Veteran comedienne and character actress Manorama had a striking similarity to Sivaji Ganesan. An analysis of her performances suggests that like Ganesan, she was a willing puppet in the hands of filmmakers who had a good appreciation for restraint and underplay. While she may be remembered for her histrionics in the films of P Vasu and his ilk, Manorama could be sensationally effective when working with directors who weren’t quite content with extracting broad performances from her. Writer-director K Balachander’s characters were generally expansive personalities. But he could, from time to time rein in himself and his actors to write a three-dimensional character and extract a truly moving performance. Manorama’s Angayarkanni character in Unnal Mudiyum Thambi is one such character that I don’t think had gotten as much recognition as I thought it should have.
Kamal Hassan and Manorama (who plays his sister-in-law here) have shared remarkable chemistry in a wide variety of films ranging from comedies to dramas. Surprisingly, Kamal, as a filmmaker or screenplay writer, rarely utilized Manorama in serious dramas. He seemed to prefer SN Lakshmi for the more serious roles – Lakshmi too was fantastic in films like Mahanadi. Kamal typically gave more lighter roles to Manorama in films like Aboorva SahodarargaL and Michael Madana Kamarajan. K Balachander, after having worked with Manorama in the sixties and seventies hadn’t collaborated with Manorama in over a decade. In Unnal Mudiyum Thambi (1988), he brought back two of his frequent early collaborators – Gemini Ganesan and Manorama. Both turned in entirely different but equally stellar performances. The friendly Annee character has been a feature in some remarkable films like Sethu and Aaha. This one too is an equally memorable one. And the actress played no small part in ensuring that.
The early portions of the film do a marvelous job of establishing Manorama as a friendly, maternal figure to Kamal. There are some little touches like the way Manorama calls out Gemini for his “vidya garvam” that establish her character as a respectful but opinionated daughter-in-law. This subtle character sketching is rewarded with an apt payoff in the second half where she confronts Gemini. While she is the balanced, responsible daughter-in-law to Gemini and a loving wife to her mute husband, her relationship with Kamal is what stands tallest. She stands up for him when Gemini utters some harsh words, encourages his wooing of Seetha (which, by the way, is one of KB’s most charming romances) but excoriates him when he crosses the line with his father.
Kamal and Manorama work out their scenes in an utterly down-to-earth fashion. Two sequences stand out, one a lighthearted one and one a more serious one. The first one is the delightful scene where Kamal opens up to Manorama about Seetha. After fumbling through the conversation, the two of them jointly sing, “Oru Pennai Paarthu Nilavai…” It is an adorably puckish moment whose sweetness quotient is matched only by her line to him in the same sequence - “Enna Raja…koondhal-a elaam moondhu paathirke…paer theriyaadha?”
The second, deeply poignant scene is the one where Kamal decides to leave the house. With the nagaswaram playing in the background, there is a touching vignette that plays out with no dialogues. Manorama packs a sweet for Kamal, which the latter refuses. She gently admonishes him, after which he falls on her feet to get her blessings. This scene – the lack of dialogues, the searing emotions, the evocative background score - is vintage KB, surely. But it is Manorama and Kamal who bring the director’s vision to life.
Watch from the start to the 2:30 min point:
Manorama passed on a few years ago, leaving behind a rich body of work for us to cherish. She enjoyed the adulation of the public and at times, critical appreciation. (She had even won a National Award for her performance in Pudhiya Paadhai.) But to me, her work in Unaal Mudiyum Thambi is the vestige that does not deserve to be erased by the tides of time.