The decade of 1950s witnessed the efflorescence of film studios based in Kerala along with a burgeoning pool of local talent in Malayalam cinema. Among the locally discovered actresses was Thresiamma, who in a short time stole the limelight under the screen name “Miss Kumari” and became one of the most visible faces of the Malayalam studio films.
Miss Kumari’s unique popularity allowed her to become one of the first Malayalam actresses to negotiate contractual entitlements with the studio as a lead heroine. The yearning for indigenously produced cinema can be seen as early as 1940s, when there were entrepreneurial endeavors to mobilize capital, resources and technical know-how to facilitate transfer of film services from Madras to Kerala. When Udaya studio was established in Kerala in 1949, there was a massive publicity to promote its first home production Vellinakshatram (“Silver Star,” Dir. Felix J. Beyas, 1949) as the first indigenously produced film. In the publicity announcement at the New Theatre Kottayam on 10th February 1949, Vellinakshatram was referred to as “The new Malayalam social film made in Malayalakkara (Malayalam-land) by Malayalis in the studio established by Malayalis.” Alongside the demands for Aikya Kerala (United Kerala) and the need for a distinct aesthetics for Malayalam films that can separate it from the “copy-cat” productions ripped off from the Tamil films of the time, these studios were actively engaged in both making bi-lingual films, and at the same time, using strategies to signpost their commitment to culturally authentic markers that draw from the region of Kerala. It is in this context that Miss Kumari’s association with the studio films assumes prominence. In tracing the discursive modalities employed in film writing of the 1950s, one can see that demands to solidify indigenous film production based in Kerala coincided with Miss Kumari’s entry into the industry and shaped her as a domestic custodian of native films, and as the star body that boosted indigenous experimentations with filmic forms and themes.
Miss Kumari was introduced to the Malayalam screen by Sebastian Kunju Kunju Bhagavatar, one of the practitioners of the song-dance dramas of the time. It was her father’s interest in drama that came across as a strong support for her entry into films. Reminiscent of the anonymity-to-instant fame narratives of many in the film industry, Miss Kumari’s entry was nothing short of an accidental find. When the shooting of a song sequence for Vellinakshatram, Udaya Studio’s first film was progressing, Thresiamma was noticed by the German director Felix J.H Beyas who was excited to have found a face that was “impressive.” Carrying the tricolor Indian flag in her hand and dressed in Gandhi-cap, the close-up shots featured Miss Kumari’s entry, accompanied by music track beginning “Thrikkodi Thrikkodi…” (“thrikkodi” meaning tricolour referring to the Indian flag) sung by Cherai Ambujam. This was the only film in which her name appeared in the opening credits as Thresiamma.
Hailing from Bharananganam, a small town in the district of Kottayam, Thresiamma’s early life was not influenced by film, nor was it geared towards a film career. In fact, some sources claim that she had watched hardly two films before plunging into acting herself. For a brief spell of time, she taught at Sacred Heart School in Bharananganam as an English teacher and toyed with the idea of becoming a nun and engaging in social service. Unlike many others who had to struggle to make their presence felt in the initial stages of their career, Miss Kumari’s cameo performance in Vellinakshatram landed her the titular role in Udaya Studio’s next film Nalla Thanka (P. V. Krishna Iyer, 1950), that drew on the legend of Nalla Thankal, a popular Tamil folk tale that was adapted widely for music-dance drama at the time. Interestingly, Thresiamma’s screen name “Miss Kumari” was coined by K.V Koshy, one of the co-producers of K.K Productions, a production house associated with Udaya Studios. While Koshy’s coinage was influenced by a strategic move to foreground Udaya Studio’s reputation in introducing new faces, the idea backfired. The name “Miss Kumari” turned out to be a lucky mascot for Thresiamma, but she soon moved to Udaya’s rival studio Merryland when she signed the contract for their first film Atmasakhi (“Soulmate”, G. R. Rao, 1952). This was the first known instance of a Malayali actress signing a contract as an artist for a Kerala based studio. It was for the remuneration of Rs. 7000, with an advance payment of Rs. 500 that Miss Kumari made her initial commitment with Merryland. It is interesting to note in the contract the name of the beneficiary as “Miss Kumari (alias Thresiamma).” Crucially, the phrase “(alias Thresiamma)” has been added in different ink, almost like an afterthought, with “Miss Kumari” being the main name under which the contract was signed. Therefore, much to the disappointment of Udaya Studios, it was not only Thresiamma who moved to the rival Merryland studios, but also the brand-value of her screen-name “Miss Kumari.” After beginning her stint with Merryland, the name Thresiamma was soon forgotten by the public, leaving only the name Miss Kumari as her reference marker.
Associating separate cottages with lead stars was part of the tradition in the studio system of 1950s Malayalam cinema, indicating the policy of creating different tiers among artists and technicians. If Udaya studio prominently named “Nazir Cottage” after Prem Nazir, many film goers of the 1950s still remember Merryland’s “Camp House”—the lodge behind the New Theatre in East Fort area as being associated with Miss Kumari. The location of “Camp House” in a prime area that housed three theatres in close proximity to each other also meant that the viewers who were near the vicinity of the theatres could catch a glimpse of the artists who were camping there. By virtue of her association with many amateur drama troupes of the time, Miss Kumari’s off-screen visibility in such public spaces shaped the perception of her as someone who was accessible to the fans to interact with and share conversations. Her immediate recognizability and star value were also mediated via a carefully constructed image of the actress as a professional figure bound to the studio’s demands to produce films that would appeal to the viewers. The code of professionalism that marks Miss Kumari’s stardom also aligns in many ways with the visible pressures to guard the persona of the actress from unsubstantiated personal attacks on her. This is a precursor to the gendered expectations and demands placed on the female actress in a socio-cultural context where they had to navigate the public pressure to remain accountable to their work commitment, while being open to all undue speculations and gossips over their private lives.
Radha, one of her co-artists at Merryland recollects: “The way she (Miss Kumari) carried herself had an air of ordinariness that exceeded her stature as a leading star. Perhaps, her girl-next-door image and her simplicity appealed to the masses. Unlike what is normally expected of a leading actress, she consciously tried to de-glamourize herself by wearing an off-white sari and minimal jewelry.” Till the very end of her career, she played down her status as a star and recounted her successful breakthrough into films as “luck” more than anything else. Even though this revelation bespoke of her natural impulse not to foreground her presence than what was absolutely required, it backfired when some film critics like Vasudevan Nair who wrote under the pen-name “Cinic” was quick to take it literally as a confession on Miss Kumari’s part on how her success was guided solely by luck and by the Merryland bandwagon. For instance, film in one of his reviews, Cinic mentions that Miss Kumar’s sophistication betrayed the authenticity that the roles demanded and “when she cries, it seems as if she was smiling”, making him pronounce the verdict that “her experience and maturity in the field has unfortunately failed to impress anyone.” Thus, popular film writing of the 1950s reveals a strange contradiction in the inscription of Miss Kumari as the first Malayalam female star. On the one hand, she was lauded as the face of Malayalam cinema’s claims to indigeneity. But on the other hand, the criticism levelled against the genre of studio films and its commercial impulses were deflected on Miss Kumari as many, like Cinic, considered her an unqualified beneficiary of a system that allowed prerogatives and benefits to a few, ignoring many others who were equally or more talented.
In some of the entries of “Film Experiences,” Miss Kumar’s memoir serialized in Cinemamasika, she refers to the criticism levelled against her acting style. Engaging such criticism, Miss Kumari was quick to mention that she was aware of her limitations and some roles indeed demanded more than what she could convincingly portray. In reference to the role of Chinnamma in the filmic rendition of Muttattu Varkey’s Padaata Painkili, she writes, “I was excited about the role, but I was also equally scared. This is not a role that would work with my age. In the novel Varkey sir has described her as a seventeen-year old and as stunningly beautiful. I was unsure if I will be able to succeed in that role.” She mentions how Varkey in his discussions mentioned that Padmini would be apt for the role, but was happy when she was chosen instead. In fact, in spite of writing harsh reviews about her, Cinic (Vasudevan Nair) co-acted with Miss Kumari in the play staged at the first Drama Festival organized by Akhila Malabar Kendra Kala Samiti. She was also invited for judging drama competitions, in one instance, where the judging panel including P. Bhaskaran, Adoor Basi and Miss Kumari staged an impromptu play (Thikkodiyan’s Kanyadanam) on the last day of the festival.
Clearly, Miss Kumari’s attempts to chart a new terrain in conceptualizing female stardom had to reel under the unqualified denigration of her as a misfit for the label of a “star.” In fact, Miss Kumari did not fit the normative criteria outlining the profile of female stars of the time, such as the expectation that an actress should be proficient in dance. Further, Miss Kumari’s physical appearance was particularly “everyday”; as a buxom young woman, she did not have the hourglass figure of other dancer-actresses. In fact, it was her refusal to toe the line that contributed to her fame. First and foremost, Miss Kumari had an unconventional profile for an actress, let alone a star. As a devout Christian she incurred the wrath of the Christian community by starting her career acting in Hindu mythological and devotional films. As opposed to the “Travancore Sisters”, Lalitha, Ragini and Padmini, who had been part of many Udaya and Merryland films, and the ease with which they used the performative dimensions of dance-drama to carve a niche for themselves, Miss Kumari’s image was ensconced by the studio label of Merryland. Her relative lack of proficiency in dance stood as an impediment that restricted her from being cast in roles involving dance, a limitation that was stressed in most of the film writings of the time.
Yet, on the other hand, Miss Kumari’s presence contributed quite a lot to highlight the space of studio actresses at a time when women’s entry to films were looked down upon as anathema to family and domestic life. To deflect the attention from the circulation of gossip centered on actresses and the functioning of studio system there was a tendency in many write-ups featuring Miss Kumari to emphasize her personal traits as a mark of distinction. Her description as “fair skinned, humble, cultured and with a demeanor that can impress anyone” was rehashed in one article after the other as a defense mechanism to uphold the integrity and transparent dealings involved in casting (and let us not forget, the loaded, caste connotations packed into the epithet “fair skinned”). Miss Kumari used her visibility as a star to voice her opinions about social issues such as the suitable age for marriage for girls. Her decision to get married therefore evoked such a stir among the readers that the Sunday supplement of Malayala Manorama, published a special article on Miss Kumari in 1963. Titled “A life steeped in belief and moral values: Stepping into a happy domestic life,” the article gave a roundup of Miss Kumari’s professional career and her parting from the industry in her own words. It is interesting to note here that there were questions on how her decision to stay in the acting field till the age of twenty-eight and her subsequent exit was framed as a transition to new responsibilities. When asked if her marriage would mean the end of her career, she sidestepped the question by a rhetorical counter question: “I personally do not think that family life and an acting career are incompatible. But the deciding factor is whether the industry would accommodate a married woman to continue in the lead role.”
The short shelf-life of the actresses as compared to the actors and the ways this equation reflected in the casting came up in the discussions following Miss Kumari’s marriage. Sreeramapattabhisekham (“The Coronation of Lord Ram”, P. Subramanyam, 1962), a mythological film centered on Rama’s exile from Ayodhya, came as a prelude to her exit from films. Here Miss Kumari was cast as Kaikeyi one of the three wives of King Dasarada who demands that her son Bharata be made the heir apparent and her stepson Rama be exiled for fifteen years. Quite ironically, contrary to the combination of Prem Nazir and Miss Kumari, it was Shanti, another budding actress who was paired with Nazir. Miss Kumari did not hide her discomfort in being cast as stepmother to Nazir with whom she had been paired for all this while. But the justification given for her being cast as Kaikeyi was something which fortified her status as a star, clearly not something she could deny because it boosted her popularity—in the studio’s rationale, this casting decision was based on Miss Kumari’s distinctive hair. All throughout her career, starting from her first film, the most distinguishable facet of Miss Kumari had been her long lustrous hair. In fact, there were even attempts to highlight this in scene composition through freeze frames and focused camera movement. The disheveled tresses and plaits of Miss Kumari were frequently highlighted by film critics and writers of the time as an iconic trope in her films. Citing the crucial visual cue of the open hair in the sequence that shows Kaikeyi’s sudden transformation, Miss Kumari who was reluctant to the abrupt change of role from Sita to Kaikeyi, was asked to concede to the request. Even though this instance was a perfect exemplar of the ways new faces in the film industry replace the old, the reference to Miss Kumari’s hair would reappear in her obituary columns, with her hair becoming metonymic of her lost glory in the history of Malayalam cinema.
Unlike the constraints and regulations that bound the artists to studio films, Miss Kumari’s popularity and success helped her strike negotiations with Merryland studio, allowing her leeway to do occasional films outside the banner of Neela Productions, the banner under which most Merryland films were produced. For instance, Neelakuyil (“The Bluebird”, Dir. P. Bhaskaran and Ramu Karyat, 1954), the film that brought her to the pinnacle of success was produced by Chandrathara Productions. This film refashioned her image as a versatile actress who could excel in mythological, social and film adaptations of popular fiction with equal ease. Rooted in the social realist mode, Neelakuyil explored caste oppression and social inequalities and became the first Malayalam film to bag the All India Certificate of Merit in 1954. The casting of Miss Kumari in the role of Neeli, a Dalit girl who gets impregnated by an upper caste school-teacher and her subsequent ostracization from the society came across as something radical for the time as it proved to be a herculean task for the production team to find an actress who was willing to take up the role. The political edge of the film in exposing social inequalities and caste hierarchies set in a social milieu which the viewers could easily identify with made it immensely popular and there were more films which drew the themes of feudal landlordism and bonded labor casting Miss Kumari.
It is true that her association with Merryland had given her the standing of a studio artist, but this identity also shaped the perception of her earlier films, creating a separation between her Udaya and Merryland phases. For instance, before Miss Kumari became an artist of Merryland she had starred in Navalokam (“The New World”, V. Krishnan, 1951), but the film was forgotten and left out in her later appropriation as the Merryland star. Coming in the interregnum between her stint with Udaya and Merryland, Navalokam was remarkable in offering a powerful depiction of the perils of zamindari system alongside the need for women’s liberation and was heavily censored by the newly constituted Censor Board for its pro-labor position. The role of Neeli gave Miss Kumari a popular appeal that was exploited to publicize more films that highlighted the issue of exploitation of peasants and underprivileged sections of the society. Randidangazhi (“Two Measures”, P. Subramanyam, 1958), adapted from the novel by Thakazhi Sivasankara Menon exposing the perils of bonded labor in Kuttanad, was one such social film. The film adaptation of Mudiyanaya Putran (“The Prodigal Son”, Ramu Karyat, 1961), which carried on the legacy of the plays staged by Kerala Progressive Writers Association (KPAC) backed by strong political message highlighted Miss Kumari’s screen image as a star whose presence could evoke intertextual resonances in the viewers.
Moreover, there were extra-diegetic factors that contributed to her association with social films. Her political leanings towards the Congress Party and her support for nationalist causes were reflected in the political meetings where she spoke of the responsibilities invested with the masses to protest against power-laden structures. Some reminiscences for instance, recount Miss Kumari’s public appearance in a Khadi sari, sharing the dais with political leaders like Kamraj and Ashok Mehta, translating their speech from Hindi and English to Malayalam. Through the strategic use of contexts from the social films, and by occasionally gesturing towards the characters she had enacted onscreen, whether Neeli, Chellamma (Mudiyanaya Putran) or Chirutha (Randidangazhi), Miss Kumari exhibited a unique acumen to mobilize cinematic reality for political mileage. Considering that unlike Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, cinema and politics were not yet deeply enmeshed in Kerala, the presence of Miss Kumari in the realm of political mobilization reflects how her star persona stood as a contemporary marker, where the presentness of the moment was mediated through cinematic realism and character identification. As studies of stardom (Dyer 1993; Majumdar 2009) have demonstrated, star bodies become coded with values (both economic and libidinal) that place them in a mode of constant performance. The success of the social films and Miss Kumari’s presence as a star even forced Udaya to cast her in Kidappadam (“Dwelling”, R. S Mani, 1955) after she had become a contractual artist for Merryland. Drawing inspiration from the Hindi film Do Bigha Zamin (Bimal Roy, 1953), Kidappadam explored the plight of the dispossessed peasant family and their last effort to retrieve their land from being lost to a feudal landlord.
Even though Miss Kumari’s stardom and its relationship to the genre of social films were integrally connected, her appearance in social films cannot be seen as singlehandedly responsible for her stardom. Neepa Majumdar (2009) identifies a circular, but necessary relationship conjoining social films and stardom in the 1930s, with the genre of social films being essential to the emergence of stars and vice versa. But in Miss Kumari’s case, social films were only incidental to her stardom, as her appearance in social films merely added to her versatility as a star. Citing the realistic drift in social films, there were reviews that raised objections to Miss Kumari being cast as a Dalit woman in Neelakuyil, citing it as an appropriation of Dalitness diluting the strength of the narrative. For instance, in his critique of Neelakuyil published in Mathrubhumi, Vasudevan Nair’s scathing review goes: “If they looked around, the production team might have found someone who had experienced the severity of caste inequalities and could have portrayed the character of Neeli much more forcefully than Kumari.” Thus, even her stardom was precariously placed, allowing for questions of authenticity to crop up time and again. On the one hand, the dedication shown by Miss Kumari towards her profession as an actress was recognized as compelling enough to draw the interest of the viewers. There were write-ups on how she risked being run over by a train during the shoot of Neelakuyil (Sabu 1969: 3) or that she was ready to rehearse as many times as possible for the perfection of the character (Malayala Manorama 1969: 4). But on the other hand, suspicious remarks were cast on her inadequate performance of certain roles, to the extent of even alleging that her off-screen persona was so “forceful” that it curtailed her from doing justice to the roles.
Even when Miss Kumari was at the peak of her fame, there was severe opposition to her profession as an actress. To many conservative elements, Miss Kumari’s acting career came across as an aspiration which went contrary to the moral ethos of the Syrian Christian community. There was severe pressure on her family and even threats that the Church might be forced to pronounce Mehroon (excommunication) against her for taking up acting. The pressures and oppositions she had to negotiate to stay in films had a filmic variant as well. The role of the popular stage actress Miss Kumari enacted in Chechi (“Sister”, T. Janakiraman), a film adaptation of the play staged by Ochira Parabrahmodayam Nadana Sabha, comes as a striking depiction of the ostracization of stage actresses. As a social film, Chechi also becomes a self-reflexive mirror to a society that thrives on rumor and gossips that accompanies the popularity of actresses.
Miss Kumari’s stint in the cinema was rather short, lasting just ten years, but she had more than fifty films to her credit. Her marriage was a much-anticipated event and fans thronged in thousands outside the Metropolitan church in Ernakulam where the marriage was solemnized. To prevent the crowd from causing a stampede, the roads adjoining the church had to be blocked by the police to regulate traffic congestion. As the marriage convention demanded that the first part of her screen name “Miss” be avoided in the wedding invitation, it was her second name “Kumari” which was used. “No one even bothered much to fuss about her real name then as everyone recognized her by her screen name Kumari”, said Miss Kumari’s brother when asked about the transition from Thressiamma to Miss Kumari.
In film historical accounts in Malayalam cinema, there are limited paradigms used to address the figure of the actress and their contributions in furthering the craft of cinema. It is only rarely that we see actresses’ experience taken as a key anchor to discuss the history of a film production, or for that matter women-centric films that succeed by the sheer virtue of the female actor’s presence. Even in the proliferation of actress memoirs in recent past, one can see the ghost writing used as a mode of compile stories, and there are certain templates that these memoirs fall into, even in the chapter expositions. Questions of labor and career aspirations that propelled women to enter the industry takes a back seat when discussions are routed via auteur-focused studies that leave us no possibility to interrogate how women negotiated work amidst the narrative prominence given to male stars as guarantor of commercial success. When studios replicated already existing power inequalities through unquestioned allegiance they expected from the contractual workers, where did that leave the actresses? Whether it be the Merryland’s effort to promote Miss Kumari as a versatile actress who could excel in mythological, social and film adaptations of popular fiction with equal ease, or her response to the short shelf life of the actresses (“It needs to be seen if the industry would accommodate a married woman to continue in the lead role”), the figure of the actress was strangely tethered by social conditioning that renders them either obedient subjects or outliers who have to be kept at bay for the social order to prevail. In many ways, Miss Kumari’s stardom is intrinsically connected to the debates on the “new woman” supposedly indexical of gendered Malayali modernity. It was her body and the representational schematics through which it was used by the studio as a symbol of indigenous film production that allowed her to become part of Merryland’s main stars. But at the same time, if we look at her alongside the struggles that other actresses like P.K. Rosy who was physically attacked for enacting the role of an upper-caste woman, one can see a predominant tendency to tame and contain the actresses with specific templates of expectations.
While I am not suggesting that Miss Kumari and P.K Rosy’s struggles are comparable (the latter being a case of almost total, professional and social annihilation of a caste-marked body), I do want to emphasize that as struggles of women’s bodies, the profession of the actress becomes intrinsically tied to the infrastructures of the film industry that can replicate gendered and caste-laden hierarchies. Bodies and selves are moored to the spatial and temporal rhythms of the ideological systems which they are part of, and we need to look at the assemblage of material and immaterial forces that affect them. Miss Kumari’s serialized memoir in Cinemamasika ended abruptly in the seventh issue where she stated that she had reached a “critical juncture” in her onward journey to a new path, that made her wrap up the memoir. “Let the old experiences continue,” she wrote. But what comes as a surprise is the editor’s remark to this, when he writes. “Kumari’s “Film Experiences” column has come to an end. She will not have any more film experiences as she has left the industry and entered an expansive and enjoyable phase of married life.” While deciding to opt out is a personal choice, I wonder how many actors who decide to take a break would be considered as not having any more film experiences left.
[Darshana S Mini is a scholar in Malayalam cinema and is with the Dept of Communication Arts, University of Wisconsin-Madison.]