Nostalghia Movies

Pride and prestige: Remembering ‘Vietnam Veedu’ on its 50th anniversary

Sivaji Ganesan and Padmini in a scene from ‘Vietnam Veedu’

Sivaji Ganesan and Padmini in a scene from ‘Vietnam Veedu’   | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Actor and playwright YG Mahendran shares nuggets of information about the iconic film and its star Sivaji Ganesan

“Isn’t slumbering a kind of rehearsal for death, in this drama called life, Savithri? I’ve had my rehearsal long back and am waiting for my time.”

These were not the last words of a dying man, but of a man who had lost his “position” and “possession”, and become a burden to his family in the wake of his retirement. The ‘prestige’ that he held dear to his chest had been lost, as was “justice”. The words, spoken by a devastated Prestige Padmanabhan in the now-classic Vietnam Veedu, echoed the emotions of a generation of (wo)men who were in the last act — the phase post-retirement when your relevance is taken for granted.

That absolute feeling of helplessness one has to pay as a price post-retirement, was what writer Sundaram dabbled with in Vietnam Veedu — perhaps one of the earliest movies to delve deeper into the vulnerabilities of a man, who wakes up one day to realise that he is now a senior citizen. In other words, Vietnam Veedu was both melodrama and a miserable reflection of society.

Witnessing Sivaji Ganesan’s live performance as a teenager when Vietnam Veedu was a stage play to reprising the role in the later stage of his career, it has been a long journey for actor and playwright YG Mahendran. “I’ve admired Sivaji Ganesan ever since he staged Veerapandiya Kattabomman,” says YGM, when I call him up for a quick chat about Vietnam Veedu, which, he says, was supposed to have re-released on March 27. Excerpts from the interview:

What are your earliest memories of ‘Vietnam Veedu’?

I watched the play when I was doing my PUC (Pre University Course). It was a massive success. In fact, there were long queues outside Annamalai Mandram. I have vivid recollections of the experience because I remember watching it with two other stalwarts, producer SS Vasan and Hindi actor Rajendra Kumar. Of course, I have not just been a Sivaji Ganesan fan but a fanatic.

Usually, Sivaji leaves the theatre as soon as the play gets over. But that day, he stayed back to receive Vasan and Rajendra Kumar. The funny part is, he was consoling both of them who were left misty-eyed. The play took a toll on Vasan personally because the portrait of Padmanabhan’s [Sivaji Ganesan] mother was actually Vasan’s mother.

The play was written by Sundaram who was with United Amateur Artistes, a troupe run by your father YG Parthasarathy. Could you talk about the backstory of how it was pitched to Sivaji Ganesan?

That is an interesting episode because Sundaram is a product of UAA and he first brought the subject to my father. But for some reason he was not too impressed by it. That could have been the best thing that happened to Vietnam Veedu. Because it went to the King [Sivaji Ganesan]. Sundaram later pitched it to Sivaji, who found something totally different in his character. He had not done such a role till that point. In fact, my father used to say that Sundaram should be grateful to him for rejecting it.

How was the play received by the then audience, given it was Sundaram’s first play?

The reaction was ecstatic in those days. There was absolute silence in the hall, especially in the climax. By the time it reached the final act, we were all choked with emotion. That was its impact.

Did the movie adaptation have a similar effect or was it diluted?

Yes, it retained the core emotion of the play. P Madhavan [director] did a beautiful job in converting it into a movie format. Padmini gave a fantastic performance in the movie. Later, when I staged the drama, my co-artiste Nithya did a brilliant job. But the fact remains that nobody could match G Shakuntala [who played the wife’s character in the play].

Which version did you enjoy the most?

The drama had a long-lasting impact on me because I was witnessing Sivaji perform for a live audience. He would be the first to arrive whenever there was a play. While doing the make-up, someone has to read out the dialogues for him, even if it were to be staged for the 50th time. He was adamant that way. Once the make-up gets done, he will no longer be Sivaji Ganesan but Padmanabhan. And when the play ends, he will become Sivaji again. In that sense, it was easy for him to switch on and off, which we [audience] could not do. To witness Sivaji Ganesan transform into the character is an experience that cannot be put in words.

Have you ever discussed the idea of adapting ‘Vietnam Veedu’ as a play with Sivaji Ganesan?

No. I have worked with him in over 33 movies. We used to discuss a lot about movies and about his process as an actor. But I never told him about this idea. In fact, it came as a spark over a decade back. That I should remake the play as a tribute. Unlike other Sivaji Ganesan’s characters, this was something I could at least attempt. I spoke to Ramkumar [Sivaji’s elder son] about it and what he said was encouraging.

What gave you conviction to pull off such an iconic character?

When I expressed the idea of remaking the play, everyone was against it, including my wife. Even I was clouded with doubts. But it was Madhu Balaji who gave me confidence and motivated me. It was kind of a co-artiste from another troupe to say that. That was the deciding point for me.

Did you have any challenges in rewriting the screenplay, given that it was already a successful play?

One is to make sure that it does not come across as a copy. And two, I was not trying to prove a point. People knew that I was a disciple of Sivaji Ganesan and wanted to honour his memory. In fact, I did a movie and play adaptation of Vietnam Veedu, and used the song ‘Un Kannil Neer Vadinthal’ as part of the play. The biggest compliment came from TM Soundararajan who said he really liked the way the song was used.

A still from YG Mahendran’s play

A still from YG Mahendran’s play   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

And your version too turned out to be a success.

I have staged it over 70-80 times and the reception has always been heartening. The greatest lesson Sivaji taught me was to never imitate anyone. He used to say, ‘I have been inspired by Charles Laughton, Spencer Tracy and Marlon Brando, but never imitated them’. That I followed. Which is why people saw both Sivaji and a bit of YGM in the play.

Another major contribution was Nagesh’s...

Vietnam Veedu is nothing if you compare Nagesh’s other works. He is the definition of humour in India. If Sivaji is God, then Nagesh is Dronacharya for me. I once interviewed him for a channel and asked him about my comedy. His instant reaction was: ‘What do you want me to say, da?’ He later said that there are two kinds of comedians right now. One who has good ‘timing’ and one whose ‘time’ is good (laughs). I belonged to the first category is what he said.

Do you think ‘Vietnam Veedu’ is still relevant?

Of course. Even today, you face a tinge of helplessness when you retire from work. In those days, retirement meant that your family was finished. We are facing the wrath of retirement in these 21 days (laughs). It was one of the first movies to tap into that emotion, which is why it is still relevant today.

Prestige aka ‘gauravam’ is a word that comes throughout the movie. Was the title ‘Gauravam’, the directorial début of Sundaram, sort of a homage to ‘Vietnam Veedu’?

It was adapted from my play Kannan Vandhaan. But you are right. The title was taken from Vietnam Veedu. In fact, there is a line that comes in the interval point where Sivaji says, ‘My uncle’s son Prestige Padmanabhan used to say that one must stand on his own legs. But let me tell you, one should not just stand on his legs but should stay as well.’

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Printable version | Jun 5, 2020 3:22:26 PM |

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