Sheela not only has over 475 films to her credit but was also one of the most bankable stars in the Malayalam film industry for well over two decades.

Chemmeen to Manassinakkare Sheela remains a beloved actor for Malayalam audiencesSheela in a scene from ‘Chemmeen’
Flix Mollywood Sunday, June 23, 2019 - 17:40

An eminent jury chaired by veteran filmmaker KS Sethumadhavan has chosen yesteryear’s versatile actor Sheela for the prestigious JC Daniel Award for outstanding contribution to Malayalam cinema. The award is bestowed under the aegis of the Kerala State Chalachitra Academy that functions under the state’s Ministry of Culture.

Sheela becomes only the second woman to receive the award after another accomplished artiste – Aranmula Ponnamma. No eyebrows are likely to be raised on the honour coming Sheela’s way as she not only has an impressive body of work with over 475 films to her credit but was also one of the most bankable and highly paid stars in the Malayalam film industry for well over two decades.

It was Tamil actor SS Rajendran who first spotted Sheela as a teenager and cast her in one of his plays. Her screen debut in 1962 was with the Tamil film Paasam. MGR, the hero of the film, added the suffix Devi to her name, but Sheela dropped it when she became a part of the Malayalam film industry with the 1963 film Bhagyajathakam, directed by lyricist director P Bhaskaran. In Kollywood, however, she continued to be known as Sheela Devi.

In those early days, Malayalam films were made on shoestring budgets in the stuffy studios of Chennai (then Madras) and the industry churned out dozens of films every year. It was customary for a popular leading hero or heroine to work in well over 20 films per annum shot in multiple shifts. Sheela too became an integral part of the circuit. Her films with the evergreen star Prem Nazir were awaited with bated breath by audiences.

The Nazir-Sheela duo acted as romantic leads in as many as 130 films and merited a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records. The record is unlikely to be broken any time soon. Significant films where the pair shared screen space include Football Champion, Thapaswini, Aval Alpam Vaikippoyi, Kaanatha Veshangal, Vivaham Swargathil, and others. The Sathyan-Sheela combination too clicked in a big way in Sethumadhavan’s films such as Kadal Palam, Vazhve Mayam and Anubhavangal Paalichakal (where Prem Nazir too had a parallel role), among others.

Sheela has fond memories of one of her earliest films, Kalli Chellamma, directed by P Bhaskaran, in which she was cast in the role of an orphan tossed about by the vicissitudes of fortune. She grows into a strong and independent woman who conquers the odds stacked against her. The heroine-centric film where she had a multi-layered role fetched her a Best Actress award from the Kerala government.

Sheela in a song from Kalli Chellamma
The President’s Gold Medal winning film Chemmeen was a turning point in the career of the young actor. Directed by Ramu Kariat, the film was based on a novel of the same name by Jnanpith award winning writer Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai.

Chemmeen revolved around the life of the heroine Karuthamma (Sheela) torn between her abiding love for a young Muslim youth Pareekutty (Madhu) and her fierce loyalty towards her husband Palani (Sathyan). Palani is trapped in an eddy and loses his life, as folklore has it that a fisherman’s life when he is out at sea hinges on his wife’s chastity. Riddled with guilt, the lovers take their own lives. Even as the sky above takes on a pallid hue, the corpses of Karuthamma and Pareekutty lie next to each other on the sea shore.

For Sheela, who until then had acted mostly in black and white films, working in Chemmeen was a new and enriching experience. Ace cinematographer Marcus Bartley’s first diktat to the heroine was that she should scrub off all the makeup that she had on. Clad in a simple blouse and mundu, Sheela weathered competition from such brilliant stars like Sathyan, Madhu, Kottarakkara Sreedharan Nair and Adoor Bhavani to emerge as the life and soul of the film.

Two films where Sheela was at her most sensuous were the IV Sasi directed Eeta (1978) and Hariharan’s Sarapancharam (1979). Eeta featured steamy sequences between a young Kamal Haasan and a buxom Sheela, while in Sarapancharam Sheela portrayed a rich young woman saddled with an impotent husband who lands up in the arms of a Lothario. A scene in Sarapancharam where she is entranced at the sight of the muscular, sculpted body of actor Jayan still remains green in memory.

Besides wielding the megaphone and writing the story and screenplay for a couple of films – Yakshaganam and Shikarangal – the actor was also associated with the Mammootty starrer Onnu Chirikku as story and screenplay writer. She severed all links with the silver screen in 1983 and came back with a bang as it were in Sathyan Anthikad’s Manassinakkare in 2003. A Syrian Christian herself, Sheela proved a perfect fit for the role of a rich widow, Kochu Theresa, whose progeny hover around her with an eye on her wealth. She discovers a kindred spirit in a young man Reji (Jayaram), who indulges her fancies and fulfils her small desires. Sathyan’s faith in the actor was vindicated with Sheela doing full justice to her character. Incidentally, Manassinakkare was the launchpad for a young actor named Diana Mariam Kurien, who would later take Tamil cinema by storm as Nayanthara.

Sheela in Manassinakkare 
Among the films that Sheela chose after her comeback was Snehaveedu (Sathyan Anthikad) and the Tamil film Chandramukhi (P Vasu), a Rajinikanth starrer, remake of the hit Fazil film Manichithrathazhu. She also had a pivotal role in Akale (2004) as Prithviraj’s tough-as-nails mother Margaret. Her portrayal won her a National Award for Best Supporting Actress.

Sheela in a scene from Akale
The actor is now busy with the film A for Apple, where she essays the character of a grandmother with old timer Nedumudi Venu playing her husband.

Sheela, who has acted in around 25 Tamil films and 5 Telugu films, has also authored a novel titled Pathamathe Cheque and a compilation of short stories Kuyilinpaatu. A gifted painter, she auctioned her paintings to raise funds for the victims of the Chennai floods. In her early seventies now, the unassuming actor remains a picture of elegance and grace as age sits lightly on her shoulders. Hers will remain one of the biggest success stories in the annals of Malayalam cinema.

CV Aravind is an ex-banker who has been dabbling in journalism for over four and a half decades now. He writes extensively on films and also contributes articles to newspapers and periodicals on a host of subjects. Views expressed are the author’s own.

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