One of Malayalam cinema's greatest actors passed away on Tuesday at the age of 74. KPAC Lalitha, who acted in over 500 films, leaves us just two days before her 75th birthday, with half a dozen new films set to release in the coming months. She was under treatment for a series of illnesses and had most recently excused herself from acting in Sathyan Anthikad's ongoing Makal, co-starring Jayaram and Meera Jasmine.
The KPAC in her name is a result of the many years she performed as a regular in the Leftist drama troupe Kerala People's Arts Club. Later, she made her way into mainstream Malayalam cinema when she was 22 with KS Sethumadhavan's Koottu Kudumbam, written by mentor Thoppil Bhasi. Her second film was Ningalenne Communistakki, directed by Bhasi based on a play that was first staged back in 1952.
Among the earliest memories she leaves behind is the visuals of the song 'Kalyani Kalavani' from Anubhavangal Palichagal (co-incidentally Mammootty's first screen appearance). In the classic song written by Vayalar and composed by Devarajan Master, the entire action is limited to close-ups and mid-shots of Lalitha singing to a parrot without any major change in location or setting. Even though she was just a few films old, you could see the magnetic presence of an actor who did not need the crutch of superficialities to keep the viewer totally arrested.
She went on to win two National Awards for best Supporting Actor in husband Bharathan's Amaram (1990) and his favourite assistant Jayaraj's Shantham (2000). She also won four Kerala State Awards for "Second Best Actress" for her performance in films such as Neela Ponman, Aarambam, Amaram, Kadinjool Kalyanam, Godfather and Sandesham. In an interview to Manorama News in the late 2000s, host Johny Lukose asked Lalitha if she felt satisfied in being termed a supporting actor, despite her many award-winning performances.
In her reply, she felt it was even better to be called that because that's what brought her a wide variety of roles instead of being limited to a stereotype. "I'm very satisfied with the kind of roles I've been getting. My only condition is that I should be able to do that particular role to my full ability. Nothing more."
This approach worked wonders for her career because only a handful of other actors have been offered the variety of roles she was. From shallow to deep, short to long, high-pitched to subtle, good to evil, KPAC Lalitha would go on to play characters from every background without ever feeling like she was out of place. What was remarkable was her ability to pick the perfect tone of a film even if her performance was just minutes long. Which means that her performance in a lowbrow comedy directed by Thulasidas (her role as the chicken fry-stealing saint in Minnaminuginum Minnukettu comes to mind) would be worlds apart from a similar comedy role in a Sathyan Anthikad movie.
Yet even in these full-fledged comedy roles, directors like Priyadarshan, Siddique Lal and Sathyan Anthikad entrusted her with a single scene in the second half that had the power to change our entire perception of her character. This scene did not even require foreboding or careful plotting. It's as though the directors didn't have to do more than simply leave it to Lalitha. A perfect example of this is her character in Anthikad's middling Kanalkaatu, co-starring Mammootty. In the film, Lalitha's Omana, a maidservant working for a wealthy contractor, is forced to leave to avoid embarrassment after she gets pregnant. A rowdy named Nathu (Mammootty) even takes money from the contractor to marry Omana so she doesn't return to create trouble. Although most of her scenes play out in a similar nagging fashion, Omana steals our hearts when she refuses to take money to leave Nathu alone. When she tears up as she asks if she could stay married to him; her character, Nathu and the film gain a level of depth you did not expect until then. This was repeated with the same effect years later when she returned with the similar Karthu in Priyadarshan's Thenmavin Kombathu. Just one scene, that was all she needed.
Another credit to her career was how she became a favourite and a recurring presence in almost every major filmmaker's works. She has acted in over 20 films of director Sathyan Anthikad's alone apart from being a regular in the films of Bharathan, Jayaraj, Lal Jose, Priyadarshan, Kamal, Sibi Malayil, Fazil, Siddique-Lal and also famously Adoor Gopalakrishnan.
With Adoor, she was a part of his films right from his first Swayamvaram (in which she played a nonchalant sex worker) to his most recent Pinneyum, in which she featured in just one important scene. But her most striking performance in his works has to be that of Narayani from Mathilukal in which she appears only as the voice of a prison inmate from across the large wall. Speaking about her performance, Adoor said that he had auditioned dozens of actors for the role but none could bring the emotions Lalitha could with her voice. In the interview, he goes on to add an anecdote about a South American director who went up to him and explained how the films of his country could hardly achieve the sensuality in Mathilukal despite being allowed to show any amounts of nudity.
Personally, she was married to celebrated and Award-winning director Bharathan, who passed away after twenty years of marriage. He was famous for making classics in Tamil such as Kamal Haasan's Thevar Magan apart from dozens of hits in Malayalam. Their son Siddharth Bharathan too became a revered director with films such as Nidra and Chandrettan Evideya. Siddharth had most recently completed the shoot of Djinn with KPAC Lalitha playing an important role.
With her passing, Malayalam cinema not only loses one of its finest, but takes with her the freedom for writers to imagine certain characters with the guarantee that she would be able to play it. Add to this the passing of Nedumudi Venu just months ago and Malayalam cinema has lost two of its strongest pillars.