Entering the world of cinema quite accidentally, Miss Kumari never bowed down to stardom, but downplayed her success and led a simple life.

Miss Kumari wearing a dark blouse and a light shawl, with her hair plaited on either side, head bent sideways, looking away in this black and white pictureCourtesy for all images - Babu Thaliath
Flix Profile Monday, March 08, 2021 - 21:41

Hearing a strange sound outside the house, Sreedharan Nair drops his book on the bed and opens the front door. There, drenched in the rain, stands Neeli, trying to stay under the roof. Get in, he asks her repeatedly before a reluctant Neeli goes in to dry herself. Sreedharan can no longer focus on his book, he walks into the room in which Neeli is resting.

That is the first scene of Miss Kumari in Neelakuyil, the iconic 1954 film that became the first in Malayalam to get a national award and the President’s silver medal. Kumari, then 22, had already been a star, having done about a dozen films. In Neelakuyil, directed by P Bhaskaran and Ramu Kariyat, she played a Dalit girl in a relationship with the upper caste Nair played by Sathyan. Based on a story by Uroob, it became a landmark film, questioning the social evils of the caste system, and gender injustice.

If that makes you curious about Miss Kumari, you have plenty more in store to discover about her, though she lived only till 37. She was one of the first female film stars of Malayalam cinema, covering 40 odd films in 15 or so years. NeelakuyilNalla ThankaNavalokamPaadatha Painkili and so many celebrated films are in her list. Despite all that, she never chose stardom.

Watch: Song from Neelakuyil

The first place you scour – the internet – has the inevitable Wikipedia page, a few newspaper stories, and a grand research paper by Darshana S Mini, assistant professor at the Department of Communication Arts, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Darshana attends a late-night call – day time in Madison – to talk about Kumari, born and raised as Thresiamma in Bharananganam, a village on the banks of the Meenachil river, near Pala. “I was trying to look at the idea of a studio artist. What it must have been for women to be part of the studio system in Malayalam cinema in the 1950s,” Darshana says.

It was a time when the Malayalam film industry was moving from the then Madras to Kerala. The first studio – Udaya – popped up in 1949, soon after India’s independence. The second – Merryland – came up two years later. Miss Kumari, who began with Udaya, came to be the face of Merryland for years afterward. The relationship continued even after her death, with Merryland’s founder P Subramaniam keeping in touch with the family.

Entry into cinema

There are different accounts of Kumari’s entry into cinema. One suggests it happened quite accidentally while she was searching for a job. However, this is refuted by her son Babu Thaliath, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, as well as by renowned scriptwriter John Paul, who wrote an article on Miss Kumari for the 50th anniversary of her passing. Their accounts say that it is Sebastian Kunjukunju Bhagavathar, active in theatre at the time and a friend of the family, who introduced Kumari to the makers of Vellinakshatram (1949) and its producers at Udaya Studio. 

“It was Sebastian Kunjukunju Bhagavathar, a friend of my grandfather (through their common interest in theatre), who suggested that my mother play a small role in Vellinakshatram,” Babu tells TNM. Darshana’s paper also relies on this account.

John Paul writes in his article that it is untrue that Miss Kumari went looking for a job. She already had a teacher’s job, he writes.

“My mother had finished schooling from St Mary’s High School, Pala and was teaching at the Sacred Heart Girls High School, Bharananganam as an English teacher. It is the theatre heritage of my maternal family that brought my mother into films,” Babu says.

Kumari and Prem Nazir

Kumari studied up to Class 10 and then took on the English teacher’s job. She had entertained the idea of becoming a nun. St Alphonsa, entombed in the St Mary’s Church of Bharananganam, was her teacher. Young Thresiamma, who grew up in a conservative Syrian Christian Catholic environment, never dreamed of cinema. But such was god’s plan for her, she wrote in a serialised memoir in Cinema Masika in 1962-63.

Reshmi Radhakrishnan, who is finishing a documentary on Kumari, relies entirely on proof to tell the story of a woman she had been enchanted by as a little girl. “My mother is from Bharananganam, so I’d heard Miss Kumari’s name before I even began watching films. It has been 51 years since she died (will be 52 in June). I want to hear about her from those who knew her when she was alive. And that’s not easy,” Reshmi says.

On the occasion of Kumari’s 50th death anniversary – June 2019 – memorials rose in her honour. The Miss Kumari Foundation was launched in Bharananganam. Sajitha Madathil, film and theatre actor, wrote a book on Kumari – Neelakuyil, Miss Kumariyude Chalachithra Jeevitham – which was released at the International Film Festival of Kerala, 2019 by veteran actor-director Aparna Sen.

Book release by Aparna Sen at IFFK 2019

As a studio artiste

All different accounts agree that her conservative background hadn’t come in the way of Kumari becoming an actor. Her father and her whole family – by John Paul’s account – were passionate about theatre. Kumari herself must have had some influence, he reckons.

In her first film, Vellinakshatram, directed by German cinematographer Felix J Beyse, she did only a song sequence. She carried the tri-colour flag to the song ‘Thrikkodi’. But a lot happened with that single song. It got Kumari her first lead role in Udaya’s next – Nalla Thanka. Her screen name was changed from Thresiamma to Miss Kumari, which was coined by KV Koshy, one of the producers of the film. A name that she embraced even after the movies, including using it on her wedding card. Darshana notes in her paper that the name is written ‘Miss Kumari (alias Thresiamma)’ in a contract she signed with Merryland Studio, the first known instance of a Malayali woman actor signing one with a Kerala based studio. The contract was for a remuneration of Rs 7,000.

“Much to the disappointment of Udaya Studios, it was not only Thresiamma who moved to the rival Merryland studios, but also the brand-value of her screen-name ‘Miss Kumari’,” Darshana writes in the paper.

Kumari and Nazir in Susheela

The Merryland film was Aathmasakhi, which introduced actor Sathyan to Malayalam cinema audiences. Kumari played his sister in the film. Sathyan would write after Kumari’s death that she was a sister to him in life.

BS Saroja played the heroine in the film. Kumari wrote in her memoir, “I was afraid to act with Saroja. What if I fade when we act together?”

Self-critical and unassuming

In the same way, Kumari would often look at herself critically for every role offered – was she fit for it? In one of the episodes, she writes of her doubts in playing the role of Chinnamma in Muttathu Varkey’s Paadatha Painkili. Known for his painkili genre, Varkey’s Chinnamma is a beautiful 17-year-old girl. Kumari writes of her apprehensions in becoming that girl. She knew that Varkey had wanted Padmini, one of the leading women actors of the time – the middle one of the famous Travancore sisters who danced as well as they acted – to play the role. But after he watched the film, Varkey said with a smile, “From now on, it should be Kumari in all my stories.”

Read: The ‘painkili’ genre in Malayalam literature and how it captured the hearts of lakhs

Even with all the attention coming to her at such a young age, Kumari never let it go to her head. On the contrary, she appears to have continually downplayed her success, attributing it to “luck” that her movies worked. But critics, who have been harsh on her, took her modest remarks at their face value. They said her words implied that she succeeded only because Merryland kept casting her in one movie after another. “On the one hand she was lauded as the face of studio films. On the other, she was derided as an unqualified beneficiary of the system,” Darshana says in our call.

Kumari with Sheela

The harsher among the critics was Cynic Vasudevan Nair, who wrote scathingly of her performances in BalyasakhiNeelakuyil and the like. She appeared to smile when she cried and vice-versa, he wrote. Of casting her as the Dalit girl Neeli in Neelakuyil, Cynic wrote, “If they looked around, the production team might have found someone who had experienced the severity of caste inequalities and could have portrayed the character of Neeli much more forcefully than Kumari (as in Darshana’s paper).”

He is said to have melted after watching Kumari break down reading one of his harsh reviews during a theatre rehearsal they were both part of. In fact, he acted with her in a play. Kumari also became a judge for drama competitions along with the likes of P Bhaskaran.

Kumari and P Bhaskaran (middle) as judges of a drama contest

What worked for Kumari?

One can’t put a finger on what worked for Kumari, despite the hurdles along the way. She was not a trained dancer or singer. Other leading women actors of the time – Travancore sisters Lalitha, Padmini, Ragini – had all been dancers. Kumari also came from a conservative background with little exposure to cinema. It could perhaps be her readiness to play characters that other actors were not willing to. “It’s perhaps the first time that a woman actor played a Dalit character in three films – Neelakuyil, Randidangazhi (based on Thakazhi’s novel) and Mudiyanaya Puthran,” says Babu.

Babu, the youngest of Kumari’s three sons, was too young when she died in 1969. He has hardly any memories of her but he grew up watching her films at Mini Theatre (which only screened Kumari’s films in the 1970s, according to Darshana’s paper).

He also knew that his mother was so much in demand that in one film – Avakashi – she got paid more than the male actor.

Watch: Song from Avakashi

“Unlike these days when the male actors are paid considerably more than the women, those days, the lead actors of a film were paid equally regardless of their gender. In Neelakuyil, Sathyan and Kumari were paid the same amount,” says Reshmi. Avakashi took a step further.

Simplicity was her stardom

Not that Kumari had a lot of materialistic interests. She was the opposite – she wore the simplest of saris and hardly any jewellery when she went out. White saris are what many remember her wearing in her days outside of cinema. Journalist Saju Chelangad says, “My father (historian Chelangatt Gopalakrishnan) and Yusufali Kechery (lyricist-director) visited her home to talk about a film a few months before her death. She had then appeared in a white sari and blouse with no make-up, like a sanyasi.”

John Paul’s story also begins with his brother and him witnessing something similar on a road in Ernakulam where Kumari walked by unassumingly in an ivory-white sari. “She is like ordinary people like us, very simple,” he had then told his brother, who was surprised to see a film star walking around doing her errands.

Babu attributes it to her connection to the national movement. “Her simplicity – as observed by many that she used to wear a simple white sari without any jewellery – was actually an expression of her inclination and support to the national movement of India.”

Babu adds that he had heard from poet Balachandran Chullikkad that Kumari showed an interest in the national movement. Darshana mentions Kumari’s leanings towards the Congress party. Being good in English, she’d translate speeches of political leaders like Kamaraj and Asoka Mehta from English and Hindi to Malayalam.

Views on marriageable age

By then, Kumari had left cinema and became a wife and mother. She had clear and progressive ideas on the marriageable age of women. In an article titled ‘Daivabayavum sanmarga bodavum thaliridunna santhoshakaramaya kudumbajeevitham’, Kumari wrote about her belief that people should get married only after they turn 25, so that they have a clearer idea about life and a sense of responsibility. Miss Kumari was 29 when she got married in 1961.

Kumari as a mother / Photo of her kids as it appeared in a magazine article by Soman

She mentions how hers was an arranged marriage and chances are that she would most likely not continue acting in films. However, she adds immediately that she does not believe that acting in films will affect the sanctity of marriage. Darshana writes that when someone once asked Kumari about acting after marriage, she replied, “I personally do not think that family life and an acting career are incompatible. But the deciding factor is whether the industry would accommodate a married woman to continue in the lead role.”

Despite being an accidental actor, Kumari enjoyed the work she did in cinema. In her write-ups, she did not make it clear if she would quit acting after marriage. There are accounts of her being approached for films after she got married and Kumari showing interest in them. “She has acted in a film too, called Arakkillam, in 1967,” Reshmi says.

Two years later, she died. She was only 37. Hardly anyone could believe it – not her colleagues nor the public. Saju Chelangad’s writeup in The Hindu mentions a stomach ailment. Kumari’s family wishes to put the tragedy behind them and treasure the memories of her contributions as an actor. Which is a lot.

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