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KPAC Lalitha brought to life the agonies and ecstasies of the ordinary woman

Meena T Pillai writes: The moral dilemmas of embracing imperfection, or the plain messiness of being ordinary, helped transform the characters she played into women of all seasons.

KPAC Lalitha went beyond the art and popular/commercial cinema dichotomy, placing herself in the blurred lines between categories and characters.

One of Malayalam cinema’s most beloved female character actors has made a quiet exit from life. She leaves a yawning gap that remains unbridgeable for the sheer variety, depth and shades of life she portrayed. KPAC Lalitha wrote herself onto the silver screen at a time when Malayalam cinema was blooming and maturing in the 1970s. Her life straddled its most vibrant phase for over half a century.

Born Maheswari Amma, Lalitha grew up in Kayamkulam, a small hamlet in central Kerala. She joined the left-leaning theatre collective, KPAC (Kerala People’s Arts Club), at an early age and adopted its acronym as her stage name.

Lalitha stood out for the elan with which she played the agonies and ecstasies of being a common woman. The moral dilemmas of embracing imperfection, or the plain messiness of being ordinary, helped transform the characters she played into women of all seasons.

Behind each of her finely-crafted characters, no matter how brief their screen time or how trivial their import, was a fully-formed life force radiating vitality and vigour that crackled with electricity, holding audiences spellbound by the ease with which an actor could master perfection in such small brushstrokes. In the cult classic, Manichitrathazhu, remade in multiple languages including Hindi (Bhool Bhulaiyaa), Lalitha has a small memorable scene where she narrates the spellbinding backstory of the spectral danseuse’s love life in her former birth. It is captivating to watch her face and eyes brim with the mirth of the present, while her voice conjures a ghostly presence from the past.

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In Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s adaptation of Vaikom Muhammad Basheer’s Mathilukal, she “acts” with just her voice, making audiences laugh and cry, nudging them to be more human, touching their hearts with the transformative potential of a love that transgresses walls and transforms prisons into veritable gardens, where roses bloom and the fragrance of humanity fills one with strange epiphanies. All this, with just the crystal stream of a voice of undying clarity, tinged with muted passions and suffused with deep melancholic notations.

KPAC Lalitha went beyond the art and popular/commercial cinema dichotomy, placing herself in the blurred lines between categories and characters. Her nuanced performances in Adoor’s Kodiyettam, Padmarajan’s Peruvazhiyamabalam, or her spouse Bharathan’s Aaravam, among many others, indelibly etched her name into the Malayalam New Wave. And yet, the same fervour of art and rigour of method informs her forays into the more popular terrains of cinematic enterprise. She made Malayalis walk many cinematic roads, leading them up melodramatic streets in movies such as Venkalam, Amaram, Kattukuthira, Sadayam, through sad alleys in Kaattathe Kilikkoodu or Sphadikam, across by-roads of hilarity in umpteen movies such as Gandhinagar Second Street, Sandesham or through satire in Panchavadi Palam, challenging them to savour the wide spectrum of her acting prowess that went far beyond received feminine stereotypes.

That she acted in a small regional film industry, away from the “hype” around the glitz and glamour of Bollywood and its self-assigned aura of nationalist myth-making, was her only shortcoming as an actor. She lived and died a quintessential Malayali actor, for whom fame and acclaim were measured by yardsticks that often did not meet national standards. Though she bagged the National Award for Best Supporting Actress twice, and the Kerala State Film Awards four times, alongside Filmfare Awards and many other accolades, the 550-odd films she acted in clamour for applause that ought to go beyond the narrow confines of the regional. Nevertheless, she lives on in the hearts of generations of Malayalis around the world, many who grew up mouthing her “comic” dialogues, or adoring her “heroic”/ “villainous” mothers, garrulous sisters-in-law, “nosy” women-next-door characters, all of whom could turn the tables on celluloid stereotypes, whose foibles were etched unerringly on a physiognomy that was often a palimpsest of the finest undertones of human emotions, carrying the ordinary to extraordinary heights of finesse and perfection.

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This column first appeared in the print edition on February 25, 2022 under the title ‘Kerala’s common woman’. The writer is a film historian and a professor at the University of Kerala.

First published on: 25-02-2022 at 03:50:46 am
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