Kadhal Mannan wouldn’t ring too loud a bell for the average north Indian, for whom pre-Roja Tamil cinema could just as well be in a galaxy far-far away, much farther than Hollywood. On the other side of the Vindhyas, though, it was a huge deal. That epithet, meaning the King of Romance, was bestowed on Gemini Ganesan as he acted in several box office hits between 1950 and 1979. In most of those, he played the good-looking, charming hero, wooing and winning the prettiest of girls — somewhat akin to a Raj or Rahul of the Mumbai Hindi films.
The star system of Tamil cinema in many ways mirrored the hierarchy in Mumbai for more than two decades after Independence. Hindi films saw Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand dominate the scene and carve out their own identities on screen. In Tamil cinema, too, a triumvirate ruled. Its three biggest stars were M G Ramachandran and the two Ganesans: Shivaji and Gemini. Interestingly, neither of the Ganesans was named Shivaji or Gemini. The first, actually, was V C Ganesan. He came to be known as Shivaji after his popular portrayal of the Maratha warrior king. The second, R Ganesan, came to be known as Gemini for his early association with Gemini Studios.
The Hindi triumvirate, for the large part, minded its own business, focusing largely on films and women. Their reel romances did spill over into real life, but their dalliances with women were kept under wraps as much as possible. Raj Kapur and Nargis were a pair but not overtly so. Dev Anand, once turned down by Suraiya’s family, married Kalpana. A similar, though perhaps more heartbreaking, story was Dilip Kumar’s. Unable to marry Madhubala, he settled for Saira Banu.
The Tamil triumvirate, too, had distinct identities. MGR was the swashbuckling hero, swinging from forts to save damsels in distress, and improving the lot of the poor. Shivaji Ganesan excelled at histrionics, delivering long and difficult dialogues; he came to be known as Nadigar Thilagam or the Great Actor. Both of these freely expressed their political leanings and beliefs. MGR went on to become a formidable chief minister.
But Gemini… . Gemini was different. He was the Kadhal Mannan. He started off teaching chemistry at Madras Christian College. In later life, he told his daughters that the two greatest professionals were doctors, whose patients never forgot them, and teachers, who were always remembered by their students. But when it came to his own career, he left teaching to become a production executive in Gemini Studios and, in time, switched to acting. Making his acting debut in Miss Malini (1947), he did not get much notice in the first few films. Ironically, it was a negative role in Thai Ullam (1953) that put him in the limelight. He was upgraded to playing the lead in Manampol Mangalyam (1955), whose success carved out for him the image of the romantic hero, one that served him well until he graduated to playing the father or elder brother. But the father roles came much later. Well into the mid-50s, he was still playing the romantic hero. In fact, arguably the most memorable film of his career, Naan Avanillai happened when he was 54. In it he played nine roles as a philanderer who changed his identity to lure pretty women.
He invariably got the women; all of them succumbed to him. And the romances did not end when the director called “cut”. Of the women he romanced off-screen, he had children with Savithri, whom he also married, and Pushpavalli. Pushpavalli — this will ring a loud bell in the north — was the mother of Rekha, the Hindi film star.
But Savithri and Pushpavalli were secondary to the other family Ganesan had with Bobjima, whom he married at a very young age. They had four daughters. The third, Narayani, a journalist, has written this book some five years after Ganesan, lovingly referred to as Appa throughout this work, died at 84.
This book, as the author admits, is by no means a faithful documentation of Ganesan as an actor, nor is it an appraisal of his films. What she does not admit is that it is not even an appraisal of the man. But that is OK. This is a daughter’s account of a man who was a father but, more than that, a big movie star. The most striking thing is the empathy, affection and understanding with which the author writes about her father’s many misdemeanours — that is the word used frequently to describe his extramarital affairs and his descent into drinking. Misdemeanours!
That is surprising, coming from a girl who, as a 10-year-old, was asked by a schoolmate why she and her sister travelled in different cars. Narayani was puzzled. Her two elder sisters had finished school and the one younger to her was still a baby. The girl took Narayani by the hand and introduce her to another girl who said her name was Bhanurekha. “What is your father’s name,” asked Narayani. The reply puzzled her: “Gemini Ganesan.” Despite the unusual situation, Narayani could not help noticing that Rekha was pretty and her eyes were lined with mascara.
My Father, Gemini Ganesan