Gemini Ganesan: King of romance and life

Gemini Ganesan: King of romance and life

Despite being polyamorous, Gemini Ganesan's charm and integrity surely make him the true King of Romance.

The Tamil title ‘Kadhal Mannan’ (king of romance) is sure to evoke varied reactions from different people. For the  youth of today, it would refer to the 1998 film Kadhal Mannan starring Ajith. Those above 40 will definitely recall one man who was known to be the ladies’ man in his reel life as well as real life in an age when romance on screen had severe limitations — the late...

The Tamil title ‘Kadhal Mannan’ (king of romance) is sure to evoke varied reactions from different people. For the  youth of today, it would refer to the 1998 film Kadhal Mannan starring Ajith. Those above 40 will definitely recall one man who was known to be the ladies’ man in his reel life as well as real life in an age when romance on screen had severe limitations — the late Gemini Ganesan.

Styled like Hollywood’s Humphrey Bogart, Ganesan, the first graduate to become a star, etched out a name for himself amid stalwarts like MG Ramachandran (MGR) and Sivaji Ganesan way back in 1950s. That MGR did action-packed social roles and Sivaji Ganesan stuck to drama, only helped him define his space.

But observers attribute his romantic nature to his chocolate boy looks and a charm that swayed women like a Gene Kelly. That this charm continues to work through his films speaks much about him.

Only actor Sivakumar (actor Suriya’s father) is said to retain such charm much after his prime time. Interestingly, these two actors had well built physique and practised yoga. And the two were quite well read too, Ganesan being the first graduate to be a film star in Kollywood.

In an article with The Hindu (Tamil) recently, Sivakumar recalled that once when the two actors travelled together to Mysore for shooting in the 1970s, Ganesan warned him to be careful with women.

Surprised at such a diktat coming from a man known to be ‘Kadhal Mannan’, Sivakumar responded teasingly: “Uncle… You can be a Krishna surrounded by Gopikas. But I should maintain distance with women? This is injustice.”

To this, Ganesan said: “It’s not like that, my boy. I am the only one who is a graduate among the big heroes today. I keep reading world histories even now. Under the sun, I know many things. But when it comes to women, God has given me a weakness. So I don’t want you to get entangled in this weakness.”

Sivakumar seems to have followed this advice and has been married to only one woman, Lakshmi Kumari, all his life, whereas Gemini Ganesan had at least four spouses till his death in 2005.

Revolutionary distinction 

For a distinct actor like him who liked to take on challenges, it may not be surprising that he came from a family that was revolutionary of sorts.

Before entering into the film industry, he was a Chemistry lecturer at Madras Christian College (MCC). Having trained himself in playing flute, veena and mridangam gave him an extra edge with music in films. He even surprised Bollywood superstar Raaj Kumar with his cricketing skills during a star cricket competition. He showed off his multi linguistic talents in seven languages in Naan Avanillai (1974) in which he played nine characters.

A still from Miss Malini

Born as Ganapathi Subramaniya Sharma 1920 to Ramaswamy Iyer and Gangamma in Pudukkottai, his pet name Ganesan stuck to him for life.

Ganesan’s grandfather S Narayanaswamy Iyer was an advocate who after graduating from Presidency College became a teacher for the King of Pudukkottai. He was instrumental in creating His Highness The Rajah’s College and became its first principal.

After the demise of his first wife in his young age, Narayanaswamy married a woman named Chandramma, from Isai Vellalar community which once practised the Devadasi (women singing and dancing in temples) tradition. The couple gave birth to two children namely Muthulakshmi and Ramaswamy, Ganesan’s father.

Muthulakshmi, Ganesan’s aunt, later became Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy, with many firsts to her name like the first female student in Madras Medical College, the first female House Surgeon appointed in the Government Maternity and Ophthalmic Hospital, Chennai, and the first woman legislator in British India.

Like father Narayanaswamy, Ramaswamy too married a Devadasi woman, inviting the wrath of the Brahmin community who ostracised Ganesan’s family.

Interestingly, DMK patriarch late M Karunanidhi, who was also from Isai Vellalar community, had once said about Gemini Ganesan: “So Gemini Ganesan came to this world with a revolutionary roar. Aren’t Ganesan and I then related to each other?”

After his father’s death when he was 10 years old, Ganesan and his mother moved to his aunt’s house in Madras. Ganesan did schooling in Sri Ramakrishna Students Home, where he was introduced to yoga, music and theatre. While doing graduation in Madras Christian College (MCC), he was an all-rounder and also served as a captain of the college cricket team.

Under the spotlight

After his graduation, Ganesan worked as a Chemistry lecturer in MCC, but he wanted to pursue medicine. But Ganesan’s mother had different plans for him. She arranged his marriage with Alamelu (fondly called Bobji) in June 1940.

Ganesan agreed to the marriage because his father-in-law promised to help him pursue medicine, but that plan never saw the light of the day because his father-in-law passed away a couple of months after the wedding.

Ganesan then took up a job as a camera assistant with cinematographer K Ramnoth in 1946. He, however, wanted to be a filmmaker, but Ramnoth suggested that he would have a bright future in acting and recommended him to be employed as a casting assistant.

As a casting assistant, he interviewed persons such as Sivaji Ganesan, Savithri, K Balachander and Sowcar Janaki, who later became stars in the industry.

In 1947, when MGR was acting in his 15th film Rajakumari and Sivaji Ganesan was yet to enter the industry, Gemini Studios offered Ganesan a cameo role in the film Miss Malini, marking his formal entry into acting. The heroine in the film was the acclaimed Pushpavalli, with whom he went on to have an extra-marital relationship. The film was a flop but he continued to play cameo roles.

Gemini Ganesan with VK Ranga Rao, a character actor

His big break as an actor came in his sixth film Thai Ullam (1952) directed by Ramnoth in which he played a handsome villain, as against the trend of having not so good looking villains.

Despite his power as a crowd puller, Gemini Studios continued to give him supporting roles in Moondru Pillaigal (1952) and Avvaiyar (August 1953). It was in November 1953 that he became a lead actor — in a double role — in Manam Pola Mangalyam opposite Savithri, who would become his second wife later.

Although he did not get many lead roles thereafter, he had recognisable characters in films like Penn (1954), Missiamma, Maman Magal, Kanavaney Kankanda Deivam and Guna Sundari (all in 1955).

Between 1947 and 1955, he acted in 17 films bearing his name as ‘R Ganesh’. It was in Pennin Perumai that Ganesan was officially baptised as ‘Gemini’ Ganesan. It was also the first film in which he acted with Sivaji Ganesan, with whom he had a longer professional association.

Treading the middle path

When Gemini Ganesan’s Vanjikottai Vaaliban (1958) hit the theatres, Sivaji Ganesan had just entered the film industry and started carving a niche for himself in drama films. On the other side, MGR acted in action-oriented films that brought about  social justice.

While Gemini Ganesan gave varied performances, he was noted and preferred for his romantic roles. That was a time when filmmakers such as CV Sridhar, Bhim Singh, KS Gopalakrishnan and K Balachander believed in ‘story value’ over ‘star value’, and naturally, Gemini Ganesan was their first choice. Films such as Kalyana Parisu (1959 – Sridhar’s debut as director), Kalathur Kannamma (1960 – Kamal Hassan’s debut as child artist), Karpagam (1963 – KR Vijaya’s debut film) and Iru Kodugal (1969 – the first film by Balachander which fetched National Award for best feature film) starring him have became classics.

Unlike MGR or Sivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganesan did not come from theatre groups like Boys Company and Bala Gana Sabha respectively, both based in Madurai, or have any background in acting. Despite this, he gave many outstanding performances which were realistic in nature. It is said that his stint as a casting assistant perhaps helped him pick up acting as he used to observe ‘behaviours’ of various individuals.

Gemini Ganesan, known as a person with ‘magnanimous heart’, never gave a second thought when it came to acting in dual-hero films. His association with Sivaji Ganesan has given memorable films like Veerapandiya Kattabomman (1959), Pasamalar (1961) and Paava Mannippu (1961).

Gemini Ganesan with Anjali Devi

Humphrey Bogart of Kollywood

Call it his weakness or as he said in autobiography Vaazhkai Padagu, that he was attracted towards “women in distress”, Ganesan enjoyed a polyamorous relationship in his life.

While he maintained his marriage with his first wife Alamelu (Bobji) till death, he had an association with or married three other women.

The relationship with the heroine in his first film, Pushpavalli of Miss Malini was always under the wraps. He acknowledged his two daughters from the association, the renowned actress Rekha and Radha, who acted in a few Tamil films and later moved to the US, only in his later years.

When filming Manam Pola Mangalyam, he fell in love with Savithri, and although he married her secretly in 1952, he came out in the open about it later and he maintained the relationship till Savithri’s death in 1981. Their relationship is captured well in Savithri’s biopic in Telugu, Mahanati, starring Keerthy Suresh as Savithri and Dulquer Salman as Gemini Ganesan.

In his 70s, Ganesan reportedly married his office assistant Juliana Andrew, which drew a lot of controversy that affected him personally, causing him depression and health issues.

With Bobji, Gemini Ganesan had four daughters, Revathi, Narayani, Jayalakshmi and Kamala Selvaraj. Except Narayani, all others became doctors, thereby fulfilling their father’s dream.

All his relationships have earned him the moniker, Humphrey Bogart of Kollywood. (Bogart, who played the lead character in the 1942 romantic film Casablanca too had a relationship with four women.)

However, Ganesan’s daughter Dr Kamala Selvaraj says he was a  “gentleman” in the film industry. “He never went after any woman. Women came after him,” she said in a television show.

Despite being polyamorous, Gemini Ganesan’s charm and integrity surely make him a gentleman, and perhaps the true King of Romance.

Next Story