CHENNAI: The Pudukottai Kingdom, which was the only princely state in Madras Presidency produced several cultural stalwarts. PU Chinnappa and Raja Sandow, both filmy superstars in their times, were from the state.
But Ganesan born in the state had no ambitions whatsoever of the tinsel town. The son of a teacher, his career too seemed set in the identical course. After a college degree, he took up a teaching job at Madras Christian College but was bored with the lecturing he had to do to chemistry undergrads.
Most actors of the first decades of the Tamil talkies were graduating from the boys’ troupes of theatre and hence cinema was often seen as plebeian entertainment. But in the 40s, some graduates too were bewitched by the camera. Some like Ranjan would proudly sport a BA behind his name in the credits.
Ganesan looking for any job other than teaching would get a link in the biggest studio of them all the mammoth Gemini run by the movie mogul SS Vasan. Ganesan would find a common relative who would recommend him to Vasan’s father-in-law. Vasan was known to scrutinise anyone who sought a cinema chance and had once even rejected Sivaji Ganesan for an extra role.
But it was relatively easy to get a desk job at Gemini Studio. Ganesan joined Gemini Studio as a member of its casting team interviewing potential actors. Among his finds were the famous actors Chandrababu, Ranga Rao and even Savitri, later his love interest.
Soon he himself would be drawn into the whirlpool of Kollywood and eventually became known as ‘Gemini Ganesan’. It was just a coincidence that the two Ganesans in the Tamil cinema were called by their prefixes for the rest of their lives. Sivaji and Gemini. For reasons unknown, Vasan would ask his casting executive to act in the film Miss Malini in 1947- with a screenplay by ace author RK Narayan. Ganesan was credited as RG in the film.
Gemini, however, not pinning too many hopes on this talkie and undeterred by the insignificant role he played, pursued his filmy ambitions. He then played the role of a villain to hero RS Manohar, who became an ace villain later.
It was a time when singing heroes had vanished and macho men took over. They either fought a dozen villains single-handedly or spoke pages of fiery dialogues scarcely taking a breath in between. It was clear the lead actors wanted to demarcate an image for themselves either physically macho or verbally histrionics. Gemini kept his distance from this scene.
He was portrayed as a passionate softie initially and the image stuck. And while he crooned romantic songs and pranced around trees with beautiful heroines, a tremendous fan base and brand were being built.
Gemini was very lucky for his songs and it strengthened his fan base. Poets and music directors churned out their best for him while background singers with soft voices like PB Sreenivas and AM Rajah sang in a voice very close to his. The image was so reinforced that whenever he tried to do a fight scene or speak fiery dialogues the audience laughed.
But that didn’t limit his chances. He played in more than 200 films almost a quarter of them mega hits. Drama, passion, heartbreaks, slapstick, and historical. Gemini portrayed heroes of all hues effortlessly. He once played an ugly dwarf designed with the hunchback of Notre Dame in mind. He never refused roles second in credit to MGR or Sivaji.
K Balachander would call him a director’s delight because of his flexibility and talent. In an era when directors for the superstars had to listen to every half-baked suggestion by the hero, Gemini wholeheartedly accepted the director as the helmsman of the fleet. He trusted the director’s decisions and obeyed every instruction.
In more ways than one, Gemini was different from other heroes. With absolutely no interest in fan clubs, he was still most courteous to his fans. He was not also concerned about his image in public for he had no interest whatsoever to convert them into a ballot box. He even turned down a Rajya Sabha seat offered by Rajiv Gandhi. Only once would he produce a movie of his own, playing seven roles and when it flopped, he kept well away from production.
Referred to as Kaadhal Mannan (King of Romance) for the passionate protagonist he played in Tamil films. The image got transmitted from real life as well. His extramarital affairs were frequent and publicly known.
In a career that spanned nearly half a century Gemini never got any National Award. His charming face, debonair disposition, soft delivery of dialogues along with a great sense of timing in humour kept him at the forefront of romantic movies, long after younger heroes tried to snatch the mantle from him.