C.R. Manorama, affectionately known as 'Achi was undoubtedly the most popular and successful comedienne of Indian cinema even though she acted in Tamil films numbering to more than thousand 500 besides 1,000 stage appearances and many popular television serials. She passed away Saturday after many rumours of her death earlier which turned out to be false!
An amazingly versatile artist could handle any kind of role and speak with a variety of Tamil accents which nobody else was capable, among actresses of Tamil cinema. It was one such talent that she was described as the 'Female Sivaji Ganesan' Hailing from humble conditions, she was born in a poor family and later with her mother she moved to Pallathur in Chettinad and then to Madras (now called Chennai) and eked out a precarious livelihood selling fried peanuts on the Marina beach and making both ends meet - tough living indeed.
Even as a young girl she had a lively interest in Tamil theatre and was discovered by the cult figure and historic personality of India M. Karunanidhi, who was then along with his guru C.N. Annadurai known as 'Aringnar Anna' and others like Nedunchezhiyhan, Rama Arangannal and others promoting the Dravidian Movement were making use of the medium of the stage and stage plays. Along with another stage artiste who later became an icon of theatre and cinema, SS Rajendran, and Manorama , M. Karunanidhi had a stage group whose propagandistic plays became popular.
When Dravidian party leaders like CNA and Mu. Ka did their plays, Manorama and SSR followed them and began to act in lead roles on stage . Soon she became a much sought-after actress and found that she had a flair for comedy. Thus she made her way into Tamil cinema as comedienne and acted in 1,500 movies and 1,000 stage plays, which is mentioned in 'Ripley's Believe It or Not', a rare achievement for a Tamil actress.
With her role in the hit movie Thillana Mohanambal in which top stars Sivaji Ganesan and Padmini played the lead roles, Manama stole the film from the icons of Tamil Cinema bestowing on herself screen immorality.
Awards came seeking Manorama from both state and central governments and also film bodies. Above all, she had the privilege of working with with five Indian state chief ministers, which included M.G. Ramachandran, Mu. Karunanidhi, C.N. Annadurai, Jayalalitha, and N.T. Rama Rao. Not an easy achievement that for a comedy actress.
She did a number of films with another comedy icon and cinema C.K. Nagesh as well as Cho, Thengai Srinivasan, K.A. Thangavelu, enacting several memorable roles with them.
I had the pleasure and privilege of knowing Manorama well, even more so as I wrote the the hit English song 'Love Is Fine Darling When You Are Mine' in Muktha Srinivasan's the hit film Thava Puthalvan (1972) in which Nagesh and Manorama were featured in comedy roles.
I had the pleasure of meeting her as recently as Oct. 2 at the Tamil Film Journalists' awards function. We were seated next to each other on the dais when we exchanged many old memories. Then came her death just a few days later.
Millions of fans not only in India but also in other parts of the world where Tamil is spoken will miss her greatly. One consolation is her movies will always be available. As famous Kannada star Ravi commented in a Kannada TV serial , film and film actors are immortal through their films in many formats today Art and cinema are immortal and so shall be C.R. Manorama through her movies, DVDs and other formats.
(The writer is a distinguished film historian)