‘Aachi’ Manorama


Versatile actor and performer (1937-2015)

One of the most prolific and versatile actors of Tamil cinema, the legendary Manorama passed away at the age of 78, as she succumbed to a multiple organ failure on 10 October 2015, casting a pall of gloom over the entire South Indian film fraternity. Affectionately called ‘Aachi’, the 78-year-old is survived by her only son, actor/singer Bhoopathy. A powerhouse performer, Manorama was a household name in Tamil Nadu.

Born as Gopishantha, the youngster’s passion for theatre led her to S.S. Rajendran, a noted drama artist of the 1950s. Impressed by her flawless dialogue delivery, Rajendran offered her a job in his drama company, the ‘SSR Nataka Mandram’.
Thus began her long and illustrious career that spanned six decades with over 5000 stage performances, 1500 films and several TV serials. Some of her earlier plays were penned by stalwarts like C. N. Annadurai (Sivaji Kanda Hindu Samrajyam) and M. Karunanidhi (Manimagudam), who later became influential political leaders. Manorama holds the distinction of having worked with five chief ministers – C. N. Annadurai, M.Karunanidhi, M.G. Ramachandran, J. Jayalalithaa, and N. T. Rama Rao, who served as the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh for three terms.

Raised in poverty, Manorama started her acting career as a drama artist when she was just 12 years old. Her first stage production was titled Yaar Maghan. It was during those days that she was rechristened Manorama by one of her directors, Thiruvengadam.

In the year 1958, under the guidance of renowned poet and lyricist, Kavignar Kannadasan, Manorama made her first appearance in films. It was for a small comical role in the film, Maalayitta Mangai starring T.R. Mahalingam and Pandari Bai.
In an interview in her later years, the actress is said to have credited Kannadasan with not only introducing her to films, but also convincing her to take up the role of a comedy artist, which he said would help her survive far longer than the traditional heroines of the time.

Though she did work as a lead heroine in a few films, it was her innate sense of humour and perfect comic timing that made her a phenomenal success. Her exceptional on-screen chemistry with the legendary Nagesh, made them one of the most sought after pairs of Tamil cinema. They worked together in more than 50 films, Kanni Thai, Anbe Vaa, Padagotti, Anubhavi Raja Anubhavi, Saraswathi Sabadham, Panjavarnakilli, Navarathiri and Puthiya Paravai, to name a few.

While she kept the audience in splits with a straight face and clever dialogue delivery, she could just as effortlessly move them to tears with her heartrending performances.

One of her most memorable characters is the bubbly Karuppayi alias “Jil Jil” Ramamani from the super hit film Thillana Mohanambal. The film featured legends, Sivaji and Padmini, but a young Manorama with her non-stop chatter and exuberance won the hearts of many. She may have played the quintessential sister, mother and grandmother innumerable times, but the ingenious variation she brought to the character each time was her biggest strength. Her seemingly effortless performance was further complemented by her mastery of the different dialects of the Tamil language. She was last seen in director Hari’s Singam 2 in 2013.

Manorama was also an accomplished singer, with over 100 songs to her credit. She has worked with composers like M. S. Viswanathan, Ilayaraja, and A. R. Rahman. One of her biggest hits was the Vaa Vaathiyaare Uttaande number composed by music director V. Kumar for the film Bommalattam. The song was picturised on Manorama and Cho Ramaswamy, with whom she had acted in over 20 films. Manorama was once referred to as the female version of actor Sivaji Ganesan by Cho at a popular Tamil talk show, Koffee with Anu.

The multitalented actress was honoured with the Padma Shri in 2002 and is also the recipient of the Kalaimamani Award by the government of Tamil Nadu. She also won the National Film Award for Best Supporting Actress for her brilliant performance in the film Pudhiya Padhai in 1989.

– S. Saraswathi is a freelance journalist residing in Chennai and specialises in features and human interest stories.