Melody queen Lata Mangeshkar says “the lion of Tamil cinema” Sivaji Ganesan wasn’t just her brother and that he loved her entire family, especially her mother.
Remembering the late actor on his 88th birth anniversary on Saturday, Lata said: “He wasn’t just my brother, he loved my entire family, especially my mother. In the 1960s, a lot of my songs used to be recorded in Chennai. I was quite often there, recording in studios. He would be in my hotel and tell the driver to pick up my luggage and bring me to his home. I had to stay in his home. I was given no choice in the matter. He was a wonderful human being.”
She doesn’t recall her first meeting with him, but said she shared “an unforgettable experience”.
“Once all us siblings – Asha, Meena, Usha and Hridaynath – had gone to Chennai. We wanted to travel further to see the Meenakshi Amman temple and Rameshwaram. Sivaji saab sent his manager and three other people, two cars and his personal driver Shiva with us. Everything had been arranged.
“Only after this incident, we became really thick. He invited us home to dinner. He screened one of his new Tamil films for us. Then after 10-12 days of his overwhelming hospitality in Chennai, we returned to Mumbai.”
She also said that he used to visit Mumbai for his theatre plays.
“My mother noticed how physically strenuous it was for him to emote on stage. Before every play of his in Mumbai, my mother sent Sivaji saab soup which we siblings would happily take to him. In return, we got to see his plays. My mother was really fond of him.
“Once he came to Mumbai en route to the US. My mother took him to her prayer room, did his aarti, offered him prasad, and a gold chain. He left wearing the chain. When he returned from the US, he came straight to our house. This was his first trip to the US.
“After he deconstructed the back portion of his home, I had to stay in a hotel in Chennai. But a visit and a meal at his place was a must. Though he wasn’t keeping well for quite some time, he came personally or sent his daughter to take me home. My favourite dishes were cooked. His entire family dotes on me.”
As artistes, they both loved each other’s works, she said.
“I thought he was awesome in all his Tamil films that I’ve seen. He would send prints of films, especially for me to see in Mumbai. The last time I saw him was in ‘Thevar Magan’ (released in 1992). Till the end, he was a brilliant performer. Every Diwali, unfailingly, he sent clothes for every member of the Mangeshkar family. Not once did he overlook this ritual. I was never surprised by his largesse because I was his sister. Even if I forgot to send him a rakhi, he’d never forget his Diwali ritual.”
She said that the two shared a rare bond.
“He cared so much for me. Whenever I stayed in his house he left instructions before leaving to shoot about which chutney I should be served with the dosa. Then the minute he returned for the day, he would inquire about me. Asha and I had gone to Chennai together when his mother died. While his father lived in the village, his mother lived with him. She was like a Goddess to the entire household.
“All three brothers – Sivaji saab’s elder brother, Sivaji and his younger brother – lived together under the same roof. The death of Sivaji’s younger brother shattered him. He felt he had suffered irrevocable loss. The younger brother used to look after his entire professional interests. Later, Sivaji saab’s son Ramu took over.
“The younger son Prabhu is a film actor like his father. Sivaji saab also has two daughters, both married at an early age. He was a very orthodox man just like my father. He kept scolding my sister Meena until her daughter Rachna was married. He completely believed in the joint-family system. Everyone including his two sons and their wives stayed in a sprawling home.”
What language did they speak in?
“The language of love. He knew enough Hindi to communicate that love. There has never been a star like him in the south. And such humility! You can’t imagine how many things he has gifted me. I remember once I had gone to his home. I chattily expressed admiration for the ‘nauratna’ necklace that his wife was wearing.
“He immediately told his Kamala Amma to take off the necklace and give it to me. It remains one of my favourite pieces of jewellery which I wear quite often.”
After the incident, she stopped expressing admiration for anything in his house.
“When there was a celebration for my silver jubilee year in the film industry, he came to Mumbai, presented me with a Saraswati idol, a gold chain and a special garland of flowers that he had brought all the way from Chennai to Mumbai which he put around my neck in my house. I’ll always regret the fact that I couldn’t meet him before his death. I recorded a song for Ilaiyaraaja on May 17 in Mumbai.
“I was supposed to go to Chennai for the recording. But was unable to do so because of ill health. When Raja (Ilaiyaraaja) was here I inquired about Sivaji saab’s health. Raja said, ‘No no no. He isn’t well. You must go and see him or else you’ll miss the chance.’ The same night I left for London. I told my sister Meena we must visit Sivaji saab when we return from London.
“He had rung me up in London when I had received the Bharat Ratna (in 2001). He said ‘Congratulations’. He knew his end was near. Then just two days before his death, my nephew Yogesh and I were trying Sivaji saab’s number. We couldn’t get through.
“I think he was hospitalised on the same evening. When I heard about his death, I felt something had been lost irrevocably. There shall never be another person like him. He used to be so warm.”
He used to call her youngest sister Usha, a cat.
“Whenever he came to Mumbai, he used to ask me to sing my Marathi devotional Ghanshyam sundara. I sang for the first time for Ilaiyaraaja in the film that starred Sivaji saab’s younger son Prabhu in the film ‘Anand’. The minute Sivaji saab’s elder son called me, I rushed to sing the song.”
“He did act in a few Hindi films. But he always told me Hindi films didn’t gel with him. He felt uncomfortable in Hindi films, though he could carry it off. He was the lion of Tamil cinema.”