Malayali movie buffs might remember seeing her on screen since the mid 1980s but Vatsala Menon had made her silver screen debut long before that. She was just eight when she made debuted as Muthaiah's daughter in Thiramala. But her real kickass show happened in 1970 when Vatsala was crowned Miss Thrissur when she was a mother to three kids. Back then, that was huge. Her photos and the news splashed across the front pages of newspapers. Once again, the charm repeats as Vatsala won the Kerala State TV Award for best Supporting Actress for her performance in Decemberile Aakasham.
Sitting at her cozy apartment in Panampilly Nagar, Kochi, sporting the familiar soothing smile, the septuagenarian actor expresses joy in the recognition that came to her after decades. "I am glad to be receiving such an esteemed award at this age. There have been instances when my directors told me that this role in this movie would bring me an award, but I haven't been conceited. I consider their comments precious," she says.
Her entry to filmdom was through dance. She says, "Since childhood, I was a regular performer at temple festivals and contests. Bharatanatyam, folk dance, Kathakali… I used to perform it all. It was dance that landed me my first film as a child. Later, dance took over and then marriage, motherhood and Mumbai life. Once, when the Miss Thrissur beauty pageant was announced, my father asked me to take part in it. But I felt that as a married woman and a mother too, I wasn't a pageant material. But the organizers spotted me and asked me to participate in the contest."
Back then, the competition had no complex rounds and it was an easy sweep for Vatsala who defeated all the young unmarried girls and was crowned the winner by actor Sarada. "In a few days, film maker Ramu Kariat and producer Sobhana Parameswaran Nair came to our home in Mumbai and talked to my husband Haridas asking if I wished to act in movies. They suggested that I take a makeup test which I did. They asked me to enact a scene and they were impressed. A week later, Nair wrote to me offering a role and asked me to give it a thought. My husband was on cloud nine; he suggested that we could enroll the kids in a good school like Lovedale in Ootty. But my priority was my boys. I didn't want them to lose childhood with parents - their most important phase in life. Anyway, I wasn't sitting idle. I had my dance programmes and was teaching Malayalam to kids in our neighbourhood in Mumbai." And she dropped the plan.
Looks like destiny, film came to her again. While enacting the role of a Collector in a two-hour one-act play at a Malayali association event, a production executive spotted her and approached her with a role. She adds, "By then, our kids were grown; the youngest was joining an engineering college. My husband too persuaded, and I said yes." The shooting went on for two weeks, but the film got stalled over financial constrains. Vatsala returned to Mumbai considering it as the end of his brief filmy stint. But the same people came to her with another offer - to play a mother in Kiratham. That worked and since then, Vatsala Menon has been here, as an integral part of Malayalam showbiz's changing phases.
"Till October 1990, when my husband passed away, I was working almost every day. But his death shattered me; I became a recluse. Six months later, I met a film maker at the railway station. Rumour was that I was in Australia with my son. I said I had never been to Australia. And then, film offers started pouring in. I signed for three films at one go - Priyadashan's Dheem Tharikida Thom, Chekkeranoru Chilla and Pavithran's Uppu."
It was around the same period that soap operas forayed into Malayali living rooms. Vatsala was there too as part of Madhumohan's mini serials. Later, when the format changed and episodes upped to 300, 1000 and 1500 and with actors pulling off 12-month pregnancy roles, she has been active there too. One of the senior most members of the fraternity, she is a member of both the Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes (A.M.M.A.) and the Association Of Television Media Artistes (ATMA).
"In films, I did a wide variety of roles from serious to funny. Honestly, I still don't think I can pull of humour well. It's the trust of the directors who made me portray all those funny characters in Olympian Anthony Adam, Chanthupottu and Nayam Vyakthamakkunnu. Serials too gave me interesting opportunity to perform and the sets is like family; you never get bored. In Pookkalam Varavayi being aired in Zee Keralam, I act with my grandchild. And now this award; I am content," she says.
Has she been dreaming of an award in her decades-long career? Smiling, she says, "It's the dream of any artist to get an award. When Hariharan sir, whom I consider my guru, told me that my role in Ennu Swantham Janakikkutty would bring me national and international recognition, I felt those words as the biggest honour. Acting for me, has not been for money or awards. I do this for happiness and satisfaction as an artiste. I have only one prayer - to not retire from acting."
Vatsala has an important movie coming up - Gauthamante Ratham, where she plays Renji Panicker's mother. The film with Neeraj Madhav in the lead has a schedule coming up in Rameswaram. Sharing her excitement, she winds up the conversation, "I am looking forward to this Rameswaram trip. This has been my dream for long."...