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Vignettes of a veteran's life

Innumerable films, varied roles... It is 52 years since Sukumari entered the industry with the Tamil film, "Oar Iravu", as a 10-year old. An interview with the thespian.


"IT'S CALLED the `Samsaram Adhu Minsaram' set, near AVM Studios. I am shooting there for Ananda Vikatan's tele serial, `Appa'. Come over," says Sukumari in the most casual tone, as if she were talking to a long time friend. And in person, she proves your surmise is right, as she welcomes you with a warm smile.

"Life is too short to be wasted in senseless ego and false pride. Wherever I work, I am friendly with all the unit hands," she smiles as she sits down to converse. Ravivarman (of "Armaan" fame), the cinematographer of Sukumari's recent Malayalam film with Mohanlal and Soundarya in the lead, "Kilichundaan Mambazham", now running in Chennai cinemas, vouches for her genial nature. "She's a wonderful person and an excellent actress," he says. She is friendly with everyone and though I am very much junior to her she would follow instructions completely. Her sense of camera angles and lighting is wonderful. Generally during a shot, artistes tend to move away from the spot marked, not Sukumari ... " his eulogy goes on.

And as Sukumari fields your queries with cheerfulness, you begin to admire this simple woman with a philosophical bent, whom life cannot fluster easily.

Latest things first — her Padma Sri. "I am very happy. When people tell me that I should have got it earlier, my reply is, `Let me be thankful for having been awarded it now' ... in case such comments make those at the helm have second thoughts," she quips. But on a serious note she has a point to make. Up there nobody knows anything about our artistes and their achievements. It is the States that recommend the names of those who deserve the honour. Instead of sending a long list of names to Delhi, a maximum of three, with salient details of their achievements would be more fruitful, she feels.

Meanwhile, there has been a spate of felicitations for Sukumari — in Chennai, Bangalore and even Mumbai — on her having been awarded the Padmashri. It is 52 years since she first entered the industry with the Tamil film, "Oar Iravu", as a 10-year old. Like her famous cousins, Lalitha, Padmini and Ragini, she danced her way into cinema. "I have lost count of the number of solo and group dances I have done in films," she says. But not many can forget the famous "Varayen Thozhi ... " number she danced for in the Tamil film, "Paasa Malar". "My son Suresh was three months old then," she laughs. Today, Suresh is a doctor. Her daughter-in-law Uma is a costume designer. Grandson Vignesh is in school. "Uma helps me with my costumes too... more than even my son, it was Uma who was thrilled about my Padmashri."

Prior to "Paasa Malar" Sukumari had done innumerable films and stage performances. "All the shows were with Lalitha, Puppima and Ragini," she says. The three Travancore beauties of the silver screen were her aunt's daughters. "Their mother Saraswati and my father were brother and sister. I came away to Chennai with them, where I have lived ever since, learnt dance and performed with them. My aunt's word was everything. I didn't know much about my parents at all," she says.

Her marriage to Bhimsingh, and motherhood were never deterrents to her career. And though she worked in a few Malayalam films as heroine, it is as a character artiste that she is known till date. "No regrets. I never planned anything in life. Just took things as they came. If I had been a heroine, I may have had to sit at home after a few years. But till today I do a variety of roles ... " she explains. Sukumari acted as the cantankerous mother-in-law of Sivaji Ganesan and possessive mother of the present Tamil Nadu CM, in "Pattikkaada Pattanama", nearly three decades ago. When director P. Madhavan approached her for the role, her husband told her to accept it. "Nobody gets younger. You are a mother in real life. Why not on screen, he asked. I accepted. Initially, I was hesitant about having to slap Sivaji Ganesan for a scene ... " she laughs.


After touching upon her prowess in comedy, her sense of timing and her popular Malayalam films such as "Samaandharangal", the topic naturally shifts to one of her recent Malayalam films, Adoor Gopalakrishnan's "Nizhalkuthu", which has won wide acclaim. "It was my first film with Adoor Gopalakrishnan. People had told me that he is very strict and brusque. But it was not at all so. During lunch, he would go around to check whether everyone till the last unit boy had been served, before he went to eat," she reminisces. Sukumari plays a hangman's wife in the film — a very soft character. The hangman was `Oduvil' Unnikrishnan, who has won the Kerala State Award for his performance in "Nizhalkuthu". It was 12 days of work for the actress, and when at the end of it, Adoor told her that he regretted not having used her in his films even earlier it was a crowning glory for her.

How many of us know that this versatile actress is an indispensable part of Cho Ramaswamy's Tamil theatre troupe, Viveka Fine Arts Club, for more than three decades now? (Viveka staged its "Mohammed Bin Thuglaq" for the nth time just about a week ago.) Till I joined the troupe, it was the male members themselves who were doing female roles." Her interest in theatre was probably triggered by her cousin Ragini, who was a member of YGP's United Amateur Artistes for long. Sukumari talks about the members of the Viveka troupe with affection. "Not everyone would find such a congenial group to work with. Any problem a troupe member faces, Cho is always there to lend a helping hand. And it's not just Cho alone. His brother Ambi, Neelu, Rangachari, Naani ... I cannot forget any of them. That also includes my well-wisher and friend, Chakravarthy."

Sukumari is working in Malayalam television serials too. "Yes ... "Mayamma" has been going on for long. "Vandanam" is another." Whether it is television, cinema or theatre, nothing is taboo for Sukumari. "People call me because they think I would suit the role, why should I reject it? To me no role is bad."

Sukumari has other projects too, like the recent two-minute film (on the need to pay Income Tax) with Kamal Hassan, which was flashed often on the small screen. "Art director Sabu Cyril called me up one morning. I was leaving for Trivandrum that day but they said the shoot would be over in two hours and I did it," she smiles.

But surely these non-stop work schedules could be reduced ... "I am a workaholic and can't stand imperfection. So when at home I keep doing some thing or the other and end up nagging others that my son feels that it is better if I am busy working," Sukumari laughs.

Even after you take leave, the picture of the veteran warmly waving to you from the gates of the studio set, lingers in your mind for long.

MALATHI RANGARAJAN

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