As Veroni in Sathyan Anthikad’s Puthiya Theerangal, Molly was an absolute knock out. The spirited chavittunadakam artiste tells Anasuya Menon that she was born for this art

Molly has just woken up from her siesta. Lying on a plastic mat spread out in the hall-cum-TV room-cum bedroom of her hut, she makes an effort to sit up. “I wake up at 3 a.m. So a nap during the day is good,” she says, pulling her hair back into a pony tail. The room can barely house three people at a time and the unplastered brick walls have darkened it. This two-room hovel near Puthenthodu fishing gap in Kannamaly is ‘film star’ Molly’s house.

Her inimitable style

She is the current talking point in Kannamaly. Journalists have become regulars at her door and she gets a number of calls on her cell phone from television and FM channels. As Veroni in Sathyan Anthikad’s Puthiya Theerangal, Molly was an absolute knock out, sending the crowd into raptures with her classic Kochi fisher-folk lingo.

“Whenever I came on screen and spoke my part, people would start clapping,” she says. “I clapped too, and laughed loudly. Come on, how am I to know I had done such a good job?” It was Molly’s first ever visit to a movie theatre. The matinee crowd, of course, recognised her. “Ente Mathave (Mother of God) a girl just ran towards me and hugged me, I couldn’t breathe,” she says. Her co-star in the film, Dharmajan, almost advised Molly not to venture out to Ernakulam lest she be mobbed. “Can you imagine? Me, with my dashing looks, being mobbed!” she says, entertaining herself with her self-deprecating humour.

Molly’s rib-tickling repartees in quick succession leave no time for regaining composure. “Here, people ask me for a treat. I told them to go fly a kite,” she says (loosely translated).

Her foray into films was rather unexpected. A friend, who knows her as a Chavittunadakam artiste, suggested her name to Anwar Rasheed for his short film Bridge in the portmanteau film Kerala Cafe. She did a small part in it followed by similar short roles in Chaapa Kurishu and Anwar. Puthiya Theerangal is her first full-length role.

One of the very few women who still perform the Chavittunadakam, a Latin Christian art form, which is believed to have originated in Kochi, Molly is a veteran. She started performing at the age of ten and has since been stomping from one stage to another. The high-energy art form involves a lot of action and vocal prowess. A play that starts at 9 p.m. would easily go on till 5 a.m. It would take about six months to perfect a piece and staging an entire play can cost up to Rs. 50,000.

“And what do the artistes get? A namaskaram (greeting) and nothing else. Why do you think nobody is interested in this art anymore?” she asks. Despite the sheer physical strain and no monetary incentive, Molly is passionate about it. “Even today, when I put on the makeup and my costume, I could pass off as a 12-year-old. As soon as the curtain goes up and the crowd sees me, they cheer and scream out my name. Then I just give a super performance,” she says, emerging from the other room in a canary yellow sari, smelling of talcum powder. Molly is 49 years old and quite frail.

Though churches in Kochi still try to keep Chavittunadakam alive, its rules are increasingly being tweaked now, Molly says disapprovingly. Traditionally, the songs are sung by the actors themselves, but now some shows use pre-recorded songs. Molly has directed a play, too, which was staged at the church at Mundamveli, where she was born.

Honoured by Akademi

The Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi honoured her in 1999 for her contribution to Chavittunadakam. The trophy has been displayed on a wooden ledge inside the house, along with a few other rusty trophies Molly has won. “There was no space to keep all these inside. I had put them all in a sack and left them outside,” she says. And she used the ponnada to stitch costumes for herself. “Are you kidding me? Of what use is it to me?” she asks, her wit sharper than a scalpel.

Molly became a head-load worker after her husband deserted her when their second son was barely three months old. The house, which she shares with her daughter-in-law and two grandchildren, was left to her by her mother. It was ravaged by the 2004 tsunami. Even as many of her neighbours got new concrete houses as part of the relief measures, Molly did not get any help. “I asked the Panchayat, each time they would say I would be considered. Except the house, the sea took away everything.” She points to a house nearby and says, “A boy there was getting married on the day the sea broke in. All the Avalosunda and achapams (snacks) were floating about .”

With the money she got from the film, Molly paid off a few debts. “If I get another 20,000, I can do something for this house,” she says.

Though she hopes to get more offers from films, Molly will never say goodbye to the stage. “Are you mad? That’s what I was born for,” she says, her riotous laughter lingering on long after we say good bye.