It was the evening before my wedding. The day’s events having concluded, members of both families were chatting amidst much music making. An uncle of mine who was a great old movie buff and wonderful singer launched into a Gemini Ganesan number when an aunt of my wife-to-be casually remarked that the star was related to the family and would be attending the wedding the next morning. This was in 1993 by when Gemini’s career on the big screen was long over but it did send a frisson of excitement among many in my family.
The next day Gemini made a grand appearance. He was of course a star and knew what mattered the most – “Photographer! Where is the photographer?” he asked. The man immediately made his appearance and Gemini posed beaming, standing between my wife and me, one arm on each of our shoulders. That done he got off stage only to find someone had stolen his footwear. No doubt the culprit was a fan, and the star went home barefoot.
Gemini had a great fondness for my wife’s grandfather R Narayanaswami Iyer, who was his uncle once removed. A senior civil service officer posted in Delhi for much of his career, he was in many ways a mentor to Gemini, particularly in his early years. Later, Gemini would acknowledge this in a TV interview. He would therefore often drop in at my in-laws’ home in Royapettah to call on his uncle. I was present only on one such occasion but what struck me was the way he kept all of us in splits with reminiscences of his career. And during much of that session, he sat on the floor, with his legs tucked under him. When he got up to leave, he literally sprang up. A lifelong practitioner of yoga, he was remarkably supple even though he had put on much weight.
Gemini was in many ways out of the ordinary when compared to most others in the film industry of his time. He was firstly a graduate and even today, the marble slab announcing his name outside his residence states Gemini Ganesh, BSc. He made sure that his four daughters from his first wife all became highly qualified. Very few actors and actresses of his time had schooling, leave alone college education. He was very well read, could play a variety of sports and was a fine oarsman as well – this last talent of his being often on display at Kodaikanal where he owned a beautiful bungalow. That brings to mind another facet of his – unlike many of his peers he ensured that the money he made in films was well invested in real estate and that kept him financially secure till the end. There was yet another aspect to him – he was remarkably open about his liaisons with women at a time when most other actors kept such matters under wraps.
In my library there are a few books that I particularly enjoy reading again, and again. One of these is Vazhkaipadagu – Gemini Ganesanin Vazhkai Varalaru – as told by him to Jayasri Viswanath. He made sure to send my father-in-law N Krishnan a signed copy. It is a biography with a difference, for he makes no bones about his life – his achievements, struggles and his many women. What makes the book even better is that the second half is a series of frank articles written by his wife TR Alamelu aka Babji and all his children, and that includes those from Pushpavalli (yes, Rekha has written) and Savitri as well. It takes a certain large-heartedness to put all of that into print as part of one’s biography.
As an actor Gemini may not have been on par with Sivaji Ganesan and MGR but he held his own as one among the big three. And that brings to mind another essential feature of his success – he did not allow his ego to demand only prime roles. There were many films in which Gemini played second fiddle – Veera Pandiya Kattabomman is one, and so is KaviyaThalaivi but he still made a mark. One among his last films was Avvai Shanmugi and it had so many insider jokes at his expense and yet he gamely acted in it. “You look nice in pyjamas,” says Kamal Hasan to him. “At one time I used to wear pyjamas quite a bit,” says Gemini. Old movie buffs will recall several films of his where he would wear loose pyjamas. It was the subject of a joke much earlier, in Iru Kodugal. That was just one of many such wisecracks and yet Gemini did not mind. In fact, he appeared to be enjoying it all. Perhaps his yoga had taught him to adapt well to changing times and see the lighter side of things.
This article appeared in The Hindu dated Nov 20, 2020