I once saw actor Urvashi at the Chennai airport and smiled at her broadly as if we were old friends. It took me a moment to remember that she doesn't know me at all. Urvashi is one of those rare actors who make you forget completely that you're watching a film and that the character she's playing does not exist in real life. The ease with which she does this is stupendous and it's no wonder that I felt like I'd known her all my life.
Take Kanchana from "Thalayanamanthram". In the hands of a lesser actor, the role would have been reduced to that of a stereotypical "villi" who breaks up the family. Instead, Urvashi plays the character with equal parts naivete and cunning that even as you laugh at her foolishness, you also feel sorry for her insecurities.
When she asks her sister-in-law, played by Parvathy, "Yee maala ethra pawana?" followed by a declaration that she hates wearing jewelry, the "kushumbu" in her face and voice is so real that you get the character at once. Kanchana's little white lies, her disappointments, her bragging...Urvashi does all of it by delivering a performance that's as natural as breathing. She didn't have to resort to wearing loud make-up or "modern" clothes, the crutches of the typical "villi", to achieve this.
Born Kavitha Ranjini, Urvashi entered films as a child artist. Her first film as the heroine to hit the screens was the Tamil "Munthaani Mudichchu" although she'd already acted in the lead role with Karthik at the tender age of 13 in "Thodarum Uravu". The film, however, released only three years later.
Since then, Urvashi has acted in hundreds of films across South Indian languages and in Hindi too! She's now in the "senior" category but though women her age are pushed into playing the prototype mother, Urvashi has excelled here too, picking roles that are meaty and integral to the script.
She took a break for a few years after her marriage in 2000 but picked up a National Award for Best Supporting Actress in her comeback film "Achuvinte Amma" in which she plays Meera Jasmine's mother. As the street-smart Vanaja, Urvashi makes you laugh and cry in the course of a couple of hours. The friendship that the mother and daughter share, the fights between them and unconditional love that can come only from a parent - all of it could have slipped into the maudlin if not for the two talented women who made the film work.
In "Mummy and Me", yet another film about a mother-daughter relationship, Urvashi plays Clara, a conventional mother with a hot-headed daughter who wants to break out of the restrictions that the latter imposes upon her under the belief that it's "for her own good". I watched this film when I was in a rebellious phase in my own life and Urvashi's Clara made me understand my mother a little better, even if I didn't agree with her methods.
To say that Urvashi is a versatile actor is to state the obvious. She could be an innocent yet stoic Annamma as in "Lal Salaam", a quietly determined Annie as in "Oru CBI Diary Kurippu", a mature and supportive fiancee as in "Bharatham", a sulking wife as in "Mithunam" or a completely hilarious Tiruppurasundari as in "Michael Madana Kamarajan".
In the last film, Urvashi matches Kamal's Kameshwaran without missing a beat, including the Palakkad dialect. The scene in which she threatens to swallow poison swings from the melodramatic to the romantic and both actors nail it with their impeccable comic timing.
In "Magalir Mattum", one of her most memorable films in Tamil, Urvashi plays Janaki, a Brahmin woman who works under a lecherous boss (Nasser) along with actors Revathy and Rohini. The film is a laugh riot and even though it doesn't have a hero (Kamal makes a cameo at the end), it has achieved cult status as a comedy. Janaki's nervous laughter, her absent-mindedness, her outrage...nobody but Urvashi could have given the character as much life.
It's impossible to discuss all of Urvashi's films in a prolific career spanning over three decades in a single article. Her personal life has been far from easy and the stress sometimes makes it to the news in an ugly way. But Urvashi, thankfully, continues to do more films, undaunted. Her quick tongue and expressive face were made to entertain and as a fangirl, I hope she never stops. In a male-dominant industry where films are centered around heroes, an actor of her calibre may get only a few scripts that can unleash her full potential. And that's cinema's loss and ours.