With her versatile talent Padmini lit up the silver screen for over two decades.
A classical dancer, multi-faceted personality, and talented movie star, she brought rare power, charm, charisma, and great beauty to her many movie roles in Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu and Hindi. A star with a track record of over two hundred movies, Padmini, the most popular of the trio, the 'Travancore Sisters' (Lalitha and Ragini being the other two) died a few days ago in Chennai to which she had relocated after 35 years in the U.S., where she lived with her husband Ramachandran, a doctor. Born in 1932 in Trivandrum, she made her cinema debut as a teenager in the sadly underrated dance-oriented movie 'Kalpana' (1948), an Uday Shankar classic produced at Gemini Studios, Madras. Soon after, the sisters and their mother P.K.Saraswathi Amma, a woman of immense drive, settled down in Madras to pursue dancing careers. The sisters made a mark quickly and appeared in dance sequences in many movies like 'Velaikkari,' 'Geetha Gandhi,' 'Krishna Vijayam' and 'Pavalakodi' (all 1949), winning fame and name. Gemini Studios boss and movie mogul S.S.Vasan, cast Padmini in the lead in 'Mr. Sampat' (1952), a reworked version of Tamil social satire 'Miss Malini,' which brought her to the attention of the Hindi cinema world where, before long, she began to make an impact.
Meanwhile her career as leading lady began to take off and she appeared in many Tamil and Malayalam movies, quite a few hailed as classics, including 'Madurai Veeran,' 'Amaradeepam' (1956), and 'Vanjikottai Valiban' with Gemini Ganesan (1958) and 'Mannadhi Mannan' known for its lilting music. The highlight of 'Vanjikottai Valiban,' was the scintillating and enthralling 'dance duel' between Padmini and Vyjayanthimala, which has come to be regarded as one of the best dance sequences in Indian cinema. One of her finest Tamil movies, a major box-office success was 'Thangapadhumai' (1959), a brilliant adaptation of the Kannagi epic by A.S.A.Sami who directed the movie. Her spirited delivery of jaw-breaking dialogue, recalled Pasupuleti Kannamba's classic 'Kannagi,' was a masterpiece in movie acting. According to Sami, Padmini virtually scored hands down over the hero Sivaji Ganesan. He recalled that while the climax sequence was being shot, Padmini worked on her dialogue not even taking a break for lunch. "I have rarely seen such devotion among the numerous actresses I've directed in my long career," said Sami.
Many of her Malayalam hits created film history. Mention must be made of 'Snehaseema' (1954), a brilliant adaptation of Alfred Tennyson's famous story-poem 'Enoch Arden.' Other Malayalam movies include 'Adhyapika' (1968) and 'Adimagal' (1969).Padmini's reputation as a classic actress of high merit rests on her memorable Tamil movies 'Madurai Veeran,' 'Amaradeepam' (1956), 'Veera Pandiya Kattaboman' (1959), 'Chitthi' (1966), 'Penn Deivam' (1970), 'Vietnam Veedu' (1970) and so on. Her most fondly remembered Tamil movie is 'Thillana Mohanambal' (1968), in which she proved to be a fine match for Sivaji Ganesan. Directed by A.P. Nagarajan, based on a popular magazine serial by Kothamangalam Subbu, it became a cult classic with an excellent portrayal of the rich Thanjavur culture in its many aspects. Few are aware that prints of this film in 16-mm format were acquired by universities in the U.S. for the study of South Indian culture, Thanjavur in particular.
Besides her glamorous heroine roles, she excelled in 'mother' roles, memorably in 'Vietnam Veedu' and 'Penn Deivam.' Of a similar genre was 'Chitthi' (1966) in which she portrayed a young woman forced to marry an elderly widower with a family and her problems in taking care of them. Equally successful in Hindi, she excelled in 'Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai' (1960, and did a scintillating song-dance sequence to "Kya huaa... ."), and 'Mera Naam Joker' (1970) created by master showman Raj Kapoor. Padmini settled in New Jersey where she ran an Indian classical dance institute, the biggest of its kind in the U.S. She began working on her autobiography, deciding 'to tell all,' and set about interviewing a chosen few (including this writer). Regretfully, she died without completing the book. Warm-hearted and vivacious, Padmini was a rare human being. She will live on through her movies.
Of her second innings, mention must be made of Fazil's 'Poovey Poochoodavaa.' The Malayalam filmmaker drew a fascinating performance out of Padmini, who played the grandmother, making the movie a success.
The illustrious actor, an unassailable beauty of her times, has left an imprint that's not easy to equal. Padma Subrahmanyam, Vineet's dance guru, was herself very attached to Padmini. "Pappima gave her salangai (ankle bells) to Padhu akka (Padma) for her arangetram. 'It was because I wore your bells then that I'm still dancing,' akka would often tell her." Interacting with Padmini over the years has been a tremendous learning experience for Vineet. "She would narrate interesting experiences that she had had while working with greats such as Sivaji Ganesan. And she had an insatiable zest for life. 'Now that I've decided to live in Chennai, I'm already excited about the December music and dance season,' she told us." When Vineet says his aunt was an amazing actor and a remarkable dancer, they are matters you are aware of. But when he dwells on her punctuality and describes her as a perfectionist, you wish to know more. "She was never late for any event big or small. And whatever she did, even if it was a minor task, it had to be perfect," he says. When Padmini had gone over to Kerala this past week for the function at Vineet's place, she had come prepared to sing a song for the occasion. She insisted on having rehearsals the previous day so that it was rightly rendered. "After all, it was just a family get-together. Yet everything had to be properly done. That was Pappima," sighs Vineet. He sums up his memories of his aunt in one word — "Divine!" And concludes, "How many would get a chance to have a guide and well wisher like her? I consider myself extremely blessed." More than anything else the exchange with Vineet offers glimpses of the wonderful human being that Padmini was. And that makes the sense of loss even more ...