Tamil Features

Sivaji Ganesan’s Devotional Films: A Television Staple During Navaratri

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Sivaji Ganesan has many cult films in his filmography, but his flair for drama and the more flamboyant things in life found an outlet only through mythological films

Sivaji Ganesan established his career on his remarkable ability to spout the most difficult of dialogues with ease. Like that iconic sequence in Parasakthi – a five-minute long showcase for Ganesan’s theatrics as well as his confident dialogue delivery.

Little wonder then that this actor was a much vaunted part of the devotional films that Tamil cinema regularly churned out. Sivaji possessed an innate grace and gambeeram that allowed him to chew on roles like that of Lord Siva in Thiruvilaiyadal and Veerabaghu in Kandhan Karunai. 

In this popular song from Kandhan Karunai, Sivaji is a scene-stealer. For a good thirty seconds, the actor does nothing but walk towards Lord Muruga (played by Sivakumar). He faces away from the camera, in a costume that can be best described as boy shorts made out of yards of glitter, and yet, he is the epitome of masculinity. Arrogant pride is stamped over every feature of this actor as he plays Veerabaghu, a renowned warrior in Siva’s army. One simply cannot look away from the actor, even when other stalwarts like Gemini Ganesan, Savithri are in the frame.

Actor Sivakumar says that it is Sivaji Ganesan’s theatre background and incredible commitment to his craft that helped him become an icon. “Many feel that acting is a profession that does not require much by way of intelligence. I always say, if you think so, you should have seen Sivaji when he was alive. He would listen to the dialogues during his make-up session, and minutes later, he would say it perfectly in front of the camera. You’d think that he was up all night practicing those lines. But, no, he would have heard them for the first time fifteen minutes ago.”

Much like KR Vijaya and Savithri, Sivaji Ganesan too, was sought after for devotional films. Over his decades-long career, Ganesan was part of many such iconic films. The most-remembered perhaps is Saraswathi Sabatham, in which he plays to perfection the role of Oomai Pulavar. That he gave every role his all is apparent in this scene from the film.

As someone with a speech disorder, Sivaji’s character isn’t expected to do much in the first few minutes of the scene. And yet, that doesn’t stop him. His shoulders stoop, his entire being quivers with rage and sorrow. As blood drips down from a wound in his head, he walks slowly towards the idol of Goddess Saraswathi. He has no means to voice out his frustration. And so, he flings flowers at the idol.

Soon, she appears in front of him and grants him the ability to speak. The one-and-a-half minute that follows perfectly captures the thespian’s acting talents. Slowly voicing syllables with child-like delight and surprise, Sivaji Ganesan then launches into ‘Agara Mudhala Ezhuthellam‘. The song is a staple at many Golu events during Navaratri – which makes a lot of sense since this film was regularly screened on television during all major Hindu festivals.

Many other Tamil actors (including Gemini Ganesan) have been asked to step into the role of Lord Siva. But it is only Sivaji Ganesan who lived the role. “His specialty was in making a role his own. After he was done with it, nobody would ever live up to it. This is why most of his classics are not remade. This is an actor like no other. I doubt even his descendants can match up,” Sivakumar says.

Such was his mastery over himself and the roles he played that Sivaji Ganesan would often lose sight of his true persona. “He would be in a trance of sorts. He would fully immerse himself in the roles he played. You could say that he was probably the first method actor Tamil cinema saw. But when it was time to go home, he’d become himself. Family came first,” Sivakumar adds.

Ganesan was not conventionally handsome. Nor was he physically impressive. But, through sheer acting talent and skills, he made himself out to be bigger and more attractive than he really was. Most of his dramatic performances may seem humorous now, and some even slam the actor for his ‘exaggerations’, but the fact remains that even now, Tamil cinema has not been able to find Sivaji’s equal. He remains the unparalleled ‘Nadigar Thilagam’.

Sivaji Ganesan’s birth anniversary falls on October 1.

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