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Sivaji Ganesan exuded charisma on screen and at home too. Ably supporting him through his career was his wife, Kamalamma. SABITA RADHAKRISHNA shares a few treasured memories...

AS A star-struck teenager, Sivaji Ganesan was the only actor I wanted to meet, having seen most of his films. His incredible acting talent, grasp of characterisation, mobility of expression, inimitable rendering of dialogue and charisma, will go down in history as the hallmark of one of the greatest actors India has produced.

I remember him particularly as the hapless hero enmeshed in the cross-fire of affection in "Mangayar Thilakam", the tragedy- struck son in "Ethirparathathu", the accomplished nadaswaram player in "Thillana Mohanambal," the ageing hero in "Mudhal Mariyadai," lead actor in innumerable historical and mythological films and a countless others. Such sterling performances left one undecided as to which film was his magnum opus. Diehard critics felt his rhetoric was loud and dramatic, but the rest of us believed he was an actor of his times and it was difficult to remain unmoved through any of his films. I remember him during one of his recordings at the Madras Doordarshan when he was asked to enact a scene from the film on the Mahratta chief, Shivaji. It was done in one take, in one breath so to speak, such that it left us breathless.

My friend Usha, promised an introduction to Sivaji Ganesan, as their families were closely knit by friendship. Sivaji and his wife Kamalamma, warmly received us into their home as friends. Sundays would always be the best day to visit them and we could not escape the afternoon meal. The table groaned with delicacies - pepper chops, jumbo prawns or large slices of fish and biriyani. We sat with Sivaji at the table and 'pigged out' for he would raise his eyebrows in disapproval if we picked at the food, and was disappointed at our vegetarian tendencies. My idol did not have clay feet. He came across as a warm, caring person solicitous of your comfort. He enjoyed talking to you, if you wished to listen. When we did meet, for the first time, I was nervous, wondering how I would converse with him in my poor Tamil. But I did, and after several meetings and visits to his home, he would tease me about my language ("shocking to say the least, when Tamil is your mother tongue!") He had a delightful sense of humour and imitated the modern TV anchor girls, who had their own brand of Tamil and diction.

Many years ago, when I was working on a script for Madras Doordarshan, I needed to visit the place and possibly stay there overnight. Usha, who agreed to come with me, suggested that we stay at Sivaji's place. I almost fainted. I could not take the liberty and, more so, there were four of us. When Usha checked with Kamalamma and told me that they had extended their welcome, I went along, though it was with a sense of trepidation and much hesitation. Our train arrived in the early hours of the morning and we thought we would creep inside without disturbing the household. Sivaji was lying on a cot outside, enjoying the coolness of the new day and welcomed us in his usual style. It was as if he was just a family friend, whose hospitality we enjoyed and it was difficult to believe that a celebrity like him had no airs or hang-ups. I requested him time for an interview after I returned from work. "Sure, sure, Mudaliaramma," he said, you can take all day!"

This article is actually dedicated to the wonderful woman, Kamalamma, who has been friend, companion and wife to the actor. Her name was frequently on his lips and she answered without any hesitation, however trivial the reason might have been. It might be to tend to his guests or arrange for the milk or to plan the programme for the day. Her perpetual smile, her big pottu and untiring energy are a big part of my memories. At their home in Madras, she would serve us and "us" would be at least 10-15 guests. She bustled, serving the guests herself, wiping the perspiration between frequent trips to the kitchen, but still carrying on, with a smile that radiated from her heart. Her daughter-in-law Baby was getting cast in the same mould and these two gracious women would eat at 3.30 p.m. in the true tradition of the Indian woman of yesteryear after the last guest had eaten. We suspected this was probably the order of the day, every single day.

Sivaji was such an awesome figure that however much he put you at ease you did not let your hair down with him. With Kamalamma, you could laugh and joke, and recount anecdotes. I remember asking her if film gossip did not worry her all these years. "When your husband is a film star and is literally worshipped by so many people, you have to face the inevitable. You have to trust your husband and brush gossip aside, closing your eyes to things which do not really matter in the larger context of life. Besides, my husband has not done anything to provide grist to the gossip mill... "A woman who is willing to walk in the shadow of a colossus is rare in today's world. A woman so supportive, and loving, and to whom being there for the family was of paramount importance - that describes Kamalamma.

Sivaji on Kamalamma: "One has to exercise tremendous will power and control, because you act in close proximity with a number of beautiful women. That is why it is necessary for every actor to have an understanding, considerate wife, who is also pleasant- looking! Our tensions are enormous, but you think of the wonderful woman waiting for you at home, someone loving and caring, that you do not feel like indulging yourself in petty, meaningless relationships. Kamalamma is and always has been my anchor, my counsel and support. every actor has not been as lucky as I have!"

To Sivaji, the family was always important and the extended family was also his responsibility. He gave his unqualified affection to his brothers' family as much as he did to his own children. Dignity and respect were of prime importance and for the gauravam the family members were expected to toe the line... woe to them when and if they strayed.

On awards, and not getting his rightful due: "What are awards, they are just souvenirs of appreciation, and don't I get them from my fans?"

On present day acting: "Kamal Hassan is the finest actor we have today and deserves all the accolades he has received. The present-day actors do not work hard, at least most of them don't. In our days we had such intensive training and rarely used doubles. Any person is selected for a "suitable" role. Anyway they are actors of their times and in their own way give performances the director demands."

On retiring from films: "Though I have slowed down, I will never retire. I will die with my grease paint on."

And that's what he did, almost...

I have not had the courage yet to visit Kamalamma after her bereavement. I can commiserate with her in her pain, her immeasurable grief and insecurity. Having been the pivot of Sivaji Ganesan's existence, especially in the autumnal years, God give her strength to continue being a pillar of strength to her family to whom she has become doubly precious.

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