Avery early memory of watching Malayalam movies on the big screen was bursting into tears every time ’70s tragedy queen Sharada started doing her number, so much so the big sisters had to shield one inside the dark hall at times. Now Sharada was a Telugu actress who was ruling the roost in Kerala, so it was only logical to presume that Malayali actresses too were breaching the fortress (and putting little kids through the wringer!) in the other southern states. And to an extent they were too: the Travancore Sisters started way back in 1938 (Lalitha in Adithan Kanavu), and every decade hence has seen two or three stars from Kerala making their presence felt all through the south.
But for the most part, it was always a sideline act. Okay, there were the few shooting stars—Padmini making it to even RK’s Bollywood (’60s), Shobha’s national award for Pashi (1979), and a personal favourite (and which won the vote hands down in the college hostel), Jayabharati’s rustlin’ muslin turn in Alauddinum Arputhavilakum (1979 bilingual). But that was it, brief sparks in the night sky.
So what was missing, and why have Kerala actresses been doing so well in the past decade or so? Well, if Haider had a say in it, he would probably go with his favourite ‘chutzpah’. Malabaran girls, much more than the land’s insular heroes (and there’s a truism if you ever needed one), have taken the giant leap, gone beyond the coconut oil and braids and ‘half-saris’, and embraced the sarong and all that comes with it. Now in this they may have been helped by a new breed of directors at home who have pushed them to greater things. A Rima Kallingal would possibly not be the exciting actress she is today if not for that nerve-wracking role in 22 Female Kottayam. But in the end, it’s just them, in front of the camera, taking on one more milestone.
Sasi Nair is associate editor, Outlook; E-mail: snair [AT] outlookindia [DOT] com