Hard act to follow

Actor Kalpana, who died last Monday at the age of 51, was perhaps Malayalam cinema’s first official ‘female comedienne’. But neither the tag nor the bracket would limit the consummate actor that she was. Excelling across genres with characteristic ease and finesse, Kalpana leaves behind 300-odd films and innumerable moments to cherish.

Theatre artistes Chavara V. P. Nair and Vijayalakshmi named their girls after what they loved most – art. Kala, Kalpana and Kavitha, who were fed on creative passion, all grew up to become fine actors. When Kala Ranjini and Kavitha Manoranjini (renamed ‘Urvashi’ for the marquee) went on to don female leads, Kalpana Priyadarsini marked her territory in comedy.

A natural when it came to acting, she made the most obnoxious look real and spontaneous. Her comedy timing was on par with the doyens of the industry like Jagathy Sreekumar and Innocent, with whom she etched celebrated on-screen partnerships. She embraced her characters with remarkable ease. Thanks to her body language, voice and performance rhythm, which were distinct yet common enough, she could embody the values and virtues of all classes.

Whatever she said and did on screen were to become benchmarks, which only she could outdo. Even mundane, common denominator humour got redefined every time Kalpana essayed a role. Reminiscing the times she shifted to comedy, Kalpana once said, “ Peruvannapurathe Visheshangal was a turning point in my career. I was offered the role of Mohini in the film, and I was hesitant to take it up. I was basking in the glory of the success of my first Tamil film Chinna Veedu and I thought I should be sticking to lead roles only. It was my mother who asked me to reconsider my decision. She argued that as an actor, I should be open to explore any role that is being offered to me, irrespective of how long or short, and what the nature of the part is.”

The film went on to become a huge success and also marked the active beginning of Kalpana’s career as a comedienne. A slew of films followed in Malayalam and Tamil - Dr Pasupathy, Kabooliwala, Gaandharvam, Kudumba Vishesham, CID Unnikrishnan BA, B.Ed, Kudumbakodathi, Ishtam, Sathi Leelavathi, Dumm Dumm Dumm, Pammal K Sambandam, to name a few.

Director Anil (of the Anil-Babu duo) and Kalpana got married in 1998. Divorced in 2012, Kalpana has a daughter, Sreemayi, from the marriage.

With the transition in the personal front mirroring the professional, Kalpana diversified from comedy to portray more serious characters. Ranging from Sayanam to Charlie, directed by M.P. Sukumaran Nair and Martin Prakkat, respectively, she touched upon the hitherto untouched nuances of agony. So powerful were the portrayals that we often repressed it, preferring to remember Kalpana in her comic roles, simply because the former was too intense to handle.

Kalpana won her first and only National Award in 2012, for the film Thanichalla Njaan, directed by Babu Thiruvalla. Based on a real life story, Kalpana excelled as Rasiya, a Muslim caretaker who forms a unique bond with a Namboothiri woman.

During one of the interviews post the national award, Kalpana, in a witty mood, remarked: “This is a top rank in the class that I always dreamt of and never got. I didn’t believe it when I first heard the news. And I still have not framed and displayed the award certificate I got from Delhi. It seems very unreal. But what made me joyous was the appreciation I got from my peers. It is something that I value a lot. Oscar-deserving artistes congratulating me on my national award… that feels great.”

With many more awards and films to come, her career hit an abrupt end. Her last film Charlie has a momentous moment, where the long-suffering character Mary (played by Kalpana) embarks on a midnight boat ride into the sea, to witness a ceremonial voyage of the Christ on the Cross, a tradition followed by some churches in Kerala. The camera briefly cuts to a conversation between Charlie (played by Dulquer Salmaan) and the boatman. Cut back to Mary, we only get to see the empty bow and the peaceful sea around, implying she was gone.

So that was it. As swift as the wind. As simple as it can get.

One of the most vibrant personal memories of Kalpana is of meeting her during a recording of a television interview of her actor-sister Urvashi. Kalpana had doubled up as Urvashi’s make-up artiste-cum-assistant for the event. She would unassumingly go about her work and then hang around near the spot with a touch up pad, mirror and a bottle of water, like a true professional.

At an occasion where she could have easily draped her celebrity status to throw her weight around, Kalpana opted to remain human, as she always did off screen, with a down-to-earth attitude that earned her the popular title ‘Kalpana chechi’.

Straight talking, witty, and ever warm, it is hard to believe she is gone. Till memories surface to bridge the distance, Adieu chechi.

(Sangeeta is an independent filmmaker)

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Printable version | Sep 20, 2020 11:17:15 AM |

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