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Strokes of a genius

The release of "Parasakti" in 1952 saw the birth of a star - Sivaji Ganesan - in Indian cinema. His perfect delivery of dialogue and identification with every role he played, established him as an actor par excellence. K. HARIHARAN, film maker and scholar, writes on the thespian's successes and failures.

WITHIN the post-independent history of Indian Cinema the role of Tamil cinema has always been seen as a dysfunctional variant. For the powers to be and the Indian elite, Tamil Nadu and Tamil cinema were synonymous symbols of "kitsch" Madrasi culture. "Andu gundu nariyal paani" was how, even I was referred to in Mumbai where I grew up! And that's all my friends knew about Tamil Nadu. The only thing noteworthy for them about this southern State was its "classical" Mylapore culture - the world of Bharatanatyam and Carnatic classical music.

So to which culture did Sivaji Ganesan belong? The answer is obvious. The world of "kitsch!" And why did this happen? I would like to briefly elaborate here with the words of Edward Said, the renowned critic of post-colonial culture and politics. "In the first place culture is used to designate not merely something to which one belongs but something that one possesses. In the second place there is a more interesting dimension to this idea of culture as possessing possession. And that is the power of culture by virtue of its elevated or superior position to authorise, to dominate, to legitimate, demote, interdict and validate."

So it was imperative that after 1947, counter-culture in Tamil Nadu had to have a two-pronged attack for the people who actually "belonged" to this "andu gundu" culture. They had to fight the Delhi culture and the superiority complex of a local elite power, which decided what would constitute "Indian culture". The local Tamilian elite had to play mirror-reflection of "proper Indianness" and decide what to authorise and legitimise as good Tamil culture too. So in 1952 when "Parasakti" was released it must have been obvious to every "belonging" resident Tamilian that a great star had arrived. It was an overwhelming success. Sivaji Ganesan captured the spirit of the typical post- independence protest and disillusionment resting in every Tamil youth. The film also dovetailed with the resurgence of a strong pro-Tamil Dravidian movement and radical social reform processes and in the process stigmatised the Tamil elite as corrupt aliens.

There were many other stars in this game too. From MGR, SSR to Karunanidhi and Kannadasan, the list was really long. But thanks to his immense capacity to understand the melodramatic capacities of cinema, Sivaji Ganesan could easily translate any potential story into a series of powerful gestures. But the elite within and without, however dismissed his performance as pure "hamming" or stereotypical "overacting"! It was considered and it is still considered an embarrassment to even talk about his films. High- class newspapers would have pages on film festivals at Cannes and discuss films, which would never see the screen. Yet, of the 300 films that Sivaji Ganesan acted in, none of them were found deserving to win even one national award for him as "best actor". But so were stars like Raj Kapoor or Dev Anand, never considered worthy of any award. Fortunately they had to counter just a single establishment. But together they were all seen as "anti- social elements" fanning the taste for vulgarity, encouraging disobedience and promoting indiscipline.

Why is there an antipathy by the elite and their media towards anything which is genuinely "popular" by its own strength? Why do serious discussions on cinema never ever figure Sivaji Ganesan as an important element?

The problem is cultural. To accept Sivaji Ganesan is to befriend a whole grammar of protest, profanity and reform. When I said that he had the immense talent to convert any potential story into a series of powerful gestures it is precisely in this area that he demonstrates his versatility. Let's take the classic example of "Thillana Mohanambal". (I am sure if I had called this film a classic two weeks ago, several readers would have laughed but today they might accept it out of hypocritical reverence to a dead soul. What a way to achieve "classic" status!)

In this film, Sivaji had to combine in himself the traits of a "classical musician" falling in love with a "classical" dancer but, in an atmosphere of "low-brow" culture. Meaning, people who wear red blouses and blue saris, "zamindars" who live in multi- colored houses, and people who frequent cheap folk dancers. It is into this ambience that Sivaji brings in his precise yet different strokes. In an intuitive way he has observed the nuances and behavioural styles of musicians. He brings in his enormous talent of perfect dialogue intonations, flawless synchronisation of the musical instruments, and a good timing for action/ reaction. And still he had to rise above the character and display the sensuality of a Sivaji Ganesan. At this level Sivaji is at his melodramatic best. He knows exactly when to face the camera frontally, when to raise his voice and when to quiver his lips. Only he knew well how to add the right amount of profanity to an already complex script of love and sacrifice.

Several films breezed by in his repertoire. From comedies like "Bale Pandya" to mythologicals like "Thiruvilaiyadal", from historicals like "Veerapandiya Kattabomman" to family dramas like "Paava Mannipu", from rural subjects like "Pazhni" to urban gangster dramas like "Thanga Padhakam". But if I were to select his most comfortable position as an actor, it was when he played the insider, the typical family man caught in the crossfire of modernity and tradition. He was his best playing the vulnerable hero who had to take decisions in Catch-22 situations. "Motor Sundaram Pillai", "Padithal Mattum Podhuma", and "Aalaya Mani" are all films about a man torn between two loyalties. Any one way was bound to hurt and only providence could reconcile the differences. Besides being the perfect content for a man with such enormous histrionic talent, I somehow feel that this must have been close to his personal character too. The saga of the poor little lad who came from humble belongings to live in a big mansion on Boag road in T.Nagar. Seeing the house from outside, I have always imagined Sivaji as the simple man who always humbly depended on others to make all his decisions, a man who would religiously relish every morsel of "home-cooked" food (veetu saapaadu)!

I am told that he never saw himself as different from his brothers, his wife or his son. I have always been told that he was the most obedient actor on the set and a perfect co-actor to all the other characters in the film. Recordists in all dubbing theatres will always talk fondly about his speed and precision in voice dubbing.

No wonder he could never play a do-good "outsider" like his colleague MGR. The "insider" in Sivaji was just too strong to see others as schemers and capable of stabbing in the back. I am sure that it was the brief foray into politics that would have brought all those sycophants, who are the bane of true artists, inside his house. People who would call him the second best actor in the world and never ever tell who was actually the best! People who would put giant rose garlands on him and praise every small gesture that he made. Such people have the ability to put a brake on anybody's creative urge and catapult them into isolation and a false sense of megalomania.

In the summer of 1972, Sivaji Ganesan donning the robes of an emperor witnessed the biggest assembly of extras dressed up as soldiers. It was the shooting of the greatest magnum opus in Tamil cinema called "Raja Raja Chozhan". Sivaji would have felt uncomfortable watching the spectacle of cinema take over his own charisma. Sivaji who had gotten used to the intimate confines of Bhim Singh family drama scripts in the 1960s suddenly saw himself being dwarfed by the colossus of the Brihadeeshwara temple at Thanjavur. Even the great Raja Raja could not survive the powerful shadow of exhaustion and isolation in the 12th Century. Sadly for this film, the first cinemascope production in Tamil cinema, it was a resounding flop. The summer of 1972 would end the great Sivaji Ganesan's heyday. From that year onwards four out of every five films he made were virtual disasters. He had to accommodate all kinds of fancy demands by distributors who insisted that he had to dance, fight and romance around despite his bulk, his age and his brief foray into politics. Slowly, for all practical purposes, the Tamil cinema industry would be writing off this thespian as a non-viable entity. Writing about Sivaji Ganesan just a day after his death, I too would be joining the long list of ministers, bureaucrats, fellow film colleagues in singing praises of glory like an obligatory ritual. Imagine reading laudatory statements made by "important" people who would not have even seen a single film of his all their life. Having neglected him completely during his lonely days, may be lonely years, I certainly feel it is the greatest act of hypocrisy to mouth long passages of praise when someone is no more.

It is indeed my deep regret that I learnt to truly appreciate the great performative capabilities of a giant like Sivaji Ganesan only in the last decade. Like most members of the elite, I was acculturated into believing that acting could be worth considering only if it bordered on a kind of naturalism, which in fact has never been part of the so-called "Indian culture." Then whose culture is it? The elite and even premier film institutions like the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) at Pune and the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (SRFTI) at Kolkata will never question such positions, which are prescribed by European critical standards. May be the Directorate of Film Festivals and the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) will now hold retrospectives of his films at some international venues while several non-popular film-makers will continue to have their films toured all over the world, endlessly. Is this the burden of being popular?

The writer is an alumni of FTII, Pune and has made "Thangaraj Enge" the first children's film in Tamil. His "Ezhavathu Manithan" won an international award, for the best Tamil film (at Moscow). He has also set up the first and only Indian Film Studies Department abroad (University of Pennsylvania).

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