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Melody-filled screen presence


To yesteryear actor S. Varalakshmi, who passed away recently.

Multilingual SINGING STAR: S. Varalakshmi, in ‘Navajeevanam’ (middle) and with V.N. Janaki in ‘Aayiram Thalai Vaangi Apoorva Chinthamani’.

Saridey Varalakshmi (1927-2009) was a popular multilingual singing star who played a variety of roles including the female lead, vamp, later mother and aggressive mother-in-law in hit movies in Tamil and Telugu. She left an indelible footprint in the shifting sands of cinema through her portrayal in movies such as ‘Balaraju’, ‘Palnati Yuddham’, ‘Maya Lokam’, ‘Lava Kusa’ (Telugu), ‘Seva Sadanam’, ‘Aayiram Thalaivangi Apoorva Chinthamani’, ‘Navajeevanam’, ‘Veerapandiya Kattabomman’, ‘Chakravarthi Thirumagal’, ‘Panamaa Paasamaa.’ Her performance in ‘Poova Thalaiya’ (Tamil) is considered her best. Her fame and name rippled out thanks to her excellent voice and acting talent and her knowledge of Carnatic Music, which she learnt as a young girl. Some of her movie songs such as ‘Kaadhal Aaginen’ (‘Apoorva Chinthamani’) and ‘Emaatram Thaana En Vaazhviley’ (‘Chakaravarthi Thirumagal’) were very popular.

Varalakshmi also had a stint in Kannada cinema and played a major role in the Rajkumar-starrer ‘Babruvaahana’. However she did not meet with the same success that she did in her other language films.

Varalakshmi was born in 1927 in the zamindari town of Jaggampeta (then in Madras Presidency, now in Andhra Pradesh), and belonged to a middle class family. Due to circumstances, she grew up in her uncle’s house in Kurnool, where he was a musician. Spotting her flair for music, he formally trained her in Carnatic music.

Her debut

During this period, the stormy petrel of Telugu cinema and social protest filmmaker Gudavalli Ramabramham (‘Mala Pilla’, ‘Raithu Bidda’, ‘Apavaadhu’) was engaged by the pioneer filmmaker K. Subramanyam to direct the Telugu version of his popular Tamil movie ‘Balayogini’. The film had many children in major roles and Ramabramham, touring Andhra looking for fresh talent, spotted young Varalakshmi in Kurnool. With his encouragement and Subramanyam’s nod, Varalakshmi sailed into the world of lens and lights with this film in 1938.

Impressed by her looks and singing skills, Subramanyam cast her in his classic ‘Seva Sadanam’ (1938) with M. S. Subbulakshmi. Varalakshmi played a young friend of the heroine (M.S.), and thus began a close friendship between the two, which helped Varalakshmi to hone her singing skills. She played a young girl’s role in ‘Parasuraman’ (Tamil, 1940) along with T. R. Mahalingam. Little did she know then that he would play a major role in her life later, both on and off screen.

T. R. Sundaram, Modern Theatres’ boss, cast her in a major role in his box office hit ‘Aayiram Thalai Vaangi Apoorva Chinthamani’ (1947). The title role was played by V. N. Janaki, who had no hero. The hero who solves the puzzles in the movie (P. S. Govindan) had a heartthrob (Varalakshmi.) The film was a major success and Govindan and Varalakshmi made an attractive pair. T. R. Sundaram cast her again in the lead role in ‘Bhojan’ (1948) with Govindan as hero. This film did not do as well as expected.

Pasupuleti Kannamba cast her in her Tamil movie ‘Navajeevanam’ (1949), an emotion-drenched family story about a young man from a poor family (Sriram) who falls in love and marries a rich girl (Varalakshmi).

Films with Mahalingam

Varalakshmi’s association with T. R. Mahalingam began in 1950. She played the heroine in ‘Machharegai’ (1951), ‘Mohanasundaram’ (1951), ‘Chinnadurai’ (1952) and ‘Velaikkaran’ (1952). However these were not successful. ‘Ramabra’ (1945) was the first movie of Akkineni Nageswara Rao as full fledged hero with two heroines, Varalakshmi and P. Shanthakumari. It was a box office hit. ‘Balaraju’ (1947) again with Nageswara Rao, was a major hit and some of Varalakshmi’s songs became popular. She was also paired with ANR in the classic ‘Palnati Yuddham’ as Manchala who loses her lover in the historic battle. The two sang a duet (‘Ohoooohooo..Charuseela’), which is still hummed and remembered by Telugu film buffs.

Varalakshmi acted with all the top heroes of her day including Sivaji Ganesan (‘Veerapandiya Kattabbomman’), M. G. Ramachandran (‘Maattukara Velan,’ ‘Needhikku Thalaivanangu’), N. T. Rama Rao (‘Lava Kusa’), Chittoor V. Nagaiah (‘Nagapanchami’), Ranjan (‘En Magan’) and R. S. Manohar (‘Maamiyaar’).

K. S. Gopalakrishnan, the star-maker, cast her as an aggressive woman in ‘Panammaa Paasamma’ in which she excelled as the tough lady. Then came her crowning glory with K. Balachandar’s ‘Poova Thalaiya’, in which Gemini Ganesh and Jaishankar played major roles. Here again, she played a tough woman pitted against Jaishankar.

Later, she came under the influence and intimate association of Al. Srinivasan, a leader of the Tamil film industry. With the onset of middle age, opportunities became rare and her health began to suffer.

To keep herself occupied, Varalakshmi lent her voice for some films. The last years of her life were spent in physical pain, as she suffered from a hip fracture and was hospitalised often.

The end came on September 22. She was 82.

Varalakshmi’s powerful acting and her lilting melodies shall ever be remembered by moviegoers of south India.

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