She may not have been a sweetheart, as Sheela. She may not have been a queen of tragedy, as Sharada. She may not have been a heroine, even.
But make no mistake — Malayalam film viewers have loved few women the way they loved Sukumari. Watch Poochakkoru Mookkuthi or Gandhi Nagar 2 Street or Boeing Boeing or Panchavadipalam…well, the list has no end. Neither had the range she had as an actor.
We may have perhaps preferred to watch her make us laugh, because few could do it so well, but she was not just a brilliant comedienne. She was a gifted actor who did character roles as well as anybody in Indian cinema.
As Thilakan, Shankaradi, Oduvil Unnikrishnan, Philomena, Meena, she was the supporting actor who more than supported the hero or the heroine. It was actors like them who brought the best out of the big stars. Only Malayalam cinema could boast such a stellar supporting cast, which includes the likes of Jagathy Sreekumar, Nedumudi Venu and KPAC Lalitha. Sukumari’s story is almost the story of Malayalam cinema. She shared screen space with all of them — Prem Nazir, Sathyan, Adoor Bhasi, Sukumaran, Soman, Mammootty, Mohanlal, Jayaram, Dileep, Prithviraj…Her talent truly transcended generations.
That talent may have been used more for cinema. But she was a trained dancer, as her famous cousins, Lalitha, Padmini and Ragini; and she was one of the earliest women to make a mark on South Indian stage. In Chennai, she was spotted by Cho Ramaswamy, who introduced her to the theatre at a time when men enacted female roles. Almost inevitably, she began to act in Tamil films and even more inevitably, Malayalam cinema beckoned her.
She grew along with Malayalam cinema — you could notice her comic genius even in less-known black-and-white films such as Collector Malathi — and by the time Malayalam comedy came of age, she became an essential part.
As the middle-aged woman from a village who aspires to become a socialite in the city in Poochakkoru Mookkuthi, her performance was priceless. As was her role as the panchayat member in Panchavadipalam. She was equally hilarious as the housing colony secretary in Gandhi Nagar 2 Street.
She was as much at home in emotional roles, too. Remember Dasaratham, Ramji Rao Speaking, Mizhikal Sakshi…
Truly, she was one of a kind.