SCRIPTING the obituary of a legendary artist like Manorama (1937-2015) could never be a complete exercise that would do justice to her life and work. Manorama was an actor nonpareil with an astonishingly long and eventful career—close to six decades in Tamil cinema.
Although she excelled in comedy, with her adaptability and versatility she emerged as one of the best character actors in Tamil cinema. She was hailed as the only actor who could match P. Kannamba (who played the role of the mother in almost all old films) in popularity for playing the mother with conviction.
Manorama essayed various roles that required her to dress in different ways so that she could fit into those roles. As Burma Pappa in Savaal , she was dressed in a lungi and a shirt and carried herself perfectly; in Karunthel Kannayiram, she was the villainous vamp and was dressed accordingly; as a secret agent in Kankatchi, she played eight different roles; and in A.P. Nagarajan’s Thillana Mohanambal (1968), she dressed to perfection like a folk-cum-stage dancer. As a mother in Chinna Thambi (1991), Chinna Kounder, Annamalai, Vetri Kodi Kattu and Rasukutty , to name a few, she wore the saree in the rural style and carried herself with elan, lending poise and dignity to the roles. One can go on and on, but she acted in so many films that it is impossible to cover all of them in this space.
However, in this long list, a few performances refreshingly stand out. The one role that will be etched in people’s memories is that of the onomatopoeic “Jil Jil” Ramamani, the folk dancer in Thillana Mohanambal.
The comedy track in cinema is supposed to provide relief from the main plot, but it often degenerates into buffoonery. Manorama lent dignity to comedy by bringing in an element of pathos. In fact, even when she played character roles, the element of comedy was never missing, be it by way of dialogue or body language.
Manorama completed 1,000 films by 1985 and got her name entered in the Guinness Book of World Records.
She acted in about 1,400 films and 1,000 stage plays; rendered 300 songs in 60 films; and also acted in a few television serials in five languages, including Hindi. This could not have been achieved without dedication and an enormous amount of energy to perform. Manorama’s admirers point out that she had a unique blend of talent—perfect facial expression, appropriate body language and apt dialogue delivery, which she perfected during her days in the theatre.
The actor Nagesh, who worked with her, once said: “You have got to be very careful with Manorama. Otherwise, she will usurp the scene and overtake you.” This sums up everything she stood for—from her penchant for perfection to creativity.
When Manorama was six years old, she and her mother left her native village near Rajamannarkudi in today’s Tiruvarur district to go to Pallathur near Karaikudi to earn a living. Manorama used to sell sweetmeats outside touring talkies. At the age of 12, she began acting on the stage. There was no looking back after that. An engrossing career began in the Chettinad region, which saw her mature as an actress and earn the respect of her actor colleagues as “Aachi”, a Chettinad Tamil form of address meant for a respectable elderly woman.
When Manorama moved to character roles, especially maternal roles, she took the character of the mother away from the soggy sentimentality of that period. She made it practical and simple, yet robust and dignified. She was able to provide different shades to the mother character in every film she acted in.
In Chinna Thambi , she expressed the anguish and despair of a mother perfectly. The director, P. Vasu, found one scene in the film particularly challenging to shoot. “The scene was tricky and sensitive. It involved the sprinkling of turmeric water and smearing kumkum [vermillion] on an elderly widowed woman. Aachi displayed extraordinary poise and handled the scene with charming grace, leaving no room for even an iota of indecency,” Vasu said.
The film ran to packed houses and the veteran received rave reviews for her powerful portrayal of the character of the actor Prabhu’s mother. She gave yet another stellar performance in Chinna Gounder , in which she was both an innocent village mother and a doting mother-in-law, draped in a white saree with teeth protruding bizarrely. This film showcased her penchant for comedy and her ability for dignified restraint. She played in Gentleman a distraught middle-class mother who is unable to get admission for her only son in a medical college despite his having scored high marks. Her projection of the mother’s distress and helplessness as she sets herself on fire to draw attention to the situation continues to haunt viewers.
Manorama acted in crass comedy films during the early stages of her career. Breaking the glass ceiling was not easy then, but she pursued her dream by working in the theatre. Among the plays that she acted in were those that the Dravidian movement staged for social awakening in Tamil Nadu.
The first role that she was offered in films was a comic one, and the lure of the silver screen made her accept it, albeit reluctantly. It was Malaiyitta Mangai (1958) by the legendary lyricist Kannadasan. At that time, Manorama was busy on the stage doing heroine roles. But Kannadasan convinced her that as a comedienne she could remain in demand forever. Her dream of playing a heroine’s role was realised in Konjum Kumari (1963).
“It saddened me. But I had no other option then but to accept. But I did not regret the decision thereafter,” she once said. Kannadasan’s words came true, and Manorama ruled the screen as a comedienne-cum-character actor. She shared screen space with five generations of actors, while many of her colleagues who once acted as heroines faded from the public memory.
Her performances matched those of some big names in Tamil cinema, including T.R. Ramachandran, Thangavelu, M.R. Radha, Chandra Babu, Nagesh, T.S. Balaiah, ‘Thengai’ Srinivasan and Surulirajan. Her acting endeared her not only to the masses but also to the stalwarts and doyens of the movie world. The Hindi film actor Mehmood was her fan (she acted in Kuwara Baap with him), and for ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan she was like a family member. In fact, Sivaji Ganesan performed the last rites of her mother, thus playing the role of her brother.
‘Cho’ Ramaswamy, who acted with her in several films, once called her Pombalai Sivaji (female Sivaji), referring to her acting abilities. Sivaji was not offended by this comment, and Manorama was not overjoyed. Awards and recognitions rested lightly on her shoulders. She won the Padma Shri in 2002 and the National Award for Best Supporting Actor ( Puthiya Pathai , 1989).Challenging roles
Manorama did some extraordinarily challenging roles. One that comes instantly to the mind is the role of Baby Amma in Nadigan (1990), again a film directed by Vasu. Baby Amma is portrayed as a glamorous middle-aged spinster who falls in love with a grey-haired tutor of music. Manorama essayed the role with aplomb. “It was a sort of on-the-knife-edge role. Only Aachi was capable of that kind of professional acting,” said Vasu. She played a similar role in Singaravelan starring Kamal Hassan.
Another notable performance was in K. Balachander’s Unnal Mudiyum Thambi , in which she played the daughter-in-law of a well-known family of musicians. The characters she played in Unakkum Vazhvu Varum , in which she was forced to act dumb despite being a talkative girl, Oru Kudambathin Kathai , in which she did the role of an Anglo-Indian woman, and Periyar, in which she appeared as the mother of E.V. Ramasamy Periyar, are distinctive ones.
The role of the agile grandmother in Patti Sollai Thattathe was a resounding success. Her roles in Samsaram athu Minsaram and Anbae Vaa were the other picks that catapulted her into stardom. Yet she had some grievances. She said at a function some years ago that she would have loved to act in the award-winning Kamal Hassan-starrer Nayagan . “But for some reason I did not get any role in it,” she told the audience. Kamal was present then on the stage.
Her versatility in talking in the various dialects of the Tamil language made her successful among a large section of the Tamil audience. From “Madras Tamil” to Nellai Thamizh to the Coimbatore dialect, she was pitch-perfect.
In Bommalattam (1968), she teamed up with ‘Cho’ Ramaswamy and belted out the song “Vaa vaathiyarae uttandae” in the Madras lingo set to V. Kumar’s music, which burst music charts. In Suriyagandhi , which had Jayalalithaa (now Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister) in the lead, Manorama sang the number “Theriyatho nokku theriyatho” in the Brahminical dialect.
Her maiden song was for the film Magale un Samathu (1964). Her singing experience on the stage stood her in good stead.
Manorama and Jayalalithaa acted together in about two dozen films. No surprise that Jayalalithaa, while paying homage to Manorama, said Manorama’s place in cinema would never be filled. She shared screen and stage space with C.N. Annadurai, M. Karunanidhi, M.G. Ramachandran and N.T. Rama Rao, all of whom went on to become Chief Ministers. She acted with Annadurai in his plays and played opposite Karunanidhi in the stage play Udaya Sooriyan. She also acted with E.V.K. Sampath and S.S. Rajendiran. One of her wishes was fulfilled when she acted opposite Sivaji Ganesan in Gnana Paravai .
Manorama had a down-to-earth image, rather than an exotic one. Her elderly woman-next-door image endeared her to the masses. She participated in charity or fund-raising programmes for noble causes, be it the welfare of the Kargil War soldiers or that of her fellow artists. She was a mother and friend and, all above, an artist extraordinaire.