Cinema

Courage goaded her on …

SCALING ODDS WITH GRIT: S.N. Lakshmi  

None who follows Tamil cinema can forget the kind mother with a strict façade in ‘Server Sundaram,’ the disappointed parent of Saroja Devi in ‘Thaenum Paalum,’ the grandma of Urvasi in ‘Michael Madhana Kama Rajan,’ whose peccadilloes had you in splits, the helpful mother-in-law in of Kamal Haasan in ‘Mahanadhi’ or the old woman of ‘Thevar Magan,’ whose heart rending cries in the climax haunted you for long. Veteran actor S.N. Lakshmi’s oeuvre includes many such outstanding roles.

“Long years of theatre experience have helped me,” says Lakshmi, who has more than 2000 plays to her credit. From Ganandesikar’s and N.S. Krishnan’s theatre troupes to Sahasranamam’s Seva Stage and K. Balachander’s Ragini Recreations, Lakshmi has trained under stalwarts. “I travelled with NSK to several places, as part of their theatre troupe and as his wife T.A. Madhuram’s assistant,” she recounts.

Lakshmi acted as a man in many all-woman plays, doing stunts and acrobatics. I was trained in fights and was made to do workouts to look manly,” she laughs. ‘Stunts’ Somu, the well-known action choreographer of yore would sit in the first row of the drama hall and applaud her for her sword fights! “I’ve even fought a leopard for the MGR film, ‘Baghdad Thirudan.’ But till date I’m terrified of cats!”

Not just fights, histrionics too came easily to Lakshmi. “But can you believe me if I tell you that as a child I disliked dance and acting,” she asks.

Plays and one-scene appearances in films continued till N.S. Krishnan gave her a pivotal role in ‘Nalla Thangai.’ But the real boost was Muktha Srinivasan’s maiden venture ‘Thamarai Kulam.’ ‘Server Sundaram’ came Lakshmi’s way when AVM, the producers, decided to cast her in the same role she played on stage. “Nagesh was very impressed with my performance in the play and told KB that they should accept ‘Server Sundaram’ shows only if my dates were available.” Balachander, with his acumen for spotting talent, assigned worthy roles for her in his films and plays. When ‘Naanal’ was made into a film, Sowcar Janaki enacted the part Lakshmi did in the play. “I’m never jealous, because I believe what has to come my way will,” she observes. She played Muthuraman’s mother in the film.

Kamal Haasan gave her roles in many of his films. “I was on my annual visit to Puttaparthi, when he called me up for ‘Thevar Magan.’ I told him I had to be there for two more days. ‘Get the Swami’s blessings and come over. We are waiting for you,’ he said.” Till ‘Virumaandi’, Lakshmi has been a part of nearly all Kamal productions. Such was Kamal’s confidence in her ability that he would ask the assistants to give her the dialogue and move away, confident that she’d handle it on her own. “Mani Ratnam too did the same,” she says. “The sequence in ‘Agni Nakshatram’ where I confront Karthik won accolades.”

When shooting the climactic sequence for ‘Dheerga Sumangali,’ director A.C. Trilokchander told her that she had to cry without using glycerine. “The main characters were lying ‘dead.’ I wept spontaneously. ‘How did you do it,’ Jayachitra, who was part of the scene, asked me. ‘Because the director told me to,’ I smiled. Actually it comes with years of training. Sivaji would say that we theatre artists must be able to weep on cue without the help of glycerine. Actors like K.R. Vijaya like me a lot. I often think of Jaishankar. He was very kind and helpful to all,” Lakshmi reminisces. She has worked with almost all top directors including S.P. Muthuraman. “Even in his debut film, ‘Kanimuthu Paapa’ I had a role.”

“See these,” she enthusiastically shows pictures of her with other members of S.V. Sahasranamam’s troupe, standing beside Presidents Babu Rajendra Prasad and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, and Krishna Menon and Jawaharlal Nehru. “We had gone to Delhi to stage plays at the Rashtrapathi Bhavan,” she smiles.

Strangely, even from a very young age Lakshmi has played mother to actors who were her age or older. “I didn’t mind,” she says. “Whatever the role I give it my best shot. When I did plays, ‘You shouldn’t leave the stage without getting an ovation,’ Sahasranamam would tell me and I managed it most of the time.”

Those of us who wilt under the slightest pressure should find Lakshmi’s arduous early struggle to keep afloat, an inspiration. Survival alone was foremost in the mind of the 11-year-old girl, the 13th child in the family, who left home anguished, because her six brothers who were much older, did not give their kid sister the attention she deserved. “We had to shift from our village, Sennalkudi, to Virudhunagar. Father was dead and mother worked at a small hotel and also at the temple there to keep the family going. I was so upset that I couldn’t take it any longer,” she recalls.

But how did she dare to go out into the world without any one to call her own? “I think the boldness came with frustration. ‘Let-me-see-what-more-suffering-awaits-me,’ kind of recklessness! In our days a girl didn’t have to fear lurking dangers. I don’t think it is possible today,” she says.

Her neighbour, a dancer, was the one who helped Lakshmi join a drama troupe. The little girl quickly picked up the steps she was taught and travelled with them from place to place. When the actors reached Raja Mannargudi they left her with a family which put her on a train to Chennai and bade farewell. The little girl came to the city visibly perplexed and forlorn, when help came in the form of a lorry driver’s wife who noticed her moving around alone and showed her the way to Gemini Studios, which opened its doors to the destitute.

Lakshmi remembers with gratitude the help of Venkatarama Iyer, (cinematographer Babu’s grandfather), who was a manager at Gemini then. “Rehearsals for the famous drum dance in ‘Chandralekha’ were going on. When they said they could not accommodate me I broke down. ‘I can’t go back to my town. Give me a job,’ I pleaded. Thinking of the ordeal, Lakshmi’s eyes turn moist. Venkatarama Iyer felt sorry for the girl and asked dance masters Nataraj and Shakuntala to try out a few dance steps with her. “I was able to grasp them immediately,” says Lakshmi, and adds: “The girl on the third drum in the sequence is me.”

It took eight years for her family to find her. “It was an emotional reunion, but by then I had moved too far away from them.” Marriage didn’t appeal to her. Her brothers’ grand children and their kids are now regulars at the grand aunt’s place. “I like to help people,” she says.

Till about two years ago, she would drive around everywhere. “Only after I broke my leg have I been forced to stop. I would take off in my car to even as far away as Kanyakumari. I love driving,” she smiles.

Her favourite pastime? “Where do I find time to pass? I come home at 10 in the night after shoot,” says the septuagenarian. In all these years, she has never faced dearth of work. Even now she is busy with three television soaps – ‘Thendral,’ ‘Uravukku Kai Koduppom’ and ‘Mundhanai Mudichchu’ – and two features, including the soon-to-be-released ‘Drohi.’ On Sunday mornings you can see her at Sai Kripa, a free medical centre in the city, helping the staff. “Somehow people recognise me more after I entered TV,” she says.

Does she remember the number of films she has worked in? “I kept track till it touched 400. After that I lost count,” she laughs.


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Printable version | Sep 24, 2021 7:29:46 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/cinema/Courage-goaded-her-on-%E2%80%A6/article16303894.ece

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