The year was 1962. The studio system in Hollywood was in a shambles — the impact of American television had caused a major blow to the motion picture. The industry, in fact, was warming up to the Hollywood Renaissance, popularly known as the ‘New Hollywood’ — a movement that would begin five years later with Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, a movie set to be widely-debated. It was during this period that Sivaji Ganesan arrived in Los Angeles for a two-month tour at the invitation of Screen Actors’ Guild in Hollywood on behalf of the American Embassy. Accompanied by Dennis H Kux, the then-American Consul in Madras, he was given a rousing reception.
A walk to remember
During his stay, Sivaji Ganesan visited famous studios such as Columbia Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers and Universal Studios. The latter was where actor Marlon Brando was filming The Ugly American, which released in 1963. Sivaji and Kux visited the set on a day when Brando was rehearsing the sequence where his character, Ambassador Harrison MacWhite, meets his friend-turned-communist rebel Deong (Eiji Okada) upon his arrival in Thailand, where the movie was set. After exchanging pleasantries, Kux introduced Sivaji to Brando as “one of the great actors from India”.
“Oh, I have heard of Mr. See-va-gee. Aren’t you called the Marlon Brando of Indian cinema?” Brando winked. The jibe had the right amount of snark to touch a nerve. Sivaji did not react and maintained his composure.
He shot back with a simple: “I am fine being referred to as Marlon Brando, as long as you are known as the Sivaji Ganesan of Hollywood.” That escalated quickly, wondered Kux, who, by now, was sweating profusely. Nobody messed with Nadigar Thilagam, even if it were The Godfather. There was an awkward silence. Tension was building, but both men burst out laughing — as if they had known each other for years.
SIVAJI GANESAN POSING FOR A SNAP WITH HOLLYWOOD ACTORS, WHEN HE VISITED THERE. STANDING FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: JIM GARNER, JACK LEMMON, CHARLTON HESTON. SITTING FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: GEORGE CHANDLER, SIVAJI GANESAN, WALTER PIDGEON.
The usually reticent Brando shed his image that day and spoke in great spirit. The duo discussed work, the lack of appreciation for genuine efforts and what was ailing cinema, globally. Work consumed Brando, who was known for his stress-related ailments. He wondered out loud about his forthcoming big-budget Mutiny on the Bounty, and asked how Sivaji handled the box-office pressure. “I never gave a thought about it. In fact, when I get home, I have close to nine releases this year,” Sivaji laughed.
“Nine? That’s like half of what I’ve done so far. But how is life outside of work? Do you get your space?” he said.
“Of course, Mr. Brando. I realised one thing — that a man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man,” replied Sivaji.
They exchanged smiles and promised to stay in touch, before heading out for lunch.
Disclaimer: The above conversation between Sivaji Ganesan and Marlon Brando never happened. Call it fanfiction, but this is how I pictured their ‘legendary’ meeting in my head.
Nothing but the truth
In a report published by The Hindu in July 1962 shortly after his return to India, Sivaji Ganesan admitted that he thought Marlon Brando was a tough guy, but “he spoke like a child and expressed his desire to visit India soon”. Apart from this, very little information is available in public sphere as to what exactly happened when Sivaji met Brando. This prompted me to reach out to Ramkumar Ganesan, the elder son of Sivaji Ganesan, asking if his father had ever shared any interesting anecdotes. As a curious fan of both Sivaji and Brando, I was determined to gather every minute detail — like whether Sivaji was nervous at all, considering it was his first time in Hollywood.
“Mr Sivaji Ganesan was never nervous,” came Ramkumar’s response in a dense baritone, as if it was straight from the horse’s mouth.
Blast from the past
- Sivaji Ganesan was particularly impressed by the technical advances in Hollywood. He also
- suggested that the Indian film industry learn the art of movie promotion. Sivaji is known to
- have said, “It is high time we emulated the Americans.”
- Dressed in traditional South Indian attire, Sivaji Ganesan was snapped with actors Charlton
- Heston, Jim Garner, Jack Lemmon, George Chandler and Walter Pidgeon.
- In an interview published by The Hindu in 1994, Sivaji revealed that he presented Heston’s
- wife with a sari and even showed her how to drape it, much to the joy of others.
- Upon his return to Madras, Sivaji Ganesan was received by actors Gemini Ganesan, Savithri,
- B Saroja Devi, Anjali Devi, Devika, MR Radha and JP Chandrababu.
- After a quick visit to his residence in T Nagar, Sivaji hopped onto a flower-bedecked lorry, which took him to the PS High School grounds, where the actor addressed the gathering.
Ramkumar, who was a school-going kid then, remembers one particular incident that Sivaji himself had mentioned when the conversation around Brando cropped up. According to Ramkumar, Marlon Brando discussed the nature of Indian cinema and stated that he had watched a few Bengali movies at film festivals.
He questioned the portrayal of poverty and asked why it was a recurring theme in Indian movies. To which, Sivaji replied: “We are a developing country and we like to educate our people about our living conditions.”
Funnily, though, Sivaji apparently joked that the suit he wore amounted to $500, which many Americans could not afford then. Ramkumar also added that The Teahouse of the August Moon was Sivaji’s favourite Brando movie, as opposed to the popular misconception that it was The Godfather.
There is a famous quote by Brando, “Sivaji can act like me, but I cannot act like him.” Ramkumar said he cannot personally verify this since “my father was not someone who believed in self-praising”.
But V Raghavendhra (65), secretary of Nadigar Thilagam Film Appreciation Association, recalls the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, CN Annadurai, referring to Brando’s quote in one of his speeches.
Two souls, one heart
One could draw several parallels between the two great actors, without stretching much. Marlon Brando played an American Ambassador in a movie, during whose shooting, Sivaji paid a visit as a Cultural Ambassador.
This reminds me of a scene in The Ugly American, where Brando gets mobbed at the airport, when he arrives in Thailand. The scene was not any different at the Meenambakkam airport on June 24, 1962, when a sea of fans — a little over 10,000 — welcomed Sivaji Ganesan with all fervour. Soon after he emerged out of the cockpit, the crowd started sloganeering, “Long live Sivaji” — a collective voice that still resonates across Tamil Nadu.
(With inputs from The Hindu Archives)