We all know what a great onscreen performer Sivaji Ganesan was. Having played many roles in films directed by directors so many, it is easy to assume that Sivaji or Nadigar Thilagam (loosely translated as Greatest Actor & abbreviated in online forums as NT) seriously requires many entries in the Guinness World Book of Records. As such, I want to put claim to the amount of sadistic physical & emotional torture his characters had to endure in that list…while at the same time put the directors responsible in the stand.
Let’s start with his first film itself, Parasakthi, directed by Krishnan Panju team. As soon as the rich, beaming youthful and very handsome NT finds himself in the home soil of Chennai, he was duped, robbed rendered penniless and later became mentally unsound. The final blow came when he had to attack the temple priest. If the conscientious torture of having committed a crime is not enough, he had to be brought to the court and in that famous moment, he had to recount the entire incident again to the bemused judge and crowd. NT was only 24 at that time.
I don’t think any other Tamizh film stars have had their characters endure such a predicament in the first role itself. Well, Rajini comes close. In Apoorva Raganggal, he appears towards the end in an extended guest role as a leukaemia patient who returns only to see his former wife frolicking with a dude much younger than hotter looking than him. Also, he dies standing.
In his first leading role afterwards, Mundru Mudhichu, he successfully becomes the killer, indirectly, of the same younger hotter looking dude to reclaim his girl only to find that she got married to his own dad. Poor bloke.
As a matter of fact, this was not the first time we got such a plot. The first victim of that nefarious plot of having your hot chick getting hitched by your daddy was none other than….yes, Nadigar Thilagam Sivaji Ganesan. Ethirparaathathu was an experimental flick written by maverick filmmaker, Sridhar. And he had to get NT’s girl married to his dad, played by Nagaiyah who always seemed like he would anytime keel over clutching his heart. Sridhar’s atonement would be to put NT in an action flick, Sivantha Man. Safe and sound this time, except when NT was shot at, almost maimed, had fisticuff with various henchmen and was almost ran over by helicopter. But that’s another story.
When the filmmakers decide to go extra creative and borrow from elsewhere, they can find rich resources in the classic plays and novels from the west. Both MGR and NT hijacked Alexandra Dumas’ tales in the successful Nadodi Mannan and Uthama Puthiran, the latter which saw the second NT’s head caged in metal mask.
But before those hits, the producers decided to have our own version of Hamlet and chose to film the hit play Manohara. Playing the title character, NT was brooding, in conflict with the palace authorities & towards the climax he has to be chained like a dog and listen to P. Kannama over emote. Well, at least it was not Vijaya Kumari.
Anyway, those are just few of what happened to NT. I would like to pin the directors down in this article. Let’s pick a fight with B.R. Bandhulu first. With humble beginning as small time hack director, Bandhulu took the whole world (yes, the world) by storm when he directed Veera Pandiya Kattabomman (VPK) that earned NT best actor award in an Afro-Asia Film Festival held in Egypt. Kattabomman, the role that many swear was NT’s best, constantly had to fight verbally and physically with white faced fellow Indian actors and deliver some ear shattering heart pounding dialogues, the delivery alone more powerful than the swords he swished. Now, how does Bandhulu end this film? With the hanging scene of course.
Fresh from the success of VPK, Bandhulu directed Karnan, a single viewpoint piece taken from the epic myth, Mahabaratha. NT’s title character gets dumped in the river as a baby, grows up to be a warrior under a horse rider’s tutelage, gets humiliated at a royal court, end up being pally with someone you don’t even want to have tea with, fight against his own brothers, and end up getting killed. This is not after he had to cut off the very things that will protect his life, his ear ring (more elaborate type) and body shield….yes, they were attached to his body. During the climactic battle scene, he had about three hundred gazillions of arrow struck on him. Geez. When one of his brothers from the opposite camp, Arjunan, comes running along crying that he had murdered his own brother, his aide/Chariot Rider/mentor Lord Krisha smirks and tells Arjunan something to this effect: “Dude, your brother was, like, dead several scenes ago?? Halloo?”. Thanks Bandhulu.
If you think that I am being unfair to Bandhulu wait till I tell you a tale of comedy. Yes, comedy. Bandhulu decides to make a comedy and you all know how brilliantly funny Bale Pandiya was. Think again. First time we see NT, he is about to commit suicide from a tower. And then, you get a second attempt, only to be saved by the super gorgeous Devika. If you think things are safe for this NT, wait till you learn what awaits the villain NT (three roles remember?). The Maruthu character hardly moves, if so he just walks towards the camera, adjusts his lungi and smokes his beedi. That’s it. He hardly does anything, unlike the notorious MR Radha character, his boss. What happens to this NT? Of course, he got shot at the end. Comedy.
Here’s more about getting shot, with bullets since they deposited all the arrows they had in Karnan. Director T.R. Ramanna will forever be remembered for bringing both MGR and NT together in Koondu Kili, where naturally the first scene was that of NT attempting to commit suicide. But that’s another story. Well, Ramanna resurfaced a decade later when he directed NT in Tannga Churanggam. This film was his answer to the spy flick craze that was hitting worldwide thanks to the success of James Bond films. NT gave our own OO7, Jai Shanker, a run for his bullets, appearing cool, stylish but not without some emotional moments. Just when you thought all would be safe, he is given electricity jolt halfway, and worst, at the time when singing duet mean open space and beautiful garden, our man was given only a small water well to have a duet with his date. Then, all seemed to be safe and sound till the climax. When NT hunts down the bad guy (Ramdass) in a church…of all place…he gets shot at both his hands AND legs. Hey, even Hollywood make do with a single shot in either the hero’s leg or arm, for Eastwood’s sake.
Well, similar slug-related fate naturally awaited NT when he was cast in multiple roles. This time in a beautiful film called Navarathiri, directed by the gifted director A.P. Nagarajan, NT was made to take on 9 roles and the cruel thing was no rubber prosthetics was involved. Kidding. Well most characters are well and healthy; we then meet the brutish NT with a rifle, sling belt full of bullets, really looking very fiery and what happens to him? He gets shot and takes a really long time to die, trashing his feet about till they slowly stopped. Gruesome scene. I bet Savithiri was genuinely horrified that moment. Then, we meet few more NTs till towards the end when here comes crawling, literally on his four a leper. Who played this leper? Your guess is as good as mine. But that’s another story.
Single role or multiple role, number does not matter. All has to suffer. Just ask director A.C. Thirulogachander. Remember Bheem Singh’s plot twist involving acid thrown at NT’s face in Pava Manippu and permanently scarring it? (It also had Nagaiyah playing NT’s dad who still looked like he would keel over clutching his heart, except that he was propped to the wall by a humongous Quran) Well, inspired ACT had not one, but two NT’s in Deiva Magan to have a really brutish nasty facial scar. Given away to orphanage as a child and originally intended to be killed by the scar-faced dad, NT Jr had to endure enough psychological trauma before at the climax where even the director felt enough is enough and had him take in more than one slug in his belly. Oh, Nagaiah again plays NT’s dad and this time dies without keeling over and clutching his heart.
Another director not a stranger to onscreen gunshot wound is P. Madhavan. How can we forget the unnecessary death of the lead character in Rajapart Ranggathurai, where someone puts in real bullet in the gun used for a stage play in which NT, as stage actor Ranggathurai, plays a freedom fighter. Yes, P. Madhavan was also the director of Tanggapathakkam, in which NT plays Inspector Chowdary, whose defiant son goes to the other side of the fence, leaving him with a crippled wife who dies heartbroken. This time it is not NT, but his onscreen son Srikanth who gets the bullet. Who does the shooting? NT of course, but his own son…the trauma he has to live through is worst than death.
And so we saw all that from the 50s to the end of 70s, NT was blinded, half blinded, crippled, shot at, attacked, made to be alcoholics, given various psychological trauma, not forgetting silly costumes (late 70s) and preposterous wigs, and other horrific stuff like being paired with Sri Priya. It’s staggering that NT the person remained the sane intelligent man right till the end.
One could go on and recall onscreen traumas mentioned above. But it is perhaps having been through these predicaments throughout the entire 50s, 60s & 70s, that the immune audience failed to give proper emotional response to NT in his 80s films, even though he suffered regularly onscreen, with his characters having multiple heart attacks, dying conveniently to spruce up bad script or sharing the screen with nightmare child Baby Shalini. But history is there to show the sadistic directors and scriptwriters had in their hand a brilliant artist who was willing to suffer in front of the camera. And being fans of this magnificent actor, we too are perhaps, equally, sadistic. But that’s another story.