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Actress who glowed with inner beauty

A brilliant performer and star of multilingual cinema, Pandari Bai was also an excellent human being. RANDOR GUY pays homage to the artiste who passed away recently.

"Motor Sundaram Pillai" ... switching over to character roles with ease.

ONE NIGHT in 1942, in a small town in the old princely Mysore state, a poor drawing master-turned Harikatha Kalakshepam exponent and dramatist, Ranga Rao, and his son were in a state of nerve-snapping tension. Besides his Harikatha Kalakshepam career, Ranga Rao, who had given up his teaching job, had his own drama troupe, Amba Prasadika Nataka Mandali. The son had lately promoted his own troupe, Adarsha Nataka Sabha, and was staging one of his early productions.

The play was about to commence and the auditorium was filling up fast. But the heroine had not showed up. With tension rising, the son did not know what to do. And then the resourceful young man had a brain wave! In a matter of moments he brought in his pretty, young sister, who was hardly into her teens, to play the role, much to the shock of the orthodox and conservative parents.

Luckily for him the little sister knew all the lines and songs of the play. It was a success and the new entrant made a mark at once.

The successful debutante of that night was Pandari Bai — brilliant actress and star of multilingual cinema, though not so successful as a producer. And above all, an excellent human being.

She had acted in a thousand films in several languages like Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Hindi and enjoyed a long span of nearly half a century. She had played lead roles in many movies with success and then switched over to character roles. Besides being attractive, she had a glowing inner beauty and a distinctive affectionate air about her which made her an ideal screen mother. Her soft looks and dialogue delivery also added lustre and depth to such roles.

Interestingly, and perhaps ironically, in her later career she played the mother of stars older than she and with most of whom she had played the lead in her earlier years!

"Parasakthi" (1952, Tamil, a watershed in the history of Tamil cinema), "Thirumbi Paar" (1953, Tamil, a sadly under-rated film), "Andha Naal" (1954, a national award winner, in which her performance, according to many critics, overshadowed the brilliant acting of the legendary Sivaji Ganesan ), "Abba... aaa . Hudugi" (1959, Kannada), "Kula Deivam" (1956, Tamil), "Bhabhi" (Hindi, 1957), "Belli Moda" (1967, Kannada, the film which set Puttanna Kanagal on the ladder of success) and "Avalum Penn Dhaney" (1974, her own production, an off-beat hit film) and so many others. She did not take her bow (as has been widely reported) in the AVM box-office hit "Vazhkai" (1949). Indeed she appeared only in the Hindi version of the film, "Bahar" (surprisingly her name appeared in Hindi Cinema as `Padmini'!).

With Sivaji Ganesan in the award winning "Andha Naal".

Pandari Bai was born in 1930 in Bhatkal near Mangalore. The family was artistic and her father, instilled the Harikatha art in his little daughter. Even as a mere lass (under 10 years of age), Pandari gave performances drawing large crowds. During one of her plays in Mysore City, the legendary violin maestro, Mysore T. Chowdaiah, was among the audience.

Lured by the world of grease-paint and celluloid, the successful musician had made up his mind to produce a movie and also play the lead role in it.

Impressed by the young girl, her looks and performance, he cast her in his musical movie as the hero's daughter. That was the historic Kannada film, "Vani" (1943) and it marked Pandari Bai's entry into cinema. She was barely 13. But the movie fared badly at the box-office. Recently, a print of "Vani" was found by `Master' Hiranaiah (the comedian's son) and it is being reconditioned for screening.

Pandari Bai made her debut in Tamil in the mega hit of 1944, the M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar-starrer (114 week- non-stop runner) "Haridas". In the opening song sequence, "Vaazhvil Ore Thirunaal..", the hero (MKT) on a horse chases a skimpily clad young girl. That's Pandari Bai!

Her first major role was in Kannada, "Gora Kumbhar" (1949), in which her hero was the singing star of the day, Honnappa Bhagavathar. She joined AVM Studios in Karaikudi as a staff artiste, and appeared in a brief role as Goddess Kali in "Vethala Ulagam" (1949). Her role in Kempraj's "Raja Vikrama" (1950, Kannada and Tamil) impressed AVM. He recalled her and cast her as the heroine in the sensational success, "Parasakthi" (1952). She held her own in many scenes with the torrential Tamil-speaking performance by the then unknown newcomer, Sivaji Ganesan. The rest, as they say, is history. She became a producer in 1957 and her first film was in Kannada, "Rayara Soose". The film did not do as well as expected. She made movies both in Kannada and Tamil but it was not, sadly, a success story. Deeply religious, she built a temple in Kodambakkam, near her residence for her favourite deity Panduranga. She remained single for many years and sacrificed her life for the sake of the family, her brothers and sisters and their children. Late in life she married Srinivasa Rao who managed her business affairs.

With the changing trends in cinema and her advancing age, her career began to decline.

Her health too suffered a setback and she lost the use of one hand in an accident. In spite of it all, she fought bravely spreading sunshine all around.

Few are aware that she received many offers in Hindi cinema to play the elder sister but rejected them all.

There have been many actresses in South Indian Cinema who perhaps have had more success, fame and fortune but they never came up to the standards of Pandari Bai for her simplicity, kind heart and loving human warmth. Rare commodities in the world of movies...

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