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Having the last laugh

Manorama has endured every hardship and emerged unscathed to laugh and make others laugh. A tête-à-tête with the super comedienne, who was in the city recently.

WITH GRATITUDE, she remembers the late Kannadasan, who changed her life forever when he cast her in his film, `Maalayitta Mangai', in 1957. Today, Manorama is an established actress, a celluloid phenomenon with over a 1,000 films to her credit. Unbelievable? Not quite! Manorama, South India's ace comedienne, is an epitome of perseverance and dedication.

The actress has been in the showbiz for well over 40 years. But her looks belie her age, and the hard life she had as a child. She harks back to the days when she was just another "poor girl" hailing from Rajamanargudi in Thanjavur district. Her parents had parted ways and her mother left home for Palathur with a barely one-year-old Manorama. Later, Manorama started singing for plays. She had a melodious voice and a fantastic memory. "I could memorise 200 odd lines of dialogue in less than 24 hours," she says.

Lady Luck smiled upon her, when a heroine, for whom she was to sing, refused to perform on stage. The organisers became worried. And Manorama stepped in. The rest, as they say, is history. She has done about 5,000 stage performances including `Shivaji Kanda Samrajyam' and `Udaya Suryan'. The breakthrough came when Kannadasan chanced to see her perform. He cast the 13-year-old in his film, `Maalayitta Mangai'.

"He (Kannadasan) told me that if I did that comic role, I'd come up in life. Today, his words have come true and I owe my career to him. Kadavul has been kind to me."

Manorama shot into limelight with her portrayal of Jil Jil Ramamani in `Thillana Mohanambal'. The Nagesh-Manorama pair captured the hearts of cine-goers. She has portrayed over 800 comic characters and more than 250 character roles. She has acted in Tamil, Telegu and Kannada films. "Till the day I die, I suppose I'll act. I wish my health and age permit me to do that. Acting is my life," she says.

Care to tell us about any character that she's longed to portray and yet couldn't? "Yes, there's one such character, that of a eunuch."

Why this particular role?

"Eunuchs are looked down upon by society. Many eunuchs have come and told me that they wish to see me portraying their lives -- the agony of being a eunuch, the misery of living in a world where none accepts their existence. But no one has come to me with a script that centres on such a character. I'm still waiting."

She cherishes her role in `Chinna Gowndar'. The actress has acted with all the three film star-turned-chief ministers of Tamil Nadu, MGR, Karunannidhi and Jayalalithaa.

"The most difficult thing is to make people laugh. It is easy to make them cry," she says.

Manorama is a success because she's an all-rounder -- she can sing, dance, make people laugh and cry with equal aplomb. Her niche is definitely comedy, but not the add-on-humour variety.

Manorama infuses the comic element into her roles, for she believes in using humour as a "natural channel of expression" rather than "digression from the main theme of the film".

These days she's busy with her small screen show titled `Musirama', a musical comedy.

What does she do when she does not have to go for a shoot? "I have no secretary, I handle my own call sheets. So I take time off now and then. I go to Tirupathi whenever I can, and also to the Amman kovils."

What does she pray to God for? "In my next birth, I wish to be born as Manorama, to the same mother. And I want Bhupathi as my son again. My husband, mother and siblings are no more."

"Ours is a simple home. We do not lead an extravagant lifestyle," adds Bhupathi, her son who dabbled in films and does TV serials now. The four cars she owns today remind the actress of her rags-to-riches story.

"Whatever be the role, I give it my best."

So the show goes on -- from matinee to primetime on TV and back.

SMITHA SADANANDAN

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