Manorama, More Than Aachi

She brought the best of conventional Tamil theatre – a tradition she came from – to the silver screen and gave lead actors of her time a run for their money.

The Indian film industry has seldom allowed an artiste, especially a female one, to flourish under the arc lights for six decades. Manorama, the celebrated Tamil actor who passed away in Chennai on Saturday, not only fit into scripts and roles with an exuberance that did justice to the various characters or varying ages she played but also to the different eras and generations of cinemagoers that her remarkable career spanned.

The actor’s unusual longevity as a star – thousands of stage performances and nearly 1500 films – can only be explained by a certain contemporary flavour she brought to her roles, even though she defined them with vintage theatre techniques summoning her voice, body and expressions. She brought the best of conventional Tamil theatre – a tradition she came from – to the silver screen and gave lead actors of her time a run for their money.

Most tributes to the actor have rightly referenced the 1968 classic Thillana Mohanambal, starring Sivaji Ganesan and Padmini. What Manorama, playing the much-adored Jil Jil Ramanani, brought to the character was a brilliant example of her comedic style. In a script that smacks of a certain uptightness it is Jil Jil Ramamani’s candid and easy manner that offered viewers much-needed relief.

While sharing screen space with actors who were invariably more popular, she invariably stood out in being a little more real and a little more convincing. Thillana Mohanambal has a scene where she is talking to the famous Nagaswaram artiste Sikkal Shanmugasundaram (Sivaji Ganesan). The characters are discussing their insecurities and trying to reassure each other. It is a fantastic illustration of how she challenges the protagonist-supporting artiste hierarchy. Even for hard core Sivaji Ganesan fans, it is difficult to pay attention to the star in that scene, which undoubtedly belonged to Manorama. As the folk performer in the film she is chirpy, vulnerable and compassionate, all at once.

Manorama the actor is in a sense just that – a performer who cannot be boxed into categories like “comedian”, or a “character artiste” for she was more than the sum of those different parts of her actor persona.

Her early life was a constant struggle. Battling poverty and hunger, she entered the field as a young singer and stage actor and launched her career in cinema in the 1958 film Maalayitta Mangai. Her ability to sing beautifully with an open-throat, dance with spontaneity and speak any dialect with ease made her a self-reliant actor who became every director’s dream. She was in constant demand in a way that perhaps only her colleague Nagesh was. Together, the two actors ruled the industry.

In the decades to follow, Manorama gradually became “Aachi” (grandmother) to colleagues and fans. I am not quite sure why fellow artistes started calling her “Aachi”. Her performance – both before and after she was rechristened – were much more than what we usually consider “grandmotherly”.

For every intense role like those in Chinnatambi or Gentleman – where she plays a loving mother who the evil guys humiliate – there is an utterly funny, irreverent contrast in Paati Sollai Thattade or Chinna Gounder, in which she plays a buck-toothed old woman.

One of my other favourite Manorama scenes is from ‘Singaravelan’, a box-office hit released in the summer of 1992. When hero Kamal goes to meet his love interest Khushboo, he meets her foster mother Thayamma played by Manorama. To make an impression, Velan (Kamal Hassan) tries to flirt a little with Thayamma, even as he asks for permission to meet her daughter. Manorama has this fascinating response that is mildly indulgent and at the same time sceptical. Fifty two at the time this film was made, the actor renders co-star Kamal Hassan virtually invisible in that sequence.

That is the Manorama many of us love. The Manorama who was much more than ‘Aachi’.

Meera Srinivasan is a journalist and the IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow for 2015-16