Article Tamil

How Sivaji Ganesan brought in Shakespearean acting to Tamil cinema

An actor trained in the traditions of company theatre, Ganesan pioneered the style of grand standing dialogues and expressions in the early age of Tamil cinema. On his 16th death anniversary (he died 21 July 2001), we remember the man who shaped the style of Tamil cinema in its early days.

Shriram Iyengar

One of the many criticisms levelled against Mani Ratnam by the world of commercial Tamil cinema is that his conversational style of dialogues often feels ordinary. This is understandable in a culture that is used to loud, one-punch finishing moves by their heroes. This is a trend originating in the long winding, dialogue-heavy plays that set the template for the early years of Tamil cinema. And no actor embodied the Shakespearean ability of delivering page long dialogues in a breath like Sivaji Ganesan.

Born Villupuram Chinnaiah Ganesan to a middle class Tamil family, he joined a theatre company at the tender age of 7. Like another one of his peers, MG Ramachandran, it was the stage that nurtured, educated, and created Ganesan, to the end of bestowing him with the title 'Sivaji'.

At the age of 16, having spent a decade with the company, he broke through on stage with a performance as the Maratha king, Shivaji, in the play 'Sivaji Kanda Rajyam' (The Kingdom Shivaji Built). The political reformer, EV Periyar, the founder of the surging Dravida movement in Tamil Nadu, awarded his performance with the sobriquet, Sivaji, which became his calling card in Tamil cinema.

The politics of Tamil Nadu is as much responsible for Tamil cinema, and vice versa. Karunanidhi, the playwright who would become chief minister, wrote Ganesan's debut film, Parasakthi (1952). As the native Gunasekaran, who returns from the Far East only to find a society built on the hypocrisy of tradition, religion, and corruption, Ganesan burnt the screen with his performance. The fitting finale was a five minute sequence where the actor ran through a monologue in breathless passion.

The style would become synonymous with the actor. His ability to naturally adapt his performances to the poetic flow of the Tamil language, and the various personalities associated with it, would earn him the title 'Nadigar Thilakam' (The Crown Jewel of Actors). His performance as Veerapandiya Kattabomman (1959), the legendary Tamil general who fought the English, earned him the Best Actor Award at the Afro-Asian Film Festival in Egypt in 1960. It was among the first international awards for an Indian actor on an international stage.

If he were born in the 16th century England, Richard Burbage might have had a competitor. It is no surprise that like many Shakespearean actors, Ganesan was immediately cast into historical and mythical characters. His flowing rhythm of verse, ala the great John Gielgud, and unsurpassable memory allowed him to play characters from mythology (Lord Shiva, Karna,) and historical legends (emperor Samrat Chandragupta, the poet Subrahmanya Bharathi, Raja Chola).

Sample this scene from the 1965 devotional film, Thiruvillaiyadal. The scene marks the culmination of an episode where the great Tamil poet, Nakkeeran (AP Nagarajan) finds a flaw in a new poet's composition (Sivaji Ganesan), who in reality is the god Shiva himself. As the two launch into a debate of wit and words, Ganesan, playing the superior god, matches his senior in terms of expression without missing a beat.

What stands out is the actor's embodiment of the dialogue. He commands the scene with his presence as a god through his walk, confidence, and an arrogant voice. He reacts to his co-star's dialogues, giving the entire fabulist drama a new touch of realism.

Paying tribute to the actor on his death, director P Bharathiraja eloquently said, "There are many dozens of people who taught us how Tamil should be written — Thiruvalluvar, Mahakavi Subramanya Bharati, Perarignar Annadurai, Kalaignar Karunanidhi, so many of them...But in Tamil history, there is only one man who taught us how Tamil should be spoken, and that is Chevalier Sivaji Ganesan. He was a phonetic dictionary for the language."

Such was his prowess that directors would often put in staged scenes akin to item numbers in the actor's films. The scene of the actor playing Socrates in a play in the film Raja Rani (1956) or as Caesar in Sorgam (1970) are perfect examples.

This is not to say the legendary actor could only play larger than life characters. Over the years, he tried a vast genre of films like comedy, drama, and thrillers. Unlike his fellow superstar, MGR, who modelled himself as the ideal man, Ganesan would often play characters that were scarred, physically and emotionally. Films like Bale Pandiya (1962), Pudhiya Paravai (1964) or Deiva Magan (1969) are examples.

Recently, at the India Today South Conclave, Kamal Haasan revealed an interesting anecdote about his co-star from Thevar Magan (1992).

"I was very surprised by Sivaji Ganesan when I asked him about that little tremor when he walked. Of all the names he said, 'Orson Welles'. Because he was somewhat built like me (Ganesan). And I changed it to my style.'  I admired the way he escaped his environment and did his own thing," Haasan said of his idol.

On a visit to America, Ganesan dropped in at the sets of George Eklund's The Ugly American, starring Marlon Brando. It was during this event that the Godfather star paid him the highest compliment by saying 'Sivaji can act like me, but I can't act like him,' as reported by The Hindu in a 2002 article. On his death, Los Angeles Times wrote an obituary by titling him 'The Marlon Brando of Indian cinema'.

The slow fading away of the Shakespearean style of drama in the 1970s, and the rise of realist directors like Bharathiraja, Balachander and others led to many modern audiences decrying Ganesan's acting as hyperbolic. But even then, few could find fault in his expressions.

In many ways, the rivalry between MGR and Ganesan has continued in different forms. As Tamil cinema and politics waits with bated breath over the political ambitions of Kamal Haasan (an actor modelled after Sivaji's style) and Rajinikanth (the true heir to the charisma of MGR), it is symbolic that Ganesan's last two films were with these two stars. In Thevar Magan (1992) and Padayappa (1999), Ganesan delivered the last roar of his Shakespearean career.

It was a symbolic passing of the baton. No actor since has been able to bear the weight of it.