Ganesan was born on 1 October 1928 into a middle class Tamil family. Without his father's consent, Ganesan decided to join a touring stage drama company at the age of seven. At the age of 10, he moved to Tiruchirappalli and joined a drama troupe in Sangiliyandapuram and began to perform in stage plays. From the drama troupe trainers he was very lucky enough to learn acting and dancing skills. He was trained in Bharatanatyam, Kathak and Manipuri.
Ganesan exhibited the ability to remember lengthy lines easily. The group favoured Ganesan to play the lead and he would continue to do so. His portrayal of the character of Chhatrapati Shivaji in the stage play Shivaji Kanda Hindu Rajyam earned him the name "Sivaji" which was conferred on him at a public function presided over by social reformer E. V. Ramasamy. Since then, he was referred by the name of "Sivaji".
Two factors can be attributed the entry of Ganesan into films: The principal artists in Tamil films during the 1940s and 1950s were Telugus, whose acting was not matched by their dialogue delivery in Tamil. (In fact, Sivaji Ganesan lent his voice to Mukkamala Krishna Murthy, a Telugu actor, for a Tamil film, Niraparathi. The film was well received by the Tamil audience.) Secondly, the 1950s saw the growth of the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu, under the leadership of C. N. Annadurai, R. Nedunjchezhian and M. Karunanidhi. Their transformation of language skills to films through script writing, ensured their instant acceptance. Ganesan's entry into films at this stage of popularity was easy and inevitable, and he could establish himself in a better position.
Ganesan made his acting debut in the 1952 Tamil film Parasakthi, directed by the famous directors Krishnan- Panju, produced by P.A. Perumal Mudaliar of National pictures co-starring actress Pandari Bai. Periyar E. V. Ramasamy recommended him for the lead role in Parasakthi to the producer, which was supposed to be portrayed by the Telugu actor A. Nageswara Rao. The script was written by later Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, M. Karunanidhi. Since actors who are well-trained in classical dance can effectively showcase expressions called Nava Rasa on their faces, Ganesan went on to become one of the popular actors in Tamil cinema in the 1950s. His unique voice had a greater appeal. His style of dialogue delivery with a long spell of dialogues — like a poetry recitation with much clarity — earned him critical recognition.
Andha Naal (1954) was a trendsetter in Tamil cinema because it had no songs and Ganesan played an anti-hero. The film won the president's silver medal the following year. The same year he co-starred with his rival M. G. Ramachandran in Koondukkili where he played the antagonist.
His role in the film Veerapaandiya Kattabomman won him the Best Actor Award at the Afro-Asian Film Festival held in March 1960 at Cairo. Incidentally, Ganesan was also the first Indian actor to get an award for Best Actor abroad. He has worked with many actresses, including Bhanumathi Ramakrishna, Pandaribai, Vyjayanthimala, Savithri, Padmini, Devika, Rajasree, B. Sarojadevi, K. R. Vijaya, Vanisri and J. Jayalalitha of his time. He also co-starred with other actors such as Gemini Ganesan, S.S.Rajendran, Muthuraman, Sivakumar, M. R. Radha and S. V. Ranga Rao in numerous films in which he played the main lead.
His portrayal of Lord Shiva in the movie Thiruvilayadal (1965) won him lot of accolades. In the film Navarathiri (1964), Ganesan played nine different roles that represented the nine emotional states of a person. Sanjeev Kumar and Akkineni Nageswara Rao were inspired by this film and reprised the nine roles in Naya Din Nayi Raat in 1974 and Navarathri in 1966 respectively. Ganesan could strike a balance between commercial cinema, Mythological cinema and experimental cinema. His epical portrayals in films like Thiruvilayaadal, Thiruvarutselvar, Saraswati Sabatham, Harischandra, Thirumal Perumai, Karnan and Thillana Mohanambal won him critical acclaim. He played a variety of roles such as freedom fighters like Kappalottiya Thamizhan, Vanchinathan, Tiruppur Kumaran, Bhagat Singh and epic characters like Harichandra, Karna, Bharatha, Narada, Appar, Nayanmars and Alwars. Spanning genres like epics to Crime thrillers; from romantic escapades to comic flicks and action flicks, Ganesan has spanned it all.
Ganesan played supporting rôle to Rajendra Kumar in the Hindi film Dharti in 1970 which was a remake of his 1969 Tamil film Sivandha Mann, in which he played the lead rôle. In the Hindi version, Ganesan played the rôle which Muthuraman had played in the original. Several directors like Krishnan-Panju, T. R. Sundaram, A. P. Nagarajan, L. V. Prasad, B. R. Panthulu, T. Prakash Rao, A. Bhim Singh, K. Shankar, A. C. Tirulokchandar, C. V. Sridhar, P. Madhavan, K. S. Gopalakrishnan and K. Vijayan directed Ganesan in different roles. Kongara Jaggayya offered his voice to Sivaji when his movies were dubbed into Telugu.
In 1960s and 1970s his films have been well received and he was able to deliver constant hits. Some of his famous hits during this period are Gauravam, Raja Raja Chozhan, Thri Soolam, Thankappathakkam and Sathyam. Many of his films were inspired and remade in Sinhalese. Films like Pilot Premnath and Mohana Punnagai were shot in Sri Lanka with Sri Lankan actors such as Malini Fonseka and Geetha Kumarasinghe playing the female lead. In 1979, he appeared in blockbuster Thirisoolam, adapted from the Kannada film Shankar Guru in which Rajkumar had played the lead rôle.
The 1980s was a period in which Ganesan started enacting more matured roles. But still films like Rishi Moolam, Yamanukku Yaman, Chiranjeevi had Ganesan portraying lead roles. Muthal Mariyathai (1985) won him a Filmfare Award and Tamil Nadu State film Award under Best Actor category. In 1992, he acted in with Kamal Haasan in the critically acclaimed Thevar Magan which won him a Special Mention Award at the 40th National Film Awards. His other films released during this period are Pasumpon, En Aasai Raasaave and Once More where he was cast in prominent roles. He worked in Poopparikka Varugirom which released as his last film before his death, however the last film he worked in before his death was Padayappa (1999).
Chinna Ponnusamy Padayatchi is the teacher of theatrical arts who trained Ganesan in his troupe.During an interview with V.S.Srinivasan Ganesan says "Theatre has taught me everything. My teacher (Chinna Ponnuswamy Padayachi of Chidambaram) taught me Bharatnatyam, acting, body movements...Practically everything.Padayachi, was himself an outstanding stage actor. And I learnt in an atmosphere that was reminiscent of an ashram school."
Until 1955, Ganesan was a staunch sympathizer of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Once he went to Tirupathi and worshiped God Vengatachalapathi. He was heavily criticized by his party men for worshiping a god being a DMK member. He was very hurt by this incident and later in 1961, he became a strong supporter of the Indian National Congress. Due to his popularity, he was requested to be part of the National Congress Tamil Nadu. His respect for Kamaraj made him to support Congress. He was made the rajya sabha Member of Parliament by then prime minister Indira Gandhi Indira Gandhi's death in 1984 also brought Ganesan's political career to an end. After 1987, he floated his own political party (Thamizhaga Munnetra Munnani). He became the president of the Tamil Nadu faction of the Janata Dal in 1989. Unlike his highly successful acting career, his political career was rather unsuccessful.
Ganesan was the second son of his family. He had two brothers. Ganesan married Kamala in 1952 and had four children. His younger son Prabhu is a notable Tamil actor. Ganesan established a film production company in the late 1950s, (now called as) Sivaji Productions, which is now being looked after by his eldest son Ramkumar. He has two daughters Shanthi and Thenmozhi. Three of his grandsons have also appeared in films, with Ramkumar's two sons Dushyanth Ramkumar and Shivaji Dev, both having the stagename of Junior Sivaji. Moreover, Vikram Prabhu debuted in the critically acclaimed film Kumki in 2012.
Suffering from respiratory problems, Ganesan was admitted to the Apollo Hospital in Chennai on 21 July 2001. He also had been suffering from a prolonged heart ailment for about 10 years. He died at 7:45 pm (IST) on 21 July 2001 at the age of 72. A documentary, Parasakthi Muthal Padayappa Varai was made to commemorate Sivaji Ganesan's legacy. His funeral the next day was telecast live on Sun TV and was attended by thousands of viewers, politicians and personalities from the South Indian film fraternity. His eldest son, Ramkumar, performed his last rites at the Besant Nagar Crematorium, Chennai.
When President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt visited India, Sivaji Ganesan was the only individual granted permission by the then-Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, to host a party for Nasser. Nasser was given a number of valuable mementos depicting the civilisation and culture of South India. Sivaji Ganesan was the first artist from India to visit the United States, in the cultural exchange programme of the US government, in 1962, invited by the then-US President, John F. Kennedy, where he took the role of India's cultural ambassador. During his visit there, he was honoured by being made the honorary mayor of Niagara Falls, New York for one day and was presented the key to the city. The only other Indian who has had this honour before Ganesan was Jawaharlal Nehru. When Sivaji returned from America, there was a huge crowd to receive him at the Madras Airport and MGR was there. When Sivaji returned from Egypt after winning the best actor award, there was a huge crowd to receive him at the Madras Airport. On 22 March 1976, he went over to Mauritius on an invitation from Prime Minister Ramagoolam and took part in their independence day celebrations and stayed as their government guest for four days.
During his visit to the United States in June 1995, he visited Columbus, Ohio. Participating in the dinner hosted to honour Ganesan, the Mayor of the city, Greg Lashutka, honoured him by announcing him as an honorary citizen of Columbus. On the same occasion the Mayor of Mount Vernon read out and gave him a special welcome citation. The Columbus Tamil Sangam was formulated on that day and Ganesan was made the honorary President of that association.
Ganesan has remained as one of the popular Tamil actors with a large fan base. At the peak of his career, Ganesan had 30000 registered fan clubs, which worked at promoting his image and films.
It was Sivaji’s tragedy that, as the years progressed, opportunities for him to display his acting talent became scarce. But he did act in cameo roles, often stealing the scenes, as in Thevar Magan, which won him the National Awards Jury’s Special Jury award in 1993. (Sivaji, incidentally, declined the award.).
Sivaji Ganesan is considered as one of the best Indian actors of all time. He was also acknowledged as a consummate actor and one of the most imitated ones. He was praised for his body language and his resounding voice and dialogue delivery. Ganesan is known for his versatility and has acted as a blind man, a physically handicapped person in Bhaagapirivinai, a man with a scarred face as in Deiva Magan, a murderer in Pudhiya Paravai, or a traitor as in Andha Naal which had no songs at all.
Ganesan has won the President's Award for more than 12 times for his performance in various films. He was also honored with civilian awards such as Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and Dada Saheb Palke Award, the highest award in India for people involved in film industry.1966 – Padma Shri from the Government of India1984 – Padma Bhushan from the Government of India1995 – Chevalier awarded by the National Order of the Legion of Honour of France. On 22 April 1995 at a ceremony held at the MAC Stadium in Chennai, Ganesan was presented with the Chevalier title and medallion by the French ambassador to India, Philip Petit.He is first Indian actor to get the best actor award from a foreign film festival 1960 – Best Actor in Asia – Africa Continent Award at the Afro-Asian Film Festival for Veerapandiya Kattabomman1960 – One Day Mayor for the city of Niagara Falls and was presented with the Golden Key of Cairo. Pandit Jawaharlal is the only person besides Mr. Ganesan getting this honor1964 – Cultural Ambassador of India invited by John F. Kennedy under the Cultural Exchange Programme1991 – Citizenship in the Columbia, USA by the Government of United States1992 – National Film Award – Special Jury Award for Thevar Magan1996 – Dadasaheb Phalke Award.1972 – Filmfare Best Tamil Actor Award for Gnana Oli1973 – Filmfare Best Tamil Actor Award for Gauravam1985 – Filmfare Best Tamil Actor Award for Muthal Mariyathai1985 - Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award – South1969 – Tamil Nadu State Film Award for Best Actor for Deiva Magan 1970 - Tamil Nadu State Film Award for Best Film - First Prize1989 - Tamil Nadu State Film Honorary Award - MGR Award1986 – Honorary doctorate from the Annamalai University1997 – Kalaimamani from the Government of Tamil Nadu1998 – NTR National Award from the Government of Andhra Pradesh
Pondicherry (Puducherry) was the first state to erect a statue of Sivaji Ganesan in honour of his acting skills and his huge fan base in the state and it was unveiled by the then Puducherry Chief Minister N.Rangasamy. A statue of Ganesan was erected on Kamarajar Road in Chennai, Tamil Nadu to honour the actor and was unveiled by the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi in 2006. The South Indian Film Artistes' Association as a tribute to Ganesan, declared that 1 October, the birth day of Ganesan, would be observed as Actors' Day by the association Chennai film industry. The Government of Maharashtra has instituted a state award, in the name of Ganesan, which is given under the Best Actor category every year entitled "Sivaji Ganesan Award".