Sivaji Ganesan’s Autobiography

21 Dec

There is a scene in Sudhir Mishra’s recent release, Khoya Khoya Chand, where Rajat Kapoor’s lecherous movie star is busy playing Svengali to a particularly inept newcomer played by Soha Ali Khan. At the end of some “naughty” banter, Khan is supposed to slap Kapoor’s face but is unable to lift her hand against the matinee idol in front of her. It’s one of the better moments in the film, a tiny one that says the suspension of disbelief is not a concept limited to the audience – it is a process that begins with the actors themselves. Finally, Khan’s wide eyed Nikhat lands an anemic blow (more of a pat) against Kapoor’s face at his exasperated urging.

Like many others in Chand, it’s a scene that strikes true enough for you to wonder if it was inspired from a real life incident. Like the one below for example:

In 1954, Tamil icon Sivaji Ganesan and Padmini (Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai) starred in C.H. Narayanamoorthy’s Ethir Paradhathu, a boffo drama about lovers torn apart by cruel fate. The script required ‘Pappi’ as she’s more informally known down South, to slap Ganesan’s face when she mistakenly thinks he’s trying to put a move on her. The scene apparently took a lot of persuasion all around because Pappi felt a hero shouldn’t get his face slapped. She finally agreed at Ganesan’s own urging.

In retrospect, he really ought to have minded his own business because the next thing he knew, Pappi was in the throes of some sort of a psychotic episode and was beating the crap out of him. What was supposed to be a simple, righteous slap turned into a full scale assault that left him bleeding on the floor. Adding to his troubles, her wild actions stunned the entire crew into silence and the director forgot to yell cut. Ganesan wound up screaming for them to end the torture, blood dripping down his face. Tiny, ‘fragile’ little Pappi, forcibly restrained, retired to bed and didn’t get up for two days. :mrgreen:

This is the kind of entertaining material you’re likely to find in Sivaji Ganesan’s Autobiography of an Actor.

Strictly speaking, it is not an autobiography – instead, it is an exhaustive interview conducted in Tamil by Dr. T.S. Narayana Swamy and translated to English by Sabita Radhakrishna. But it is perhaps one of the most frank and wonderful books I’ve ever read about an actor.

In a free ranging conversation that tackles everything from politics to family, cinema and beyond, Ganesan takes the reader on a conducted tour of not just the Tamil film industry as it evolved and grew, but also India and Tamil Nadu through Independence and to the end of the millennium. From his roots in theater as a young boy to his eventual status as the grand patriarch of Tamil cinema, it is an incredible journey for which there are no parallels that I can think of.

The cinephile would be thrilled to hear him talk about his process as an actor – the best way to describe it is Anti-Method – especially when you realize that, by and large, it is his philosophy of acting that continues to inform Tamil cinema. This is, in fact, an excellent opportunity for people (such as I, for example) who have experienced the sheer theatricality of a Ganesan performance and been drawn in by it in spite of growing up in an era dominated by the Method.

On the other hand, the politics junkie is adequately served by Ganesan’s stories of the Dravidian movement as it overran the Tamilian political scene. Periyar, MGR, Karunanidhi, they’re all here, as well as talk of conspiracies, petty jealousies, politicking et al.

This is all, of course, presented through a Ganesan-colored lens, but it is presented with such openness that at no point does it interfere with one’s ability to look beyond at the greater landscape.

This self-published book is also a treasure trove of photographs – an absurdly young trio of MGR, Karunanidhi and Sivaji Ganesan lounging about on the day of the latter’s wedding; stills from almost all of his 287 movies plus a few portraits of him trying on various getups that never made into a film (I loved these – they were of him in basically the same costume, holding the same pose but with different implements); ‘candids’ of family life where he can’t resist mugging for the camera in front of his impassive wife, including a wonderful shot of him on a horse in Texas, looking for all the world like a gleeful schoolboy in a five gallon hat.

There are, of course, some eccentricities and bizarre episodes as are to be expected in a translation that seeks to keep the spirit of the original – a page of photographs titled “One Big Happy Family”, for example, is dominated by a picture of a baby elephant, the same one I should suppose that he gifted to the United States (it’s a long story). Then there are the occasional and somewhat inevitable lapses into hyperbole – the book begins with Swamy saying: “Revered Sri Sivaji Ganesan, I am grateful to you for the wonderful opportunity you have given me to compile your autobiography.” There are also passages where something might have been lost in translation: asked about his younger son, Prabhu, a successful actor in his own right, Ganesan comes off sounding incredibly bitter.

“I wanted to educate him and make him a high ranking police officer but he trampled on my dreams. My brother Shanmugham and my director friend C.V. Rajendran conspired behind my back…The worst part is that he acted as a villain against me in the film Sangili.”

My mother assures me it’s a matter of nuance, but a layperson such as I would be forgiven for thinking that the two were grievously estranged.

But these minor quibbles apart, this is not a book that hesitates to ask uncomfortable questions, most notably regarding Ganesan’s failed political career. In the spirit of Ganesan’s reply to Swamy (“Greetings to you Dr. T.S. Narayana Swamy. My life is an open book.”), both interviewer and interviewee do their best to deliver a complete picture of Ganesan’s life. What emerges is a fascinating study of Indian cinema and Tamil cinema in particular. Rather selfishly perhaps, one can only be glad that he didn’t succeed in politics, thus paving the way for an extraordinary decades long career in Indian cinema.

And unlike a great many other people, it really is “Indian cinema” in his case.

PS – I couldn’t find a clip from Ethir Paradhathu so substituted from the much later Thillana Mohanambal.



Posted by on December 21, 2007 in Books, Celebrity, Entertainment, Review, Video


5 responses to “Sivaji Ganesan’s Autobiography

  1. bombaydosti

    December 22, 2007 at 1:51 am

    I browsed through this most of this book, in one of my visits to landmark. Think i missed the pappi episode. The book was a lot about incidences in Ganesan’s life. For all his overacting, I do adore him. I generally criticise, non subtle acting and dialogues, but Shivaji is always an exception. Love his dialogue delivery. Parasakthi, Shivaji delivering Karunanidhi’s dialogues will always remain a treat to the movie goer. Have you seen, Mudhal Mariyaathai ? Oh man! You remind me of some memorable movies. There is an episode in the book,Chidambara Smarana written by Balachandran Chullikad, where the author remembers his visit to Ganesan’s house, where in a hall, shivaji’s photographs adorn the walls of the hall. It seems there was a throne like chair too, there for him to sit. The author had written in such a humourous way about how he had felt so different at the grandeur of the star and his settings 😉 Maybe the earlier stars, did it on purpose!!

  2. desigirl

    December 22, 2007 at 8:14 am

    So this is the one you were working on for a while now, eh? I would love to read the book – sounds like a gem.
    I didnt like him much whilst I was a wee thing – thought his theatrics a bit OTT. Esp the scene from Thillana Mohanambal, when he gets stabbed, boy does he flip or what? He was more like a fish that has been tossed out of the water than a man stabbed! But years later, I grew to appreciate his limitless talent. He took something irreplaceable when he passed away.

  3. desigirl

    December 22, 2007 at 8:17 am

    OOoh forgot to add – apparently when he was an established star and when Jayalalitha was just starting her career, he once sat in a chair in front of her with his legs crossed and she took umbrage and decided she wud pay him back one day and humiliate the crap out of him. It is rumoured that this is why she made such a play for his granddaughter for her ‘foster’ son. After the wedding, when Sivaji when to visit them, she didnt offer him a seat but just sat across, legs crossed.

  4. apu

    December 23, 2007 at 10:07 am

    I didnt know this was out….defn sounds worth a read, and quite candid too, as opposed to the many hagiographies one usu gets to read

  5. Amrita

    December 24, 2007 at 2:10 pm

    BD – Sivaji is an exception! I know exactlly what you mean – the things that I normally find hilarious or annoying are so much fun when he does them. And it was nice to know he had a method to his madness. Just not the Method method. 😀

    DG – he IS ott. But like I told BD above, there’s something about him ott-ness that’s very appealing. I can’t remember the names of a single one of his movies that I’ve seen (most of them are in black and white and were my grandma’s faves) unlike say, the Rajni movies I’ve seen or karthik or kamal haasan. but in spite of understanding just about one word out of every ten in his movies, and sufering through some atrocious production values, I always had such a good time watching him. So i feel very warm about him. 🙂 re: jayalalitha: hahahah! I can believe that of the amma.

    Apu – it’s pretty old, I think. My mom gave it to me. and it’s definitely candid but it’s reality a la Ganesan too. good thing though is that he’s not delusional like so many other actors out there. but he’s definitely got the actor’s ego thing. but it makes for interesting reading so whatever.

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