As a student in class five or six, there was a period of time when Kovai Sarala would stand outside a hotel in Coimbatore every morning, with her double braids, wearing a blouse and skirt — all in the hope of catching a glimpse of legendary actor turned politician M.G. Ramachandran, fondly known as MGR. She had narrowly missed seeing him on an earlier visit to Coimbatore and recalled weeping inconsolably over the "costly" miss. "So I was more determined to see him this time, but was not very hopeful," said Sarala.
The meeting happened a few days later. "He invited me in, made inquiries, and insisted on knowing my school address. I was terrified. I thought he was going to send a complaint about me, but gave him the address," remembered Sarala. The next month, the school received money from MGR, to pay for Sarala's fees.
It's been more than four decades, but when Sarala remembers that first meeting with MGR, she still radiates excitement. "I am such a huge fan and he was my inspiration," she said. "I developed a passion for acting, watching MGR on screen. I saw him and thought I should come on screen too."
In 1983, Kovai Sarala received a shield from MGR for being part of Mundhanai Mudichu (1983), one of her early films. "I couldn't tell him about my first meeting with him," Kovai said. "He was the Chief Minister by that time, but it was a moment to cherish."
Since then, Kovai Sarala has been in over 750 films and become a household name in Tamil Nadu as both a comedian and an actor. She's one of the few who has played the role of mother to many heroes and later been paired with most of them. Many compare her to the legendary actress, singer, and comedian Manorama, who appeared in more than 1,000 films in her career.
Sarala said she'd never considered herself to be like Manorama. "I thought I was treading a different path. I accepted every role that came my way. But when people said I have arrived in the manner of Manorama aachi, I was happy to accept it. I don't want to stop with that. I want to keep expanding my horizons and keep taking on more challenges."
Sembi, her next film, is with director Prabu Solomon. In it, Sarala plays the role of a tribal woman. It's a marked departure from the roles she's played in the past. "It is a very challenging role," Sarala said. "I play the role of a grandmother. I was worried when the director narrated the story to me. I was worried about doing justice to the character, and whether I could live up to the director's expectations."
Solomon had no hesitation about casting Sarala. "She plays a 70-year-old woman, Veera Thayi in Sembi," he said. "I was looking to cast a tribal woman in the role, but couldn't find one. For three months after I wrote the script, I looked for an actor who would do justice to the role. When I saw Kovai Sarala's clippings from various films, I decided to approach her."
Solomon said he only had to explain the character to Sarala once. "She is no doubt a Nadippu Ratchasi [a monster in acting] as Kamal [Haasan] sir put it after watching the Sembi trailer," he said. Solomon was confident about Sarala even though the role of Veera Thayi was different from the kind of roles he'd seen her perform. "I have always believed comedians are complete actors," he said. "They can pull off any kind of role. Sarala added strength to my belief. This was a subtle, understated role and she has carried it so well. You will never believe that you just saw Kovai Sarala on screen."
Sarala said she needed to change herself for Sembi. "I am a very fast actor, my dialogue delivery and actions too. Solomon's style is entirely different. He wanted me to slow down. For the first two days, I felt like I was new to the cinema. From the third day, I settled down. On the fourth day, when the director said he didn't require me to do a 'once more' for a shot, I was glad that I had gotten into the skin of the character," said Sarala.
There have been other occasions when Sarala has felt unsure about a film, like when she was cast opposite Kamal Haasan in Sathi Leelavathi (1995). "It was not about my performance though, I knew I could pull it off," she recalled. Sarala's hesitation was about being paired with Kamal Haasan. "There was stiff opposition to me doing the role and huge pressure on Kamal sir for the decision. After all, to them, I was merely a comedy actor. Till date, women in cinema continue to be stereotyped. They are not allowed to explore the way the men do. Kamal Haasan broke convention in Sathi Leelavathi and I will remain forever grateful to him for that," Sarala said.
When it was time for Sathi Leelavathi's release, Sarala felt like she was waiting for the results of the most important examination of her life. "If the film didn't perform well, Kamal sir would receive all the brickbats. I was worried about that," she said. She needn't have worried. The film was a success and Sarala's performance was much appreciated.
Actor Rohini was one of the actors who had been in the running for the role Sarala played in Sathi Leelavathi. When she saw the film later, she found Sarala to be "irreplaceable". "I had just finished Magalir Mattum and Balu Mahendra sir had approached me to do the role of Palaniammal in Sathi Leelavathi," remembered Rohini. "But Kamal sir put his foot down and said he wanted only Sarala. I didn't get why he was so adamant, but when I watched the film, I understood why. I could never have been as good as Sarala. I can think of a replacement for every other character in the movie, but not Sarala's. You have very few such artists – who can pull off a performance that leaves you wondering how they are so unmatched."
Speaking of Sarala's strengths as a performer, Rohini said, "The strong point of her performance is her body language. She makes every role look like a breeze."
Rohini and Sarala haven't appeared together in many films, but they've worked together while campaigning during Nadigar Sangam's (South Indian Artists' Association) elections. "Sarala was very generous with her contribution to the travel of the team throughout the state. As a person, she is very giving as also strong and fearless. I think she is the kind of person the industry can look up to and can depend on to handle any kind of situation without being didactic," said Rohini.
As a comedian, Sarala has worked with SS Chandran in the 1980s; Vivek and Vadivelu in the late 1990s and early 2000s; and remains one of Tamil cinema's finest performers. "I started off doing very elderly roles. In my second film, Chinna Veedu (1985), I played about [a character who was] 65-70 years old. I was 17 or 18 at that time. Actor and director Bhagyaraj taught me to look at the weight of the character, and not their age. I was initially hesitant to do Chinna Veedu because I was afraid of being typecast in similar roles. Bhagyaraj sir convinced me. Since then, I have acted as the mother to almost all the heroes including Sathyaraj and Prabhu. Later I was paired opposite Sathyaraj and Jayaram," Sarala said. "To me, characters are more important than their age."
She has particularly fond memories of the roles she played in films directed by V Sekar and Ramanarayan, where the roles were of middle-class people, rooted in everyday realities. "Cinema was my dream, so I did my homework. I read about my characters, watched them, and understood their behavior. If I were to play a character in an auto driver's house, I made it a point to understand their lifestyle and accent, what dominates their day-to-day conversations, and their clothes. I would try to bring all this on screen," Sarala said.
For Karakattakaran (1989), Sarala remembered observing the karakattam performers and the way they talk to each other as they dance. "They were very secretive about their makeup," she recalled. "I had watched them do their makeup on the sly when I was young. That came in handy for my role in Karakattakaran."
Yet despite all the success she has enjoyed, Sarala said she also struggled to find roles because she was a woman comedian. "We speak about gender equality, but as far as cinema is concerned, like in many other fields, we have hardly achieved it," Sarala said, adding that she felt sidelined at certain points in her career. "Even when I was doing a lot of movies, roles were not written for me. There were many writers during Manorama aachi's period who wrote roles for her. But I did not have such an opportunity. We had comedy writer Veerappan, but he wrote mostly for Goundamani and Senthil. It has been a struggle at every step. I used every opportunity that came my way and improvised on every character. This lack of writing with women in mind perhaps also explains why there aren't many women doing comedy."
Men doing comedic roles, of course, have their own offices and hire their writers. Sarala asked pointedly, "If women do the same, you know the kind of names that we will get, don't you?"