Going in search of a yesteryear star actress and what I learnt

Most recently, came another spate of rumours following a fire at the house that painted another sorry picture of Kanaka's life.
A house that has seen the good times and the bad. (Photo | Ambili MP)
A house that has seen the good times and the bad. (Photo | Ambili MP)

Can 'privilege' shield you from life's body blows? If only...

This was my thought as I headed to yesteryear South Indian star actress Kanaka's house. There were reports that she was in a bad way. It was never supposed to be so.

After all, she was born into an illustrious family. Her great-grandfather Raghupathi Venkaiah Naidu built the Gaiety theatre, the first cinema house in Chennai (then Madras) to be owned by an Indian. He would go on to build two more theatres -- the Crown and Globe -- in the city. Such were his contributions to cinema that the Andhra Pradesh government confers the Raghupathi Venkaiah Naidu award to commemorate lifetime achievements in Telugu cinema.

Her grand uncle C Basudev was an ex-member of Madras Legislative Council and served as the Mayor of Madras.

Her mother was the luminous star Devika, who acted with MGR and Sivaji Ganesan, became a favourite of the famed director Sridhar and built up a list of enviable achievements before giving it all up to bring up her daughter.

Ah, her daughter! Kanaka herself, who had basked in her mother's love and eagle-eyed protection.

Gangai Amaran's wife would recommend the actress, when she was in her teens, to her husband and this ensured that her first-released film was Karakattakaran, which enjoyed a dream run in 1989 and went on to become something of a cult classic. In Malayalam, she left an indelible mark with her role in the perennial comedy favourite Godfather.

Countless movies and her share of fame later, Kanaka had to cope with the shattering loss of her mother, who passed away at the relatively young age of 59.

What followed must have been grievous to endure.

Soon after, her estranged father accused Kanaka of forging her mother's will. Later came accusations from the father that his daughter was mentally unwell and a drug addict. Then came more recent rumours that she had to herself refute -- of her contracting cancer and battling for her life. Some rumour-mongers even had her dead!

For a woman living by herself since the early 2000s, these must all have been unkind, brutal cuts.

Most recently, came another spate of rumours following a fire at the house that painted another sorry picture of Kanaka's life.

This, as I mentioned earlier, was the reason why I was going to the actress' house in Chennai's posh RA Puram area. She deserved help if necessary, and some of the film folk in Kerala who had worked with her wanted to know if she needed it.

As I arrived, I noticed that the names of both Kanaka and Devika were written in front of the house. Kanaka could be heard talking loudly, mostly in Tamil with the odd English word thrown in. I wondered if she was talking to the maid. Did she have one?

A few minutes passed. No, it wasn't the maid. It was, in fact, her on the phone. I contemplated ringing the calling bell once the call seemed to have ended. But the bell was not working. The gates were locked and there was no security guard. She was indeed living alone as was said.

I decided to walk around the property. What I saw was far from encouraging.

The exteriors of the two-storied house were poorly maintained. The paint had faded in many places and peeled off entirely in some others. There were cracks on the wall. The back, front and sides of the house were unswept -- for many, many days. Parked before the entrance were two dust-laden cars - a Toyota Qualis and a smaller Hyundai. Both hadn't been driven out in a long time by the looks of it.

Soon, neighbours confirmed that the actress had withdrawn into her shell. They said she only came out to collect things ordered online. "Earlier, she at least used to take the car and go out. Now that too is a rare sight."

It was some of these neighbours who alerted the firemen when they had seen smoke billowing out of Kanaka's house. What had really happened that day?

I soon connected with one of the firemen who had gone inside. He told me that "we started for Kanaka's house as soon as the neighbours informed us. At first, she refused to open the gate. Later, we sought the help of the police. When we went inside, we saw some clothes, covers and cardboard boxes burning. Kanaka told us that the fire might have spread from the pooja room. It was so. We soon doused it and left." He emphasised that it was a minor incident.

But why this self-imposed exile? Why this reluctance on her part to even let the fire brigade in when they had come knocking? The fire might have been minor, but Kanaka could have allowed them the chance to confirm it without the aid of the cops, I felt.

Were these signs that she was in need of urgent help as was being said?

One of the neighbours seemed to realise what I was thinking. The man who helps Kanaka works as the security guard at one of the apartments nearby, he said helpfully directing me.

I decided to meet this guard. Once I arrived before him, I told him why I had come.

He soon offered me a fresh perspective.

"There are no problems here. I was at Sabarimala at the time of the fire incident at madam's house. That is why all this needless fuss happened. She doesn't let strangers into the house. The reason is the bad experience she has had at the hands of her close relatives. I came to know about the fire only after returning from Sabarimala. The electricity had also been cut for two days. I called the officials and fixed it. Madam said she wanted carpenters. I arranged it. If she needs anything, she will tell me and I will do it. Recently, I was told that the interior of the house should be cleaned. I brought some persons and cleaned everything."

While I was talking to the security guard, a Tamil Nadu Electricity Board official arrived. He too knew the guard was the go-to man as far as Kanaka was concerned.

"The gate is locked, please inform madam," he told the guard.

The guard called Kanaka. She did not pick up the call. But within a matter of minutes, she called back.

"Send him to the gate. I will open the door," Kanaka said over the phone.

The electricity board official went towards the house to take the meter reading. I too followed.

Once there, the official after taking the reading told Kanaka, "TNEB now suggests linking the current connection number with the aadhaar card number of the person in whose name the connection is."

Kanaka replied that the "current connection is in my mother's name and I have only my aadhaar."

"You please link. We will take care of the rest later," the official said, before taking his leave.

His departure was my cue to tell Kanaka why I had come there. She was ready to answer me.

I had already noticed that she was in full possession of her faculties. Her appearance was encouraging also. She had gained a little weight, but she still retained her beauty. Her shoulder-length hair was neatly tied. She was wearing a sleeveless top and skirt. Yes, she had not been neglecting herself.

"Many of your colleagues are worried by what they are hearing about you. So, I came to see if all was okay," I told her.

Kanaka began laughing.

"Nothing has happened to me. Everyone's fears are baseless. Don't you see now? I see a lot of news about me. I don't respond. The life of Kanaka as an actress and person does not affect these people in any way. Their life doesn't affect mine also. So, I ignore these rumours. I have given interviews once or twice before to state my side of things. But now I have stopped feeling the need for even that," Kanaka said.

After we finished talking, I went back to the security guard. There was one more question nagging away at me.

Kanaka has been away from films for years. Was she having any difficulty meeting her daily expenses? I asked. The poorly-maintained exteriors and the cars that had not been driven out for many months, if not years, were still on my mind.

"She has enough money to take care of herself. In fact, she has many properties in her name and has not even felt the need to dispose of them yet," he confided.

I was piqued enough to ask the guard how he and Kanaka had developed this bond at a time when she seemed to have drawn away from others.

What he told me reminded me of Kanaka's love for music, something she had mentioned earlier, and of the power of music to forge bonds.

"I used to listen to music at night when I couldn't sleep. Kanaka madam used to notice this when she went out. So, we met once and got talking. I am helping her for many years now. Recently, I asked madam to clean and paint the whole house. She said she will think about it," the 70-year-old told me.

"She is living life on her own terms. We must respect it and let her live according to her wish," he then went on to add.

There was wisdom in those words. Life is indeed harsh for most of us. We all find our ways to navigate it. Yes, my mind whispered, Kanaka is no different. Freedom -- isn't that what we all yearn for, particularly us women? After the many massive struggles she has had, which might have felled lesser beings, can't she at least be allowed to live her life?

I began stepping away...

(Ambili MP is a former print and TV journalist. She now runs her own YouTube channel.)

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