Far Away and Long Ago | Observing Bharathiraja, Ilaiyaraaja & Sivaji Ganesan  

Much could be imbibed by simply observing the three unusually dogged and talented men from Madras

Three unusual gentlemen one met in the old days when Chennai was Madras, were exactly that: unusual. And dogged and talented. They were P Bharathiraja, a highly successful and prolific filmmaker, Ilaiyaraaja, then the star composer of film music, and Sivaji Ganesan, a highly dramatic but completely believable actor and a superstar of Tamil cinema. Of the three, I had actually exchanged a few words Bharathiraja and Sivaji Ganesan but none with Ilaiyaraaja (more on that later).

On the first visit to the city in 1978, doing the rounds of production houses, one went to Vasu Studio. The idea was to clinch a deal at a concessional rate purely on grounds of being an impecunious, bungling young documentary filmmaker and an idealist to the boot. One of the important functionaries took us - associate Raj Iyer, just out of Jawaharlal University, Delhi and self - on to the shooting floor where he wanted to introduce us to the ‘’Marlon Brando of Asia’’ - known to the rest of the world as Sivaji Ganesan. The analogy with Brando was inaccurate. Brando, a method actor, was always worried about notions like the motivation that prompted the character he was playing, to action in a particular moment in the film. He had assistants standing just out of camera range with the dialogue written clearly on large boards. He would appear to gaze moodily into the distance, read the dialogue off the boards and mumble them ‘eloquently’. Sivaji Ganesan never indulged in such luxury.

Ilaiyaraaja worked all the time, driven by some inner force; that the money rolled in continuously was incidental. Even today, he remains a village boy from a modest background

That late morning in Vasu Studio, he played a long, complicated, and, complex dialogue scene, which must have lasted for five minutes, with absolute ease. Ganesan was a father who was being accused by his grown-up daughter of neglecting her mother, his wife, and thus being the cause of her death. He did it in a single take with the control of a master, giving the actress playing his daughter full scope to express herself. He then turned to the director (was it K Balachander?) and asked him humbly if the take was alright; upon being told it was, he smiled, relieved. Moments later, he was introduced to Raj, and me and he was all cordiality; as if what he had just done was routine and he had given it his best shot. It was an object lesson in professionalism. He was, most of his life, an ’over-the-top’ actor like James Cagney, but always believable, like his illustrious American colleague. Late in his career, in 1992, he did Thevar Magan, a tale of filial struggles, opposite a gifted ‘modern’ actor called Kamal Haasan. He played the patriarch with tremendous conviction. They had also played together in Sathyam, way back in 1976. Shivaji Ganesan’s acting style blended quite easily with that of his young co-star.

In 1988, while doing the post production of a 54-minute documentary on the noted painter BC Sanyal at Prasad Film Processing Laboratory, one was introduced to Bharathiraja. He looked like a prized fighter. The illusion was enhanced by his fitting white singlet made of netting that accentuated his robust build. He could also have been mistaken for a screen toughie! He was unusually soft-spoken. Bharathiraja had already made a name for himself, having directed well over 20 feature films. He was very involved with social issues, particularly those concerning village life in Tamil Nadu. His films, no doubt melodramatic, had an elemental energy and also a kernel of truth. He had made Muthal Mariyathai (1985), Kadalara Kavithaigal (1986), Aradhana (1987), Vedham Pudhithu (1987) and Jamadagni (1988). His last listed directorial credit is Annakodi (2013), He was 72 then. In retrospect, his films, with all their flaws and virtues, have an unmistakable genuineness.

While waiting for the pronouncements of Mr Shivaraman and Mr Punneyyan at the processing laboratory, one wandered into the sound/music recording theatres. One of them, we (producer Sameera Jain and self) were told, was booked throughout the year for Ilaiyaraaja. We did not know at the time that he was indeed the busiest and the most famous music director in the Tamil film industry. A man of slim built, 40 or so, with very short, cropped hair, in a white dhoti walked in quietly with three or four colleagues. This was Ilaiyaraaja. We were told he lived the life of an ascetic. His most famous disciple, AR Rahman, had not become famous as yet.

Ilaiyaraaja worked all the time, driven by some inner force; that the money rolled in continuously was incidental. Even today, he remains a village boy from a modest background. He learnt to play various instruments from Dhanraj Master, a respected teacher. He acquired a degree in classical guitar and composition courtesy the Trinity College of Music, London. He is the first music director in India who can be called a complete composer. Not only does he compose the melody of the song with the lyrics provided to him, he also does the full orchestral score himself. In this respect, his student AR Rahman is much like him. Ilaiyaraaja, however, has a vast repertoire of melodies – folk and classical, culled from his own Tamil Issai musical heritage and many other parts of the world. He is indeed unique.

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