Book Review: Sivaji Ganesan's Autobiography of an Actor

December 22, 2007
Amrita Rajan

In 1954, Tamil icon Sivaji Ganesan and Padmini (Hindi movie-goers might remember her from films like Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai and Amar Deep) starred in C.H. Narayanamoorthy's Ethir Paradhathu, a boffo drama about lovers torn apart by cruel fate. The script required 'Pappi' as she's more informally known down South, to slap Ganesan's face when she mistakenly thinks he's trying to put a move on her. The scene apparently took a lot of persuasion all around because Pappi felt a hero shouldn't get his face slapped. She finally agreed at Ganesan's own urging.

In retrospect, he really ought to have minded his own business because the next thing he knew, 'fragile' little Pappi was in the throes of some sort of a psychotic episode and beating the crap out of him. What was supposed to be a simple, righteous slap turned into a full scale assault that left him bleeding on the floor. Adding to his troubles, her wild actions stunned the entire crew into silence and the director forgot to yell cut. Ganesan wound up screaming for them to end the torture, blood dripping down his face. Pappi, forcibly restrained, retired to bed and took two days to recover from her brief foray into Method acting.

This is the kind of entertaining material you're likely to find in Sivaji Ganesan's Autobiography of an Actor.

Strictly speaking, it is not an autobiography - instead, it is an exhaustive interview conducted in Tamil by Dr. T.S. Narayana Swamy and translated to English by Sabita Radhakrishna. But it is perhaps one of the most frank and wonderful books I've ever read about an actor.

In a free ranging conversation that tackles everything from politics to family, cinema and beyond, Ganesan takes the reader on a conducted tour of not just the Tamil film industry as it evolved and grew, but also India and Tamil Nadu through Independence and to the end of the millennium. From his roots in theater as a young runaway to his eventual status as the grand patriarch of Tamil cinema, it is an incredible journey for which there are no parallels that I can think of.

For the cinephile, he talks about his process as an actor - the best way to describe it is Anti-Method, something he justifies with the use of incidents such as the one with Pappi above. It's especially interesting when you realize that, by and large, it is his philosophy of acting that continues to inform Tamil cinema. This is, in fact, an excellent opportunity for people (such as I, for example) who have experienced the sheer theatricality of a Ganesan performance and been drawn in by it in spite of growing up in an era dominated by the Method school of acting.

On the other hand, the politics junkie is adequately served by Ganesan's stories of the Dravidian movement as it overran the Tamilian political scene. Periyar, MGR, Karunanidhi, they're all here, as well as talk of conspiracies, petty jealousies, politicking et al. There is even Indira Gandhi, facing down a hostile mob shortly after she lost her seat in the elections following Emergency, with no one but Ganesan to protect her.

All of this is, of course, presented through a Ganesan-colored lens, but it is presented with such openness that at no point does it interfere with one's ability to look beyond at the greater landscape.

This self-published book is also a treasure trove of photographs - an absurdly young trio of MGR, Karunanidhi and Sivaji Ganesan lounging about on the day of the latter's wedding; stills from almost all of his 287 movies plus a few portraits of him trying on various getups that never made it into a film (I loved these - they were of him in basically the same costume, holding the same pose but with different implements); 'candids' of family life where he can't resist mugging for the camera in front of his impassive wife, including a wonderful shot of him on a horse in Texas, looking for all the world like a gleeful schoolboy in a five gallon hat.

There are, of course, some eccentricities and bizarre episodes as are to be expected in a translation that seeks to keep the spirit of the original - a page of photographs titled "One Big Happy Family", for example, is dominated by a picture of a baby elephant, the same one I should suppose that he gifted to the United States. Then there are the occasional and somewhat inevitable lapses into hyperbole - the book begins with Swamy saying: "Revered Sri Sivaji Ganesan, I am grateful to you for the wonderful opportunity you have given me to compile your autobiography."

There are also passages where something might have been lost in translation: asked about his younger son, Prabhu, a successful actor in his own right, Ganesan comes off sounding incredibly bitter: "I wanted to educate him and make him a high ranking police officer but he trampled on my dreams. My brother Shanmugham and my director friend C.V. Rajendran conspired behind my back...The worst part is that he acted as a villain against me in the film Sangili."

A layperson such as I would be forgiven for thinking that the two were grievously estranged.

But these minor quibbles apart, this is not a book that hesitates to ask uncomfortable questions, most notably regarding Ganesan's failed political career. In the spirit of Ganesan's reply to Swamy ("Greetings to you Dr. T.S. Narayana Swamy. My life is an open book."), both interviewer and interviewee do their best to deliver a complete picture of Ganesan's life. What emerges is a fascinating study of Indian cinema and Tamil cinema in particular.

Rather selfishly perhaps, I found myself glad that unlike his contemporaries, he didn't succeed in politics, thus paving the way for an extraordinary decades long career in Indian cinema.

Amrita Rajan is a writer based in NYC
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