Kaviyoor Ponnamma talks about her experience playing mother to actors across generations

Kaviyoor Ponnamma does not resent being the ‘forever mother’ in Malayalam cinema. Even when she could have been the starry-eyed young girl, the roles that found her were those that embodied maternal virtues. “When I played mother to Sathyan and Madhu in Thommante Makkal (1965), I was just 22, much younger than them. But director Sasikumar heaped praise on my performance, saying I perfectly evoked the love and respect one would feel for one’s mother. From then on, I have only been a mother,” she says, her characteristic smile intact. She was in the city recently to inaugurate a Mothers’ Day programme organised by The Hindu, in association with the Ernakulam Women’s Association.

Fifty-three years of portraying absolutely guileless characters may seem an incredible feat. “I see it as an honour. As a matter of fact, I’d never accept a role that has negative shades to it. I am never offered such roles, too,” she says. “There is a scene in Oppol (1980), where I speak rudely to Menaka, who plays my daughter. I received a barrage of letters from people who said they couldn’t bear to hear such words from me.”

More than the wealth of experience in the industry, it is the love and acceptance from generations of viewers that she treasures. “I have a lot of friends among children. I would not do any role that they would not like to see,” she says.

She is currently shooting for Ranjit’s Kadal Kadannoru Mathukutty, starring Mammootty, in which she plays mother to P. Balachandran and the heroine. Her upcoming releases are Captain Raju’s Mr. Pavanai 99.99 and Shaji Kailas’s Ginger starring Jayaram.

Ponnamma feels she is every bit a purist in her attitude towards cinema. As a viewer, she would watch a film only in the theatre, and as an actor she treats it as a job “with 100 per cent sincerity”.

When she started her career, acting was serious business. “It was also a means of livelihood. Today, cinema is more of a passion and pastime, people in my generation mostly treated it as a job,” she says. “But that is not to say we did not enjoy it.”

However, it was the love for music that Ponnamma nurtured passionately. “I wanted to become a singer.” The dream did come true when she began acting in plays. She has to her credit a handful of popular songs she sang for dramas. But film offers gradually pushed music out of her agenda. “Now, I don’t even hum,” she says.

She also thanks her theatre days for teaching her the basics of acting. She made her stage debut at the age of 14 with Thoppil Bhasi’s Mooladhanam, a play with a socialist theme that was a huge success. Though her mother was opposed to her aspirations for a career in the arts, her father greatly encouraged it.

Five years ago, Ponnamma came back from Chennai to settle down in Aluva. “I wanted to escape the cacophony of Chennai. I have lived there for about 38 years. It was a dream to settle down in Aluva.” Her house, in the interiors of Aluva, is flanked by lush fields and the widest and the cleanest arm of the Periyar.

Having acted in over 1,000 films, she has won the State award for best supporting actress in 1971, 72 and 73. Ponnamma is also the recipient of the Kalaiselvam Award instituted by the Government of Tamil Nadu. She recently received the Kala Ratna award, instituted by the EV Kala Mandalam for her contribution to Malayalam cinema and theatre.

She hardly gets time for herself in between films, but when she does, Ponnamma says she loves to dust her house.