Actor Sukumari pushed the boundaries of her art and her self to invent fresh possibilities for both.

The classic statement ‘When I’m good, I’m very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better’ aptly describes the roles veteran actor Sukumari played in her career spanning almost six decades in the entertainment industry in South India. This brilliant actor who passed away on March 26 was, in one sense, Malayalam cinema’s history, one who reinvented herself from an earlier era to suit the exigencies of each of the ages she acted in. A comedienne of genius and a character actor par excellence, she played with ease and finesse characters, displaying both modern and traditional sensibilities, transgressive and conforming women, victims and villains. She was thus the quintessential Malayali ‘star’ straddling the conventional and the iconoclastic, the stereotypical and the innovative.

Born in 1940 in erstwhile Travancore into a family that could boast of illustrious artistes such as Lalitha, Padmini and Ragini, she belonged to a generation for whom a Tamil ethos was an essential aspect of the cultural lineage of the emerging notion of ‘Malayaliness’ in the yet unborn state of Kerala. In 1951 she debuted in the Tamil movie Oru Iravu at the age of 10 and since then has acted in more than 2,500 films in Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Oriya and Bengali. She shared the screen with some of the greatest legends of these different regional cinemas and in the process became a legendary name in the South Indian film industry.

At a time when female impersonations by men were the norm as far as theatre was concerned, it was Cho Ramaswamy who introduced Sukumari into the brave new world of theatre in Chennai. A consummate dancer and a theatre artiste she drew sustenance from both these performance traditions to enrich her histrionic skills. There was an innate sense of harmony and rhythm in her movements, a perfect sense of timing, qualities essential to an actor that she probably cultivated as a dancer and theatre artiste.

A genial and honest presence in Malayalam cinema, she embodied everything that an actor could aspire for, a great sense of humour, the ability to perform with equal élan both the comical and the sentimental, the capacity to efface her self completely and utterly into the roles she played whether it be the mother, the vamp or the shrew.

Consummate artiste

The consummate artiste in her did not deem it beneath her dignity to play any role major or minor, from the comic and the burlesque to the serious and the contemplative. If Malayalam cinema began its chequered history by having to woo an Anglo Indian lady to play a Malayali woman, here was an actor who, in many a movie, played this role with great relish, often turning the tables on Malayalam cinema’s tendency to stereotype the modern woman as too ‘Western’ for native male taste. Julie’s mother in Chattakkari, Dick ammayi in Boeing Boeing, Maggie aunty in Vandanam, Sulochana Thankappan in Thalayanamanthram, Revathy Kochamma in Poochakkoru Mookkuthi and Peggy in Trivandrum Lodge are just a few of the characters that she immortalised whom Malayalis continue to cherish. The fact that many of these characters anticipated and foretold the accents and mannerisms of the future generation of today, stand testimony to the boldness of Sukumari’s approach and her ability to look ahead of her times in breaking cultural moulds.

She was also quite capable of bringing in an element of subversion to what could have been perfect stereotypes in that age, the quintessential society lady, replete with ‘cooling glasses’, sleeveless blouses, high heels, vanity bags and an Anglicised Malayalam, all of which, looking back today, seem to have turned the tables on society, where obviously Sukumari had the last laugh.

However, at the other end of the spectrum we also love the innumerable grand moments of acting she delivered, the devastatingly original and poignant manner in which she brought to life self-effacing mothers, the effortless grace and infinite pathos of her tragic women characters such as Gopalakrishnan’s mother in Ramji Rao Speaking, Kuniyamma in Mizhikal Sakshi and Marakatam in Nizhalkkuthu, among numerous others.

The innumerable awards and accolades that came her way including the coveted Padmashri in 2003 cannot however compete with the evergreen popularity this great actor had in the hearts of Malayalis. She belongs to the class of those beloved stalwarts of Malayalam cinema who found it as clay and left it as gold.

She was an actor, who in the age of the stardom racket and its marketing strategies and packaging, chose to occupy analogous spaces in the public imagination that placed her in stark opposition to the morally defined ideal spaces of the pure, chaste women of Malayalam cinema.

Yet the consummate artistry and subversive energy with which she plays these characters often helps in revealing cinema’s play with different models of femininity as also exposing commercial cinema’s moral and cultural ambivalences. One character which comes to mind immediately is Malu amma in Arappatta Kettiya Gramathil for which she won a state award.

In a cinema where female stardom is anathema and age, especially for women, is certainly a demographic definer of star value, Sukumari was an ‘older supporting star’ with a fairly bankable status who could be relied upon to bring out the best from the star cast of a film. She matured with Malayalam cinema and Malayalam cinema had to ripen for her.

That she is remembered for many of her movies that destabilised the cult of female domesticity, including highly satirical roles such as Rahel in Panchavadi Palam or the secretary of the housing colony in Gandhinagar 2nd Street, vouch for the infinite enthusiasm and capacity of this artiste to step beyond the trodden path. In refusing to be straitjacketed she pushed the boundaries of both her self and her art to invent fresh possibilities for both.

In more than half a century of Kerala’s social history the roles that Sukumari has enacted appear a richly layered cultural palimpsest upon which the contradictions and confusions of the Malayali’s gendered imaginations and values have been written and rewritten.

That she was able to embody and juggle with these confusions rather than offer herself to the moral fixities of her art form became the source of her perennial strength, her evergreen popularity and her shifting permanence on screen. A versatile and in-expendable genius, she will be remembered and loved as long as Malayalam cinema lives.