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.