Veteran Nilambur Ayisha wins her first State film award at the age of 76. P.K. Ajith Kumar

Nilambur Ayisha is delighted that she has won her maiden State film award at the age of 76. “I don’t think anybody else would have won his or her first State award at this age. I am particularly glad that I got the award for a film that sent out a strong message to our society,” says Ayisha, who won the Kerala State Film Award for the Second Best Actress for her role in Oomakkuyil Padumbol.

The film, directed by debutant Sidhique Chennamangalur, also fetched the award for the best child artiste for Malavika Nair. “While my award came as a pleasant surprise, I was hopeful about Malavika. It was a great performance from her in the film. She played a Muslim school girl whose artistic ambitions were thwarted by her parents. My role was that of her grandmother, who understands her best,” says Ayisha.

Though she made her silver screen debut more than half-a-century ago, this talented artiste never got her due in Malayalam cinema. “I am also partly to be blamed for that, as I focussed more on theatre than films in the early stages of my career. As a young woman in Malapppuram district, somehow I didn’t feel comfortable with the celebrity status I got from some of the comic roles I did in my earlier films,” she explains.

Ayisha’s first film was in Hindi, Elephant Queen (1961), directed by Rajendra. The film’s cast included Helen and Azad. “I played the role of a woman in a hunting family. I was in the film because it was shot at Nilambur, my hometown,” she says.

That year she also did her first film in Malayalam, Kandam Becha Kottu, which was a big hit. It was followed by films like Subaida, Kuttikkuppayam and Kuppivala.

A bold move

“I acted with the biggest stars of the day such as Prem Nazir, who was such a nice, considerate human being besides being a dedicated actor, Sheela, Ambika, Adoor Bhasi and Bahadur. And now I am acting with today’s youngsters. Yes, it has been fun working with actors and technicians of so many generations,” she says.

Ayisha was one of the first women from her generation to appear on stage. “When I decided to act in Ijj Nalla Manisanakan Nokku, written by E.K. Ayamu, my mother was horrified and she cried. It was inconceivable that a Muslim girl from a conservative family in Malappuram could become a theatre actor. Remember those were the days when all female roles were played by men and very few women dared to act,” she recalls.

E.M.S. Namboodiripad played a key role in Ayisha becoming an actor. “He had suggested that it would be great if a girl from Muslim community acted in plays. I was interested in arts and used to sing a bit, so I took the plunge and made my debut before a huge crowd at Feroke, in 1953. My family was promptly ostracised, but I continued to act,” she says.

She went on to work with stalwarts in theatre like K.T. Mohammed. “I was in his plays like Ithu Bhoomiyanu, Theekkanal, Srishti and Kafir. I remember Kuthiravattom Pappu and Mamukoya, budding actors then, coming to see our plays. Then one day I was summarily dismissed from K.T.’s Sangamam Theatre. Yes, life has not always been kind to me,” she says.

Out of work as a theatre artiste, she went to Saudi Arabia to work as a housemaid. “I was there for 20 years. I was a khaddama (domestic help) initially, but I was fortunate to work with a kind family. But I have seen from close quarters how they were treated there; life is hell for a khaddama. What Kamal showed in his film Khaddama and Benyamin wrote in Aadujeevitham is no exaggeration at all. If anything, things are even worse than in fiction,” Ayisha says.

She began to act again on her return from the Gulf. “Director Ranjith was instrumental in giving me another innings in films, when he asked me if I would be interested to act in Ammakkilikoodu, which he wrote. I have been able to get some good roles in films such as Paradeshi, in which I played Lakshmi Gopalaswamy’s mother,” she says.

Then Oomakkuyil Padumbol happened. “And finally, I have been recognised by Malayalam cinema. It would have been nice if this happened earlier, but I guess it is better late than never,” she says.