Nearly 70 years ago, a little boy ran away from home to appear on the stage of a drama company to make his debut in the world of entertainment, spanning more than half a century. Beginning with his days in the company drama, the book follows Sivaji Ganesan’s early essays in cinema, his years as a star, the manner in which he acquired power to control his career and his rivalry with MGR, both on and off screen. The decades of his domination of the Tamil screen and the culmination of his film career with the Dada Saheb Phalke award form part of this book. The book also looks at Sivaji’s early association with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, his distancing from the movement and his disastrous forays into politics.
S. Theodore Baskaran won the Swarna Kamal award in 1997 for his book, The Eye of the Serpent: An Introduction to Tamil Cinema. His earlier work, The Message Bearers: Entertainment Media and Nationalistic Politics, 1884-1945 is considered a pioneering book in the field of popular culture. He was a member of the jury for the National Film Awards in 2003. Baskaran writes on cinema, both in English and in Tamil.
The Indian cinema thrives on its stars. They invade our lives in a multitude of ways, so much so that even the intellectually scornful cannot ignore the cinema because of the omnipresence of the stars.
This is especially true of the Hindi cinema which is the closest we come to a ‘national’ cinema. It is only in the south of the country that they have to yield place to the stars of, particularly, the Tamil cinema. And among them Sivaji Ganesan strode the scene like a colossus. He transcended all barriers to be lauded and applauded across the country. When he received the Dada Saheb Phalke award in 1997, the highest award presented by the Government of India for contribution to cinema, it was to universal acclaim. He was the first Tamilian to receive the award after it was instituted in 1970. The national award for best actor, however, always eluded him. It could well be because of the political positions he adopted.
Superstars in the south are public figures not only because I heir persona but because they become actively engaged in political life. MGR and Jayalalitha, both actors, went on to become Chief Ministers of Tamil Nadu. C.N. Annadurai and M. Karunanidhi started the trend as scriptwriters, convinced film cinema could be used to convey social and political messages. Sivaji Ganesan, in the best tradition of Tamil cinema, made forays into politics but was clearly not cut out for the world of politics as he was for the world of films.
For Sivaji Ganesan was more than a film star; he was an icon. His life showed the changing face of India — from colonial lines through Independence and after, from poverty-stricken origins to dizzying heights of fame. All throughout he remained a corn mitted human being, and a great star worshipped this side idolatry. Perhaps it was his humble beginnings that made him identify with the common man who in turn, looked upon him as a role model.
His eminence in Tamil cinema at the height of his career in the late 70s-early 80s was such that poet Kannadasan said there was no Tamilian who had not been influenced by his screen persona. Kamalahasan added that the Tamil film industry could be divided into two periods — before and after Sivaji Ganesan. This despite the perceived rivalry with MGR, But where MGR went on to carve a remarkable place for himself in the political arena, Sivaji Ganesan’s phenomenal success remained in the cinema. He set standards of professionalism in the cinema as a stickler for punctuality and coming prepared for his scenes. His memory was phenomenal and he rarely missed his lines. In the annals of Indian cinema, Sivaji Ganesan will always be a landmark.
When we embarked on the series of books on the great names of Indian cinema, Sivaji Ganesan was an obvious choice. And S. Theodore Baskaran the obvious author, having written extensively with insight and perspicacity on south Indian cinema. He agreed to do this book immediately and has written it with a wealth of understanding and an inside perspective.
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