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Matriarch of Mollywood

SARASWATHY NAGARAJAN

A long and eventful journey brought Aranmula Ponnamma to the silver screen and into the hearts of film buffs.

PHOTOS: S. GOPAKUMAR

MOTHER FIGURE: Aranmula Ponnamma's career as an actor is inextricably linked to the history of Malayalam cinema.

"I will turn 93 on March 22 and I consider this an early birthday gift," says Aranmula Ponnamma about the J.C. Daniel Award that was awarded to her by the Kerala Government for lifetime contribution to Malayalam cinema.

The matriarch of Malayalam cinema is all smiles as she recounts her remarkable journey from Aranmula to the silver screen. A voyage that saw her play the role of mother or grandmother to generations of actors - from Thrikurishi Sukumaran Nair to Satyen, Prem Nazir, Madhu and Mohanlal. Recognition came her way quickly but awards took their time.

"Many of my films were considered for the award. I was told I would get one after `Achuettente Veedu' but that was not to be," she says without rancour. It was in Adoor's `Kathapurushan' (1995) that she won the State and National award for the best supporting actor.


But Ponnamma has been a late bloomer. Although a child prodigy who made her debut as a precocious 12-year-old Carnatic vocalist, Ponnamma was all of 29 when she made a memorable debut on the stage opposite Augustine Joseph in `Bhagyalakshmi.'

Debut as an actor

"They wanted someone who could also sing. I was nervous as I felt I was too old to be on stage. But my first scene showed me saying my prayers. Something familiar to me and so there was no problem," she says.

After acting the lead in many popular dramas, she entered filmdom in `Sasidharan,' (1950) where she played the role of Miss Kumari's mother. The tag stuck and she was typecast as the mother in most of her movies. She played the title role in `Amma' in which Thrikurishi Sukumaran Nair was cast as her son. Soon, hers became the image of the mother in Malayalam cinema.

"I did play a negative role in `Paadunna Puzha' and that of a wayward woman in `Yachakan.' But after that I was always cast as the mother. As the mother of two children, I was very comfortable in that role. My role model was my mother, Parukutty Amma, who had to look after her five children on her own after my father, Malethu Kesava Pillai, passed away when I was nine. In fact, in `Amma,' my fifth film, I was merely acting as my mother," she recalls.

Her memory does not let her down as she remembers films, heroes, heroines and directors who worked with her. Dialogues, lines from songs, verses of poetry and scenes enliven her conversation as she takes a walk down memory lane.

As an acclaimed singer of those times, didn't she want to try her luck as a playback singer?

"Not really. I was an actor and I did my job to the best of my ability. My family came first and I worked to support them. So, while I enjoyed and still enjoy music, I never made an attempt to be a singer. Moreover, in those days only the heroines sang," she explains.

But she treasures her memories as a songster. "My mother was my first teacher. I began by singing before meetings organised by the Hindu Mahamandal on the banks of the Pampa." At 15, she was appointed as a music teacher in a primary school at Pala. Soon, she started teaching the senior classes too.

"It was then that I was selected to be in the first batch of singers at the Swati Tirunal Music Academy. We were supposed to popularise the kritis of Swati Tirunal. Although I was pregnant, I completed the course and was appointed as the music teacher in Cotton Hill Girls' High School in Thiruvananthapuram."


She emphasises that it has always been her mother's advice and music that have come to her rescue. "But I wish they would include a soulful number or two in films that are made now. While, films and music must cater to a new generation of viewers, I think melody and poetic lyrics will always reign supreme. However, I find it strange when the heroes dance as much as the heroines," she says with a laugh.

As time passed, she moved on to act as the grandmother in several films. In fact, she even acted as grandmother to Suresh Gopi, who is married to Ponamma's granddaughter Radhika. Her last film was `Gourishanker.'

"I still get offers. But now I need help to travel and on the sets. Since, I am reluctant to trouble others, I prefer to stay away."

And her success mantra: "Work hard, be professional and give your best. I have never worked for an award. My effort was always to do justice to my role."

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