The endearing `aachi'

<122>For over 45 years, Manorama has kept audiences riveted with her distinct style, be it in films, serials or commercials. <122>In an interview to KAUSALYA SANTHANAM, the veteran comedienne shares her experiences, including her most recent appearance in an award-winning advertisement.

"THE LAND may be arid. But to me, it seems green and lush, and always welcoming," says the beloved `Aachi' of the Tamil film industry. Nearly half a century has gone by since she left the land of the Chettiars for the arc lights of Madras. She has more than a 1,000 films, 100s of stage performances and quite a few TV serials behind her and the awards are stacked by the score in the old fashioned cupboards in her home.

But Manorama's appeal is as fresh as the just cooked aroma of the aapam and spicy kurma of her native Chettinad. She has bridged 45 years with her talent and versatility, keeping step with vastly changed styles and approaches to film making and doing the transition on screen from a young woman in love to a respected matriarch with a rare mixture of flamboyance and grace. Hers is a success story with few parallels and the comedienne has had it crowned it with a Padma Sri last year.

"I accept to star in commercials but only if they are for good companies.

SPIC is a Chettinad product and so how could I say `no'? I only sang the ditty, the makers did the rest," she says modestly. Recovering from an angioplasty, she is still game for a long interview. There is hardly a role the veteran has not portrayed. Mistress, maid, housewife, harridan, slum dweller, socialite, rustic, sophisticate — she has played them all. The approach may sometimes be too robust or loud. But there is a freshness and credibility about the portrayal that makes producers seek her out even at 60 plus. With mastery over the lingo and an understanding of the traits and idiosyncrasies of women from different social strata, she has painted a gallery of characters that endures.

Those who have seen the star in her earlier films remember her as the companion to the princess and the go-between in her royal mistress' love affair with the handsome prince. The chirpy but not too bright companion to the prince is invariably in love with this sharp tongued perky young woman, who leads him a dance before they finally tie the knot. In the socials of the 1960s and 1970s too, the friend of the hero is a constant figure. She is the girl he loves much to the disapproval of her autocratic father who least wishes to have such a ne'er do well as his son-in-law. Along with Chandrababu/Thangavelu/Nagesh/Cho, Manorama managed to bring a smile to the most dour face. "I did learn a few aspects like perfect timing from my co-stars such as Nagesh and from watching the films of comediennes of the past such as Muthulakshmi and M. Saroja. But my style is my own and I am an instinctive actress. I put on the make-up and the costumes, and the role is almost half done as I get the feel of the character — "Aal Paadhi, Aadai Paadhi," smiles the actress who has starred in all the South Indian languages and in a Hindi film as well.

The veteran is proud of the fact that she has acted with four chief ministers of Tamil Nadu — Annadurai, Karunanidhi, MGR and Jayalalitha. "I have performed in Anna's play "Sivaji Kanda Samrajyam", which got Sivaji Sir (Ganesan) his prefix. But in the productions I appeared in, E.V. K.

Sampath played the main role instead of the thespian. I was the heroine in "Udaya Suryan" written by `Kalaignar' Karunanidhi. Here I belong to the DMK party, while the hero, Kalaignar, belongs to the Congress and I persuade him to join my party.(!)"

"I was just two years old when my mother discovered I had a flair for singing. She spotted me sitting in a corner and singing to myself after watching the film "Neelakantar." I was told my proud mother summoned all the neighbours to hear me."

This talent later led to her sing (playback) for heroines in plays and she soon became well known. The girl, born in Rajarmannargudi in Thanjavur district and who moved with her mother to Sivaganga in Chettinad, gained her first role as heroine by chance when she substituted for an absent actress in a company drama. So magnetic was her portrayal that she rapidly notched up hundreds of performances on stage. Actor S.S. Rajendran who happened to watch one of them offered her a role "Manimakudam". Kannadasan who saw it paved her way into cinema by signing her up as comedienne in "Malai Itta Mangai" in 1955.

"I was a trifle unhappy at not being cast as the heroine. But in those days, it was so difficult to get into cinema that I agreed. Endless rehearsals and screen tests had to be undergone and only a lucky few managed to make it." It was a decision she would never have to regret. For when all the heroines who had reigned then have long since vanished from the screen, Manorama manages to still light up the scene; even a mediocre film gets a boost when she puts in an appearance. "There are more talented artistes than I, but I have been lucky and it is all God's will." she says. "And for a comedienne to be awarded the Padma Sri is really an honour. When I went to the Rashtrapathi Bhavan to receive the award, I thought of my mother with gratitude for I owe it all to her."

"Thillana Mohanambaal" that was made exactly 10 years after "Malai Itta Mangai" was a film that proved to be a decisive one in my career. It was a perfect film and I had such a good role. The partial-to-the-hero danseuse Jil Jil Ramamani found a permanent place in the hearts of Tamil movie goers."

Exceptional characters on screen include the buck-toothed matriarch of "Chinna Gownder" and the hero's mother in "Chinna Thambi". "I had to do some tight rope walking as the 55-year-old woman who is drawn to a much younger man in "Nadigan." The roles are too numerous to list out."

It is not easy to make Manorama name a favourite co-star or director. "I have regard for all of them," she says softly. She confesses to a great admiration for A.P. Nagarajan. "He was truly a man of many talents, a `sakalakala vallavan'. He knew all aspects of film making thoroughly — editing, music, dance. Among others I admire, Sivaji Sir has a prime place. My ambition was to act with him as heroine. I achieved it in "Gnana Paravai". The film was not a success but my wish was fulfilled," she laughs. Did she ever dream she would be such a phenomenal success? "It is a great surprise to me," she admits candidly. "Every night, I think of my childhood and of the days of penury and want, and it helps me retain my balance. I have suffered a lot and as the poet Avvai, says "Kodumaiyilum kodumai ilamayil varumai" (the worst misfortune is to suffer from poverty in your youth). I'm able to take loss and gain in my stride because of this. Twenty days ago, I was very ill. My son Bhupathi cared for me and God saved me." She and her son narrate an incident in her life which even a sceptic will find uncanny in its coincidence." I was filming for "Kasthuri Manjal" a few years ago. It was a scene where I am on my death bed. I already had the make-up on and went into the nearby shed to change. I felt something sting me and when we switched on the lights, we found a snake slithering away. The boy who generally accompanies me to the shooting is from our village. He immediately took out a blade, sucked out the blood and applied a bandage. The reptile was killed but the directors dismissed it as a water snake."

"When I returned home in the evening," Bhupathi continues, "I found my mother seated in front of the TV. She greeted me, unusually, with just a nod and was fumbling for words. When I heard what had happened I asked them to produce the dead snake. It was a Russell's viper! (I have some knowledge of astrology and had predicted that she faced danger from snake bite.) I rushed her to hospital and doctors had to inject her with four vials of anti-snake venom . She regained consciousness only the next morning."

The amazing coincidence was when she returned to work two days later, in her first scene, she had to bathe the idol of a serpent and pray that the snake should be born as her daughter. The film was "Aadi Viratham", where her daughter is a Nagakanni. Two days later, in "Chinna Gownder", she had to enact a scene where she is bitten by a snake! We rushed her to Kalahasti and propitiated the snake gods." Though she has played spirited as well as sensitively realised characters in television serials, the veteran's passion remains cinema.

When you ask her why Tamil cinema, which has had a proud tradition in comediennes, has not produced anyone as versatile as her today, she smiles and murmurs, "What can I say to that?" But the answer is obvious.

Her distinctive touch, her ability to get into the soul of a persona and above all, her pride in her work. These are what make Manorama a comedienne who just cannot be cloned.

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