Starburst: Saleema of ‘Nakhashathangal’ fame who blazed in and out of Malayalam cinema

An actor who refused to ‘conform’ to the established notions of a heroine.
Starburst: Saleema of ‘Nakhashathangal’ fame who blazed in and out of Malayalam cinema
Starburst: Saleema of ‘Nakhashathangal’ fame who blazed in and out of Malayalam cinema
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By Cinematters aka Biju Ebenezer

Four years, seven movies… and then she seems to have disappeared without a trace.

Remember Saleema who played one of the female leads along with Monisha Unni in the Malayalam movie Nakhakshathangal (1986). 

If you were someone who watched Nakhakshathangal in your neighborhood cinema and went moony over Gowri, I am sure what got under your skin was the spunky, absolute natural ‘onscreen behavior’ of this debutante with ‘unconventional looks’.

With Saleema -daughter of famous Telugu comic actor Girija of the 1950s/60s- our film makers had a very strange situation in their hands.

Here was a brilliant actor, extraordinarily talented, an absolute natural onscreen, but one who refused to ‘conform’ to the established (read ingrained) notions of a heroine.

Nakhakshathangal (1986)

As you watched Nakhakshathangal, your grudging admiration for this actor grew by the minute. Saleema played the role of Lakshmi, the beautiful, deaf and mute daughter in a love triangle that drives the story.

Though she never uttered a single word in the entire movie, you felt that she ‘spoke’ just  right with her eyes and body.

Of course, with two brilliant craftsmen at the helm, MT Vasudevan Nair and Hariharan, there was hardly any room for things to go wrong. Although a large part of the credit goes to MT’s screenplay, it wouldn’t have had as much effect,t had it not have been for the perfect actors who portrayed the roles, and Saleema outclassed herself here.

There are two scenes from the movie that always stays with me. One is the instance where she requests Ramu ( Vineet) to write something for her, and he writes that classic verse, “ആരെയും ഭാവഗായകനാക്കും ആത്മസൌന്ദര്യമാണ് നീ “ (Your is the soulful beauty which would make anyone sing), the way her face lights up and her reaction to the lines blows you away.

Probably it was one of the few instances on the Malayalam screen where the girl in love so emphatically and literally ‘sealed her intention with a kiss.’

The second is when she lets her father know of her decision on the heartbreaking turn of events through a note, and as her father (Jagannatha Verma ) looks up at her, the emotions that fleet across her face is beyond compare. Nuanced, subtle but it said everything.

Niramulla Raavukal (1986 )

Saleema as a teen hooker in a sort of “multi-cameo soft-porn” offering is sure to have you sit and scratch your head hard. Of the dizzying number of ‘temptations of the flesh’ thrust into absurd situations so that M Krishnan Nair could conveniently yank off their clothes, her short appearance thankfully stayed within reasonably sane limits.

Kurukkan Raajavaayi (1987)

This seems to be one of the tail-end movies directed by P Chandrakumar in the real world before he crossed over to the land of soft-porn.

Saleema as Raaji played the love interest toManianpillai Raju‘s ‘aimless, love-sick bumpkin’, someone who takes the help of his dear friend to help him fall in love with her – the whole movie script had you thinking hard on what exactly were you thinking when you decided to watch the movie.

There wasn’t much Saleema had to do but wear 80’s ‘modern-girl dresses and accessories…drive a Fiat Premier Padmini and look very bimbettish.

Aaranyakam (1988)

A worthy follow-up to her act in Nakshakshathangal. I believe we remember her more for Ammini in Aranyakam than anything else. Saleema played the pivotal character of Ammini, the lonesome, seemingly introvert, mischievous, wacky and brilliant – the proverbial diamond in the rock.

Ammini is slave to her daydreams, an astute lover of nature, fits the ‘solitary traveler’ to a T, and is so overwhelmingly folded up on her ‘inadequacy to conform to social niceties and existing standards.’  Her best friends are her personal diary, books, birds and insects around the countryside, in that order.

It is this introvert who ends up forming bonds of physical attraction, compatibility and admiration with the two main male protagonists of the movie, albeit at two different levels.

A stellar role, reinforced by some divine music by Reghunath Seth to lyrics by ONV Kurup, every song has been an evergreen classic.  

Mahayaanam (1989)

From the Hariharan school to Joshiy‘s was an interesting ‘transition’. Saleema in Mahaayanam didn’t have much to do, other than being the customary ‘repressed, loved heart within the palatial four walls’ and react suitably pained in the few minutes of screen-time she had.

It was also delightful to watch Vineeth romancing Saleema for the third time, and sadly, still go unfulfilled. It must have been Lohithadas‘ script that gave a certain ‘edge-of-the-seat-respectability’ to what would have been otherwise a staple Joshiy Ketchup Fest.

Saleema was Molly, the ‘pining for love’ daughter of Kochuvarkey ( Prathap Chandran in a stellar role), the local feudal lord who takes even the movement of a bedbug against  his will personally. 

So it can only mean nuclear fission when he comes to know that his lowly page-boy-cum-doormat-cum-runner-cum-junior-accountant is madly in love with his daughter and catches them in a tender moment. The story evolves into expected violence and gore, but sadly, Saleema isn’t playing any part in it.

A wonderful premise of a journey, a stranger enters a strange land with a dead body, and returns with another loved one’s.

Vandanam (1989)

Priyadarshan‘s version of  John Badham’s Stakeout (1987), with some ill-fitting wigs and slapstick thrown in for good measure.  Saleema plays Professor Kurian Fernandes’ favorite student who gets raped and killed and the charges stuck on him by the conniving college management.  A ‘blink-and-miss’ role.

(edited version)

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