This essay seems pedestrian as it really does not capture the spirit she exhibited, that supernal ability to seem somehow so real and immediate while playing even the most diverse roles.

Mother Courage Manorama The Aachi who glued families together embodied undying spirit
news Tribute to Manorama Monday, October 12, 2015 - 13:45
Written by  Anil Srinivasan

Long walks on the beach with the sand stuck to my feet, the smell of jasmine and crossandra flowers and afternoons watching Tamil films best describes weekends growing up. They were usually punctuated with loud voices playing ‘gali’ cricket from somewhere outside our windows. All the frenetic activity would come to an end when we would gather around the black-and-white television set to watch the film of the week. And almost every film memory is complete with the image of a super versatile actress who could make you laugh or cry, and make you feel warm and fuzzy and comfortable all at once. Some people make you a part of their lives. Manorama “aachi” made us all a part of hers, and we in turn, gave her our heart. 

We all grew up with her. She was the comedienne making us laugh so hard our insides split in her unparalleled roles in Thillana Mohanambal or Kaasethan Kaduvulada. She was the singer who made us vie with each other for chorus lines for songs like Dillikki Rajaanalum Patti Sollai Thattadhey (“Even if you are the ruler of Delhi, listen to your grandmother”) and Vaa Vadhyare Ootanda (which was to become the anthem of most boys and girls in a Chennai long gone). In a gentler time, she was the very glue that held families together – grandparents and grandchildren delighting in her latest role, or remarking on the latest mannerism or song. She was prolific, acting in over a thousand films.

Indeed, Manorama was anything but ordinary. She made cinema seem easy, as if she was speaking to us not a moment before in our living rooms and just happened to step into the screen. And there was the warmth to her performances and believability to her persona that made her a symbol of stability throughout our lives. Manorama was always there, transforming as if by magic to fit the role she assumed, becoming that role and bettering film scripts with aplomb. She constantly surprised us with her performances, as colleague and veteran Cho Ramaswamy was to remark.  She was a representation of a Tamil spirit we all aspired to have, and vainly tried to emulate – of being able to face any hardship with courage and an unwavering positive attitude. In my mind, the latter is best etched with the absolutely moving scene in Thillana Mohanambal when she consoles a possessive Mohana (essayed by the legendary Padmini) backstage and reveals her sincere desire to unite Shanmugam with her (Mohana). 

It is impossible to think of even more recent movies such as Kizhakku Vasal  or Chinna Thambi without an absolute identification with her as a mother in both.  Her histrionic talent in such dramas were so superlative that several scenes eclipse the lead actors altogether. It is impossible to believe that the same actor could so easily pull off the burlesque as gamely as she did in Nadigan where she plays a middle-aged spinster discovering romance for a young Satyaraj disguised as an older man. In movies such as this and Singaravelan, it is clear that younger actors such as Khushboo and Kamal Haasan are completely in awe of her, and allow her to take the lead.

In Chinna Gounder she plays the old woman of the household with fake teeth and costume to match, once again a transformative performance that lingers in the mind long after the end credits fade away. It is possible to believe that she resides in a grand old mansion somewhere south of Chettinad still, draped in a widow’s white and still pronouncing homilies through her deformed teeth.  

Statistics about her are dazzling – the number of performances, the number of “superstars” she worked with, the varied roles, the personae she adopted, the chief ministers she worked with, the songs, the accolades. 

This essay seems pedestrian as it really does not capture the spirit she exhibited, that supernal ability to seem somehow so real and immediate while playing even the most diverse roles. Like the role of a daughter-in-law to a famous Carnatic musician (essayed by Gemini Ganesan), being part-mother, part sister-in-law to the idealistic firebrand of the household essayed by Kamal Hasan in “Unnal Mudiyum Thambi”. In a moving scene (set to heartbreaking background music composed by the inimitable Ilayaraja), the son has a final argument with his father and decides to break away forever. The scene where she quietly packs up food in a little bundle and hands it over wordlessly to the departing hero shows strength in restraint, the innate ability to portray the reality of millions of women in her position anywhere.  Of offering hope in her silence, strength in her solidarity, and yet having to be mindful of her role and duty within the fabric of her domain.

That one person could be so many things seems impossible to imaginations tainted by tinsel and action-packed, marketing make-believe.  For you see, Manorama could transform faster than film-makers could imagine the roles they wanted her to portray.  She was a shape-shifter, to use JK Rowling’s lingo.  Few people in the history of cinema could be that. Anywhere.

But she was that impossibility. The void left by her demise is too big to measure and will probably remain so forever.  

We could discuss her rise from humble beginnings, her struggle against many odds including that of being a woman in a male-dominated paradigm.  We could analyze this, that and the other. None of those things will bring her back,  or that incredible part of our lives when we could proudly say that we lived in the same city that she did, breathing the same air, living the same dreams.

Rest in peace, dear heart.

The writer is a classical pianist and music educator based in Chennai. 

Image: Rajshri Tamil/Youtube