KPAC Lalitha

There has been an alarming rate of celebrity deaths in the recent past. Although we owe it to their advancing age or on the inactivity caused by the pandemic, nothing really would prepare us to embrace the reality. As KPAC Lalitha passed away yesterday, I couldn’t restrict the flow of memories around her that I accumulated over decades. Subconsciously or otherwise, the legendary actress has played a huge part in shaping my worldview and attitude towards people – provided how cinema (especially those made in Malayalam) helped me design my own tiny quirks and unique behavioral patterns.

The moment I heard the news of her demise, I went back to a scene from Sathyan Anthikkad’s family drama Manassinakkare, where the main lead Kochuthresia (Sheela) is visiting her best friend Kunjumariam (Lalitha). As they munch on some of Kunjumariam’s famous snacks, she drops the news that she is soon off to her son’s place in San Francisco. For an orthodox Christian woman who lived all her life in Kinassery, it’s an unusual move. She wonders if her dead body could be transported to the village once she dies. Kunjumariam holding on to the sense of familiarity and nostalgia of her solitary life feels a tad unusual in a film like this. It’s also made clear that she is going to deeply miss her best friend.

Instead of bidding a formal goodbye, Kunjumariam lightly pushes Kochuthresia to the courtyard with a remark, “I’ll leave tomorrow morning. Don’t you dare come anywhere close.” With a heavy heart, Kochuthresia walks away and does not look back. Backed by Ilaiyaraaja’s heart-wrenching score, I weep through the moment – every time I observe Lalitha emote through this gorgeous, little moment.

Now that I look back, K.P.A.C. Lalitha’s acting life – which kicked off in theatre – is filled with myriad characters that exemplify her inimitable range. The actor gives Malayali film lovers a sense of familiarity (‘ഗൃഹാതുരത്വം’ is the appropriate word which roughly translates to something that feels like home) that we never ended up measuring. Spotting KPAC Lalitha in a film is akin to grabbing your morning cuppa. You know it would give a comforting taste. You know it would never go wrong even the whole breakfast spread around it is stale.

KPAC Lalitha could lift an atrocious film (American Ammayi, Pai Brothers) and, very often, she didn’t bother about the end product in order to deliver singularly crackling performances (Amma Ammayiamma, Aadyathe Kanmani). She would topple seasoned actors with mere glances and minute twitches in the eyebrows (Pavithram, Manassinakkare). She would glide from comic to coquettish to heartbreaking in a matter of minutes (Thenmavin Kombathu, Sreekrishnapurathe Nakshathathilakkam). She would go on to deliver emotional confrontations that live way past the film’s shelf-life (Kanmadam, Aniyathi Pravu). She would make high-voltage drama appear like a cakewalk (Godfather, Amaram). She would challenge her male co-actors with impeccable comic timing (Kanalkattu, Gajakesariyogam, Niram) while also constantly upping the ante as the characteristic suffering mom (Bharya, Kadinjool Kalyanam, Thalayanamanthram, Madampi). If she could play the shrewd parent to perfection (Ponmuttayidunna Tharavu), she could also be the chilled-out granny with whom her grandkids would merrily share a drink (Charlie).

The actor’s mastery in owning scenes filled with accomplished artists is one that needs a special mention. Take the climax of ‘Godfather’ which features, at least, 100 players and involves intense dialogue play between the main leads (about 10). KPAC Lalitha’s theatre-born skills to shine in such sequences make her the unexpected star of the show here. The actor’s chemistry with her co-actors was often so good that they seldom required dialogues to communicate. I can think of the way her eyes speak in Pavithram when Mohanlal sees her breastfeeding his newborn sibling. The same can be said for films that are lighter in the mood – my favourite being her inquisitive wife act in Gajakesariyogam. She was romantically paired opposite Mammootty in two glaringly different films – the intense Mathilukal (where she appeared as a voice actor) and the comedic Kanalkattu. Towards the sunset of her life, Lalitha frequently excelled as the irreverent mother – one being her part in Vellimoonga opposite Biju Menon.

While so many of her portrayals have gone down the annals of Malayalam film history, her body of work in television cannot be overlooked at any cost. Having been part of several successful and long-run running serials (Sthree, Vava, Thatteem Mutteem to name a few), one must commend her energy to zoom from one studio to another for decades on end. While I cannot claim to have much knowledge about her work prior to 1985, it is to be noted how KPAC Lalitha was already an accomplished actor by the time several of us millennials were born.

KPAC Lalitha’s demise, for two generations in Kerala, is no less than a mother’s passing. Thanks to her perennial presence in films and TV serials, she has been by their side through their formative years. She helped mould their sense of humour and emotional reflexes for many, including me. As I keenly await her play mom to my favorite Navya Nair in their upcoming film Oruthee, I mourn the irreplaceable loss her death is. There was never an equivalent to her talent, persona, and warmth in Indian cinema. There never will be.

Altering Leonard’s goodbye toast to Mrs. Wolowitz in The Big Bang Theory, I would say, “To KPAC Lalitha. A loving mother… to all of us.”