Having spent more than 50 years playing the mother role (amma vesham) in the Malayalam film industry, Chennai-based T R Omana’s life reads like a history book. She has played ‘mother’ to four generations of male stars like Prem Nazir, Sathyan, Soman, Sukumaran, Raghavan, Jayan, Mammootty and Mohanlal. She has also worked with many legendary filmmakers of Malayalam cinema such as Thikrussi, Muthukulam Raghavan Pillai, Sebastian Kunju Kunju Bhagavathar, Augustine Joseph (singer Yesudas’ father), the famous Travancore sisters — Lalitha, Padmini and Ragini, SP Pillai, Kottarakkara Sreedharan Nair, NP Chellappan Nair, Kaviyoor CK Revamma and TS Muthiah.
Born on January 13, 1940, to a rich timber merchant in Alleppey, Omana was the eldest of five sisters and had a privileged upbringing. Acting, she says, happened by accident. “Those days, my father was the go-to man for all things wood. So a lot of filmmkaers and producers would buy wood for their film sets,” she says.
Omana’s days of a fancy-free youngster ended when her father’s business began hemorrhaging money. So in 1954, she entered the film industry as a heroine in Puthradharmam starring Thikkurissi, Miss Kumari and Bahadur. But Omana was unlucky, as the film flopped, and she didn’t get any film offers after that.
Omana’s woes did not end there. Between 1957 and 1961, her father’s business went bust, her mother passed away and the family suffered for it. As the eldest daughter, she had to take on the responsibility and also become the defacto mother to her four sisters. Using her prowess in Kathakali, Bharatanatyam and Mohiniattam, she began performing in dance dramas full time. “They were called Nritha Sangeetha Nadakam. I had 3 to 4 shows every day, and my performance as Poothana in Poothana Moksham was famous back then,” she recalls.
In 1961, while performing the role of a classical dancer in producer T E Vasudevan’s Puthiya Aakasham Puthiya Bhoomi starring Sathyan, Vinodini, TS Muthaiah, BS Saroja and Bahadoor, an agent asked Omana to meet Vasu in Madras in one month. Until the 80s, Malayalam films were made entirely in Madras.
“Travelling to another city was tough back then. We had to put two of my sisters in a hostel, and lease our home (it had 14 rooms), and all our shops. We sold the furniture and several pieces of high-value wood for a measly amount. All this took two months,” she explains.
So when Omana came to Madras with her father, two kid sisters and a maid in August, bad news awaited her. Shooting was over and the film was ready for release. “I was crushed. But producer Vasu heard about my family’s plight and recommended me for a role in P K Satyapalan’s film, Veluthampi Dalava (1962) starring Kottarakkara and Ambika in the lead roles.”
However, there was just one problem. The role was of a 50-year-old woman. “I was a young girl with long black hair. I had grand dreams of becoming a heroine, doing performance-oriented roles or even roles that showed my dancing skills. I hadn’t expected to play an old woman. But actor Adoor Baasi, who I had worked with in dance dramas, encouraged me to take it. When I reached home, my father told me only one thing — if you want to be an actor, you must be able to perform any role. That pretty much did it for me.”
She accepted the role and the rest, as they say is history! The movie was a super-hit and Omana became one of the most sought-after ‘mother’ in Malayalam cinema. She was just 22 years old then. “I was paid `500 for the role. It was my first salary, and it meant a great deal.”
With 500-plus films in Malayalam in over five decades, Omana has seen it all. What are the changes she finds in the industry today? “Those days, when you walked into a film set, you knew instantly who the director or cameraman was. Discipline was the mantra on set — everyone was punctual. As actors, we were one family. Top actors like Sathyan, Baasi, K P Ummar, Sheela and other big stars would offer to drop us home if the production car was late. We helped each other on and off the set. Films were our bread and butter. Now, filmmaking has become a hobby. Rarely do I see anyone with passion for the art. People don’t care or perhaps don’t have the time to spend with co-stars and get to know them. I suppose youngsters these days have a lot more choices than we did,” she explains.
Prem Nazir: A Perfect Human Being
Of all the stars she has worked with, Omana’s all-time favourite is the legendary Malayalam star, Prem Nazir. “More than a fine actor, he is the greatest human being I have ever met. I have never seen him angry or be rude or even be unpleasant to anyone. He always had a kind word for everyone and would go out of his way to help people — whether it was giving money, call-sheet adjustment or any other assistance. If I had another birth, I want him to be my son,” she says.
Voice of Other Actors...Literally!
Omana began dubbing for almost all heroines of her time like Sharada, Lilly Chakravarthy, Waheeda Rehman, Lakshmi, Srividya and Subha to name a few. When Sharada won the National Award as Best Actress for Thulabharam (1968) and Swayanvaram (1972), Omana also became one of the most sought-after dubbing artists.
Adapting to TV
TR Omana is a household name in Kerala, thanks to her roles in mega-serials like Maanasi, Kazhcha and Chandanamazha. She is no alien to TV audiences in Tamil Nadu either with Deivam Thandha Veedu making her popular among Vijay TV viewers. How does it feel acting in TV serials? “Imagine an experienced driver at the wheels of a toy car — it’s THAT easy,” she chuckles.
No Time for ‘What If’
Has Omana ever wondered what life would have been like had she become a successful heroine? “Why should I wonder about something that did not happen? I have no time for such silliness. Even at this age, I’m doing what I love. What more can I ask for in life!”