Whether comedy or drama, Manorama’s success sprang not just from her remarkable talent but also her amazing ability to adapt.
Maalayitta Mangai, the 1958 drama produced by Kannadasan and directed by GR Nathan, is remembered mainly for two reasons today. One, the magical Viswanathan-Ramamurthy score, studded with hits like Naanandri yaar varuvaar and Senthamizh thenmozhiyaal. And two, the actress listed as “puthumuga arimugam” at the bottom of the second scroll of cast names, far below the character artists: Manorama. She plays Anjalai, the domestic help earning a salary of six rupees in a rich household. It’s a supporting role, with comic shades – she would go on to play a similar role in many films. Forty-four years later, in 2002, she told The Hindu, “[Kannadasan] told me that if I did that comic role, I’d come up in life. Today, his words have come true.” The year she gave this interview, she had four releases – one in Telugu (Ninu Choodaka Nenundalenu) and three in Tamil (Thamizh, Jaya, Gemini). She got her start when TR Mahalingam was a hero. She was still at it when Vikram burst on the scene.
This kind of longevity is the blessing of a character artist – even after stars fade, supporting actors keep shining. Even so, Manorama was unique. It wasn’t just her talent, evident in the numerous films that remain forgotten even as their “comedy tracks” find a new life on YouTube. It was also her ability to adapt – to drama, and to the times. For a while, she played along, establishing herself as a comedienne. One of the earliest instances of her cutting loose is in Kalathur Kannamma (1959), where her character, named Alamu, is caught between a younger suitor and an old man who wants her for himself. Heeding the suggestion of the film’s overall fixer-upper, played by a boy named Kamalahasan, Alamu decides to frighten the old man away. She invites him to dinner. She sweet-talks him, casually letting slip the information that she’s alone. Her mother is at the temple praying for her, as she tends to get possessed by the spirit of Maariyatha. Then, slowly, she loosens her hair. She pretends to feel faint. Slowly, her tone changes – no longer pliant, but harsh. Soon she’s yelling, Ey manidha poochiye, you human insect… The terrified old man flees.
In certain critical circles, this would be called “low comedy,” which, to steal from the encyclopaedia definition, has no underlying purpose except to provoke laughter by boisterous jokes, buffoonery, and other riotous activity. That, in general, is how comedy is in our cinema, and that’s what actors like Manorama did over and over, with great skill, to great success. Without her comedy track, Kalathur Kannamma is just a turgid melodrama about a star-crossed couple and the son who unites them. A few years later, Manorama played a character named Kannamma herself, in the comedy track in Anbe Vaa (1966), where she threatens to blind Nagesh with a pair of knitting needles. The name seems to have followed Manorama through her career. She played another Kannamma in Samsaaram Adhu Minsaaram (1986), another domestic worker who’s practically part of the family.
It’s flat-out impossible to talk about all her memorable roles – there are just so many. But we should certainly pause to note that she co-starred with all the top comics – Nagesh, most famously, but also Cho (Bommalaattam, where Manorama sang that legendary ode to ‘Madras Tamil,’ Vaa vaadhyaare vootanda) Surulirajan (Thirumalai Thenkumari), Mouli (a double role in Oru Malarin Payanam) and ‘Thengai’ Srinivasan (Kaasedhaan Kadavulada). Not that Manorama needed a co-star. In Savaal (1981), she played the lungi-clad ‘Burma’ Pappa, a Fagin-like leader of a gang of young pickpockets. In Kodai Mazhai (1986), she guest-starred as a schoolteacher who cannot help winking. (Just how big was Manorama by then? Another guest star in the film, which starred newcomers, was… Rajinikanth.) And of course, ‘Jil Jil’ Ramamani, that walking sine curve in Thillana Mohanambal (1968), named after her tinkling anklet bells. By this time, Manorama’s name was at the top of the supporting-cast scroll. The Sivaji Ganesan character refers to her as sakalakalavalli, the mistress of arts. He could be talking about her affecting dramatic turns in subsequent decades.
Watch Manorama as Gemini Ganesan’s devoted daughter-in-law in Unnal Mudiyum Thambi (1988) or as the sympathetic slum-dweller who harbours the heroine in Pudhiya Paadhai (1989) and you’ll see why she was referred to, sometimes, as the female Sivaji Ganesan. It wasn’t just the force of these performances but also the style – a style that harked back to theatre and its emphasis on powerful dialogue delivery and a gestural range to match. Down the decades, Manorama became so beloved that directors began to cast her in parts calculated to extract extreme sympathy. To see any actress suffer in circumstances like the one in Chinna Thambi (1991; another Kannamma) is horrible, but to see Manorama suffer… To acquire that kind of goodwill in the hearts of audiences takes a special kind of talent, and frankly, a special kind of person.
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