After years of being labelled a comic actor, Kalpana began to explore performance-oriented roles later in her career, winning a National Award along the way.

Kalpana wearing a maroon top and a bindi has left her straight hair lose and her head is bent to one side, with a smile on her faceKalpana in an interview with Kaumudy TV
Flix Tribute Monday, January 24, 2022 - 20:08
Written by  Cris

It shocked her scattered fans across the world when actor Kalpana, always agile and laughing, passed away suddenly on a January morning in 2016. She was 50 and in her prime as an actor, just beginning to prove to viewers that there was a lot more she could handle than comedy. Kalpana had by chance slipped into comedy a few years into her career and then played scores of funny characters, assuring laughter and good times for those who sought entertainment in Malayalam cinema. Much later, she played serious characters in well-made movies, showing a new side of hers that had been little explored. An award came belatedly in 2013 – a National Award, no less – but she didn’t live much longer after that.

This January 25, it will be six years without Kalpana, and many of her directors, critics and viewers would vouch that no one can take her place. She was brilliant, but not recognised enough for it. If one asks around for people’s favourite characters of hers, some mention UDC Kumari, the young woman in Dr Pasupathy, clad fully in yellow, with a matching umbrella, walking through a small town where men would pause conversations to gape at her. For some, it is Clara from CID Unnikrishnan, the curly-haired domestic worker with a short temper, squabbling with the gardener, played by the versatile Jagathy Sreekumar.

Kalpana and Jagathy, comic veterans of Malayalam cinema between 1980s and 2010s, came together in more than 50 films, creating hilarity and fun the way only great actors can. In an interview with Johny Lucas on ‘Nere Chowe’, Kalpana said she was always afraid to act alongside Jagathy because he was so perfect and would expect the same from his co-actors.

“The give and take between the two brilliant actors is amazing,” says Shiny Sarah, an actor who has played many humour-based characters in recent years. In a short stint as a magazine sub-editor in Dubai, she also got to interview Kalpana in 2005-06.

“It was more like a friendly conversation than an interview. I maintained contact with her till she passed away. There is no one like her, she and Sukumari chechi (late legendary actor) are my stars. They were such multifaceted actors. Some of my favourite performances of Kalpana chechi are in the films Pakal Nakashatrangal, where she plays a sex worker, Indian Rupee, and Charlie,” Shiny says.

In all three films, Kalpana played serious characters, a world away from the comic roles she had been identified with for years. In Indian Rupee and Spirit, Kalpana played tragic characters – in one she played Thilakan’s poverty-stricken daughter and in the other, a victim of domestic abuse. In Charlie, her last film, she is shown as dying by suicide after a short sequence with Dulquer Salmaan.

“Sadly the last time we saw her on screen was in Charlie where her character dies,” says Vinay Menon, stand-up comedian based in Kochi.

In the interview with Lucas, Kalpana said that she was unhappy when she was labelled a comedy artiste. She had come to cinema wanting to be a ‘nayika’, a heroine playing lead characters. Her initial roles in Tamil and Malayalam had no hint of comedy. She began her career as a child artiste in Yagam in 1981, she said in an interview to The Hindu. Not even 18, she played heroine to Balachandran Chullikad’s hero in Pokkuveyil, an art house film by G Aravindan.

Kalpana in Pokkuveyil / Courtesy - Youtube / Potato Eaters Collective

It was at the end of the 1980s that Kalpana first appeared in a humour-laced role, as Mohini in Peruvannapurathe Visheshangal. Kamal, who directed the film, had watched her in Pokkuveyil and the varied characters she played in Tamil movies before inviting her to play Mohini, a young woman with a crush on the new inhabitant in town (Jayaram).

“Kalpana and both of her actor sisters (Kalaranjini and Urvashi) have acted in my films. I have known them since they were schoolchildren. The other two played heroines while Kalpana began to play more humorous characters, especially after Peruvannapurathe Visheshangal. But she was so versatile and game for any type of role. She’d make it perfect with her dialogue delivery and body language. There are some actors, like her and like Sukumari, who can never be replaced. Their performances will remain fresh for all times,” says Kamal.

Sukumari, like Kalpana, was recognised for her ability to play comic characters with ease. Before that, Sreelatha was the humour queen of Malayalam cinema, often pairing up with Adoor Bhasi in a side track that ran parallel to the main thread of a film. But afterward Kalpana became the main face of comedy among women actors, and the only one to have lasted for so many years.

“Back in the 90s, or the golden age of Malayalam comedy films, one could have a favourite comedy actor but everyone will agree that the ‘Don’ of comedy was Jagathy Sreekumar. In an age where feminism wasn’t quite a thing yet and men dressed in drag to play women in comedy skits, I only remember Kalpana going toe to toe with Jagathy when it came to comedy. In fact, she is one of the few comedians who survived the 00s sexist comedy and made it to the 10s with credibility,” says Vinay.

Kalpana seemed to adapt easily to changing times. In the early days, her figure became the subject of jokes in some films. Later on, she began to handle varied roles, often appearing as the independent working woman, but still adding to the comic element of a film. In Ishtam, for example, she plays a strict policewoman who takes into custody two troublemaking old men, but brings in humour in her expressions and dialogues. She portrayed a more memorable policewoman character years earlier in Mammootty’s Inspector Balram. She plays Sub Inspector Dakshayani, married to police driver Sudhakaran (Jagadish), who has a complex about working under his wife.

“The comedy sequence in Inspector Balram between Dakshayani and Sudhakaran still gets a lot of appreciation. I also acted opposite Kalpana’s memorable character, UDC Kumari, as Society Balan, in Dr Pasupathy. She had very good comic timing and a sense of humour. She was also a good human being, she maintained good relations with everyone on the sets from the unit boys onward,” says actor Jagadish.

In Inspector Balram, the comic scenes turn serious later on, as Sudhakaran becomes increasingly difficult to live with. In a matter of minutes, Kalpana the comedian turns into an emotional wreck on the screen, clutching her children. “She handled emotional scenes really well,” Jagadish says.

In the 1990s, while she was busy hopping between comic roles, Kalpana also played the prominent character of Guntur Parvathi in Kudumba Kodathi alongside Innocent. As the new wife of a much older man with two sons, she played the young mother-in-law of two arrogant young women. Guntur Parvathi would switch to Telugu when she lost her temper with the young women, “teaching them a lesson” as films often did in those days.

Kalpana in Kudumba Kodathi

“Who can forget Guntur Parvathi in Kudumba Kodathi who had her stepsons on their toes, or the immensely hilarious Inspector Mariyamma in Ishtam,” says Fahir Maithutty, film critic.

He adds, “Kalpana had a unique ability to raise your spirits and energy through a movie, thanks especially to her immaculate comic timing. Most of the times only a short screen time is enough because the moment she is on screen she would immediately grab your attention.”

He mentions Bangalore Days too, where she uses the chance given by fate to turn from a homemaker stuck at home all her life to a modern woman enjoying city life and making new friends. While it has elements of comedy, Kuttan’s Amma (mother) also lays bare the lives of many women stuck inside the four walls of a home and not expected to be interested in much else in life.

Those were the years Kalpana finally got a chance to experiment with varied roles. Indian RupeeSpiritBangalore DaysCharlie and of course her award-winning film Thanichalla Njan came in the last five years of her life. She got more appreciation for these films than all the comedy she did before it, she said in Lucas’s interview. It wasn’t easy to be accepted as a comedian either, it took her 50 films. And once she got labelled a comedian, it was difficult to change that image, she said.

When Thanichalla Njan came to her, Kalpana had initially asked the director – Babu Thiruvalla, also a producer of many films – to cast her sister Urvashi, who was one of the leading women actors of the 1980s and 90s. But Babu, whose film was about a real-life Muslim character called Razia who saved a Hindu woman on the verge of suicide, had Kalpana in mind.

“I had read a newspaper article about how Kalpana helped the two women (financially). I went to see them with her and decided to make a movie about it. When she suggested Urvashi for the role, I said I wanted her to do it. The character, like Kalpana was in real life, has a lot of compassion. Kalpana performed beautifully as Razia, and was so happy when the National Award for Best Supporting Actor (Female) came to her,” says Babu.

He too won the National Award that year, for Best Feature Film on National Integration. It was 2012. They travelled together to receive their awards, and all through the journey, he says, Kalpana was her humorous self. She always spread laughter, had a spontaneous sense of humour that kept everyone around her in good spirits, he recalls.

“The only thing I felt bad about was that at the end of the film, when I offered her the remuneration she refused to take it. She said she didn’t want to be paid for the film and instead asked me to give the money to a young man who’d been helping her for the film. She was always that considerate. One day during the filming, she fell ill and had to go to the hospital. She never told me and asked others not to. The next morning, she came to the shooting as usual. She didn’t want me to worry about it or offer to postpone the shooting. She was that committed to her work,” Babu says with emotion.

Commitment is a word everyone uses for Kalpana, be it for work or personal relationships. Urvashi, her younger sister whom she called Podimol, recounted in an interview with John Brittas how Kalpana always stood strongly with her. Urvashi had been her shadow when they were young, tailing her, repeating her words. Kalpana became a mentor when they got older. The only time they disagreed was when it came to Urvashi’s relationship with a co-actor. Kalpana had warned her that it would not go well and she didn’t want to listen to her, Urvashi said. When the marriage failed, she didn’t want to admit that Kalpana had been right all along, and that had caused a rift between them for years.

Watch: Scene from Pidakozhi Kookkunna Nootandu

But Urvashi, more known for her natural and effortless performances, is the first to say that Kalpana deserved a lot more recognition than herself. Kalpana had not even received recognition from a private channel for years, something that had disappointed her as well as her sister. Urvashi has received the Kerala State Award for Best Female Actor five times – three of these in a row, and one National Award for supporting actor. The two sisters have acted together in films like Injakkadan Mathai & Sons and Pidakozhi Kookkunna Nootandu.

Kalaranjini, the eldest of the lot, is also known for her performances, playing heroine in her early days and later moving to comedy. In that way, Kalpana went in the opposite direction to both her sisters. Both Urvashi and Kalaranjini began to do humour-laced characters as they got older while Kalpana began to show a taste for serious roles. Sadly though, she didn’t have enough time to explore the new window of roles that opened too belatedly for her. But in her interviews, she repeatedly brushed it all off as ‘fate’, for she was a staunch believer and accepted everything that came her way as what god had planned for her. Perhaps it was her faith or else her natural disposition that made her presence a pleasant memory among all who knew her, and even those who saw her from beyond a screen.