50 Years of ‘Deiva Magan’: Why Sivaji Ganesan still matters…

As the iconic film turns 50 today, we look back at its release, Sivaji Ganesan’s performance and the challenges involved in its making

Updated - September 07, 2019 10:43 am IST

Published - September 05, 2019 04:44 pm IST

Sivaji Ganesan in a scene from ‘Deiva Magan’

Sivaji Ganesan in a scene from ‘Deiva Magan’

Sivaji Ganesan’s classic Deiva Magan celebrates its Golden jubilee today. The film, which released on September 5, 1969, saw both critical and commercial success. In fact, it was the first Tamil film to be selected as India’s entry to the 42nd Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. However, it wasn’t nominated. Deiva Magan was an adaptation of a Bengali novel and its subsequent play called Ulka, by Nihar Ranjan Gupta. The 1963 Hindi film Meri Surat Teri Ankhen was also based on this novel. Ashok Kumar played the lead, while the songs were by SD Burman. There was another version, Thaayin Karunai , directed by GV Iyer and starring Kalyan Kumar in 1965. The Tamil adaptation by director AC Tirulokchandar (ACT) was unique because it had the great thespian Sivaji Ganesan at the helm, essaying three characters — Shankar, a rich industrialist, and his two sons Kannan and Vijay. Both brothers feel insecure about their appearance, for they have huge birthmark on their faces. Sivaji made sure that he showed variations in his characters.

Story of a cult

Sivaji Ganesan’s elder son, Ramkumar Ganesan, recalled how his father got into the skin of the characters. He was a school-going kid when Sivaji was prepping for Deiva Magan . The idea was to give Sivaji a look closer to Quasimodo in the Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). It was Sivaji who insisted that they reduce the unattractiveness of the character, after trying out prosthetics. His logic was that the audience should sympathise with the character for his shortcomings, and not feel repulsed. Makeup artist Rangaswamy gave a sophisticated look to Shankar, while Kannan skin tone was a few shades darker than Vijay. While Periannan of Shanthi films wanted to shoot it in colour, it was Sivaji who suggested that this film be shot in black and white — a decision approved by the director. Sivaji, however, wanted to retain the aggression of Quasimodo, thereby giving Kannan that roughness and brute strength. This was evident in the scene where he swings on the chandelier in the animated song sequence — ‘Deivame Deivame’. Dilip Kumar’s Bairaag (1976) was said to be inspired by this film. Ramkumar further added that his father had taken the body language and style of the veteran director and his close friend CV Sridhar, to play Vijay. After watching Deiva Magan , Sridhar told Ramkumar that only Sivaji could have done it so beautifully.

Sivaji Ganesan plays three characters in ‘Deiva Magan’

Sivaji Ganesan plays three characters in ‘Deiva Magan’

Blast from the past

When I was discussing this film with ACT a few months before he passed away, he recalled how he was told by his assistants about this elaborate sequence that needed trimming. He watched it multiple times and could not decide what to edit out, and told his assistants that it needed no trimming, since all three actors did a great job. Only then it dawned on him that the three characters were played by Sivaji Ganesan. From its conception to direction, ACT was so mesmerised by his performance that it did not strike him that it was done by a single actor. Anyone who has watched Deiva Magan would have guessed the scene I’m talking about. It’s the one where Kannan hides behind a cupboard, gesturing to his father to give his younger brother the cheque that was actually meant for him. ACT remembered how tough it was to shoot that scene. It had to be done with Sivaji changing his makeover between the shots, as the camera could not be moved. This meant that the actor had to stand in a particular spot to mouth his lines, quickly change his makeover to play the second character, and stand in the same spot again and act for the camera.

 ‘Deiva Magan’ was the first Tamil film to be selected for the Oscars

‘Deiva Magan’ was the first Tamil film to be selected for the Oscars

“Sivaji insisted that I stand in for him, prompting dialogues for him,” he told me. Sivaji had a great respect for DMK leader CN Annadurai. Which is why he paid homage to him through the song ‘Deivame Deivame’ song, sung by TM Soundararajan. Out of nowhere, Sivaji pauses during the middle of the song and screams “Anna”. The music was composed by MS Viswanathan and lyrics written by Kannadasan. Deiva Magan released in Madras, just four weeks after the release of Sivaji’s Niraikudam . A couple of weeks after the release of Deiva Magan , another ACT film, Thirudan , starring Sivaji released, and within a month came the big-budget Sivantha Mann . Yet, Deiva Magan completed a 100-day run at the box office. Which goes on to show that Sivaji Ganesan’s only competition was himself.

The writer is an actor and a film historian

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