.Perumal was the producer of Sivaji’s first movie Parasakti, who stood by his talent when other influential personnel (like AVM’s studio boss Meiyappa Chettiar and director P. Neelakandan) in the studios griped about him. Karunanidhi was the script writer for the movie, veteran Sahasranamam was a fellow actor in the movie and Krishnan-Panju were the directors of Parasakti. The mention of 500 rupees for his wedding seems to be a dig and rebuke to the well-publicized wedding of his grand daughter N. Sathyalakshumi to Jeyalalitha’s then adopted son V.N. Sudhakaran, that made news on Sept.7, 1995.

In a profession rife with polygamy, paramours, dalliances and affairs, Sivaji practiced monogamy and attributed his mental health and vigor to his wife’s devotion and love. His sincere compliments to his wife Kamal were, “She is the captain of our home and my boss. I will act only in accordance with her wishes.” The book is dedicated to Kamala, who died on Nov. 3, 2007.

Hard Work

In the first edition (1963) of their landmark book, Indian Film, Eric Barnouw and his protégé S.Krishnaswamy, allocated three paragraphs to Sivaji’s role and relevance to Tamil movies. (Krishnaswamy was the son of K. Subramanyam, one of the pioneers in Tamil films.) However, in the second edition (1980) of the same book, the three paragraphs had been condensed into a single paragraph. For record, I provide the first, adulatory paragraph that appeared in the first edition below, to reflect the importance of Sivaji the actor in the then Madras in late 1950s and early 1960s, when his influence was at its peak.

“In Madras one of the most astonishing phenomena is film star Sivaji Ganesan. Among southern film stars only M.G. Ramachandran, the star associated with the Dravidian movement, has in recent years come close to him in status. For some years a leading Madras theatre has shown only films starring Sivaji Ganesan. This has not been difficult, for he stars in innumerable films. For some years it has seemed risky for any producer to produce a Tamil film not starring Sivaji Ganesan. [italics, as in the original.] He produces films himself but also appears in the production of others. He is always involved in many projects simultaneously, dolign out a morning of shooting time here, an afternoon there, while numerous producers wait nervously for his next moment of availability. It is common for films made under these circumstances to be in production one, two or three years, or even more. For some years in the Madras film industry scores of film workers – producers, directors, actors, writers, technicians – have at all times been dependent on the favorable decisions of Sivaji Ganesan. His nod secures financial backing. Because of his central importance, script, cast and choice of director are all subject to his approval. During his precious appearances at the studio he works with speed and precision, and can be so charming to co-workers that he is adored by all. Then he is off again, leaving anxiety as to when he will return once more. In appearance he does not especially conform to any hero pattern. He is, on the contrary, squat and stockily built. But his fine voice has a large range of expressiveness, and he can play such a variety of roles that almost any starring role is offered to him – comic or tragic – without regard to suitability. Such is his standing, so precious his time, that no director dares direct him, and his scenes are often completely out of key with other portions of a film. Seldom has a substantial talent been used so recklessly – or so profitably. He has amassed a fortune and carries on well-organized and well-publicized charities.”

Sivaji concurs with the profile of him provided by Barnow and Krishnaswami. Before his first invited trip to USA in 1962, he notes: “I had signed up for the film Bale Pandiya. I went into the studios on the second of the month and left the sets on the twelfth after completing the film. I probably hold the world record of completing a film in eleven days time. I had acted in three roles in the film and annan M.R. Radha in two.” In another page he had stated: “During the period of my life when I was extremely busy, the studios would assign rooms exclusively for me during the different shifts. I worked in three shifts (7am-1pm), (2pm-9pm), (10pm-5am). I used to work twenty hours a day, and on odd days return home for four hours of rest. Many a time I would run through the day’s schedule and move to the next studio to begin the following day’s work. I compensated for my sleep deprivation by napping whilst traveling in the car and during breaks.”

An Autobiography in Three Shots

A technical dictionary defines a shot as ‘what is recorded between the time a camera starts and the time it stops, ie., between the director’s call for ‘Action’ and his call to ‘Cut’. The three common shots are, (1) A long shot or establishing shot, showing the main object at a considerable distance from the camera and thus presenting it in relation to its general surroundings; (2) A medium shot, showing the object in relation to its immediate surroundings; (3) A close-up, showing only the main object, or, more often, only a part of it.

The gamut of this autobiography consists of 155 questions and answers. Among these, the first 49 questions provide the long shot, covering Sivaji’s life from childhood to the release of his first movie Parasakti in 1952. In this, the hero remembers with gratitude those who helped him in kind and cash – drama troupe leader Yathartham Ponnuswami Pillai, his senior actors Kaka Radhakrishnan, M.R. Radha, N.S. Krishnan, MGR, Anna, Karunanidhi, producer of his first film P.A. Perumal and the directors of Parasakti, Krishnan and Panju. Following 63 questions offer a medium shot, covering the period from 1952 to 1970, when Sivaji’s influence in the Tamil movie reached its peak. He remembers affectionately his guru in politics, the Congress leader K. Kamaraj, and a few in the movie world – like producer/director B.R.Banthulu and directors A. Bhimsingh and A.P.Nagarajan. Final 43 questions spanning the period from 1970 to 1993 were more or less close-up shots, when Sivaji dabbled in politics and became a flop. He also nursed a hurt feeling that his contributions to the Indian movie world had been slighted by national politics, indifference and professional politician ‘termites’ (his term), who used him for their wants.

In Politics

Sivaji Ganesan’s political career lacked direction and commitment. From 1946 to 1957, he was aligned with DMK leaders like Anna and Karunanidhi. He says: “I have never been a member of the DK or DMK. No doubt, I accepted the ideologies of Anna and Priyar and tried to spread their message. I accepted the principles for which the party stood, but did not become a member.” Then from 1957 until 1975, Sivaji’s mentor in politics was Congress leader Kamaraj. After Kamaraj’s demise, he shifted his alliance to Indira Gandhi, until her death in 1984.

Indira Gandhi nominated Sivaji, for the Rajya Sabha (Upper House) in 1982, after this post became vacant following the death of Hindi actress Nargis (1928-1981). A bout his performance at the Rajya Sabha, Sivaji reminisces: “If I spoke my mind just became I was an MP, it would lead to squabble. I went to Delhi to represent the woes of the film industry. I attended the Rajya Sabha sittings, spoke about the ideals of Kamaraj at opportune moments and instigated others to follow them. What more can one do?” After Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Sivaji’s ties with the Congress Party soured, which he attribute to tale carriers in the party who are professional politicians. Strangely he never mention a Congress Party big-wig’s name in Tamil Nadu (the likes of R. Venkataraman, G. K. Moopanar, Kumari Ananthan, V. Ramamurthi, Maragatham Chandrasekhar and P. Chidambaram) in his recollection.

About Rajiv Gandhi’s selection and tenure from 1984 to 1989, Sivaji’s thoughts are as follows: “I also played a part in making Rajiv Gandhi a politician and worked to make him the prime minister. One should not forget that, should one? Prior to the elections I met Rajiv Gandhi at the Governor’s residence. I told him rather pointedly that there were many termites in the party and that he must get rid of them, otherwise he could not become the prime minister. Rajiv Gandhi’s face reddened on such a delicate issue being brought out in the open. Quick to seize advantage, certain persons of our State thought that the moment was just right to eliminate me. They passed on some unsavoury information to Rajiv Gandhi about me. They made me a scapegoat. I thought to myself that I did not need this party and if I stayed, they would humiliate me further.”

On Jan.28, 1988, Sivaji quit his ties with Congress Party that sustained him for over 30 years. Soon after that, he established his own party named Tamizhaga Munnetra Munnani (TMM) on Feb.10, 1988. He considers this decision as one of his mistakes. “Many of the people with me were professional politicians. They had to remain in politics necessarily to make a living. I was compelled to start a party for their sake, although I did not require it.” Egged on by those who pampered him, his TMM party contested the January 1989 Tamil Nadu state legislative assembly elections, in alliance with one faction of AIADMK (that of MGR’s wife Janaki Ramachandran). Of the 49 TMM candidates who stood for election, none were elected. Sivaji himself lost at Tiruvayaru constituency to DMK candidate Chandrasekaran Durai by a margin of 10,643 votes. He notes, “The votes that I secured came from people of another party. It is true that I was defeated. This was a big disappointment and a very difficult situation that I faced. What could one do? When we take wrong decisions, we have to face disappointments.”

Later, Sivaji dissolved his party and on invitation from his friend V.P. Singh (later to be prime minister), he joined the Janata Dal and functioned for a while only to quit later. His advice to artistes with political inclinations were: “Be a friend to politicians but do not become a politician. Do not become a member and get caught in the web…Remain a singer, don’t become the song…this is my message.”

Plus and Minus

The plus points of the book include, (a) a memorable assemblage of retrieved old photos of stage plays and clips of movie stills, (b) an appendix providing a listing of Sivaji’s 10 plays, staged by his troupe Sivaji Nadaga Mandram, 287 movie titles and another 18 movie titles that featured him in a guest/honorary role. A notable demerit of the book is the absence of an index, a common omission in Tamil books.

I located a slip in Sivaji’s famed memory. He had noted that on his way to USA in 1962 as a guest of cultural exchange program, he first landed in Rome. “I was scheduled to join His Holiness the Pope for a meal, but unfortunately the Pope died a week before my arrival and I did not get the chance to meet him.” The fact is that Pope John XXIII died not in 1962, but on June 3, 1963.

Though he had seen three generations of performers from age 7 to 70, Sivaji had been diplomatic on commenting about the performances of fellow artistes – actors, lyricists, music directors, playback singers, script writers and directors. His comment was: “I am an actor and it would not be ethical to comment on another performer. I will only say that he or she performed well but will never comment on anyone’s ‘bad performance’.” It appears that he never had his likes and dislikes. To the question ‘What was your salary for the film Parasakti?’ Sivaji had replied: “The highest salary I got those days was 250 rupees per month. This was my remuneration for Parasakti. I received 25,000 rupees for each of the other projects. The 250 rupees salary was an honorarium and the 25,000 for my expertise as an entertainer. As Sri P.A. Perumal was instrumental in giving me the first opportunity, I agreed to a small remuneration from him.” That was in 1952. One would be curious to learn, how much he earned for his 100th movie, Navarathri (1964), 200th movie, Trisoolam (1979) and for his final 287th movie Pooparikka Varukirom (1999). Information of his earning when he was at his peak are sadly missing.

On completing the 250 page book, one gets a feel that much has been left out in this autobiography. May be, the question and answer format adopted has a role in such omissions. Proper, penetrating questions may have been omitted for reasons of causing inconvenience for those who are living. Sivaji’s taste on sporting interests (wild game hunting) had been noted. But we are left clueless about his taste for books and authors – how big was his library? his taste for music and movies (actors, directors and technicians) in other languages. Not much information was forthcoming on the business angle of his cinematic involvement in Tamil Nadu. A few of Sivaji Ganesan’s professional associates (such as MGR, Karunanidhi, poet Kannadasan, director C.V. Sridhar and script writer Aroordhas) have left their impressions in Tamil. Among those I have checked, quite a few details on Sivaji presented by Sridhar and Aroordhas in their memoirs, are missing in this autobiography.

To sum up, as an actor Sivaji Ganesan was a class act, as a politician he was a flop. As an autobiographer, Sivaji’s performance – like many of his movies – provides glimpses of some class in a flop, leaving much to be desired. Eric Barnow and Krishnaswamy, in the 2nd edition (1980) of their book, Indian Film, summed up on Sivaji: “He could view his own eminence objectively. Those who sought his favour, he said, had mixed feelings toward him. They wooed him but would also like to destroy him. Asked if the dominance of the star was good for the industry, he said without hesitation that it was not.” Ganesa Moorthy the gentleman, when he passed away on July 21, 2001, took to his grave the hurt feelings and the misdeeds of those who had benefited from him and who attempted to destroy him. The $45.00 price I paid for the book in net purchase from a New Delhi vendor seems marginally off-base for a 250 page book, and the price has not been inserted in the book. But for fans of Sivaji, it is a good memento to cherish.


Sources Consulted

Aroordhas: Cinema – Nijamum Nizhalum. Arunthathi Nilaiyam, Chennai, 2001.

Aroordhas: Naan Muham Paartha Cinema Kannadigal. Kalaignan Pathipakam, Chennai, 2002.

S. Barnet, M. Berman, W.Burto: A Dictionary of Literacy, Dramatic and Cinematic Terms. Little, Brown & Co, Boston, 1974.

E. Barnow, S.Krishnaswamy: Indian Film. Columbia University Press, 1963 (1st edition), Oxford University Press, 1980 (2nd edition).

M. Brando: Brando – Songs My Mother Taught Me, 1995.

S. Chandramouli: Thirumpi Parkiren – Director Sridhar. Arunthathi Nilaiyam, Chennai, 2002.


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