Along with M.G. Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganesan dominated Tamil Cinema to such an extent that the two automatically demanded Madras distribution rights in their contracts and could bankrupt a producer by causing production delays and stalling a film's release if they so desired.
Born Viluppuram Chinnaiah Ganesan in Sirkali, Tamil Nadu, his father moved to Viluppuram where he spent his early years. When he was seven, a travelling drama troupe came to Viluppuram. Sivaji acted as one of the soldiers in the play. His father was appalled that he had acted in some cheap drama and that too in a white man's part. He was lambasted and punished and ran away from home. He joined a drama troupe touring Tiruchi - Yadharathnam Ponnuswamy and Company. He told the owner he was an orphan and was taken under his wing. It was here that he honed his talents for music and dancing. He learnt Bharatnatyam, Kathak, Kathakali and even Manipuri and also trained in Carnatic music. As he moved from troupe to troupe, his reputation as an actor grew.
Sivaji acted on the stage when it was scandalous for women to do so. He played several roles of women on the stage. One of his favourites was Noorjehan. To quote him...
He made his reputation as an actor in C.N. Annadurai's Sivaji Kanda Indhu Rajyam, a historical on the Maratha Emperor Shivaji. He was asked to play the role at the last moment when the lead actor (an unknown MGR!) backed out. It is said he memorized the entire 95 pages of dialogues in a day! Such was his impact that the play also gave him his screen name
Sivaji followed Annadurai when he started the DMK in 1949. He made his film debut playing the lead role in Parasakthi (1952).The film is one of the most controversial films in the history of Tamil Cinema, replete with assonant monologues. It owed its success in large part to its dialogues written by Karunanidhi who used the film to express his ideas on religion, god and priesthood. The success of the film not only made Sivaji a star, but also the official icon of the DMK party for some years.
However in the mid-1950s, a trip to Tirupathi saw him fall from grace as it went against the 'rationalistic message' of the DMK that he propagated in film after film. Also, simultaneously the glorification of MGR had begun. He was now the new propaganda avatar of the DMK. Sivaji moved to E.V.K. Sampath's Tamil Nationalist Party and then the Congress and later it's opposition, the Janata Dal.
As an actor however, he continued to shine. Moving away from the DMK's atheistic politics, he acted in several mythologicals - Sampoorna Ramayan (1958) and Thiruvillaiyadal (1965), nationalist historicals - Veerapandya Kattoboman (1960), his most famous film, and biographicals - Kappalotiya Thamizhan (1961). Veerapandiya Kattaboman won Sivaji the Best Actor Award at the Afro-Asian Festival in Cairo. Twentieth Century Fox bought over the telecasting rights of one of his best known films - Thillana Mohanambal (1968) and The Washington Post hailed him as India's Clark Gable!
Sivaji was acknowledged as a consummate actor, vastly imitated but never equalled. His eyes had fire and he was cheered for his resounding voice, which the audience called 'simmakural' or a lion's roar. At the same time however, there has been constant criticism that he 'overacts.' But Sivaji always retorted...
"What is acting? It means doing something that is not natural. So then where is the question of overacting? When your mother dies, what do you do? You shout Amma and cry, don't you? Your instant reaction is to cry out loud. Not sit quietly covering your eyes with your hands. That's exactly what I do in my films."Since the mid 1970s however, Muthal Mariyathai (1985) is the one major film of Sivaji's that stands out. Not only was the film a commercial success but it also brought Sivaji critical acclaim as well. But by now the attention had shifted to younger heroes like Rajnikant and Kamal Hassan. Among his more recent films, he did give a strong performance as the latter's father in Thevar Magan (1992) getting a Special Jury Mention for the same.
Sivaji was a member of the Rajya Sabha from 1982 - 88. It is maintained that Sivaji had a more significant iconic presence among the Tamil middle-class leading to his 1980s - 90s deification, than MGR could ever acquire. He has won several awards including the Padma Shri in 1966, the Padma Bhushan in 1984 and the Dadasaheb Phalke Award for his contribution to Indian Cinema in 1997.
His son Prabhu went on to become a major Tamil filmstar in the 1980s and 1990s although Sivaji wanted him to join the Police Force.
Mostly retired and plagued by ill-health through the last few years, Sivaji took each day as it came. To quote him...
"I don't worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow's problems are for another day."Sivaji passed away in a hospital in Chennai on July 21, 2001 following a prolonged heart ailment.