Heard of Gopishantha? No. Heard of Aachi? Maybe. Heard of Manorama? Of course, who hasn’t?
The likeable and lovable actress of Tamil cinema is no more. With more than 1500 films and 5000 stage performances, cutting across six decades, Padma Shri Manorama was a joy to behold. Abandoned by a recalcitrant father, brought up by a housemaid mother, Gopishantha dropped out of school at 11, took to theatre at 12, to come alive as Manorama. If her mother had the means she would have sent her daughter to medical school. That was not to be although Manorama eventually got a doctor into the family; her grandson is a medical practitioner.
Gopishantha donned the grease paint in the early 1950s and by the time she was out of her teen. She had migrated to the silver screen, debuting in 1958 with a comical role in Maalayitta Mangai. She did play lead roles early on, but as she would later tell BBC, “I had chosen to act only as a heroine then I would have disappeared from the scene long ago. So, I decided to take up comedienne roles. That’s how I survived in the industry for nearly six decades.” It was a conscious decision, and in hindsight, made enormous sense. After all, heroines are short-lived while comedians are ageless.
She has been paired with every leading laugh-bag of her times spanning multiple generations: Nagesh, Cho, Thengai Srinivasan, Venniradai Moorthy, Goundamani and Vivek. If that wasn’t worthy of a Guinness entry, she has been in films with five chief ministers. Roles in plays written by C N Annadurai and by M Karunanidhi, she has acted in films with M G Ramachandran, N T Rama Rao and J Jayalalithaa. While the 1980s generation would remember her for her stellar role in Paatti Solai Thattaadhe, the older generation would go gaga over Thillana Mohanambal. Over time she graduated to playing character roles too.
Manorama has 300 playback songs to her credit with her Vaa Vaathiyaare Uttaande in Bommalattam film, being a raging sensation of its times. Interestingly she has sung for all the notable music directors, including for M S Viswanathan, Ilayaraja and A R Rahman. Her friend of many years and Chief Minister Jayalalithaa laid a wreath on the body and said: “there has been no accomplished achiever like Manorama in the Tamil film world.”