While supporting actors, also known as "character" artists, may never get paid as much as the hero or heroine of a film, they tend to have much longer careers if they are talented and versatile performers.
Malayalam cinema has several such actors who've played numerous roles ranging from the wicked to the helpless and innocent. Sometimes they appeared in substantial and pivotal roles, sometimes they were there only for a scene or two, but these actors were and are such powerhouses of talent that every time they came on screen, they elevated the film.
Their longevity in a competitive industry is also remarkable, having seen numerous generations of actors pass by them and still doing films with the most recent of the lot. From the Prem Nazeer era to Mammooty-Mohanlal and subsequent younger stars, these actors have been around for what seems like forever. There are very few actors, especially women, in Bollywood and other industries who've survived for so long.
Here's a look at four such female actors who entered the industry in the '50s and '60s and managed to have flourishing careers well into the new millennium.
The veteran actor made her debut in the 60s and was active in cinema till the time she took ill and eventually passed away in 2006 at the age of 80. Philomina was phenomenally versatile - if she was heartless and autocratic as Anappara Achamma in Godfather, she was the helpless Suhra Bai, a lonely Muslim woman neglected by her son, in Vietnam Colony.
As the pathetic yet cunning old relative in Thalayanamanthram who let her loose tongue inflict maximum damage, Philomina was hilarious. In Thaniyavarthanam, she was the superstitious grand dame of a family that believes itself to be cursed while in In Harihar Nagar, she was a crabby yet loving grandmother. Capable of passing sarcastic comments and calling a spade a spade without batting an eyelid, Philomina was also convincing in roles that required her to invoke pathos.
Her last film was Meerayude Dhukavum Muthuvinte Swapnavum.
Padma Shri Sukumari was a trained dancer who acted in about 2500 films across several languages, including Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada, Hindi, Oriya and even Bengali. She was part of Cho Ramasamy's famous theatre group and began her acting career on the stage.
Sukumari was prolific and could swing from playing a modern "missy" like she did in Vandanam to a conservative and casteist snob like Meenakshiamma in Sasneham. She was given a loquacious role like the character of Sulu that she did in Thalayanamanthram in several films but she could also play the innocent and pure-hearted mother like she did in the rib-tickling classic Ramji Rao Speaking, or an emotional one like she did in Dasharatham.
Sukumari acted in several critically acclaimed films and won numerous awards, including a National Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Namma Gramam. She died due to a cardiac arrest following a tragic fire accident in 2013 at the age of 72. Many of the films she acted in were released posthumously.
It's hard to believe that Mohanlal and Kaviyoor Ponnamma are not family, so successfully have the two of them established the mother-son relationship on screen! In hard-hitting films like Kireedam, especially, their love and affection is so palpable and convincing.
With her gentle face and placid demeanor, Kaviyoor Ponnamma became a "mother" in cinema pretty soon. She has played mommy to Satyan and Prem Nazeer who were mucholder than her. In fact, Kaviyoor Ponnamma was only in her 20s when she played the role of Satyan's mother in Rosy.
As the sweet although temperamental Bhagirathi Thampuratty who yearns for her dead son in His Highness Abdullah, as the pained Devaki in Bharatham who watches the ego battles in her family, and the torn mother in Thaniyavarthanam who feeds her son poison to free him from social castigation, Kaviyoor Ponnamma brought a rare vulnerability to her roles that has endeared her to audiences across decades.
Kaviyoor Ponnamma is still active in her career and was last seen as Mammooty's mother in Thoppil Joppan.
Lalitha, whose initials stand for Kerala People's Arts Club, came into cinema through theatre. An incredibly talented actor, KPAC Lalitha has been in the industry since the late '60s, putting her versatility to good use.
Quick tongued and spirited, she has played several "mother" and "mother-in-law" roles with great success. In Vadakku Nokki Yenthram, she was the somewhat controlling mother who tries to pacify her warring sons. In Thalayanamanthram, she was the fair and just mother-in-law who tries to keep the family together. She has acted in a few Tamil films too, most memorably Kadhalukku Mariyadhai and Alaipayuthey.
For her nuanced performance as Bhargavi in Amaram, which was about a father-daughter relationship, she won the National Award for Best Supporting Actress. Whether it's a comedy like Mukundetta Sumitra Villikkunnu, a thriller like Manichitrathaazhu or a bittersweet film like Dasharatham, KPAC Lalitha lit up the screen with her expressive face, superb dialogue delivery and talent for comic timing.