Malayalam cinema today lost one of its pillars. One of the “shilpis” and evergreen actresses of Malayalam cinema, S. Sukumari fondly called Sukumari Amma by her fans and industry friends passed away in a Chennai hospital today, March 23 2013 as a result of a Cardiac Arrest. To the uninitiated, she was one of the most diverse artistes Indian cinema has ever seen, having acted in over 2500 Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Hindi movies. In her long career, she has acted in any role you could probably think of, epitomizing the ‘mother’ character on one side, defining the comedienne on the other and immortalizing roles like the witty Anglo-Indian lady and is also responsible for defining many archetypical roles. Most Malayalees even today when they think of the stereotypical “kochamma” or rich society lady associate them with the characters defined by Sukumari: who wear sleeveless blouses, “cooling” glasses and go to “beauty parlors” and clubs walking a Pomeranian dog. In fact, I for one, will not be able to think beyond Sukumari when it comes to anyone playing the role of an Anglo-Indian woman. She is irreplaceable. She took with her a large piece of Malayalam culture along with her, a void that can honestly be never filled.
S.Sukumari was born in the town of Nagercoil in the erstwhile Travancore state in 1938 (which is today part of Tamil Nadu state, Kanyakumari District). She is the first cousin of the famous Travancore Sisters Lalitha, Ragini and Padmini (ലളിതരാഗിണിപദ്മിനിമാര് ). She was active in the drama scene as a child artiste, and entered the film field through the Tamil movie Orarivu in 1951 and became known in Malayalam as Lakshmi’s mother in the film Chattakkaari (1974) (Chattakkaari was remade in Hindi as Julie). She acted in many Malayalam and Tamil movies in the Black and White era, later acting almost exclusively in Malayalam movies. In the 1980s and 1990s she acted in hundreds of films, defining many roles as we know them today, making her an indispensable part of any Malayalam movie. Priyadarshan’s comedy escapades are what she is best known for, though she had acted in a hundred films before itself. The Anglo-Indian cook Dickammayi of Boeing Boeing, the Bangalorean Malayali Maggie Aunty of Vandanam, the “society lady” Revathi Kochamma of Poochakkoru Mookkuthi, Mrs.Sulochana Thankappan in Srinivasan’s epic Thalyanamanthram, the witty Karthyayani Amma of Aram+Aram=Kinnaram, the society lady in Gajakesariyogam and others immortalized her. Later on, Sathyan Anthikad’s and Balachandra Menon’s societal classics firmly cemented her place as the “mother” of Malayalam cinema. Every single role of her’s was not just a treat to watch, it was an experience in itself. All female actors who came after her followed her lead and role. It is a popular saying that the late Thilakan was the “father” of contemporary Malayalam cinema, while Sukumari was the “mother”.
For people like me who grew up watching the typical genres of Malayalam movies of the 1980s and 90s, it is unimaginable to even think of such a movie without her presence. The films of those days were either full-blown comedy-humor films or complex tragedies based on societal issues of the day. Sukumari was always an integral part of both these genres, most often as the mother of the hero who would strongly battle adversities in life standing up to them, without losing her sense of humor. This is why Sukumari cannot and will not ever be replaced. Those roles and characters of hers are still relevant today, her fine portrayal of those women who can never be forgotten. Along with contemporaries KPAC Lalitha and Kaviyoor Ponnamma, she was the face of the ‘mother’ in Malayalam cinema, but what sets her apart is that was versatility defined, at ease in any kind of role while the others got typecast. She has never used a dubbing artist for any languages! She even has been considered for a Guinness World Record in her name for having acted in the most number of films! 2500 films in a glowing career lasting 65 years! Is there any other person in Indian cinema who can equal this feat? She was awarded a Padmashree in 2011, but beyond that, this incredibly talented artiste has largely gone unrecognized in the empty show and pomp infested Bollywood crazy nation.
Dear Sukumari Amme, you and your characters were not just popular culture icons in Kerala, but also were an integral part of the growing up of every Malayali of a past couple of generations. Making statements like “You are irreplaceable”, “tragic loss” etc will just not give justice to the great artiste in you or what or who you were. You will live on through your characters who have made us double up with laughter and made us sit down and think. You were among those who created Malayalam cinema, an inspiration for many by blessing us with the portrayal of hundreds of selfless women who could stand up to whatever life could throw at them. For many of us, you were equivalent to a maternal figure, one without whom a family would be incomplete. Thank you for blessing us and giving us all those memories, memories which we will pass on to our children, who will not have the prerogative of having known you… With a heavy heart and lots of tears, we bid you goodbye… You will be missed, Amme. Rest in Peace…
Here is a scene from Gajakesariyogam, one of those immortal characters.