Bhanumathi was one actress who did not confine her talents to the silver screen.
"PEOPLE in the film industry call me high-spirited and a woman who tried to get what she wanted and often succeeded. Their assessment was correct," said famous film star Bhanumathi who died recently in Chennai. The comment was made in 1980 when I met her for an article on S.S.Vasan, the movie moghul of Gemini Studios. Bhanumathi often laughed and her laughter was infectious. She cited roles from her 100-odd films in a 55-year career to prove the point. "Do you remember the scene from Gemini's `Apoorva Sahodarargal' where disguised as a kitchen maid I hoodwinked dozens of enemy soldiers and escaped?" she asked. I nodded. "Wasn't that where you sang `Laddoo Laddoo Mithai Venumaa'?" She nodded happily. "Vasan sir liked that scene very much."
Among her earlier Tamil films, she liked "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" because the heroine Marjiana was a go-getter. I asked her about "Nalla Thambi", a Tamil social satire produced by comedian N.S. Krishnan, in which she played Cleopatra. "That was part of a fantasy scene," she pointed out. "Krishnan Sir was more of a socialist. I played an arrogant rich woman while the real hero and heroine were Krishnan and his wife T.A. Madhuram. This was a film where I could not do anything even when the hero, Nalla Thambi, distributed my entire wardrobe of saris to poor women." As we chatted, I wondered at her versatility. Entering show business at 13, she went on to become a super star in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Hindi films and also excelled as a singer, music director, editor, director, producer, studio owner, author, social worker. "Don't forget my abilities as a cook," she reminded me. "Perhaps, that was why the `Laddoo Laddoo' song clicked in a big way," I replied. "You referred to Tamil, Telugu, Kerala and North Indian cuisine in that song." She was the recipient of so many awards, winning the National Award thrice and the Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan. A lover of both classical and light music, Bhanumathi sang her own songs and was not nervous when cast opposite well-known singer, M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavadhar in her maiden Tamil film, "Raja Mikthii". Her husband, Ramakrishna, whom she married at age 18, encouraged her creative talents and explained that she should feel honoured to be cast opposite such a senior actor. The rest was easy. She co-starred opposite all the leading men of her days doing the maximum number of films with such famous actors like NTR, MGR and Sivaji Ganesan. Her earlier Tamil films like "Apoorva Sahodarargal", "Malai Kallan", "Ali Baba" and "Nalla Thambi" were fun films, which did not tax her acting ability. But with recognition as a top star came more challenging roles. "Acting with Shivaji Ganesan sir was indeed an experience," pointed out Bhanumathi. "Films like `Rangoon Radha' and `Ambikapathi' taught me nuances of emotional acting in which Shivaji Sir was so good."
Bhanumathi was brilliant as a mother in "Annai" where she would not give up her hold on her adopted son to his real mother even after he had grown up. Nirupa Roy played the role in the Hindi version but the producers demanded that Bhanumathi be brought back for its Telugu version. By that time, she had planned her retirement and the producer shelved the idea. She picked up languages quickly and did not need dubbing for her Hindi films like "Nishan" and "Shamsher" with thespian Ashok Kumar. "I could have done more Hindi films," pointed out Bhanumathi, "but the roles I was offered were of the same kind. Tamil cinema was more challenging."
I had a sneaking suspicion that she loved writing and music more than acting. No wonder, her autobiography in Telugu, Nalo Nenu, won an award as the "Best book of the Year" in 1994. She talked enthusiastically about compulsory primary education and the need for more rural schools. No wonder the couple ran a school at Salligramam in Chennai. We had to put up with columns and columns of stereotyped stuff on Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan in the media. But, barring one, not one Mumbai daily carried a report on the death of the versatile genius, Bhanumathi!