KPAC Lalitha – An Unmatched Journey from Progressive Theatre to Cinema
Thiruvananthapuram: KPAC Lalitha (74), who passed away on Tuesday, was a household name in Kerala. Her long acting career began on stage at the age of 10. Maheshwari, the little girl from Kayamkulam, who started accompanying theatre groups as a singer, was given the screen-name KPAC Lalitha by Udaya Kunchakko much later in her career when she stepped into the world of cinema. KPAC, in her name, denotes Kerala People's Arts Club, an influential progressive theatre group based in Kayamkulam.
Theatre Background and KPAC
Lalitha's father, a studio photographer by profession, was an active in the communist movement in Kerala. Right from her childhood, Lalitha wanted to be an artiste. As her family was struggling to meet ends, she joined the troupe managed by her dance teacher. She got Rs 10 per stage performance as her first remuneration.
Soon, Lalitha joined 'Geetha', a theatre group based in Changanacherry, managed by her father’s friend. Here, she acted in two plays, 'Galileo' and 'Kakkapponnu', both written by famous playwright and director P. J. Antony. Later, she acted alongside noted stage-film actors Sankarady and Paravur Bharathan with the troupe 'Prathibha'.
Her father's close association with the communist movement brought Lalitha to KPAC, a theatre group that voiced the working-class narrative through art. Thoppil Bhasi, the pioneer of KPAC and an iconic playwright-director, mentored her to be one of the finest actors on stage. 'Sarasayya' was the first play for Lalitha at KPAC, earning her a remuneration of Rs 15 per stage performance.
Thoppil Bhasi – The Mentor
KPAC Lalitha, in her autobiography and interviews, has testified the role of Thoppil Bhasi and KPAC in moulding her as an actor. "Bhasi Chettan's (Thoppil Bhasi) mentorship helped me quickly learn and present dialogues. He used to say that the role of an actor is just a quarter of what makes up the character- half from the costume, the rest from the audience. I owe him my growth as a theatre artiste. Those were times much cherished. Leaders like EMS, EK Nayanar, C Achutha Menon and PKV used to come watch the rehearsal. We also sung songs at party conventions", says KPAC Lalitha in an old interview with Deshabhimani.
Her entry into Malayalam cinema was through K. S. Sethumadhavan's Koottukudumbam(1969), an adaptation of the play by the same name. Roles in Vazhvemayam, Anubhavangal Palichakal, Triveni, Enippadikal established Lalitha as a fine actor in the film field. The song 'Kalyani Kalavani' from Anubhavangal Palichakal, starring Lalitha, was a huge hit.
The movies Lalitha acted in the initial stage of her career were film adaptations of popular plays, and most of the movies were of progressive nature. Later on, she adapted more to the requirements of the mainstream film industry, putting her theatre experience to good use. She won the national award for the best actress in a supporting role two times for her performance in Amaram(1991) and Santham(1991). She has also won the state award four times.
Eloquence and Versatility
Immaculate performances in popular and parallel cinema made Lalitha a popular figure, much loved by the Malayalam movie audience. A versatile actor, she adorned a wide range of roles that the common people could directly relate to. An elder sister with a tinge of humour, a mother hiding her tears, a wife craving for her husband's affection-- Lalitha could do it all effortlessly. Directors trusted her with character roles which demanded the quality to portray sudden variations and a wide range of emotions.
Fans adored her characters in Godfather, Manichithrathazhu, Bharatham, Amaram, Kanalkkattu, Spadikam, Aniyathipravu, and Manassinakkare, to name a few. She has also acted in a few Tamil movies including Maniratnam’s Alaipayuthey and Katru Veliyidai and Kadhalukku Mariyadai- the Tamil remake of Aniyathipravu.
The demand for Lalitha's craft was no less in the parallel stream of Malayalam cinema. She pulled off notable performances in some of the iconic movies that Malayalam cinema has ever produced, with the same eloquence. Swayamvaram, Kodiyettam, and Mathilukal by Adoor Gopalakrishnan also saw her acting prowess.
The Voice of Narayani in Mathilukal
KPAC Lalitha never appears before the camera in 'Mathilukal', an adaptation of Vaikkom Muhammed Basheer's autobiographical novel of the same name. Yet, Lalitha shows her class with her impeccable 'screen-presence' and the film is considered one of her most notable performances. Basheer, a writer who is imprisoned during the Independence movement, establishes a love relationship with a female prisoner on the other side of the prison wall.
Filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan chose to cast Lalitha as Narayani, Basheer's significant other. She could emote so well just using her voice that many said no other could do justice to the iconic character. With subtle modulations and articulate pauses, Lalitha's unique voice was a key factor that made those conversations between Basheer, played by Mammootty, and Narayani look so evocative.
KPAC Lalitha appeared in over 550 films, including Malayalam and Tamil. Home (2021), a recent OTT release, was the last film that she appeared in. She was also holding the post of the Chairperson of Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Academy for the past three years.
Lalitha married filmmaker Bharathan in 1978. After her husbands' demise in 1998, she was survived by her son Siddharth Bharathan, a director/actor, and her daughter Sreekutti. She died at her son's residence at Thrippunithura on Tuesday. The body was taken to Wadakkancherry for cremation on Wednesday, mourned by thousands, including her fellow artistes from the film fraternity and those who loved Lalitha.
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