100 years of Gemini Ganesan

A daughter's tribute

This is a daughter's tribute to her father to mark his 90th birth anniversary. Gemini Ganesan's second daughter Narayani's experience as a senior editor in Times of India comes in handy in telling the story of her father. “This is by no means a faithful documentation of Gemini Gansesan as a film actor,” she clarifies cautiously in the introduction, “neither do I claim to offer a critical appraisal of his films. This is the story of growing up with a star as a father, adored and respected by many, and perhaps disliked by a few”.

Labour of love

With the advantage of being so close to the subject of the book and trained to gather information from varied sources, it is evident that the writing of this book is a labour of love. In addition to talking to her father about his life and work, Narayani has spoken to those who worked closely with Gemini like his driver, make-up artist and co-actors. Letters from and to Gemini, his diary entries, notes and newspaper clippings have been used as sources. However, the story gets autobiographical in quite a few places and is replete with anecdotes rather than insights.

There is a warm foreword by Kamal Haasan in which he recalls his experience of working with Gemini, beginning with “Kalathur Kannamma” (1960). This is followed by chapters on the different dimensions of the actor's life. Narayani has taken the trouble to ensure that the information she provides is accurate. One such is the section dealing with Gemini Ganesan's association with Madras Christian College where he studied and was on the staff for a short while as a demonstrator. Using Gemini's diaries as a source, the author brings in many interesting details. Through one entry she figures out that the film “Thai Ullam” (1952) was based on Mrs. Henry Wood's novel East Lynne.

Gemini Ganesan — born Ganapati Subramanbian Sarma or Ramasamy Ganesan in 1920 — made his debut when working as a casting assistant in Gemini studios. The film was “Miss Malini” (1947), an adaptation of an R.K. Narayan story. S.S. Vasan quickly identified his potential and Ganesan comfortably eased into the role of leading man. Within two years he was going full throttle on the highway to movie fame. In his career spanning nearly half a century, Gemini, as he came to be known, played a variety of roles, from Abhimanyu in “Maya Bazaar” (1957) to freedom fighter Madasamy in “Kappalotiya Thamizhan” (1961). My own Gemini favourite is “Pennin Perumai” (1960) in which he plays a non-assertive imbecile morphing into a well-moulded human being.

When melodrama was riding high in Indian cinema, Gemini was the uncrowned king of that genre. Though he acted from 1947 to 1998 in 147 films, including “Missiamma” (1955) and “Konjum Salangai” (1962), which have frozen in the collective memory of Tamils all over the world, Gemini did not get any national award for acting. Unlike the other two great stars of the Tamil screen (MGR and Sivaji), Gemini did not come from a stage background. This made his screen presence refreshingly credible and his acting was not stylised. He sustained his film career without the scaffolding of fan clubs or backing of a political party. The only time he got anywhere near politicians was when he organised a function for poet Subramania Bharathi at Ettayapuram in 1963.

Playboy image

Gemini's relationship with his co-actors Pushpavalli and Savithiri and his playboy image is dealt with in a separate chapter titled ‘King of Romance'. He had two children through each of them. The author writes about these four children and their lives. However, there is not much about the films of the Gemini-Savithi pair in this chapter.

The photographs — well laid out and beautifully reproduced — form the strong point of the book. Rare pictures like the one of Muthulakshmi Reddy and her sister with their father Narayanaswamy (Gemini's grand-uncle) and Gemini as cricket captain give the book the quality of an archives. Muthulakshmi Reddy, whose ward young Ganesan was when he was a student of Ramakrishna School in Chennai, influenced him considerably. The author has included facsimiles of some of the letters and notes, which endows the book with an intimacy. The pictures in the latter half of the book, though interesting, make it look like a family album. Nevertheless, the book forms an important strand in Indian film history, particularly the chapter titled “The Big Screen”.

Eternal Romantic: My Father Gemini Ganesan; Narayani Ganesh, Lustre Press/Roli Books, price not stated.

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2022 1:47:18 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/A-daughters-tribute/article15506075.ece

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