Women in Comedy in Malayalam Cinema

Comedy is undoubtedly a difficult genre to master. Not everyone possesses the uncanny knack of delivering lines in a manner that can induce belly laughs. Especially not women, right? But there are a few women in comedy who have made us question that assumption.

Indian cinema seems to be under the impression that female actors are either meant to be pretty, coy and compassionate embodiments of goodness, strong and powerful awe-inspiring role models or evil conniving vamps. Even in female-centric movies, the protagonist is often someone who’s had hardships to face or struggles to overcome. For some reason, our cinema has often shied away from fully exploring the funny side of women.

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But even in a primarily male space, there have been a few exceptional talents within our industry who managed to break that myth and drive the fact that humour certainly is not limited to any gender.

Sukumari

An actor whose talent transcends generations, Sukumari’s comic genius was evident right from the black and white era. She made her mark in movies like Collector Malathy and Mindapennu while sharing the screen with stalwarts like Adoor Bhasi and Shankaradi. In the late ’80s, she was a constant in Priyadarshan’s array of recurring character artists. In each of these movies, she portrayed characters that, I personally believe, had a lot more to offer than the leading ladies.

In Poochakoru Mookuthi, her character Revathy showed us that age has no bars when it comes to living one’s aspirations, while in Boeing Boeing, the no-nonsense Dhick Ammai showed us how to simply live and let live. The charming Maggie Aunty in Vandanam showed us how to adich poliche live it up no matter how old you are.

Having received numerous accolades throughout the years (including a Padmashree), Sukumari cannot be pegged simply as a brilliant comedienne, but as someone who played an indispensable part in the shaping of humour in Malayalam cinema.

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Other notable performances: Sulochana Thankappan in Thalayanamanthram, Colony Secretary in Gandhi Nagar 2nd Street, Subhadra Kunjamma in Chakkikotha Changaran, Kikkli Edathi in Mazhathulli Kilukkam.

Philomina

When I think of Philomina, the one thing that still rings in my ear is the hilarious way in which she goes “Ppppha!, a phrase that she probably should have trademarked. No one can exude that ultimate level of puchcham as she does with just that one expression. Philomina was undoubtedly the thug muthassi of Malayalam cinema.

What better example than one of her most powerful roles as Annapara Achamma in Godfather, a domineering grandmother shrewd enough to want to control not just her own family but also a mighty elephant. “Thalli anne panineere” will go down as one of the most classic comedic lines in Malayalam cinema.

While she wasn’t playing scheming grandmothers who ruled with an iron fist, she excelled in her many roles as udayippe old lady. Be it the mooching Paruamma in Thalayanamanthram or the ammachi with a hearty appetite in (Kathrina) Souhrudam and (Kunjamma) Kudumbhapuranam, her wry tone and default expression of puchcham added to her unique brand of comedy.

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Other notable performances: Prabhakaran Thampi’s mother in Pattanapravesham, prospective serial nayika in Mookilla Rajyathu, abuse hurling Ammachi in Kouthuka Varthakal, Maya’s grandmother in InHarihar Nagar, Meerabhai in Ente Ponnu Thampuran

Meena

For every Kaviyoor Ponnama-esq mother character oozing gentleness and tenderness, there is a Meena Kumari type mother, armed with sarcasm and sharp wit.  Meena is a name that is often overlooked when it comes to notable character artists in Malayalam but we believe that she’s definitely earned her spot on this list as a result of her many memorable performances.

With a career spanning over 4 decades, Mary Joseph aka Meena Kumari was often typecast as the archetypal evil and conniving mother-in-law. Known for her brilliant dialogue delivery and deadpan humour, Meena brought to life a certain level of sassiness and wit that had been absent in mother characters until then. In one of her career-best roles as Bhanumathy in Meleparambil Aanveed, she plays a stern but compassionate woman caught in the midst of the antics of the many men in the house. She’s smarter than all of them combined and knows how to deal with their bullshit with classic lines like “Poda paithyakara, poyi thoongada”

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As a complete contrast to this, she’d also essayed a memorable performance as Gigi Daniel, the stylish, gossip-mongering society lady in Thalayanamanthram. And how can we forget Vasumathi, the mother whose commitment towards ensuring her son’s victory over his arch-enemy Asokhan in Yodha is evident in the single dialogue – “Ashokan kudikkanda. Asokhane ksheenam aavaam, Avashadhayode kalicha madhi.” 

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Other notable performances : Rukmini in Varavelppe, Malu’s Mother in Chetan Bhava Aniyan Bhava, Radha’s mother in Nadodikatte, Housemaid in  Midhunam.

Kalpana

I have to admit, I might be a bit biased here. Growing up, Kalpana was someone who had evoked the maximum laughs from me. Although she’s proved her mettle as a character actor who can handle roles of any genre with ease, her comic roles will forever remain my favourite. Her amazing ability to adapt to characters that are poles apart in each movie with such finesse has always blown my mind.

Sometimes she’s the sweet soft-spoken giggly “potti pennu” like Komalam (Shakunthala) in Gandharvam, Karthika in Poochakaru Manikettum and the oh-so-lovely UDC Kumari in Dr.Pasupathy.  And sometimes she’s the outspoken and feisty woman who is not about to take any crap from anyone. Like the hair-obsessed star chef Clara in CID Unnikrishnan or the spunky hostel inmate Ponnama in Pidakozhi Koovunna Noottande. Her pairing with Jagathy always managed to create some of the best comic moments. A National Award winner, Kalpana was one actor who’d managed to fit in easily into the era of “new-gen” films as well.

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Other notable performances: Kuttan’s Amma in Bangalore Days, Inspector Mariyama in Ishtam, Mary in Kaliveedu, Thanki in Alibabayum Arara Kallanmarum, Annamma in Souhrudham, Mohini in Peruvannapurathe Visheshangal

KPAC Lalitha

With her twinkling eyes and mischievous chuckle, KPAC Lalitha often reminds me of my own ammayis. She is that sweet and fun-loving ammayi who sometimes tends to get over dramatic and start beating her chest in despair. Her portrayal of emotions like kushumb and kunnaiyima is unparalleled. Her comic timing is spot on even in a film like Manichithrathazhu that is packed with powerhouse performers. Without even uttering a word in that iconic scene where she tries to tie the sacred thread around a bewildered Innocent, she managed to evoke such laughter purely by her hilarious expressions. Although they’ve been paired together umpteen number of times, Innocent and KPAC Lalitha is one on-screen couple I could never tire of. Be it the adorably demure Madhavi Ayyapan in Gajakeshariyogam who constantly addresses her husband as “Nokku” or the Hindi-loving kushumbathi Kausu in Sreekrishnapurathe Nakshathrathilakkam who is desperate to appear younger amidst her sisters (Coincidentally, Hindi plays a part in both these movies), Innocent has always provided her ample support to flex her comedic abilities. Similarly, Sathyan Anthikad is one director who never fails to bring the best out of this multi-talented actor. She’s been a constant in a majority of his films including hits like Veendum Chila Veetukaryangal, Manasinakkare and Varavelppe.

Her role as Akashavani in Anthikad’s son’s debut venture Varane Avisyamunde only reinforces the fact that the veteran actor is far from done when it comes to entertaining us with her stellar performances.

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Other notable performances: Punchirichechi in Pavithram, Kochammini in Godfather, Bharathi in Gandhi Nagar 2nd Street, Eliyamma in Kottayam Kunjachan, Omana in Kannalkaate, Shantha in My Dear Muthachan.

Urvashi

It took a while for filmmakers to realize that it is possible for the leading lady of the film to be funny rather than just be someone who coyly giggles at the hero’s punch lines. One actor who brought about such a change is definitely Urvashi. In the few movies where she dubbed for herself, her tiny almost child-like voice (which changed over the years) and her peculiar way of dialogue delivery (especially the way she says Iyo!) always stood out.

Like her sister Kalpana, Urvashi also had a flair for playing the naïve and adorable girl next door. The smitten Anandhavally in Mazhavillkavadi, the quirky fun-loving Kanaka Prabha in Ulsavamelam (One of the movies which she co-wrote as well) and the simply adorable Revathykutty in Kakkathollayiram are fine examples of the same. But the roles in which she truly shone has to be the eccentric Hrudhayakumari in Kadinyool Kalyanam and the passive-aggressive Kanchana in Thalayanamanthram. In a hilarious scene where their new car breaks down right in front of her brother-in-law’s shop, the actor’s prowess is clearly displayed when her expression changes from that of pride to horror to abject “chummal” in mere minutes. Even in her tiny role as Dhamayanthi in Yodha, she manages to make an impact with her fluttering eyelashes and mischievous banter.

In her second innings into Mollywood where she took on mother-roles, she continued to command screen presence with ease. Her impeccable comic timing seemed to be intact as she brought to life memorable characters in the form of Vanaja in Achuvinde Amma, Aisha in Ende Ummante Pere. Even in her latest Tamil release Putham Pudhu Kaalai, we get to witness some of that trademark child-like charm in her character Lakshmi. She’s one of those actors who seems to be constantly evolving and rediscovering themselves in each performance. 

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Other notable performances : Sulochana in Midhunam, Snehalatha in Ponnmutta Idunna Tharaav, Roshni in Chakkikotha Changaran, Sarojam in Kallipaattam, Clara in My Dear Muthachan, Bhagyarekha in Pidakozhi Koovunna Nootaande (another film that she co-wrote), Girija in Aravindhande Adhithikal.

Bindu Panicker

An actor who forayed into comedy much later in her career, Bindu Panicker’s priceless performance as Indumathi in Sreekrishnapurathe Nakshathrathilakkam was enough to secure her a place in this list. In spite of being cast along with some of the biggest and most established comedic actors in Malayalam cinema, Panicker’s portrayal of the half-witted Indumadhi who randomly breaks into hilariously bad English managed to outshine even the more seasoned actors with some of the funniest one-liners like – “Ippo enne kandal oru prostitutive look ille?” and “Ini enne drywash cheiyyo?”

She was also brilliant as Vanaja in Thilakkam where she matches Salim Kumar’s comedic timing effortlessly. Even in a blink-and-miss role in CID Moosa as Ramani, the greedy police officer’s wife, she manages to elicit a decent amount of laughter amongst the audience.

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Other notable performances of Women in Comedy: Bindu in Mayilattam, Mohini in Bharthavudyogam, Bhagyalaskhmi in Vellinakshathramm

Honourable Mentions:

Who is your favourite among these actors? Did we miss out on someone? Tell us in the comments section.

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