Sivaji and the art of Nine Rasas

How does one define who a true actor is on screen? For an admittedly cinema crazy society, I think I can pass that question to start this post without sounding odd. Yours truly happened to be tagged in a tweet yesterday saying Nagesh was a better actor than Sivaji by a good friend. Being a Sivaji fan, I had to register due disagreements. It soon turned into a conversation with one other friend and I promised to clarify why I thought “Sivaji is the greatest actor Tamil (arguably Indian) screen has seen is an objective truth” and not simply a fanboi-chest-beating-routine we associate with almost every actor under the sun these days.

Coming back to my question, knowledgeable people in cinema have defined acting to fall primarily in 2 categories. One is the Stanislovski School of method acting where the actor immerses in a character and reflects it by living as the character. Marlon Brando, Dustin Hoffman and Mammooty and Kamal Hassan in India are fine examples of method acting. The other school is studying a character from outside and acting its life spontaneously. There are instances of the 2 schools crossing paths when Laurence Olivier is said to have famously remarked to director John Schlesinger in the sets of Marathon Man, upon seeing a starving Hoffman trying to get into the shoes of a prisoner in a dungeon, “Hasn’t the boy ever heard of acting?” I approve. While the former school is appreciable, the latter seems to get to my undivided admiration. I would categorize Sivaji and Nagesh as falling in the latter school. There are tales of Nagesh studying a madcap outside the Kabali Temple (?) in Mylapore and reflecting it for Dharami’s அங்கலாய்ப்பு in Thiruvilayadal. A truly great actor. But greater than Sivaji? The points that get laid in favor of Nagesh are his subtle genius and the fact that he is far better at comedy and dancing compared to Sivaji. While I am duty bound to point out that a comedian is supposed to be better than others at comedy, I was also asked a rather pertinent question about how Sivaji has overdone the Navarasas while Nagesh can be said to have unquestionably aced most of them without any real effort. While the point about Nagesh being an effortless, versatile actor is true and I must confess to being a big admirer of Nagesh, the question prompted me to declare “I shall twitlong the Navarasas of Sivaji to emphatically prove my point.” That shall be the goal of this post. If you are not turned off yet after realizing I am yet to start my post, congratulations. Read on.

Speaking of Navarasas, I have decided to bravely stay away from Navarathri despite the fact that the film is essentially a study of emotions and the fact that Sivaji brilliantly aces a therukkoothu. A streetplay artiste is taught to shout to reach the audience, for streetplay does not allow a mic, and sing and present the play. Acting unfortunately does not figure high up in his priorities. He will have exaggerated body movements. If we take a look at the koothu in Navarathri, neither Sivaji nor Savithri express their eyes (Savithri’s haiyo at 2 and half minutes is ROFL). So much for being the respective Nadigar and Nadigayar Thilagams. As an aside, it does show that they have superbly understood the character within the character (for this is an episode from the film where the actors play actors).

I shall jog along to bring up the facet of romance/love, an essential rasa to express for any actor worth his salt. I was reminded of an excellent post by @complicateur where he takes up the case of Kannile Iruppadhenna from Ambikapathi where the hero is separated from his love and sings along, for he is a poet by birth, in sorrow. As he sings and starts describing his love, he is reminded of his lover and he becomes happy in her thoughts. In under a couple of minutes, the actor is able to transfer his face from sorrow to happiness and in doing so, reminds us of the fact that he is thinking of his lover. How many actors can reflect such a subtle emotion of actually being in love without spelling it out, I don’t know. So much for having an overacting label too.

While this is more of viraha thaabam than actually romancing the heroine, he has shown us he is capable of making us love even a portrait. Chithiram pesudhadi is a beautiful song. The actor does not see his lover but sings to her portrait he is drawing. The free strokes from Sivaji on her hair, தல முடிய கோதிவிடராப்போல, for the want of a better English word, with a body language that brings all the Sringaram, is a delight, especially where he fondles her lips. Subtle, underplayed and classy.

Moving on, rage, when portrayed by great actors can be rousing. Being an admirer of Godfather I and II, one feels immensely smug that Sivaji, 4 years before Coppola started making those classics, reflected a rather iconic scene of Al Pacino slapping Kay Adams in Uyarndha Manidhan in his own inimitable way. You might be turned off by “owner of seven mills, a hundred staffs and fifty thousand acres of fertile land”. But then, a guy slowly exploding has to burst somewhere and it happens there. Apart from questioning the larger point of their existence, brushing aside Sowcar Janaki with arrogance and finally morphing into a beast, the man lets it rip and makes Sowcar, a competent actor herself, look like a novice. He has also portrayed different aspects of rage with the instance above being domestic rage (?). As Samrat Ashoka in Annaiyin AaNai, you can see a sadistic rage in the eyes.


The man cannot be told to have made people laugh like Nagesh, for Nagesh was a class comedian. However, since I will only stick to Sivaji and his genius, I shall not compare him anywhere with Nagesh but just bring out a funny scene with the credits shared with Balayya. In ThiruviLayAdal, as the wood cutter/seller/Lord Shiva rolled into one, the conversation he has with Balayya after Paattum Naane is such a joy. His look of bewilderment and confusion as Balayya speaks chaste Tamil (supposedly faux for he is the Lord) is LOL. And he gets the Madurai accent topped with pEyureega and movaraiyula. Now who the heck knows how people spoke in Madurai 2000 years back? A classic case of an actor bringing his element of interpretation to a rustic character in a period film. Genius. (Unrelated, but the Kalyani that plays in the background as Balayya feels remorse is soul stirring. Also the scene itself is an understated Meta as Balayya falls at the woodcutter’s feet and is stopped by him. And he is the Lord!)

An actor is also marked by his versatility and needless to say, Sivaji excels. My most favorite portrayal of Sivaji’s is Andha Naal. A subdued, underplayed, villainous role. He had done such brilliant roles very early in his career after Parasakthi, Thirumbi Paar where he is a leach who buys a girl without knowing she is his sister and Andha Naal where he is a traitor, being the earliest. The look of horror on his face comes thrice in the climax. First on seeing the radio system broken, next on seeing Pandari Bai with the gun (with admiration and amazement, another rasa as a matter of fact), trying to speak his way through with opportunism in the eyes as she loses her grip, and finally back to horror due to pain upon being shot. Pure, underplayed class!

When we speak of Sivaji it is hard to not bring Thevar Magan into picture. That scene between Sivaji and Kamal in the rain is celebrated, not without reason. Be it Periya Thevar’s disgust (another of the rasas) at his son’s cowardice, asking Sakthi to do his duty or catching his shirt in anger and Sakthi’s subsequent shock and surprise indicating his soft upbringing of a guy never used to being yelled at, as Thevar follows with “thAyillAdha puLLanu ooti ooti vaLathEnE”, Sivaji is right up there. But in the beginning when Periya Thevar asks his son, “kOvil kumbudathAnnu pEsuneeyaLE, ippa indha oorOda nelama unguLukku purunjudhA?”, Sivaji’s distinct change in tone as he shifts on his couch as he speaks is unmistakable. I presume they only dubbed in the studios in the early 90s. That we often miss such finer nuances covering Sivaji with the mask of overacting is quite sad.

Talk of grace, i.e. KAruNyam, compassion and tragedy, Karnan springs to mind. Anyone one can try the role. But doing what he did requires him. The sardonic look at Krishna, hinting that he might after all know who the old Brahmin is as he gives away his Dharmam, ought to be preserved and shown for grace under tragedy. Talk of bravery and I will illustrate Kandhan Karunai where Sivaji, a star in 1967, played second fiddle to Sivakumar as Veerabahu and his scene with Asokan (Surapadman) is so brilliant that I wonder how we’ve let this pass under the radar. Dialogs are enjoyable, as they are meant to be, but the stance of the man as he ends the scene prophesizing as a giant and he confronts Surapadman is mindblowing genius. To prove I’m not dealing with only hyperboles, he creates his own throne in front of Surapadman and laughs. The next moment, he is seated on the throne and the laugh continues with Sivaji rocking to and fro on the throne to make the laugh seem seamless. Who taught this actor to do that? That is genius.

I am sucker for Kannadasan’s genius so I will leave with one example of Sivaji where he exhibits calmness (Shanta) under duress. Mahakavi Kalidas is the film and KAlathil azhiyAdha is the song, a personal all-time favorite. Sundarambal sings and watch how Sivaji gives many dimensions to calmness in this one song. At around 1 minute, he raises an eyebrow in contemplative calmness to KaLi’s (in the guise of an old woman persuading KaLidasa from going South to an imminent death) sandhanam sEr AgumA? and around 2 and half minutes, the calmness leaks a bit of scorn as though telling the old woman that he knows who she is when she goes deivathin mugam vAdumE to acknowledging calmness at 3 minutes when she touches adhil thAn sarithiram nigazhginradhu and ends with a calmness that admires the old woman’s persistence at aruginil iruppAyadA. Wahwah!

To conclude, I will not hold a candle for Sivaji’s every film for he has done terrible films and overacted terribly in films like Pattakathi Bairavan, Mridanga Chakravarthy and the likes. But to generalize him as a loud, overactor whose performances can be put in a single bucket is a tad harsh. Being subjective, I would say Thiruvilayadal and Veerapandiya Kattabomman are not crude overplays. There is finesse in bombast. The 100 odd classics he has acted in, no other actor can think of doing it with his flair. And there, I rest my case.

PS: Do watch the videos when free. It might help you agree with me.



April 13, 2013 · 5:20 am

7 responses to “Sivaji and the art of Nine Rasas

  1. soyahere

    There is no doubt that he was a genius. There is also no denying that Nagesh was one too. The reason people tend to lean more towards Nagesh is that one does not feel he did overacting – but he did not have to. He was not the hero, not the person who had to live up to some “image”, like Sivaji had to. I am sure people wanted him to walk like the Kandhan Karunai Sivaji even while playing contemporary roles, n he had to comply. That is when it looked awkward. Sivaji’s earlier movies have been some of his best. I think the general opinion that he overacts is because of his later poor, very poor choices. Trisulam and all *pah* He made up for alllll of those mistakes by giving us Thevar Magan. I don’t know whether it is technically called method acting or just acting – I will totally buy it if someone told me he was the real Periya thevar, not just someone acting as Periya Thevar.

  2. A very good pst.
    As you would have realized even as you were done, there is no way one can do justice to the phenomenon that is Sivaji. Whenever I attempt to write I feel incomplete – not having done sufficient justice to his nuance.

    I firstly laud your patience in even considering a ludicrous claim comparing Nagesh! I guess it is good to the extent that it motivated you to write this. Illiteracy is no sin. But when one has tasted only a smidgin of either artist, to thoughtlessly further such a claim is mindboggling.

    In fact to such folks I am not inclined to talk about his ‘good movies’. Let us even take the movies where he is accused of the ‘so called’ overacting (I prefer the word ‘hyperdramatization’ 🙂 ). If acting is about conveying the emotion – just as a practice – can anyone at all execute the alleged hyperdramatic performances, is a question they should ask themselves.

    Subtlety is no universal virtue. Servicing the aesthetic demands of the film is. One is welcome to not engage with the chosen aesthetic of a film’s rhythm because one feels it is dated or whatever. But to draw inferences on the ‘capabilities of the actor’ – a man with three hundred frikking films to his name – based on such a narrow choice of films – is symptomatic of taking one’s own snarkiness too seriously.

    Without even considering that one’s own tastes may be parochial, you will find people saying things like Mudhal mariyAdhai is good because Barathiraja ‘reined him in’.

    What is the fish eating scene? Isn’t it EXACTLY the SAME scene he did in Uyarndha Manidhan when he eats in his driver’s house. Same content: a big man who can’t even eat to taste at home and the sorrow underlining the joy of enjoying a meal. Isn’t he absolutely convincing in UM that he is indeed thoroughly enjoying a meal – it could have been horrible studio food for all we know. Did they even consider that? Did they even bother to watch that?? – before they talk through their hat giving credit to Bharathiraja- who routinely elicits atrocious performances from actors.

    And where did Nagesh come from?? In the celebrated ‘Dharumi’ sequence – which whoever put forward the opinion hopefully liked – check out Sivaji in his duel with APN’s Nakkeerar. He is just rightfully indignant when questioned and piles questions like: do even higher caste women not have fragrant hair

    Nakkeeran says: even the consort of the Lord I worship daily does not.

    Till then it is generic, but the above line is about his own wife and that is what tips SivaperumAn over – you can observe him doing a ‘take’ when the line is uttered – unfortunately much more subtle than Nagesh’s famous and obvious ‘double take’.

    And who is ‘subtle’ again?

    My intention is not to diss Nagesh – the double take ‘needs’ to be pronounced and exaggerated for comic effect – but look at what the proponents of subtlety would have missed.

    pudhu varusham adhuvumA kaduppAyittAn. I wish myself your patience this year.

    Once again: good take, will check the videos later. Many are my favourites deserving elaborations.

    • that double take aspect – spot on – and folks – one more gram of weight taken from nagesh and placed in sivaji’s scale – nagesh was 90% of the times channeling jerry lewis for most of the characters – most of the characters were “jerry lewis” standup shows rendered in thamizh. So there was no problems for him to hop between sets and turn the performance on every single time. Sivaji on the other hand was ‘creating’ one unique persona after the other, one grey shadow to the character on top of another. As dagalti says – take one of the weaker movies of sivaji and observe – I will give an example of “Deepam” – this is not a role any Indian matinee hero would have preferred – An orphan adopted by a black marketeer/smuggler who happens to meet his biological brother(vijaykumar) who wins the heart of his lady love(sujatha) – In between som irritating scenes – you see sivaji bring out the disappointment, happiness and helplessness out so subtly – Even in the scenes where the director has given marching directions to “hyperdramatize”(like sivaji grabbing the gun to set out to finish the man whom his “lover” likes) or the scene where he gets insulted by Sujatha for asking her hand and sujatha being his peon’s daughter – These are real human emotions and inspite of the ‘loudness’ of the rendering, the emotions are so clearly legible, empathy invoking. Contrast this with today’s movies where an expression has to be mixed with a symbolic shot to convey the meaning – where an expression from the actor alone is sufficient if he/she was 10% as capable of Sivaji..

  3. This is a case that cant be even committed to sessions – not because nagesh is inferior – just because sivaji is an actor who knew all kinds of acting – not just the contemporary – but the entire thing that acting is – before disagreeing with a few points in the post, it is my duty to bring forward two more examples of sivaji’s coolness – casual and nonchalance when it comes to slipping one right in – toungue in cheek from thevar mayan – scene where he scrutinizes gowthami and subsequent appraisal of kamal’s proposal – “mudivu panna solreeyala illa thagaval solreeyaLa?” and that sly villainous poke at his pet son – very apt and spoken very much with taste and refinement – need of that scene – and the panchayat scene opening when he makes his case where he alludes to attempts on his life by his brother and the way he shuts nasser (maayan) up ‘naan pesittu rukkenlla – nee chinnappaya nakonnum theriyaadhu peyaama rukkanum’ – same nonchalance – definitely picked up by observing someone but sivaji stamp – completely present. Then the post panchayat scene when he is beyond control – blurts out ‘indha idhumbaangaLe’ to his son – a tail from an earlier conversation – i dont know if you can bring it upon yourself by simply observing and acting it out – it comes from a compartment in that lion’s brain that processes dishonor – it comes out of re-living it and that is why only he is visible in that scene – a sun shining bright – dazzling and robbing the observer of their sense of rationale, their bearings – that special moment and quality is what is sivaji – nagesh is capable – no doubt at doing the former – but the latter – that is impossible to match – though he has come so so close to scaling that peak with his heartbreaking performance in that day after the police station episode in nammavar. To sum up he can do the method acting or the observe-create a mental template and act on turn of switch – but he is wise enough to know when to shift to which gear. Some of the celebrated method actors cannot do that – case in point – my favourite deniro comes across as his pale shadow in king of comedy before a much subdued jerry lewis. that is why Sivaji is one of his kind – a sivaji.

    • Thanks for the comment. Excellent points you make wrt Thevar Magan. //not because nagesh is inferior – just because sivaji is an actor who knew all kinds of acting// was exactly the point I wanted to make. Just thought I’d indulge myself in him 🙂 Regarding method and switching on and off from method to spontaneity, I must agree but knowing Sivaji, I wouldn’t be surprised if he processes everything in his brain. A guy who give 2 dimensions to Kattabomman’s scene with Jackson Dorai but knew what to use on screen, pretty much owns the landscape of acting. Like @dagalti says, phenomenon!

  4. On reading the post and the comments here, I was first filled with awe than anything else: that there are people with similar thoughts and conclusions. While I hold Ganesan and De Niro as my top two favorite actors in the world, I have also been aware that the former’s talent is an ingrained one compared to the acquired skills of method acting in the case of the latter. I am happy that later day technologies like YouTube help us revisit and realize the genius of Sivaji. For instance, in “Vasantha Maligai” (a movie otherwise filled with its share of hyperdramatizational scenes) watch the first few seconds of “Irandu manam vendum” before the song starts (but after the monologue ends with “enna seyven”) as he rolls his legs and is in a sitting posture as the music for the song starts: His abdomen vibrates — that too in unison with the drums! See in slow motion if you can’t notice it. I don’t know if there is any director in the world who would ask of such reaction from his actor. Even if there is one, I doubt there is an actor who would/could train and emote this way consciously.


    Excellent article. I feel that he Is the greatest actor in the world

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