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Ranjan, the star of the Tamil cinema of 1940s, was a multi-faceted personality that dwarfed all other hero wannabes. Kollywood was going to be under his thumb in the years to come, prophesied his growing ranks of fans and movie buffs. But fate had thought otherwise. The lesser mortals of his times, who stood in awe of him, scaled greater heights, leaving him behind.
The megastar, who never translated his promise into reality, was Ranjan a.k.a Ramanarayana Venkataramana Sharma of Srirangam. The lesser mortals were later-day superstar-duo M G Ramachandran (MGR) and V C Ganesamurthy (Sivaji Ganesan).
Ranjan, who was taller than others in terms of physique and faculties, is now completely forgotten. His 104th birth anniversary on March 2 went unnoticed and unsung.
In the two decades after Tamil movies became talkies for the first time in 1931 (Kalidas), two superstars were calling the shots – MK Thyagaraja Bhagavathar and PU Chinnappa. They kept dishing out blockbusters such as Haridas, Chintamani, Uthamaputhiran, Kannagi and so on.
Ranjan descended on the celluloid as if out of the blue. His tall frame of good build, impish smile, pencil moustache, Bhagavathar-style hairdo, and the haughty expression on his face likely coming from the surety of his intellect enthralled viewers. His debut film Ashok Kumar (1941), an MKT-starrer, featured him in the role of Lord Buddha with no dialogue; by the way in the film MGR played the minor role of the hero’s friend.
Venkataramana Sarma, who was christened as Ranjan by Jithen Banerjee of Newtone Studios and brought to cinema by one Veppathur Kittu, an employee of Gemini Studios, radiated the pristine purity of a youth raised in a forest in the film Rishyashringar (1941). The boy’s presence itself was so sacred that wherever he went rains would pour down. It was at this point that Ranjan’s career started to take off.
Film historian Randor Guy has said that during the shoot of a duel in the movie, Ranjan demonstrated his martial skill so marvelously and menacingly that an unnerved MGR complained that Ranjan’s thrusts could be fatal.
Mangamma Sabatham (1943) in which he paired with Vasundhara Devi (mother of legendary actress Vyjayanthimala) did well. The swashbuckling royal hero, who was always closeted with damsels, playing pranks on them and regaling them with romantic games, exuded the air of an anti-hero. In a sense, he was a harbinger of later-day womanizing anti-heroism. The scenes of Ranjan hopping across the girls down on all fours and moving towards the heroine who was catching a pigeon became a rage.
In the film Saalivaahanan (1945), Ranjan and dream heroine of yesteryear T R Rajakumari, played lead roles. MGR played the role of a villain.
Film historian Randor Guy has said that during the shoot of a duel in the movie, Ranjan demonstrated his martial skill so marvelously and menacingly that an unnerved MGR complained that Ranjan’s thrusts could be fatal. MGR, who made his debut in Sathileelavathi (1936) and acted in some so-so films as a junior artiste, landed the hero’s role in the film ‘Chaaya’ (1941) based on a play written by Sankaradas Swamigal, father of modern tamil theatre. The film was an adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays ‘Cymbeline.’ Hindi director Nandlal Jaswantlal, who was brought in to direct the Tamil film, was not impressed with MGR’s performance and he wanted him replaced. But the producers, who could sense a bright future ahead for MGR, refused to budge. The result was that the film was dropped and MGR’s dreams were dashed to the ground; he was left to be content with minor roles till 1947.
When Ranjan was fast working his way into stardom with the decks cleared by the implication of MKT in the infamous Lakshmikanthan murder case, MGR was still a struggling actor. A decade had gone by and he was barely getting noticed. Sivaji Ganesan, just VC Ganesan then, was earning some accolades on the stage and struggling to gain a foothold in cinema.
SS Vasan’s mega production Chandralekha (1948), which garnered pan-India attention with its lavish film-making style, took Rajan to the zenith of popularity, featuring him as a ruthless villain having a duel with hero MK Radha (whom MGR always fondly called ‘big brother’). Even then MGR was nowhere near Ranjan, having acted as a hero in just one film (Rajakumari – 1947).
Imagine what MGR would have felt, seeing the superhit film Chandralekha and also the growing popularity graph of Ranjan. Perhaps it was that kind of film in which he dreamt of showing his mettle as a valorous hero. Sivaji Ganesan, still just VC Ganesan, approached the organizers of the Vasan film for a chance to play the bodyguard of Ranjan. But Vasan, a famous film producer as well as a journalist (he founded Tamil weekly Ananda Vikatan), turned down Ganesan, who would later become a metonym for acting in the second half of 20th century, on the ground that “Sivaji Ganesan was unfit for cinema.”
Now Ranjan, basking in the glory bestowed by Chandralekha, set out to explore Hindi filmdom and achieved success there too. ‘Nishan’ (1949), ‘Shin Shinaki Boobla Boo’ (1952), ‘Hum Bhi Kuchh Kam Nahin’ (1958) and a few other Hindi films helped him retain his star status till 1965.
It turned out that Ranjan being away in Hindu cinema was indeed a shot in the arm for MGR who began making it big with films such as ‘Mandirikumari’ (1950), ‘Marudha naattu Ilavarasi’ (1950) in the 1950s. Ranjan’s star status shifted to MGR and also Sivaji Ganesan who shot to overnight fame through Parasakthi (1952). The MGR-Sivaji era had begun.
Ranjan, who was engrossed in Hindi world, returned to Tamil Nadu only to see the duo starting to rule Tamil cinema. He was undeterred, determined to bring back his glory earned in 1940s and acted in Neelamalai Thirudan (1957). The film was, in fact, seemed made for MGR, who had by then emerged as the Robin Hood for the poor, inspired by Hollywood actors Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks. The fans of MGR, growing then in large numbers, and those of Ranjan, shrinking then due to his long absence, debated who was a better swordsman.
The fans of MGR, growing then in large numbers and those of Ranjan, shrinking then due to his long absence, debated who was a better swordsman.
MGR, who had at that time got into a spat with his close friend and film producer MMA Chinnappa Devar over some issues regarding their successful film ‘Thaaikkupin Tharam,’ felt jittery over the re-emergence of his former foe Ranjan with ‘Neelamalai Thirudan’ produced by Devar. So, he patched up with Devar and went by his dictates in subsequent films. That patch-up cost Ranjan dearly. Finally, after his last film “Captain Ranjan’ (1969) flopped, Ranjan bid adieu to Tamil Nadu and settled in New Jersey, US with his wife, a doctor. He died of cardiac arrest in 1983.
Ranjan was endowed with several skills that could leave a legion of cinema personalities envious; an actor, a postgraduate, a journalist, a writer (he wrote for the film of Dev Anand and Nalini Jaywant ‘Munimji’) , a music and dance exponent (he submitted a thesis on it at Madras University), a fencer, a licensed pilot, and a magician. He edited a dance publication, Natyam.
MGR, a primary school drop-out, made up for his lack of histrionic skills with his knowledge of the technicalities of film-making, feeling the pulse of the people and playing to the gallery, Sivaji Ganesan, also a school drop-out, specialized in melodramatic acting. The skills of both these actors were limited, so to speak. Apart from cinema, they couldn’t dream of any other profession for they had no acumen for anything else.
The major factor that turned the tide against Ranjan and in favour of MGR was the advent of the Dravidian politics in Tamil Nadu and the emergence of powerful leaders propagating Dravidian ideology. For all his versatility of personality, Ranjan was perhaps no equal to MGR in feeling the pulse of the people – a skill the less literate acquire more easily through intuition rather than through intellect!
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