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Remembering veteran actress Sukumari

Last updated on: March 28, 2013 10:14 IST

Remembering veteran actress

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Shobha Warrier in Chennai

We remember the veteran star of Malayalam and Tamil cinema who passed away on Tuesday night following a cardiac arrest.

It was only a couple of days ago that I saw a photograph of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha talking to a bedridden Sukumari and stroking her face. Even in the photograph, one could feel the pain in Sukumari's eyes, which we had seen in many of the characters she had portrayed on screen, but never in real life.

It was reported that Jayalalitha told the doctors to take care of her very well as she was a very precious person.

Yes, she was a very precious person to all those who grew up watching her films. Even though all the actors called her Sukumari Chechi, she was more like an Amma to them. For an entire generation, she was a loving mother who conveyed love and compassion through her eyes. She was also a funny lady who made everyone laugh.


Image: Sukumari


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Those who loved her wondered why such a religious and spiritual person had to endure such a sad and painful death. When praying in her prayer room a month ago, her sari caught fire and she had to be admitted to a hospital in Chennai.

Sustaining 50 per cent burns and that affected her internal organs the actress had to undergo dialysis a couple of times when her kidneys stopped functioning.

Born in 1940 in the then princely state of Travancore to Madhavan Nair and Sathyabhama Amma , Sukumari was brought up in Chennai by her aunt who was the mother of the famous Travancore Sisters, Lalitha, Padmini and Ragini. That was how Sukumari was introduced to the world of dance, music, theatre and films.

For a young girl who used to accompany her famous cousins, it was but natural that she started acting in films at a young age. When she was just 10, she accompanied Padmini to the sets of a film and was noticed by the director. She was offered the Tamil film Orarivu in 1951.


Image: Sukumari

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After 62 long years in the industry, she has acted in a staggering 2500 films, most of them in Malayalam. She used to say, "Work is worship for me. I keep my work above everything. Even the most important functions in my family come only after my work. I never used to ask for leave to attend any family function."

In 1959 when Sukumari was 19, she got married to the famous Tamil director A Bhim Singh and by 30, she became a widow. Her only son, Dr Suresh, works at the Madras Medical College.

My introduction to Sukumari was in K S Sethumadhavan's Chattakari.  As the Anglo-Indian wife of a train driver who wore frocks and spoke in English mixed Malayalam in a particular accent, she was a revelation and won over the Kerala audience. Perhaps that was the first time they saw a new Sukumari. The role also gave her the first Kerala State Award.



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It was with Priyadarshan's films, particularly with Poochakoru Mookuthi, that we saw Sukumari, the comedian. She was simply hilarious as the garrulous 'modern society woman' who always walked around with dark sunglasses and peppered her speech with English words.

She portrayed such characters in many films after that. Though repetitive, they were all extremely funny and entertaining. She made us all roar with laughter with her funny expressions and humorous dialogue delivery.

Can anyone forget Dick Ammayi, the headstrong cook in Boeing Boeing, who was as funny as Mohanlal and Mukesh? Chitram, Kilukkam, Mukundetta Sumitra Vilikkunnu, Gandhi Nagar Second Street... the list of her comedy films is endless.

Like she made us laugh through some of her inimitable characters and witty lines, she made us cry too as the ever-suffering mother. There could not have been a dry eye in the theatre when she spoke to her son over the phone in Ramji Rao Speaking. As the mother waiting for her son to make money and take her back from the old age home, she represented every lonely mother. Even more heartbreaking was the scene in the sequel, Maannar Mathai Speaking.

 When she stood behind the doors of the dilapidated nalukettu in crumpled mundu and neryathu, she looked every inch the person who suffered penury and insults for many days.

That last scene in Dasaratham where she holds Mohanlal close to her was a gem. Till then, she was only a maid taking care of him but when he gave the child which he had from a surrogate mother, back to her, he was once again all alone. She just holds him and suddenly, her expression changes from that of a maid to a mother. Priceless was that scene.


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Can we ever forget her as Nabisa in Mizhikal Sakshi, whose son was hanged for being a jihadi? It was as if Sukumari was Nabisa, the shattered mother who lost her mental balance on hearing the news of her son's hanging. She was expected to get a National Award for that heart-wrenching performance, but she was sadly ignored.

The National Award did come but very, very late for such a versatile actress. In 2010, she won the award for the Malayalam- Tamil bilingual Gramam (Namma Gramam) written, directed and produced by Mohan Sharma who incidentally acted in Chattakari as the man who made her daughter Julie pregnant.

The truth is, the Indian film industry never understood her worth, her contribution and her value.

I will always regret that I did not meet her and do a feature after she completed 60 years in the film industry. I did not get to listen to all those stories spanning 60 years. She would have had a lot to say about such a long career, about so many films, so many people and so many experiences. My loss.

Jagathy Sreekumar's accident, Thilakan's death, and now Sukumari's passing away. Without three of these extremely talented actors, Malayalam cinema will never be the same again.



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