Those were the days: Manorama, The Aachi who evoked laughter
In this series, we take a trip down memory lane, back to the Madras of the 1900s, as we unravel tales and secrets of the city through its most iconic personalities and episodes
CHENNAI: “I love people who make me laugh. It cures a multitude of ills,” said Audrey Hepburn. Surely, comedians have taken loads off the hearts of a tired and worried population. They’ve been much loved by people, and Manorama surely carved a place for herself in the annals of Tamil cinema.
The cinema in Madras emerged from the drama. Comedy was reserved for the male folk in Tamil drama. Some even dressed as a buffoon — a role totally unconnected with the script being played.
When cinema came in, it took a solid decade before comediennes could make a mark. The first was of course TA Mathuram, who had done 120 comic roles with her husband NS Krishnan, which is a record. When Krishnan died, there was indeed a huge demand-supply gap for a comedienne. It was Aachi Manorama who filled that gap and held onto a position where viewer fatigue sets in fast.
Manorama was born in Mannargudi and named Gopishantha but soon her parents split. Chettinad was at that time the place to be for employment, and the family moved to Pallathur, a town there. (For long, Manorama, for this reason, was called aachi, a term used to refer to the women of that area.)
Her mother worked as a maid and when she fell sick, Shantha was readying to take over from her. But fate had a different path destined for her. As a two-year-old, her singing talents were discovered by her mother. The child had been taken to a touring talkies showing MKT’s Thiru Neela Kantar. Back home, the mother spotted her sitting in a corner and singing to herself in almost the exact tune. And she was soon acting in small roles on the stage as ‘Pallathur Paapa’. This strength of hers to memorise dialogue lets her concentrate on her timing sense. As an actress, she could memorize more than 10 minutes of dialogue in less than a day.
The Chettinad area was rich and filled with sponsors, events and an encouraging audience. The culturally vibrant area gave a lot of patronage for theatre as well as other arts like Carnatic music and Sadhir dance. Most of the drama troupes spent the bulk of their time touring the Chettinad regions.
Manorama started serious acting in drama roles when she was 12 and that was to earn a supplementary income for a struggling family. She was rechristened Manorama when she started acting.
It was also the time when DMK had broken off from the parent DK and sought a political role for itself. They recognised theatre as a party-building exercise.
Manorama was roped in for many DMK plays. She found recognition in the propaganda dramas of the fledgeling DMK and also had an opportunity to act with the most powerful men of the subsequent decades, though none of them knew it then.
She acted in Anna’s play. Her famous role was in a play called Udaya Suryan (the Rising Sun, which was the symbol of the DMK). Karunanidhi wrote and acted in the play. The best dialogues were, however, with Manorama, who had to convince the hero and bring him to the Dravidian fold.
At one point, the natural course was entering the cinema. But she wasn’t as lucky to start with. When she entered films, both her first films were shelved halfway and she nearly got labelled as a jinxed actress. No one at all during that time would have forecast such a long career for her in Tinsel Town. However, poet Kannadasan introduced her as a minor character in cinema. She played the companion to a princess to start with. Cine mogul Modern Theatres gave her the heroine status in Konjum Kumari.
But it was a time of many top heroines and tough to compete. Kannadasan soon advised her that the shelf lives of heroines were much shorter. She readily moved to comedy roles.
Laughter is serious business. To make the audience laugh is tough. To keep making them laugh for long is next to impossible. A sort of fatigue sets in the audience and drives them away. Surviving in such a competitive field for half a century was Manorama’s achievement. She acted in roles along with the superstars of two generations and proved she was no less an actress. She also acted in Hindi (with Mehmood), Telugu and Malayalam films and her total count was more than 1000 films, 100s of stage performances and quite a few TV serials.
Her dialogue diction was impeccable and suited the role she was playing from different social strata. She played roles of different women from a slum dweller to a socialite.
Usage of the Madras slang in her songs and roles in at least three films of hers mentioning the areas of Madras and singing in ‘Madras bashai’ became great hits. The last one was in the music of AR Rahman.
Occasionally, as a contrast to her laughter-evoking roles, the versatile actress also did some very serious stuff leaving the audiences teary-eyed.
Manorama has acted with four chief ministers of Tamil Nadu — Annadurai, Karunanidhi, MG Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa — and one Andhra chief minister, NT Rama Rao.
But her greatest achievement is having brought a smile to the faces of many people during their turbulent times.
— The writer is a historian and an author.