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Courage goaded her on …

MALATHI RANGARAJAN

SOJOURN S. N. Lakshmi, the veteran actor, on her life's journey that was filled with both pitfalls and plaudits.

Courtesy: S.N. Lakshmi

SCALING ODDS WITH GRIT:S.N. Lakshmi (Photo: R. Shivaji Rao) and (from left) Muthuraman, Chandini, S.N. Lakshmi, Sahasranamam's daughters, S.V. Sahasranamam and V. Gopalakrishnan with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in Delhi.

None who follows Tamil cinema can forget the kind mother with a strict façade in ‘Server Sundaram,' the disappointed parent of Saroja Devi in ‘Thaenum Paalum,' the grandma of Urvasi in ‘Michael Madhana Kama Rajan,' whose peccadilloes had you in splits, the helpful mother-in-law in of Kamal Haasan in ‘Mahanadhi' or the old woman of ‘Thevar Magan,' whose heart-rending cries in the climax haunted you for long. Veteran actor S.N. Lakshmi's oeuvre includes many such outstanding roles.

“Long years of theatre experience have helped me,” says Lakshmi, who has more than 2,000 plays to her credit. From Ganandesikar's and N.S. Krishnan's theatre troupes to Sahasranamam's Seva Stage and K. Balachander's Ragini Recreations, Lakshmi has trained under stalwarts. “I travelled with NSK to several places, as part of their theatre troupe and as his wife T.A. Madhuram's assistant,” she recounts.

Lakshmi acted as a man in many all-woman plays, doing stunts and acrobatics! I was trained in fights and was made to do workouts to look manly. “I've even fought a leopard for the MGR film, ‘Baghdad Thirudan.' But till date I'm terrified of cats!” she laughs. Not just fights, histrionics too came easily to Lakshmi. Plays and one-scene appearances in films continued till N.S. Krishnan gave her a pivotal role in ‘Nalla Thangai.' But the real boost was Muktha Srinivasan's maiden venture ‘Thamarai Kulam.' ‘Server Sundaram' came Lakshmi's way when AVM, the producers, decided to cast her in the same role she played on stage. “Nagesh was very impressed with my performance in the play and told KB that they should accept ‘Server Sundaram' shows only if my dates were available.” Balachander, with his acumen for spotting talent, assigned worthy roles for her in his films and plays.

Winning accolades

“I was on my annual visit to Puttaparthi, when Kamal Haasan called me up for ‘Thevar Magan.' ‘Get the Swami's blessings and come over. We are waiting for you,' he said.” Till ‘Virumaandi,' Lakshmi has been a part of nearly all Kamal productions. Such was Kamal's confidence in her ability that he would ask the assistants to give her the dialogue and move away, confident that she'd handle it on her own. “Mani Ratnam too did the same,” she says. “The sequence in ‘Agni Nakshatram' where I confront Karthik won accolades.”

When shooting the climactic sequence for ‘Dheerga Sumangali,' director A.C. Trilokchander told her that she had to cry without using glycerine. “The main characters were lying ‘dead.' I wept spontaneously. ‘How did you do it,' Jayachitra, who was part of the scene, asked me. ‘Because the director told me to,' I smiled. Actually it comes with years of training. Sivaji would say that we theatre artists must be able to weep on cue without any external help. Actors like K.R. Vijaya like me a lot. I often think of Jaishankar. A kind and helpful soul,” Lakshmi reminisces.

She has worked with almost all top directors including S.P. Muthuraman. “Even in his debut film, ‘Kanimuthu Paapa' I had a role.”

“See these,” she enthusiastically shows pictures of her with other members of S.V. Sahasranamam's troupe, standing beside Presidents Babu Rajendra Prasad and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, and Krishna Menon and Jawaharlal Nehru. “We had gone to New Delhi to stage plays,” she smiles. Strangely, even from a very young age Lakshmi has played mother to actors who were her age or older. “I didn't mind. Whatever the role I give it my best shot,” she says. So, on the flip side, none till today is able to gauge her age!

Period of struggle

Those of us who wilt under the slightest pressure should find Lakshmi's arduous early struggle to keep afloat, an inspiration. Survival alone was foremost in the mind of the 11-year-old girl, the 13 {+t} {+h} child in the family, who left home anguished, because her six brothers who were much older, did not give their kid sister the attention she deserved. “We had to shift from our village, Sennalkudi, to Virudhunagar. Father was dead. Mother worked at a small hotel and also at the temple there to keep the family going. I was so upset that I couldn't take it any longer,” she recalls. But how did she dare to go out into the world without any one to call her own? “I think the boldness came with frustration. ‘Let-me-see-what-more-suffering-awaits-me,' kind of recklessness! In our days a girl didn't have to fear lurking dangers. I don't think it is possible today,” she says.

Her neighbour, a dancer, was the one who helped Lakshmi join a drama troupe. The little girl quickly picked up the steps she was taught and travelled with them from place to place. When the actors reached Raja Mannargudi they left her with a family which put her on a train to Chennai and bade farewell.

The little girl came to the city visibly perplexed and forlorn, when help came in the form of a lorry driver's wife who noticed her moving around alone and showed her the way to Gemini Studios, which opened its doors to the destitute.

It took eight years for her family to find her. “It was an emotional reunion, but by then I had moved too far away from them.” Marriage didn't appeal to her. Her brothers' grand children and their kids are now regulars at the grand aunt's place. “I like to help people,” she says.

Till about two years ago, she would drive around everywhere. “Only after I broke my leg have I been forced to give it up. I would take off in my car to even as far away as Kanyakumari. I love driving,” she smiles.

In all these years, Lakshmi has never faced dearth of work. Even now she is busy with three television soaps – ‘Thendral,' ‘Uravukku Kai Koduppom' and ‘Mundhanai Mudichchu' – and two features, including the soon-to-be-released ‘Drohi.' On Sunday mornings you can see her at Sai Kripa, a free medical centre in the city, helping the staff. “Somehow people recognise me more after I entered TV,” she smiles.

Does she remember the number of films she has worked in? “I kept track till it touched 400. After that I lost count,” laughs Lakshmi.


Early steps…

Lakshmi remembers with gratitude the help of Venkatarama Iyer, (cinematographer Babu's grandfather), who was a manager at Gemini Studio. “Rehearsals for the famous drum dance in ‘Chandralekha' were going on. When they said they could not accommodate me I broke down. ‘I can't go back to my town. Give me a job,' I pleaded. Thinking of the ordeal, Lakshmi's eyes turn moist. Venkatarama Iyer felt sorry for the girl and asked dance masters Nataraj and Shakuntala to try out a few dance steps with her. “I was able to grasp them immediately,” says Lakshmi, and adds: “The girl on the third drum in the sequence is me.”

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