When KPAC Lalitha finally succumbed to her ailments on 22 February, every Malayalee felt as if they have lost an elder sister or aunt, an intimate friend or relative. For she had built up such an ubiquitous, warm and neighbourly presence through her performances in plays, films and later, television serials. In an acting career of more than half a century and over 500 films that spans three generations of artists and directors, she had carved a niche for herself both in entertainment industry and in public mind.
As she recounts painstakingly in her autobiography—Katha Thudarum (The Story Continues)—hers was not an easy journey through life or art. She had to fight endless battles within and without. Her personal life was an endless struggle—to make both ends meet in the beginning and then later, a story of coping with the vertiginous ups and downs in the creative life of her husband Bharathan, an extremely talented artist and director who died in 1998 at the peak of his career. But throughout her life, Lalitha found refuge, exhilaration and freedom in acting, both in theatre and cinema; she took to acting like fish to water.
Starting her career in her teens as a stage actress, she soon became member of the prestigious KPAC troupe (Kerala People's Arts Club), which was one of the most popular theatre groups in Kerala. KPAC was formed in 1950 along the lines of IPTA, to propagate and mobilise popular support for communist ideology, and it was through their songs and plays like Ningalenne Communstakki (You Turned me into a Communist) and Mooladhanam (Capital) that revolutionary ideas were propagated and popularised among the masses. During her stint at KPAC, Lalitha was also an active in the communist party and was one of the State Joint Secretaries of the party's women's wing. It was by the end of 1960's that Lalitha entered movies. It was also the time when many of the gifted theatre artists—scenarists, lyricists, singers and actors—were migrating to the tinsel world. Her mentors and peers in theatre like the playwright Thoppil Bhasi and co-actor KP Ummer were already popular in cinema. Her passion for theatre, the thrill and inspiration from acting on stage in front of a huge gathering, often politically mobilised, the long journeys with the drama troupe to perform in different parts of India—all these experiences were to influence her deeply, both as an individual artist who knows her audience, and as a team person who could easily vibe with co-performers. And throughout her life, Lalitha wore the suffix 'KPAC' very proudly, like a badge of honour.
She made her debut with Koottukudumbam (Joint Family/1969) by KS Sethumadhavan playing a small but significant role—that of a married daughter from a joint family, whose husband is a rustic farmer, always in need of money. Throughout the film, the couple keep pestering the karanavar (the joint family head) for help. Ironically, Lalitha returned to this role—that of the daughter-in-law with a truant husband coming to natal taravad for help—throughout her long career. In many a film, she played the unhappy daughter returning home after marriage, but every time she made those characters look different and unique. It was like a traditional artist performing the same mythical roles differently each time.
Right from the beginning, she made her screen presence felt with small but notable roles in films like Anubhavangal Palichakal, Vazhve Mayam, Swayamvaram, Triveni, Kodiyettam, Enipadikal etc. In these formative years, Lalitha also had the opportunity to act in the films of some of the most successful filmmakers of the period like Thoppil Bhasi (who was also her life-time mentor, philosopher and guide right from her theatre days) KS Sethumadhavan, A Vincent, P Bhaskaran and Sasikumar. In the next decades she had a very significant presence in the industry, acting in as many as 112 films in the 1970's, 70 films in the 1980's (the years when she got married to Bharathan and had to withdraw from films for a while), but again making a comeback in the 1990s with 135 films. Her career continued unabated with over 90 films in the post-millennium decades too.
The career graph and the acting oeuvre of Lalitha are unique on many counts. For one, she acted in all kinds—commercial, middle and art cinema, and genres of films—socials, comedies, thrillers, and family drama. But whichever role she played, Lalitha was always able to add her earthy charm. Who can forget the village girl Parvati in Anubhvangal Palichakal, who falls in love with the macho communist underground revolutionary (played by Sathyan), where she combines romantic feelings and sensuousness with womanly prudence and rural dignity. In Vazhve Mayam she plays the wife of a drunkard electric worker with effortless comic elan, and in Triveni she plays the role of a smart and independent woman fighting the odds. In Padmarajan's Peruvazhiambalam she plays a village sex-worker who gives refuge to an adolescent boy who happened to murder a local ruffian; here too, she combines motherly feelings for him along with playful eroticism. She plays a similar role in Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Swayamvaram too,: in this film she is married to a drunkard and someone who takes life as it comes; she earns her living by entertaining a regular customer – Smuggler Vasu – without any feelings of guilt or regret. In Kodiyettam she plays the role of the wife of a village bumpkin (played by Gopi) who floats around without a care about anything in the world, let alone a family. Her gradual realisation about her predicament as a loafer's wife, her defiant return home and later their reunion were brilliantly and evocatively portrayed by Lalitha. In Adoor's Mathilukal (Walls), she plays the role of Narayani, a female prisoner who falls in love with Basheer (Mammootty), who is incarcerated in the men's prison. A huge prison wall separates them. All through the narrative, which is told from the perspective of Basheer, the writer-protagonist, we never get to see Narayani, but only hear her voice from the other side of the wall. But Laltha expresses all the pain and longing, romanticism and carnality of love through her sensuous voice. Though she never appears in the film, it remains one of her most memorable roles. Some of her significant films include Aaravam, Amaram, Vengalam, Dasaratham, Ponmuttayidunna Tharavu, Sandesam, Parvathy, Manichitrathazhu, Godfather, Aniyathipravu, Shantham, Kudumbapuranam, Vietnam Colony, Sphatikam, Kathapurushan, Vismayam, Thilakkam, Manasinakkare, Kanalkkattu, and Vellimoonga.
Noted filmmakers like KS Sethumadhavan and Thoppil Bhasi in the earlier generation, and Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Sathyan Anthikad in the next, have cast Lalitha in roles that brought out the best in her. She could easily transform herself into any character in any milieu, caste, community or religion, effortlessly reproduce the flow of the local/communal lingo, and easily adapt to the costumes of the respective milieu. Cast in 'side roles' like that of the mother, mother-in-law, aunt, friendly neighbour, broker, servant, peasant, fisherwoman, sex-worker, jealous wife, feisty relative who pokes her nose into everyone's business, the daughter-in-law who is caught between her love for both families – natal and marital, a matriarch who has to deal with a dominating and irritable husband and the love for and foibles of her children etc, she played all of them equally well. Having honed her skills in theatre, she also excelled in combination roles, especially with some of the best male actors especially with those with a ludic streak in them like Bahadur, Sankaradi, Thilakan, Innocent, Oduvil Unnikrishnan etc. She was also equally good playing against heroes like Mammootty, Murali, Jayaram and later Dileep.
Unlike many of the actresses of her time like TR Omana, Meena, Philomena, Kaviyur Ponnamma, Adoor Bhavani etc, KPAC Lalitha never allowed herself to be typecast. Many of these brilliant 'supporting' artists were forced to repeat the roles of the self-sacrificing mother, the wily mother-in-law, the jealous sister-in-law, the 'modern' libertines, the haughty, argumentative shrew etc. Among the supporting actresses, Sukumari and Lalitha may be the only exceptions to it. In the case of Sukumari, though she effortlessly donned diverse roles, there was always an element of excess or extra flourish in her performances, which was never the case with Lalitha, whose performances were more precise and subtle. Lalitha was also not known for her dancing skills unlike many actresses of her times. Her acting persona and skills were entirely drawn from her ability to emote and get into the skin of the character. She could easily and effortlessly play all kinds of characters, yet her acting talents and screen presence were never exhausted or calcified by such roles. She constantly broke such pre-fixed moulds and stereotyping by adding some unique dimension to each role. Even while playing a very ordinary, everyday role, she gave it certain tentativeness and complexity. Performances in Kathapurushan, Amaram, Godfather, Sphatikam, Achuvinte Amma, Manasinakkare etc, testify to Lalitha's ability to improvise and to turn any stereotypical role into something very Lalithaesque. Take for instance the scene in Amaram where she deals with a prospective bridegroom making a marriage proposal for her sister-in-law, while she sells fish in the market; she fight with the vendor next to her, bargains with customers and shoos away idlers, as she discusses the proposal. Another such unforgettable scene is one from Godfather, when her husband (played by Innocent) feigns ignorance about her and their marital relationship in order to escape the wrath of the patriarch. Take any of her films, there will be one such instance where she infuses an otherwise mundane occasion with comic or tragic energy.
What made her unique was her ability to play the milieu, to transform herself into the soul of the character, embellishing it with gestural and linguistic flourishes of her own. And the films she especially excelled in were those set in specific milieus, where the characters really belonged and were rooted.
Sadly, 'supporting' actors like Lalitha never get to play central roles. But whenever she had the opportunity, she essayed such roles with great depth and emotional intensity, as is evident in Jayaraj's Shantham. In this film, she plays the mother of a son who was killed ('martyred') by his bosom friend due to political rivalry; film unfolds during her pilgrimage to Tirunavaya to perform the last rites for her departed son. In this film she also performs with two legends: Kalamandalam Gopi, the Kathakali maestro, and IM Vijayan, the great footballer.
What made Lalitha extraordinary as an actress was her ordinariness, her ability to become the character, to jell with the narrative milieu and dramatic environment, and yet to give every role a Lalithaesque touch.
Malayalam cinema will miss her for a long time..