In writing last week about legendary film actor Tony Ranasinghe, I referred to the comment by Malani Fonseka about Tony being the greatest romantic lover in Sinhala films. The queen of Sinhala cinema who has acted in about 40 films with him said of Tony Ranasinghe “I find him the most romantic lover we’ve had in our films.”
Malani Fonseka’s description of Tony Ranasinghe as most romantic lover of the Sinhala screen will certainly be endorsed by many. However, her comment about Tony struck a chord in my memory about another actor in Tamil cinema who was also regarded widely as the greatest romantic lover. In fact he was dubbed “Kaadhal Mannan,” meaning ‘King of Romantic Love’. I am of course referring to the actor Gemini Ganesan who is no more now. I have written about him earlier when he passed away 10 years ago. I shall rely upon some of these writings as this week’s ‘Spotlight’ focuses upon “Kaadhal Mannan” Gemini Ganesan.
Romantic hero par excellence
Gemini Ganesan has visited Sri Lanka several times and had many good friends in the island. In a career spanning more than five decades Gemini Ganesan made his mark in Tamil films as the romantic hero par excellence. Though he played a number of diverse roles he made his mark as a lover on screen. It was this which earned him the sobriquet “Kaadhal Mannan”.
Interestingly his on-screen and off-screen persona got intertwined in this respect. While the evergreen actor Gemini crooned his way into the hearts of many lovely heroines on screen, the off-screen hero in real life had four wives plus several liaisons with attractive women. He himself admitted to his numerous affairs with other married women to an Indian magazine. When the magazine wanted more details, Gemini declined to elaborate saying, “Gentlemen don’t tell!”
Gemini Ganesan hailed from a Brahmin family. His father was Ramaswami and mother Gengamma. His given name at birth was Ganapathi Subramania Sarma but was generally called Ganesan. Soon he became known as Ramaswami Ganesan or R. Ganesh. In some of the earlier films in which Ramaswami Ganesan acted, the credits show him only as R.G. As his screen career blossomed, the actor became known as “Gemini” Ganesan.
The prefix “Gemini” came into being because prior to acting Ganesan had worked as casting director at the prestigious Gemini studios in Tamil Nadu. By a coincidence his contemporary and namesake Sivaji Ganesan too got the prefix “Sivaji” due to his acting as the Mahratta King in a drama written by former DMK Chief Minister C.N. Annadurai. Soon the Tamil film industry began distinguishing between the two Ganesans by calling one Sivaji and the other Gemini.
Sivaji Ganesan, M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) and Gemini Ganesan comprised the triumvirate that dominated Tamil movies from the fifties to the seventies of the 20th century. Another actor of the time, S.S. Rajendran, strove valiantly to make this trio a quartet but failed. The top thespian trinity of that vintage in Tamil cinema were Sivaji, MGR and Gemini. They ruled the roost in “Kollywood” as the Tamil Nadu film industry is referred to in lighter vein.
Gemini however was the odd man out among the top three. Unlike MGR and Sivaji, he had no professional experience as a stage actor. Both MGR and Sivaji had learnt the ropes as part of the Madurai Boys Company drama group. Unlike them Gemini had tertiary qualifications. He was a BSc graduate from Madras University whereas the others, having taken to the stage in childhood, learnt from the school of life.
MGR and Sivaji encouraged fans associations and participated in political activity but Gemini remained aloof from politics. He even declined a Rajya Sabha MP nomination proposal by former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. While he was always cordial towards fans and friends, he never promoted “Rasikar Mandrangal” (fan associations). This phenomenon continues to this day in Tamil Nadu and other South Indian states with proliferating fans associations dedicated to various film stars.
All the world loves a lover!
While MGR’s on screen hallmark was swashbuckling action sequences and Sivaji that of powerful dialogue delivery, Gemini cooed and wooed his way into many a heart. All the world loves a lover! Gemini was the greatest lover on Tamil silver screen, making hearts flutter. His handsome features, dashing personality, cavalier attitude, soft speech, twinkling eyes and impish humour proved an irresistible combination. Girls blushed as Gemini’s soulful eyes from the screen seemed to penetrate the innermost depths of their hearts.
Though he proved his mettle in many movies with fight scenes and heavy duty dialogue, Gemini was not classed as a fighter or actor in the MGR-Sivaji mould. This softie image led to a nickname “Sambar” or vegetable broth. Gemini was also called Ganesh, Gemini Mama and RG. His real name Ramaswamy Ganesan was soon forgotten.
“Gemini” Ganesan was born on 17 November 1920 into a well-educated middle class Brahmin family in Puthukoattai which was then a principality ruled by a king or “Rajah”. Today Puthukkoattai is part of India and a district in Tamil Nadu state.
After receiving secondary education at Rajahs College, he moved to Chennai for higher studies. Ganesan studied at Madras Christian College and graduated in Science. He worked as a demonstrator in chemistry for a while at his alma mater. Utterly bored with academia, he obtained employment at Gemini Studios run by the mercurial S. Sreenivasan known as S.S. Vasan. Vasan’s father-in-law Ramachandran was Gemini Ganesan’s grand uncle.
He worked as casting director at Gemini. One of his duties was to interview prospective actors and actresses. Among his finds were the famous actors Chandrababu, Ranga Rao, Savithri and Balaji. It was this stint at Gemini Studios that bestowed Ganesan his name Gemini.
His first film role was in ‘Miss Malini,’ a film based on a short story by R.K. Narayan. His name in the credits was RG. Later he played Lord Krishna in ‘Chakradhari’. He came to be noticed as an actor by playing the villain opposite R.S. Manohar in ‘Thai Ullam’. His turning point was as the hero playing dual roles in ‘Manampol Mankalyam’ in 1952.
From then onwards there was no looking back. He has acted in more than 200 films in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada and Hindi. Most films however were in Tamil his mother tongue. Twenty-eight of his Tamil films ran for more than 100 days. Three of them celebrated silver jubilees with each running more than 25 weeks.
Among successful movies that Gemini acted as hero were ‘Kanavane Kan Kanda Theivam,’ ‘Vanjikottai Valiban,’ ‘Kalyanap Parisu,’ ‘Missiyamma,’ ‘Then Nilavu,’ ‘Meenda Sorgam,’ ‘Sumai Thangi,’ ‘Patha Kanikkai,’ ‘Parthiban Kanavu,’ ‘Kairasi,’ ‘Kalathoor Kannamma Konchum Salangai Katpaham,’ ‘Ramu,’ ‘Valkai Padagu,’ ‘Shanthi Nilaiyam,’ ‘Thamarai Nenjam,’ ‘Vellivila,’ ‘Punnagai’ and ‘Naan Avanillai’.
Gemini also acted in several blockbusters with Sivaji Ganesan where he played second lead. Notable among these were ‘Pennin Perumai,’ ‘Veera Pandiya Kattabhomman,’ ‘Kappalottiya Thamilan,’ ‘Pathi Bhakthi,’ ‘Pavamannippu,’ ‘Parthal Pasi Theerum,’ ‘Kandan Karunai,’ ‘Saraswathie Sabatham’ and ‘Unakkaha Naan’.
His only film with MGR was ‘Muharasi’ where he played MGR’s elder brother. Gemini also starred with S.S. Rajendran in ‘Vairakkiyam’. In the film “Kalathoor Kannamma” Kamal Haasan as a child artiste acted as Gemini’s son. Decades later in the film ‘Avvai Sanmugi,’ the aged Gemini played father-in-law to Kamal.
A dedicated actor
Gemini Ganesan was a dedicated actor. He displayed great professional courtesies to his fellow actors. Once the actor S.S. Rajendran (SSR) had been selected to play the part of warrior Vellayadevan in the film ‘Veera Paandiya Kattabomman’. This was well-publicised in the media. Subsequently there was a change and the producers wanted Gemini to act the role. Gemini declined saying it was improper for him to replace SSR. Finally the producers had to get a letter from SSR saying he had no objection to Gemini playing the role and that he welcomed it. It was only then that Gemini consented.
Gemini has acted opposite several leading actresses like Anjali Devi, Pushpavalli, Padmini, Vaijayanthimala, Savithri, Devika, Vijayakumari, Saroja Devi, Vanishree, Rajashree, Kanchana, Bharathi, Jayanthi, K.R. Vijaya and Jayalalitha. His screen chemistry with almost all his heroines was superb.
Some of the love songs Gemini crooned on screen are evergreen numbers. Several playback singers have sung for Gemini but it was A.M. Rajah, P.B. Sreenivas, A.L. Raghavan and S.P. Balasubramaniam whose voices blended most harmoniously with Gemini’s voice on screen.
Gemini was essentially a director’s actor. Unlike some other top actors of the time, Gemini never imposed himself on the director. He was prepared to play any role and willing to be guided by the director when filming. Gemini believed that the director was the captain and adhered to their directives obediently. The directors who brought out his acting abilities out best were Vedantham Ragavaiah, A. Bhimsingh. B.R. Bhanthulu, C.V. Sridhar, K. Shankar, K.S. Gopalakrishnan, K. Balachandar, A.P. Nagarajan, etc.
Some of his roles are unforgettable. The ugly dwarf in ‘Kanavanae Kankanda Theivam’; the valiant military commander Velliathevan in ‘Veera Pandiya Kattabhomman’; the freedom fighter Madasamypillai in ‘Kappalottiya Thamilan’; the burdened family man seeking solace as a Catholic priest in ‘Sumai Thangi,’ the widower with child caught up in a triangular relationship in films like ‘Katpaham,’ ‘Ramu,’ etc., the Nathaswaram player lip synching to perfection on screen the music of maestro Karukurichi Arunasalam in ‘Konchum Salangai,; Vikkarama Cholan in ‘Parthiban Kanavu,’ the warrior Veeramallan in ‘Saraswathy Sabatham,’ Lakshmana in ‘Lava Kusa,’ Lord Siva in ‘Kandan Karunai,’ Lord Krishna in ‘Veera Abhimanyu’ and the devotee to truth in ‘Punnagai’ are some performances lingering in memory.
When the producers of ‘Kanavanae Kankanda Theivam’ were looking for actors to play the lead role, they initially rejected Gemini. This was because the hero in the film is turned into an ugly dwarf due to a curse. The producers felt the handsome debonair Gamini could not play an ugly dwarf. Gemini was disappointed but not for long.
One morning an ugly dwarf entered the producer’s office begging for alms in a pathetic voice. None could make the “beggar” go away. The producers were about to call the Police when the ugly dwarf bent in double straightened up and revealed that he was none other than Gemini Ganesan. He got the role in the film and played it to perfection.
‘Triangular’ love stories
Many of the films in which Gemini acted were ‘triangular’ love stories. In most instances Gemini would play the man between two women. He played those parts with great sensitivity. His magnum opus however was in his own production, ‘Naan Avanillai’ (I am not he), directed by K. Balachandar.
Gemini played seven different roles. The story was about a bigamist posing off as different men in different disguises to different women. It was a case of art imitating life and Gemini was in his element playing all roles. It was a sign of Gemini’s remarkable sense of humour that he chose to film such a story as the only film he has ever produced. Unfortunately it did not click at the box office.
Gemini’s first and only legal wife was Alamelu, fondly called “Bopji”. Gemini married at 19 and had his first child when 22. This did not prevent further marriages done according to Hindu religious rites. One such wife was Pushpavalli with whom he acted in his first film ‘Miss Malini’. Another was the illustrious actress Savithri, with whom he has acted in many films. She was known as Savithri Ganesh. Even as a septuagenarian Gemini made headlines by his marriage to a woman called Julianna who was half his age. He also had a live-in relationship with the actress Rajashree for some years.
Ganesan’s other extramarital liaisons were numerous and added grist to the gossip mills of Kodambakam in Chennai, where most film studios were located at one time. Gemini was no gigolo but a Casanova. He was not a hypocrite and candidly admitted to these affairs saying his life was an open book. Some writers have compared him to Gary Cooper in this respect. His wife Bopji stood by her philandering husband throughout like the typical Indian loyal wife.
She and Gemini have four daughters. Three of them – Revathy, Kamala and Jeya – are medical doctors. A fourth, Narayani, is a journalist on Times of India. Gemini has two daughters by Pushpavalli. The elder is Rekha, the well-known Hindi film actress. The younger Radha also acted in a few Tamil films but then opted for marriage and migration to the USA. Savithri and Gemini have two children. The daughter Vijayasamundeeswari is a physiotherapist. She acted in films as a child artiste, ‘Baby Savithri’. Gemini’s only son Satheesh Kumar is also living abroad.
Despite the fickle love life, Gemini was a shrewd businessman and invested heavily in real estate and property development schemes. He was a good sportsman having captained the college cricket team. He also played tennis, golf and badminton. His other interests were swimming, riding horses, ballroom dancing and reading.
Gemini Ganesan was athletic and kept himself extremely fit. This helped him greatly in his career. He would do most of the action scenes himself and not depend on a stunt double.
An interesting incident occurred when the film ‘Missiammah’ was shot simultaneously in Tamil and Telugu. Gemini Ganesan in Tamil and N.T. Ramarao (NTR) in Telugu were the lead actors. There was a sequence in the film where the hero had to jump from a balcony. Gemini refused to let a stunt actor double for him and did the act himself. Funnily enough Gemini had to jump off the balcony again in place of NTR when the Telugu film scene was shot.
End of an era
The MGR-Sivaji-Gemini period at its best was the golden age of Tamil cinema. Gemini Ganesan, the last of that trio, breathed his last in 2005. The one-time heartthrob of Tamil cinema passed away peacefully in his sleep on 22 March at his residence in Nungambakkam, Chennai. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha Jayaram who has acted opposite Gemini in some films was the State’s Chief Minister then also. She remarked then that the death of Gemini Ganesan was “an end of an era in Tamil cinema”.
Many actors have romanced their heroines on screen in the past and no doubt will do so in the future. The “Romantic King” crown of Tamil cinema however belonged to Gemini Ganesan and all other aspirants to it are only pretenders to the throne. He was and will be forever the “Kaadhal Mannan” of Tamil cinema just as MGR was the “Puratchi Nadigar” (Revolutionary Actor) and Sivaji its “Nadigar Thilakam” (Doyen of Actors).
I would like to conclude on a personal note. I was briefly a student at Madras Christian College (MCC), the institution from where Gemini Ganesan graduated. In 1974, three of us all MCC students cut college and went to see him at his residence. We had seen his film ‘Naan Avanillai’ and felt the urge to meet him in person.
Gemini was rather surprised when we turned up but was most gracious. He chatted with us for nearly three hours on a number of topics including his films and his days at MCC. He was a wonderful conversationalist with a great sense of humour.
At the end of it all, Gemini admonished us gently for playing truant from college and coming to see him. He said he had received us only because we were students at MCC and advised us to concentrate on our studies and not get distracted by sideshows. Finally Gemini Ganesan bade farewell after instructing his driver to drop us at the nearby station to take the electric train to Tambaram where MCC was located.
The last time I saw him in the flesh was in 1978. He along with actress Rajshree participated as chief guests at a cultural event held at the Sugathadasa Stadium in Colombo. I vividly remember Gemini effortlessly striding and leaping on to the stage without mounting the steps. Gemini Ganesan was 58 at that time.
(D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)