Let me guess. You probably have not. If you have, you are (a) an even crazier movie buff than I am or (b) you knew her personally or worked with her.
Let’s try a slightly easier question – have you seen K Balachander’s Agni Saatchi (1982) or his tele serial Kai ALavu Manasu (circa 1995)? SR Sivakami played Saritha’s mother-in-law in the former and Lyricist Vaali’s wife in the latter.
I recently revisited select episodes of Kai ALavu Manasu on youtube. And without my realizing it, I was actually skipping the Prakash Raj-Geetha portions – that is the main story, after all! – to go to the scenes featuring Vaali and Sivakami. Their subplot is classic K Balachander. They are a lovable elderly couple who care deeply about each other, traditional in demeanor but modern in thought. Their only son Kandhan whom we never see even a photograph of – yes, classic KB – is in the peacekeeping force in Somalia. This is the pre-internet, pre-smart phone era. So, the occasional letter or the rare phone call is the extent of their interaction with their only child. One day, Vaali gets the news that the son has died. Vaali’s world comes crashing down. But here’s the twist – he decides to hide the news from his wife for as long as possible. In the meanwhile, the couple offer strong support to the romance of a Kannada boy (Ramji) with a Tamilian girl, a union that is opposed by the girl’s martinet father.
The phone rings, the heart beats (Click on play to go to the scene):
It is the scenes where Sivakami does not know what Vaali and us in the audience know, where the actors glow. Vaali was a fine, spontaneous actor, one whose potential was largely untapped. And Sivakami is stupendous in these scenes. Her growing anxiety, the nagging sense that something is amiss and the short-lived joy at seeing the newspaper clipping (that the troops in Somalia are homebound), are all handled by her with tremendous finesse and conviction. She is completely natural, doesn’t strike a single false note and makes us tear up in the scene where she sweetly tells Vaali that she will make him chapathi and korma as promised, after returning from the temple.
The chapathi scene (at 7:05) and the heartbreak sequence (at 20:50):
She goes into a near comatose state upon hearing the news of her son’s death. But upon seeing Ramji and his newly-wed wife, she thinks that he is her son. (Years later, Radha Mohan would traverse this kind of an arc with the MS Bhaskar character in Mozhi, with equal poignancy and controlled, impactful theatrics.) Sivakami is a joy to watch in these scenes too. She brings an innocent, childlike quality. The way she talks about the past travails of her son in Somalia is enormously touching, especially since we know the truth. KB does the right thing by leaving this thread in that state of new normal. After all, the dots connect in real life in unexpected ways.
A new lease of life (Click on play):
A new lease of life (Click on play):
The Vaali – Sivakami portions of Kai ALavu Manasu serve to reinforce what Hollywood discovered eons ago. That character actors who receive prominence and backing of screenplay authors will bring out shades of emotion that you will never see in conventional lead roles. (In the Bedroom, for instance, was entirely focused on an elderly couple looking to avenge the death of their only child.) The Tamil film industry continues to be heavily hero-oriented, with every meaningful role for even a lead actress – forget about character actors – being cause for celebration. That should be an everyday occurrence, not an exception. But we must be thankful for the fact that Tamil cinema has been blessed with filmmakers that wanted to go beyond conventional heroism and fake machoism to showcase emotions that are real and rooted. They knew that they had actors like SR Sivakami. She may not be with us – she passed on in 2010. But with films featuring strong female characters like Aruvi and ensemble dramas with strong character actors like Managaram achieving critical and commercial acclaim, there is hope. But we need more. That way, more SR Sivakamis will be known to a wider audience, not just crazy movie buffs who think out loud on their blogs!
A tribute to her in The Hindu, from 2010: