If Bhargavi Amma had had her way, her eldest daughter Maheshwari Amma would have become a school teacher. But K. Ananthan Nair, a still photographer and arts enthusiast, encouraged the teenager who debuted as a theatre actor at 10, to take up the numerous film offers that came her way and so she reached tinsel town in 1969 ( in the film ‘Koottukudumbam’). Thus was born KPAC Lalitha.

“Although I am Maheswari Amma in all my official documents, I was and am called Lalitha by almost everyone,” says the veteran actor who was forged in the crucible of the progressive theatre movement in Kerala that also shaped a generation of actors who went on shine on the silver screen. Her association with Kerala People’s Arts Club (KPAC) made her a ‘name’ to reckon with as an actor and today she is one of the precious links to that generation of actors who were fired by the ideals of liberty and equality. From 1969 onwards, Lalitha, barring a brief break after her marriage to Bharathan, etched with enviable ease a wide range of memorable characters in films and then in serials too.

Admitting that Lalitha is one of his favourite actors (he cast her in six of his films), Adoor Gopalakrishnan elaborates: “A small role in ‘Swayamvaram’ showed me her potential and I cast her as the heroine in ‘Kodiyettam,’ my second film. My last film with her was ‘Naalu Pennungal,’ wherein she came up with a sterling performance as the helpless, guilt-ridden mother of an unmarried daughter. In my films, one can see the different stages of life one of most sensitive actors in Malayalam.”

Terming the veteran 62-year-old actor one of the remaining “pearls” of Malayalam cinema who can do justice to any role that is given to her, Sathyan Anthikkad says: “I cannot think of a replacement for an actor like her, especially to play rustic characters that we find aplenty in our villages,” avers Sathyan.

Reacting to Adoor’s and Sathyan’s remarks, Lalitha, smiling from ear to ear, says: “That is because I am an excellent mimic and a keen observer. To play my characters, I draw from my bank of memories. For instance, the bossy mother-in-law in ‘Malootty’ was inspired by the mannerisms of my own mother-in-law, Karthiyani Amma. The minute she saw the film, she knew who I had impersonated in the film. It is the same with several of my characters…”

She feels an actor’s roles depend on the director’s and writer’s skill in fleshing out the character. “For instance, I played a Christian woman in four of Sathyan’s films (‘Veendum Chila Veetukariyangal’ ‘Manasinakkare’ ‘Vinodayathra’ and ‘Bhagyadevta…’ ) But each are so different from the other in terms of milieu, background and characterisation. Unless we get a role and the space to act, it is difficult for an actor to shine.”

In addition to giving that space to Lalitha in four of his films, Adoor had also used her evocative voice in ‘Mathilukkal.’ Being a perfectionist, he recalls auditioning more than 60 people to find the voice of the unseen heroine in his film ‘Mathilukkal.’

“Initially, I felt Lalitha’s was too familiar a voice as she was acting in many films in those days. Finally, I decided it was better to go for an excellent but known voice than go for an unknown but average voice. Without a single shot of hers, her voice conveyed so many emotions – passion, desire, waiting, sexual innuendos, sensuousness….After a screening in Rotterdam, a filmmaker from Chile almost gave a speech on the sensuousness of the speaker…” recalls Adoor.

Not surprisingly, given the fact that our awards are usually hero- or heroine-centric, the versatile, natural actor had to wait till 1991 (for ‘Amaram’) for the first of her two national awards for best supporting actor. The next was for ‘Shantham.’

But for her cinema is more than a space to win awards. “Unlike many heroines today, it was economic necessity that made me an actor. It is a career for me, not a hobby.”

Even after working with generations of directors, heroes and heroines in Mollywood, she says she still sees herself as a student. For Lalitha, her interactions with thespians and stars like Sathyan (‘Anubhavangal Palichakal,’ ‘Vazhave Mayam’) and Prem Nazir (with whom she acted as his heroine in ‘Chakravalam’) were more of a learning experience. But, according to her, the most important lesson she learnt was to do her job as per the director’s requirements.

Lalitha’s life is closely entwined with the history of Malayalam cinema and she is one of the few actors who found a comfortable niche in all kinds of cinema – commercial, off-beat, middle of the road, parallel, experiments….She has also been a witness and participant in the development and democratisation of cinema as a medium of communication and entertainment.

Welcoming the changes in cinema that has brought it closer to real life, Lalitha points out how there have been major changes in dialogue delivery, make-up, outdoor shoots and storylines.

After proving her versatility, artistry and histrionic skill as an actor, the mother and grandmother is serenely waiting to see her son, Siddarth, debut as a director. “He has always been crazy about films while my daughter is the writer in the family.” And she replies emphatically she has no plans or secret desire to write or direct a film. “I hope to be act till the final curtain falls,” she says.

Focus KPAC Lalitha has become a synonym for a natural actor who breathes life into each of his/her roles.

Amongst the films directed by Bharathan, she says some of her favourite films are ‘Thazhvaram,’ ‘Venkalam,’ ‘Vyshali,’ ‘Prayanam’ and ‘Amaram.’