Most people today, when you speak of Gemini Ganesan, will probably remember him as 'Mahanati' Savitri's husband. Or as the intolerant, disciplinarian father of Kamal Haasan in K Balachander's half-masterpiece Unnal Mudiyum Thambi (1988). Or as Kamal Haasan's father-in-law in the Mrs. Doubtfire-inspired Avvai Shanmugi (1996), which has a meta layer if you look for it: Gemini hates Kamal as a man, but loves (literally loves) Kamal when dressed as a woman. Put differently, one generation's heartthrob ('Kadhal Mannan', King of Romance) falls for another generation's heartthrob in drag. The man was clearly a sport. Or maybe he had a soft spot for Kamal, who debuted as his cherubic son in Kalathur Kannamma (1959). It's a film wokesters will rip to shreds today, but it's also a film of its time. It's a melodrama. It's a "family story". It has an amazing soundtrack.
Those descriptors could be used for about 90% of the Gemini Ganesan oeuvre. You wonder what the actor—a sweet, slightly bewildered-looking, mild-mannered man—would do if he was trying to make a mark as a hero in today's Tamil cinema. I can't think of a single movie-type that will fit him. Even those days, he existed in a little valley of his own, between the two mountains, MGR and Sivaji Ganesan. He didn't have the oratorical skills of Sivaji—nobody ever gave him ten-page stretches of dialogue, which would have probably been blown away by the flapping of the voluminous pyjamas he liked to wear on screen. And he didn't build for himself the "mass hero" persona that MGR did, the kind that dispensed pro-poor lectures: his life consisted more of formers (i.e., exes) than farmers.
But that little valley of his, it was a haven of peace—shorn of the Sivaji films' bluster, the MGR movies' lecture. When I remember the Gemini Ganesan movies I saw on TV and in noon shows in the second-run theatres like Eros and Theyagaraja and Jeyanthi, I recall a series of films as mild-mannered as their leading man. Some of them were quite hip, too. Can you imagine a sixties' Tamil hero in swimming trunks, water-skiing? That was Gemini in Sridhar's ultra-urban Then Nilavu (1961): today, it would be called an "A-centre film," and heroes would be worried about signing up for it because it has no "mass" scenes. But it had a charming Vyjayanthimala. And it had a killer soundtrack by AM Rajah: 'Chinna chinna kannile', 'Kaalaiyum neeye', and 'Nilavum malarum paaduthu', one of the best waltzes in Tamil cinema.
AM Rajah sang a lot of songs for Gemini Ganesan, as did PB Srinivas. They were mild-mannered singers, and they fit Gemini's persona like a glove. They weren't TM Soundararajan, whose voice could wake up the dead: TMS fit Sivaji and MGR like a glove. One of the most hilarious mismatches of singing voice and on-screen hero is PB Srinivas singing 'Paal Vannam' for MGR in Paasam (1962). The roaring lion (contrast TMS singing 'Ulagam pirandhadhu enakkaga' in the same film) seems emasculated, which is less about PBS' or MGR's talents than our perceptions, shaped by years and years of movie-watching. I still have trouble reconciling with the reality that TMS sang hits like 'Maduraiyil Parandha' (Poova Thalaiya, 1969) for Gemini Ganesan. I mean, it's a beautiful song, But to hear that voice emerge from Gemini's mouth…
He was very popular, and a lot of his films may hold up better today for viewers seeking a sample of older Tamil cinema. If you want to dive into what films were like in 1955, Missiamma, with Gemini Ganesan and Savitri, is certainly an "easier watch" than the Sivaji-starring Mangaiyar Thilakam or the MGR-starring Gulebakavali from the same year. For the Sivaji film, you need a lead-lined stomach for heavy melodrama. For the MGR film, you need a taste for cardboard-sets costume drama. For Missiamma, all you need is the mood to watch a sweet romantic movie. Three years later, Gemini made his own version of a cardboard-sets costume drama: Vanjikottai Vaaliban. If you have the taste for this mini-genre, it's great fun, especially when two beauties (Vyjayanthimala, Padmini) fight tooth and nail for Gemini's affections, ignoring the fact that his beard during the legendary dance-duet ('Kannum kannum kalandhu') is faker than the cardboard palace they are all in.
Gemini was certainly more than the King of Romance. K Balachander and Sridhar were two filmmakers who used the actor in consistently challenging roles: he fit easily into these roles because his on-screen persona was like water, capable of taking the shape of the vessel, which may be another way of saying "mild-mannered". Sumaithangi (1962) is the definitive Gemini Ganesan tragedy. I love the colloquality of the Hindi phrase, "museebaton ka pahaad", a mountain of miseries. That's what descends on poor Gemini here, whose character experiences everything from romance to renunciation: he becomes a priest by the end. The soundtrack is a series of Viswanathan-Ramamoorthy gems, and the shiniest of them is 'Manidhan Enbavan', sung by PBS.
Because Gemini Ganesan's screen persona was like water, it could course through even Sivaji Ganesan vehicles like Veerapandiya Kattabomman (1959) and Paarthaal Pasi Theerum (1962). One might argue that he was a character actor in the guise of a star/hero, but then, I'd get clobbered by my great-aunts. He was their DiCaprio, circa Titanic. His best film? I honestly don't have one favourite, but with a gun to my head, I'd say Sridhar's Kalyana Parisu. It's a sinus-clearing tearjerker of the highest order, I'm warning you, but of its type, it's beautifully done, and I love watching Gemini Ganesan and Saroja Devi cycling through 'Vaadikkai maranthathum yeno'. They seem so innocent, so nonchalantly middle-class. That was Gemini Ganesan. "King of Romance' may have been his title, but he was really the Boy-next-Door of Love.