An unruffled queen on stage

Sumathishri talks about the ordinary and deviant roles she has played in her acting career and some entrenched lessons on expressions that have shaped her as an unapologetic artiste

CHENNAI : Amaidhiku Peyardhaan Saanthi is an evergreen popular song by TM Soundararajan from ‘Rail Payanangalil’. Its magnetic appeal caught on the drama buffs, who lost no time to give a slight tweak and render the title ‘Amaidhiku Peyardhan Sumathishri’. Such was the calm demeanor with which Sumathishri balanced her career in drama, movies, and the inevitable television serials. Hitting the recap mode, Sumathi says she is happy with the tag of a crisis artiste, who time and again had come to the rescue of fellow dramatists.

Thrust into drama at just 12 years old, Sumathishri got a name change under compelling circumstances — there being another Sumathi on stage who had seen stardom in movies. “Both my parents were stage artists, having had their magical moments in films too. They were regulars in the plays of Heron Ramasamy. As luck would have it, the girl who was supposed to do the character Chellama in 'Bharathiar' backed out at the last moment. My silence was taken as the nod but deep inside, there was the fire in me which must have surprised the whole unit. In no time, I was a regular, so much so in being entrusted to do double roles,” she says.

What pleased Sumathi was the range of characters that Heron was happy to give her. One of the biggest moments for her was playing the role of second wife in Thirumalainayagan where Sumathi unflinchingly questioned the might of the king. “An early lesson I learnt in Heron’s plays was to give pause in lengthy dialogues. Eye contact was imperative in historical plays where voluminous dialogues were lapped up by the audience,” she says.

Sumathi remarks that a dramatist had to be prepared for any eventuality and the tact to not let the audience know of the happenings. She adds, “In the same play, the king orders the Rambas and Oorvasis to dance, having taken his vantage position. He was not in the know of the artiste, still confined in the make-up room. I played the ‘Ilavarasi’ character and to buy time advised the king to have his sip of pazha rasam before feasting his eyes. These are the moments an artiste lives for. In my long career, I have not missed my lines, but the happy augury is in bailing out the others. Even the seasoned artistes could have an off-day, and it has to be kept in mind.”

Defining her steps

In an era where several amateur troupes found their platform set up by Nadigar Sangam, Sumathi owes it to the defining characters that came her way. She remembers the harlot character in 'Mullil Roja' that had left the audience in shock. “Not many artistes were inclined to play the character, afraid of the stigma enveloped with that. My parents gave the green signal with gentle advice that the fulfilment comes only when an artiste plays all characters. Thankfully, I did not miss out on the chance, as there is a cut-off age for certain characters,” she shares.

Recalling a moment in her crazy character in the play 'My Dear Kutty Pisasu', Sumathi says she was just a given few hours as the main lead had backed out due to a family bereavement. “The character resembled the role actor Sridevi essayed in 'Moonram Pirai', with a sharp memory loss. That gave avenues for the character to blabber anything and get away with it. Such is the beauty of the stage, where an artiste gets to have an arena of their own. The satisfaction emanating from such experience cannot be surmised in words. It reached a stage where I could audaciously say ‘Crisis, my foot’. It pleased me to no end when reputed drama troupes saw my face as reassuring to bail them out.”

Having found her bearings in scores of amateur plays, Sumathi saw doors opening in the world of the Tamil stage. Getting into the fold of eminent stage artistes, Thengai Srinivasan and Senthamarai meant Sumathi had to be on her toes to meet the SOS calls from other renowned names. The three-year association with Thengai Srinivasan was worth the wait for Sumathi. Be it playing the daughter of a multimillionaire in Krishnan Vandachu or questioning the corrupt-ridden ways of her lawyer father in Kanneer Jayikattum, Sumathi was a perfectionist.

Just for laughs

“I learnt the art of keeping a straight face in the comedy segments from Thengai. Comedy is a serious business and as artists, we only have to set it up for the audience to explode, and this was his mantra. Tighten your face and bite the teeth hardest so that the grimness is palpable. These are the hardcore lessons that gave a new face to the artiste in me” she says.

Getting into the fold of 'Senthamarai' had to be another feather in Sumathi’s cap. She says, “I had my apprehension as layers of fear had enveloped me, seeing the magnitude of characters he had played on the big screen. But on the contrary, he was a soft-spoken man, who gave so much of life to the characters on the stage.”

In 'Katrukum Verkum' and 'Pugaiye Illadha Natpu', Sumathi had the desired footage to match strides with the veteran. “I donned the character of a sub-inspector in the first one, determined that a criminal languishing in jail has to be hanged. A war of words when the two meet in the prison had all the trappings of a Visu movie. In deliberately underplaying his character, 'Senthamarai' left the whole stage to me in the exploding act. ‘Was it the same soft-spoken Sumathi?’ was the question that did the rounds. I guess it was the ultimate victory for the character.”

Sumathi’s expertise in the managing act was to the fore in 'Pugaiye Illadha Natpu'. She recalls, “A scene demanded me handing over ‘thali’ in a marriage ceremony at home. The other items in the box were in place except the one which mattered. To buy time, I cursed the fate of no shop being opened on Gandhi Jayanthi. Almost at the same time, the light boy had found the item that had slipped inadvertently on the floor. The spot-on dialogue of ‘thali’ removed from the Amman portrait in the house, adding sheen to the auspicious event had the audience floored. I guess it comes from years of experience. The important thing is to keep one’s cool under such testing times. Honestly, an artiste loves those endearing moments, good enough to tell one’s grandchildren when the dust is settled.”

Drawing inspirations

A huge fan of ‘Chevalier’ Sivaji Ganesan, Sumathi remembers the formative years when she mouthed the long dialogues of Manohara in front of a mirror. She says, “Merely viewing his movies is enough to know of the voice modulation and the effective body language to enhance the richness of a character. I was fortunate to be part of the stage in plays of Prasanna, who brought a flamboyance to the varied social plays.”

'Veedu Manaivi Sikkal' is a play etched in her heart where she played the role of a middle-class woman, meeting the challenges in a family environment. “In a mere 30-second gap between the scenes, I had to change from a modern get-up to a sari. The director was unsure if I could meet the challenge but I pulled it off. There are a few trade secrets which cannot be made known,” Sumathi says.

On the television front, her memorable one has to be Sondham where she played the mother of five children. “I was just 28 but saw the positive side in the banner of AVM and the financial need having lost my husband and a daughter to support. I have lost count of the number of TV serials but good enough to keep me occupied. The growing stature of doing paati character paired with Kathadi Ramamurthy in 'Piriyamana Thozhi' had been the gain.”

A wholesome journey

Sumathi has had a decent strike rate having performed in over 5,000 stage shows, 40 movies, and the 200-plus serials. It has been well over a decade since she set foot on stage. This had been her world when the marriage turned it upside down. But she is ready for her second innings, as she says, “It’s the only world I know where I need not have to put up an act.”

There is a niggling pain in her foot but not strong enough to come in the way of her world, which she ruled for scores of summers. The queen of the stage in her unassuming ways had brought cheers all over. But deep inside, there is a sadness about her talent not going the full distance. Sumathi winds up by saying, “Anything coming from the heart, has to be honest.”

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