Through the myriad roles she played, Sundari Bai endeared herself to the viewers.
"Naatiya Kudhirai Naatiya Kudhirai Naalaayiram Pon Vangalaiyo," the dancer associated with this catchy number from "Chandralekha" is no more. M.S.Sundari Bai, character actress, who did memorable roles in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi, passed away recently.
Not many would know that the ``Naattiya kudhirai..." song was an afterthought, added in the final stages of the film. The song and dance and Sundari Bai's costume were inspired by the 1943 musical movie ``Coney Island" starring the sizzling pin-up girl of her day, Bette Grable.
Sundari Bai, who worked hard on rehearsals of the song for a month, fell ill when shooting began. But Vasan waited for her to get well and resume work, a fact Sundari Bai recollected with gratitude.
Born in Madurai (1923), Sundari Bai belonged to the Saurashtra community. Even at school, with her looks and lovely eyes, she revealed a flair for dancing and singing. A family friend persuaded her parents to send her to Bombay to find opportunities. She appeared in an ad film during the 1930s.
When Vasan took over MPPC Studio and promoted Gemini Studios in 1940, thanks to her family friend T. V. Neelakantam, Sundari Bai joined Gemini as staff artiste. She appeared in a good role in Gemini Studio's first Tamil production ``Madanakamarajan" (1941).
She played an attractive slum girl in the hit film ``Nandanar" (1942). Her role as the love-lorn maid in "Dasi Aparanji" (1944) took her further up the ladder of fame. She played the role along with Kothamangalam Subbu also a member of the Gemini staff, as writer, actor, and director. This association blossomed into love and she married him.
In 1945, she played heroine in "Kannamma En Kaathali," a Second World War film with patriotic flavour. Kothamangalam Subbu wrote the story, screenplay, dialogue, and lyrics for the film, produced under the personal supervision of the unsung genius K. Ramnoth.
It was a typical melodrama with familiar twists and filmy coincidences, but Kothamangalam Subbu had invested the film with a light touch almost Wodehousean in character. A slim Sundari Bai proved a good match for hero Radha. Narayana Rao, veteran comedian-character actor, was superb as the woman-hating but lecherous old man.
In 1947, Gemini Studio made a memorable movie, though it was not a box office success. "Miss Malini," based on a story by R.K.Narayan, was written and directed by Kothamangalam Subbu, who also played the male lead of a suave fraud. The film was a strong satire on modern life. Sundari Bai played a young woman who takes her poor friend (Pushpavalli) to join her theatre troupe. She sang a couple of songs that became instant hits. Then came "Chandralekha." Sundari Bai acted in many popular movies including "Samsaaram," "Moondru Pillaigal," "Avvaiyar," "Valliyin Selvan," "Enga Veettu Mahalakshmi," "Vanji Kottai Vaaliban," "Deiva Piravi," "Naan Kanda Sorgam," "Padikkaatha Methai," "Paadhai Theriyuthu Paar" and "Sila Nerangalil Sila Manithargal." Her role in ``Sila Nerangalil...," based on the script of Jayakanthan and directed by Bhim Singh, was critically much acclaimed. She played the widowed mother of the heroine (Lakshmi) seduced by a wolf (Srikanth).
After Gemini Studios closed down Sundari Bai became a freelance artiste and appeared in several films as the scheming woman, sly in-law, and such. She continued to win accolades and admiration with her fine roles. Advancing age and indifferent health forced her to call it a day and she spent her time with her family of sons and daughters and their children.
An excellent person of old-world charm and manners she endeared herself to everyone and was an extremely popular person. She attributed her success to her husband, who shaped her life and career, and to Vasan, who gave her the opportunities to showcase her talent and skill.
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