The late Sivaji Ganesan was known for his numerous roles in mythological films. And the credit for casting the legend in such roles goes to the late director A. P. Nagarajan, who specialised in this genre. When APN passed away in 1977 at the age of 49, he was still at the zenith of his career. By then, he had already notched up an enviable 52 films, which included dubbed versions and remakes in Telugu.
Under APN’s direction, Sivaji acted in 16 films. Says C. N. Paramasivan (Param), APN’s son: “It was APN who was instrumental in casting N. T. Rama Rao as Lord Rama for the first time (all his earlier roles being that of Lord Krishna) in Sampoorna Ramayanam. He cast Sivaji as Bharathan, but gave equal importance to this character. In fact, APN had the unique distinction of having directed three chief ministers — NTR, MGR and Jayalalithaa — in his films.”
APN’s first film with Sivaji
Naan Petra Selvam was his first film with Sivaji as the hero, based on a story by APN himself. Under his direction, Sivaji also acted in Makkalai Petra Magarasi, Sampoorna Ramayanam, Navarathri, Thiruvilayadal, Saraswati Sabadam, Kandan Karunai, Thirumal Perumai, Thillana Mohanambal, Rajaraja Cholan, Gurudakshinai, Vilayattu Pillai, Thiruvarutselvar, Kulamagal Radhai, Paavai Vilakku and Vadivukku Valai Kaapu.
Following the tremendous response to the restored and re-released Sivaji-starrer Karnan, Param plunged into his father’s archives and unearthed the negatives of Thiruvilayadal from the storage facility at Gemini Films. “I found that APN, even in those days, had the foresight to retain the creative rights to the films he produced and directed, and sold only the 16 and 35mm screening rights. But, we faced a lot of difficulty restoring the films. Wear and tear, ageing and discoloured negatives and bad portions in the soundtrack were some of the problems we encountered. Nevertheless, I took it up as a challenge, as, I felt, post-Karnan, people were looking forward to watching some of Sivaji’s classics. Thiruvilayadal has been restored completely and will be a treat to watch,” says Param.
Stage to screen
Handling a legacy of the stature of APN’s work is difficult, but exciting, as Param found out. “Right from a young age, APN was fond of theatre and actively involved in Tamil plays in his hometown, Salem. It was during a staging of Nalvar that MAV Pictures’ M. A. Venu, a film producer from Madras, impressed with the story and the lead, approached APN to act in the film version. By then, APN was not just doing the lead in his dramas, but also writing the dialogues. Thus began his career as a movie actor in 1953. He acted in five films after which, he began to explore other areas of filmmaking — story and script writing, dialogues, cinematography — and apprenticed under several production companies. By the time he decided to direct films, he was thorough with almost every department of filmmaking, which resulted in flawless productions,” says Param.
Some believed that APN’s films became hits not because of his directorial capabilities but because of the star cast and the mammoth scale of his productions. “It was to silence them that APN went on to produce and direct movies such as Vaa Raja Vaa and Thirumalai Then Kumari with new faces. The former completed 100 days, proving many of his critics wrong,” notes Param.
Now that Thiruvilayadal is ready for its second innings in the more glamorous Cinemascope format, Param who is a businessman, says there are many other films of APN that merit restoration, not just because of their cast or grandeur but for their sheer social relevance. “Most of APN’s films had strong social messages and values. His forte was mythology and the way he went about designing the entire production, made them historic. Films such as Thiruvilayadal and Thillana Mohanambal had glamour, music, sets and grandeur, making them mass entertainers. Therefore, I am keen on restoring as many of his films as possible for future generations to enjoy,” says Param.
An interesting nugget
Writer and film historian Mohan V. Raman narrates an interesting episode that happened during the making of Thiruvilayadal, as described by Nagesh in his autobiography Siriththu Vaazha Vendum:
It was the shooting of Thiruvilayadal and a set was erected in Vasu Studios. Nagesh, who was asked to give a one-and-a-half day call sheet, had reported for work in his Dharumi get-up. Nagesh was to rush off to another shoot after this, as he was shooting for several films in a day. Sivaji was changing his make up for the poet’s role, and Nagesh knew it would take a little while. He asked APN if they could finish off any solo work — a scene where Nagesh was to rant about his misfortune. Nagesh ascertained from the cinematographer the area in which he could move around after APN outlined the scene, giving the actor the freedom to improvise. Nagesh recalled one Krishnaswamy Iyer who used to stand in front of the Mylapore temple tank and talk to himself loudly about how the world had fallen on bad times and so on. Nagesh decided he would similarly rant and just as he began, he heard two assistant directors discussing whether Sivaji would be ready before the lunch break; one said he would be there, while the other said he wouldn’t.....this inspired him to say ‘Varamattaan, varamattaan’ which became an important part of the hilarious scene in the film.