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March 24, 2015

Unforgettable: The Iconic Women Of South Indian Cinema

Text by Alpana Chowdhury

Unforgettable sketches the lives of 34 memorable actresses. Verve tells you whether or not it’s worth a read

Unforgettable  
The Iconic Women of South Indian Cinema 
Nalini Shivkumar and Rema Mahalingam
Rupa Publications 
She was all of eight when she was married off, but her marriage ended within no time over a dowry dispute. A few years later, T P Rajalakshmi, born in 1911, joined a drama troupe to earn a livelihood. Ostracised by her conservative Tamil-Brahmin community, she moved on, undeterred, to playing strong female roles as a singing-dancing star in silent and talkie films. After her second marriage to a co-star, instead of quitting the arclights, she started producing, directing, writing and editing films as well. No small feat for someone who had studied only till the fifth standard. Not content with all this, she participated in the freedom movement and crusaded against child marriage and female infanticide, setting an example by adopting a girl child.

K B Sundarambal, born in 1906, sang ditties in trains, around Trichy, to earn a few copper coins. Introduced to a touring drama group, she rose to fame as a singing star and met her match, professionally and personally, in Ceylon — S G Kitappa. On the silver screen she got immortalised forever as the saint-poet Avvaiyar, and in real life she became the first woman member of the Madras Legislative Assembly.

B Saroja Devi’s grandfather wanted her to be abandoned as a baby. But, spurred on by her father, she lived to star in dramatic tales on celluloid. She was awarded both, the Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan.

Unforgettable sketches the lives of 34 such memorable actresses. However, not all the profiles are rags-to-riches stories. The iconic M S Subbulakshmi’s father was a well-known lawyer and her mother a veena player — her childhood was immersed in classical music. After marriage, her husband helped navigate her phenomenal career in both music and films. In more recent times, Suhasini had the advantage of being born into an illustrious film family. She thus had the confidence to go off the beaten path, choosing unusual roles and introducing a realistic style of acting. Marriage to director Mani Ratnam opened up more avenues — scriptwriting, cinematography and direction. The very attractive Revathy is another actress-director who has a refreshing, natural manner of acting; and makes interesting films like Mitr, My Friend and Phir Milenge.

The book disappoints in parts. Sridevi’s profile reads like stuff taken off dotcoms, though her life story from child-star to reigning queen of southern and Hindi cinema could have made for more exciting reading if the writers had got a personalised insight from her. In their enthusiasm to praise her, they describe the actress with the plump nose as having aquiline features!

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