The unattainable heights of Nadigar Thilagam Chevalier Sivaji Ganesan

His spot at the top of the pantheon of all-time great Tamil actors is, to put it simply, unshakable.
The unattainable heights of Nadigar Thilagam Chevalier Sivaji Ganesan
The unattainable heights of Nadigar Thilagam Chevalier Sivaji Ganesan
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The report on the conferment of the Chevalier Award by the French government on actor Kamal Haasan has been received with jubilation by the Tamil film industry and the actor has been receiving encomiums from all quarters. Perhaps the most eloquent praise has come from Kamal’s illustrious contemporary, Rajanikanth, who has hailed Kamal as the ‘Nadigar Thilagam’ of the present generation.

Kollywood has so far seen only one Nadigar Thilagam and that was Sivaji Ganesan, a legendary actor, Dadasaheb Phalke Award winner who incidentally was also the first Indian actor to be conferred with the Chevalier Award. Kamal is the second.

While there can be no denying that Kamal Haasan with his formidable acting talent has often been deservingly dubbed as a worthy successor to Sivaji, a quick scan of the thespian’s work in just ten out of the nearly three hundred films that he acted in, during a span of over four decades, reveals that his range has been extraordinary and that inheriting his mantle is by no means an easy proposition.

True, Sivaji has often been accused of a high dose of melodramatic content in a few of his films and critiqued for going overboard with his emotions eschewing subtlety (perhaps a throwback of his theatre days) but his fans always loved every bit and yearned for more. And when it came to dialogue delivery Sivaji has always been a class apart, altering his dialect and tonal impact with ease to suit the characters.

As a long time industry watcher and critic my pick is as follows:


Ironic as it might seem, this film which marked Sivaji’s debut might have slipped away from him if one of the co-producers, studio owner AV Meyyappan had his way.

AVM was not too impressed with the shots of the rather emaciated, ebony-skinned stage actor whom his directors Krishnan-Panju had penciled in for the hero’s role. But the other co-producer, PA Perumal of National Pictures, put his foot down as he had pinned his faith in the young man to deliver the goods.

Scripted by M Karunanidhi (Kalaignar) later to become the CM of Tamilnadu, ‘Parasakthi’ was a whiplash against the Brahminic hegemony and religious orthodoxy prevalent in those times. Sivaji, then just VC Ganesan (he was later christened ‘Sivaji’ by EV Ramaswamy Naicker (Periyar) who was impressed by his acting in the role of Sivaji Maharaj in a play) had the best lines in the film and he delivered a powerhouse performance and AVM, the doubting Thomas, was among the first to congratulate him.

The Sivaji-Karunanidhi combination was to the fore in later films like ‘Manohara’ and ‘Thirumbi Paar’ and it was part of Tamil film folklore that Kalaignar’s fiery dialogues could be delivered by only one actor with aplomb, and that was Sivaji Ganesan. AVM and Sivaji too forged a fruitful partnership and the latter featured in many an AVM film including ‘Uyarndha Manithan’ directed by Krishnan-Panju which was his 150th film.


This film, directed by T Prakash Rao, was a delightful romp for Sivaji Ganesan who played two diametrically opposite roles of twins, one born to a queen and the other abandoned at childhood. The dual role of a greedy and arrogant successor to the throne and an honest and law-abiding citizen was as different as chalk from cheese. Sivaji was in his elements essaying both the roles with élan. ‘Uthama Puthiran’ also scored high on its music.


This film was a biopic on an 18th century South Indian chieftain who stood up to the might of the East India Company, a forerunner to the British Raj, and paid with his life after putting up an epic struggle.

Directed by BR Panthulu, who was later to direct M G Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa in ‘Aayirathil Oruvan’, this film marked a turning point in Sivaji’s career and won him a Best Actor Award at Afro Asian Film Festival.

The film which was based on a play ‘Kattabomman’ staged by Sivaji Nataka Mandram was the first film to be shot in technicolour and had its premiere in London.

With a handle bar moustache and eyes blazing like charcoals the actor lived the role and to this date every wannabe actor who auditions for a role in Kollywood inevitably belts out a fiery piece of dialogue from the film. One of the titles that Sivaji earned during his career was ‘Simhakuralon’ (one with the roar of a lion). Those who watched the film would vouchsafe that this was an apt sobriquet. Sivaji’s intensely emotional and moving performance was the hallmark of Kattabomman which also had a spectacular run at the box office, and not just when it was released but a good 56 years later in 2015 when its digitalized version hit the theatres.


Readers might wonder at the choice of this film which turned out to be a damp squib at the box office. But ‘Andha Naal’, directed by celebrated Veena maestro S Balachander saw Sivaji Ganesan play an antagonist, a traitor who sells his soul to the Japanese by betraying India’s military secrets.

The film had no songs, dances or stunt sequences and Balachander who always had a taste for the macabre and later made horror films like ‘Bommai’ and ‘Nadu Iravil’ extracted a brilliant performance from Sivaji cast as a radio engineer.

The film was a mystery thriller all the way with minimal dialogues and the suspense was maintained till the very end. ‘Andha Naal’ afforded Sivaji plenty of scope to come up with a sober, intense and brooding performance clearly revealing the angst of a tortured soul. In a stunning climax the Judas is killed by his own wife who had scented his betrayal of the nation. She later commits suicide as the curtains come down.

KARNAN (1964) 

With the Mahabharat as a backdrop, ‘Karnan’ narrated the story of Kunthi’s estranged son who joined forces with the Kauravas due to his abiding friendship with Duryodhan. ‘Karnan’ boasted of an excellent score by MS Viswanathan who incidentally stormed a bastion that had hitherto been reserved for KV Mahadevan. The smash hit found Sivaji excelling in the emotional sequences and his scenes with the Telugu superstar NT Rama Rao who played Lord Krishna with the required gravitas formed the highlight of the film.


Sivaji Ganesan, who had begun his political career with the DMK but later veered to the Congress and also drifted from social films to mythologies was promptly dubbed as ‘Tirupathi’ Ganesan by the DMK.

One of the mythologies where he was cast as Lord Siva was titled ‘Thiruvilayadal and the film dealt with several episodes featuring the Lord in various disguises working his wonders and mystifying his disciples.

With excellent support from actors like the ace comedian Nagesh and TS Balaiah, Sivaji brilliantly essayed the role assigned to him, bringing into play the myriad facets of his histrionic prowess. Each scene was crafted with great care and devotion by the director A P Nagarajan whose association with Sivaji proved to be mutually beneficial and the duo came together in several films like ‘Thillana Mohanambal’ ‘Thiruvarutchelvar’ and ‘Arunagirinathat’. Today’s generation had the golden opportunity of watching this film in 2015 when it was digitally restored and like all Sivaji films that were re-screened ‘Thiruvilayadal’ turned out to be a thumping box office success repeating its phenomenal run five decades ago.


Another AP Nagarajan film, ‘Thillana Mohanambal’ was based on a story penned by the famous writer Kothamangalam Subbu. This movie, which had a mammoth star-cast featured Sivaji as a celebrated but highly egotistic Nadaswaram Vidwan who falls for the charms of a famous Bharatanatyam dancer.

A little-known fact about Sivaji Ganesan was that he took great pains to prepare himself for his roles, and if audiences found his recitals in the film authentic it was due to his painstaking efforts to pick up the rudiments of playing the Nadaswaram from the Vidwans Sehturaman-Ponnuswamy who provided the background music.

The Sivaji-Padmini duo who formed a very compatible pair in various hit films was the piece de resistance in the film, with Padmini’s Mohanambal turning out to be an apt foil for Sivaji’s Sikkil Shanmugasundaram Pillai.


The first Tamil film that earned the distinction of being India’s official entry to the Oscars for Best Foreign Film, the AC Thirulokchander directed ‘Deiva Magan’ featured Sivaji Ganesan in three roles, that of a father and his two sons. A lawyer father with a scarred face begets two sons, one of whom is born with the same affliction and is left in the lurch by his father. The other is a Lothario who is his father’s pet but goes astray and is finally put back on track by his elder brother. With nary a dull minute ‘Deiva Magan’ expectedly stormed the box office


Playwright Vietnam Veedu Sundaram, who passed away recently, scripted plays like ‘Vietnam Veedu’ and ‘Gnana Oli’ for Sivaji Ganesan and Major Sundararajan, and when these plays were made into films it was Sivaji who played the lead in both the films.

Long before actors like Amitabh Bachchan began to play their age, Sivaji Ganesan often ventured to sacrifice his macho hero image and don the role of the aging protagonist.

‘Veitnam Veedu’, which again was a triumph for the Sivaji-Padmini duo, found Sivaji essaying the role of a retired man Prestige Padmanabha Iyer who finds his world turn upside down after he hangs up his boots. While there were a number of scenes in this Madhavan-directed film where Sivaji went overboard, the actor did succeed in turning the film into a real tear-jerker. Sundaram’s alliterative prose perfectly rendered by Sivaji with the right intonations was a highlight of the film.


Avant-garde directors Bharathiraaja and Bhagyaraj, huge fans of Sivaji were keen to work with him in at least one film each and it was Bhagyaraj who succeeded in roping the thespian first in his ‘Dhavani Kanavugal’, which however met with a lukewarm response at the box office.

But it was his mentor Bharathiraaja in whose film ‘Mudhal Mariyadhai’ Sivaji portrayed an obese widower who becomes an object of infatuation for a young village belle, who succeeded in eliciting a marquee performance from the aging actor.

Bharathiraaja recounted how he reeled with embarrassment when Sivaji demanded that he act out each sequence for his benefit, showing his deference to the director and his abilities. His performance in the film netted him a Special Jury National Award, a belated recognition for someone who always stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries.

All those who worked with Sivaji Ganesan through the years would vouch for the high amount of sincerity and devotion that he brought to bear on his profession.

Apart from the meticulous delineation of his roles Sivaji had an impeccable reputation for his adherence to schedules and his punctuality. Apart from the films listed above, there were many others like the Bhimsingh directed ‘Pasamalar’ ‘Pava Manippu’ ‘Bagapirivinai’ and others like ‘Kappalotiya Thamizhan’ ‘Enga Oor Raja’ ‘Rajapart Rangadurai’ ‘Trisoolam’ (triple role)’ and ‘Gauravam’, where Sivaji gave an excellent account of his acting credentials.

Verily the ‘Nadigar Thilagam’ had few peers during his lifetime and the spectacular re-runs of his big hits are a clear indication that the younger generation too have taken a shine to the great actor whose spot at the top of the pantheon of all-time great Tamil actors is, to put it simply, unshakable.

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