I wrote the title of this piece after coming across a post about Srividya’s death anniversary on Asianet’s Instagram page. Her Facebook fans/tribute group had uploaded a beautiful sepia image of hers in a classic white saari, where her eyes and eyebrows never ceased to wonder about the poetic possibilities of bhava.
The Malayali public domain is still processing the recent demise of the veteran film director of 1970-80, K.G. George. As today marks the 17th year of actress Sreevidya’s painful demise from the world, it excites me like a child to endeavour a map of her journey in reverse order. Sreevidya passed away when I was in the ninth std. The news had struck me as I had heard of the news that her then telecast on Asianet TV, Ammathamburatti (2006), directed by the yesteryear veteran movie maker and lyricist, Sreekumaran Thampi, was called off due to the Srividya’s illness. A late diagnosis of cancer was the cited reason for her loss.
As in her death, Srividya’s life also seemed tumultuous, just like the characters she essayed on screen. In K. Balachander’s classic movie “Nootrukku Nooru” (1971), Srividya played the character of a love-scorned college girl named Manjula who beautifully transformed from a pure peace lily into a bleeding yet revengeful victim. Her histrionics in the movie overshadowed the youthful charms of the current Superstar and Ulaga nayakan. K. Balachander directed her again in another brilliant movie titled “Apoorva Raagangal” (1975), where he claimed that Srividya’s eyes and expressions alone could suffice to make a full-length feature for him. In fact, K. Balachander addressed Srividya as a director’s delight.
As a veteran character actor in South Indian cinema, Srividya’s acting career was prolific. Vidya’s debut as a leading actress in a Malayalam movie was in Chenda (1973), directed by cinematographer A. Vincent. Her opening song, “Thaalathil Thaalathil”, was a beautiful portrayal of the divine shringara in a humble and realistic setting. Vidya’s grace, gestures, and elegant dance moves made her shine like a goddess, overshadowing many of her co-actors. Her performance was truly captivating and left a lasting impression on the audience.
In Malayalam cinema, she established herself as a leading lady through numerous films directed by luminaries such as A. Vincent, K.G. George, and Sreekumaran Thampi. In an old chat show called Samagam that was aired on Amrita TV on Sunday nights, K.G. George revealed how his daughter believed that he was married to Srividya for the longest time. Although Vidya’s acting was largely restricted to supporting roles in Tamil cinema after her prime, she continued to shine in Malayalam cinema. She was able to constantly polish her craft through lead, supporting, and guest roles. Vidya played the roles of being the mother and the lover to the leading men of her times, starting with Nazir and Sathyan to the current Mollywood Megastar.
She was the daughter of the legendary Carnatic singer, M.L. Vasanthakumary, and spent the majority of her childhood singing and dancing with her neighbouring akka’s. They later became known as the Travancore sisters. In the latter phase of her career, she played the role of a modern Kunthi who couldn’t forgive herself in Maniratnam’s Thalapathy (1992). One of the climactic moments in the movie is when Karnan finally meets Kunthi, leading to a gasping sigh and breakdown, resulting in a momentary relief of holding each other. A scene of great give-and-take brilliance in acting.
In K.G. George’s movie Aadhaminte Variyellu'(1983), we witness a third-generation woman who has reached the pinnacle of her life. However, she is slowly decaying into her own paradise of escapism. This includes indulging in women’s-club work, alcohol, casual flirtations with a young architect, and a love for clothes and jewellery. The transitions of her appearances in the movie, make her an enigma who has accepted defeat, yet absently shining and floating through the façade of social life in the name of living.
Srividya, along with actress Sheela, holds the record for winning three Best Actress Awards from the Government of Kerala. Her last award-winning performance was in 1992, for the adaptation of M. Mukundhan’s novel “Dhaivathinte Vikruthikal” (God’s Mischief), directed by Lenin Rajendran. The novel, which won the Sahitya Akademi Award, a hard-hitting portrayal of reality that uses magic and beauty to escape the illusions of a few who happen to be the last remnants of the Francophone era of North Malabar in the 1950s.
The poet turned actor of Malayalam cinema, Balachandran Chullikkad, wrote a poem in awe of Srividya’s beauty, titled Saundaryalahari. Her magnetic charm and blessed artistry made Vidya an effortless muse of Generation X Malayali men and women alike, and her fandom was not magnified or loud, nor claimed any ‘communities’ but permitted her fans/lovers to experiment and exercise their fantasies through her.
The movie Thirakatha (2008) directed by Ranjith was also a tribute to the actresses of South Indian cinema when it had released. Of its many subplots, it takes inspiration from the life of Srividya while looking at the female lead, portrayed inimitably by Priyamani. Ranjith uses the villain actor’s success story of becoming the tomorrow’s superstar to avoid insinuating the storyline against any of Srividya’s rumored partners or collaborators cleverly. The visual similarities between Manjil Virinja Pookal (1980) and Thirakatha, alongside the casting of Anup Menon as a young Mohanlal, stole the show more than the lead actress’s storyline. The immediately-previous generation of audience before the internet revolution’s take-over of media and entertainment, saw the movie more nostalgically than as a Srividya biopic. The common trope of the actress always getting held extra susceptible to controversies that lead to a life of suffering tragedy, coupled with abandonment and jilt are not uncommon while looking at recent releases like Mahanati (2018). The beautiful damsel in old-age essayed by Priyamani immediately after her raw and heartbreaking performance in Paruthiveeran (2007) was a treat to cherish on screen.
Towards the 90s, we could see Srividya becoming the dignified and powerful mother character of the pretty heroes and heroines. She also became the example for the trope of the pretty mother figure. We saw its heights in Tamil cinema when she was cast to play the widowed mother of the sensible Tabu and the sensibility-seeking romantic Rai in Kandukondain Kandukondain (2000). However, the most climactic paradigm shift was seen in Fazil’s Aniyathipravu (1997). In the movie, Vidya plays the magnanimous Amma character, whose eyes and eyebrows convey her inability to contain the excitement of hospitality upon meeting the girl her son had left her for. While everyone was about to bid farewell again, her character’s strength to break the silence and ask the pretty young girl to marry her son as her own daughter continues to be a viral scene on YouTube. Initially, the movie received a lukewarm response in theatres. However, word soon spread about the climactic brilliance of the ending, which was full-cast and musical magic of Ouseppachan’s BG score. It has since become a favourite for heartwarming and heart-wrenching reels on social media.
By the 2000s, Srividya had also made appearances in Malayalam television serials, particularly those directed by K.K. Rajeev and Sreekumaran Thampi. Her debut on the small screen could be traced back to her portrayal of an uptight CEO seeking revenge in Vasundhara Medicals. While Srividya’s film roles in Adhaminte Variyellu, Rachana, Panchavadipalam, and Irakal, among others, often featured a mischievous and daring quality to her evil characters, Vasundhara’s anti-heroine entry in the world of Malayalam television was a significant milestone not only for the actress but also in the history of Malayalam television shows.
Avicharitham (2004), Swapnam (2003-4), Dhambathya Geethangal (2004) and Omanathingalpakshi (2006) were some of her final works in Malayalam TV, where the ailing actor’s condition was slowly becoming visible.
Her characters were always meaty, and as a constant consumer of film and television media, one would often wonder whether these actors were lucky to get the roles or were the roles lucky to get the actor. Lalettan fans might crucify me if I say Srividya’s character held the most powerful position in Shaji Kailas’s Aaram Thampuran (1997) for the heroic and mass climax to even materialize in the first place. Nevertheless, Srividya donned many roles and sure left in an untimely way but definitely longing for more.