KPAC Lalitha in Jilebi. Image Credit: supplied

If anyone says Maheshwari, you will raise your eyebrows, but mention KPAC Lalitha and a smile appears.

Images fly past your mind of the various characters the veteran actress has played on screen in more than 500 films. Be it Bhargavi of Amaran or the grief stricken Narayani of Shantham — two roles that fetched her a National Award — or the cantankerous wife and mean mother-in-law in another film, Lalitha has always experimented with roles.

Lalitha, who was once part of the Kerala People’s Art Club, a prominent leftist theatre group, has worked with leading actors such as Sathyan and Prem Nazir and then with stalwarts Mammootty and Mohanlal. She continues to share the screen with the present crop of actors. She has even found time to squeeze in television series Thatteem Mutteem into her schedule.

Clearly there is no stopping this 68-year-old, whose heart lies in acting.

tabloid! spoke to Lalitha on the eve of her departure to UAE for the SIIMA awards, where she is being honoured as a legend in cinema.

“I am happy to hear about the award,” said Lalitha. “It’s the first time I am attending the SIIMA event and I am looking forward [to it].”

Born as Maheshwari in Ramapuram, the daughter of K. Ananthan Nair and Bhargavi Amma, she is the eldest of three siblings. Lalitha was brought up in an orthodox household where creative arts were frowned upon. Yet, she says she owes it to her father, a photographer and painter, for encouraging her to pursue her creativity. She started learning dance at five and performed on stage as a teenager.

“I used to often visit my father in the studio he worked [at],” reminisced Lalitha. “On a room above the studio, a drama group rehearsed. Once they required a child actor who could dance, so they approached my father.” It was for the play, Geethayude Bali.

Influenced by her father, a communist party worker, Lalitha soon joined Kerala People’s Art Club. Late Malayalam actor, Thilakan, was a member of this group too, so films were just a step away. She debuted in 1969 with Kootukudumbam, directed by K. S. Sethumadhavan, where she played actress Sharada’s sister. Contrary to her fears of the director, she sailed through her first shot.

“I was scared of [K. S. Sethumadhavan] as people warned me of his temper and strictness on the sets,” said Lalitha. “Sethumadhavan sir explained the scene and before I realised, it was taken. It was the opening shot and my role was appreciated. He gave me a new name — Lalitha — and prefixed it with KPAC after Kerala People’s Art Club. The award-winning actress went on to work on two more films with Sethumadhavan.

Fond memories emerge as she looked back.

“Prem Nazir was a huge star when I entered the industry. I used to be apprehensive of talking to him but he was friendly and often chatted with me.”

Lalitha became the butt of Nazir’s jokes when she played his mother in Cheena Vala.

“He used to tease me. ‘How can I call you Amma,’ he would say?”

Her roles in Amaram and Shantham were quite a challenge. An even greater challenge was Mathilukal, directed by Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Based on fiction writer Vaikom Mohammad Basheer’s autobiography, this love story featured Mammootty in the lead. The female protagonist is never visible to the audience but only heard through her narration. Lalitha lent her voice to the young woman.

“I was not sure how my voice would work opposite Mamootty, but Adoor Gopalakrishnan sir insisted. I had to bring out the love and different emotions. It was not easy. Sir guided me in modulating my voice. It took three days of dubbing,” she said. “He never lost his cool on the sets. If he was not satisfied with a scene, he would come up to me and tell me how to improve it and we went for another shot.”

Can a talk with KPAC Lalitha be complete without mentioning her husband, late film-maker Bharathan? He was known for his prolific work in Malayalam and the nationally acclaimed Tamil film Thevar Magan.

“He never interfered in my work and gave me full freedom. And, when I worked in his films, I was another actor,” said Lalitha of Bharathan, who began his journey as an art-director.

Their son, Siddharth has directed two films, the last one being the Dileep film, Chandraettan Evideya and is also an actor. Their daughter Sreekutty is married.

Lalitha has three films coming up. Loham, directed by Ranjith, Utopiayile Rajavu, directed by Kamal and Amar Akbar Antony, directed by Nadir Shah.

“Acting is my soul,” she said.