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“Her work was her religion,” says actress Sukumari’s son Dr Suresh Bhimsingh.

Sukumari died on March 26 following a cardiac arrest. She had been hospitalised after sustaining burns when her dress caught fire on February 27 while lighting a lamp at home.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa, a close friend of the actress, visited her when she was in hospital. Jayalalithaa told doctors, “Please save her life, she is special to me.” Sukumari has played Jayalalithaa’s mother in the Tamil film, ‘Pattikada Pattanama’.

In a career which stretched over six decades and spanned 2,000-plus films, Sukumari acted in Hindi, Oriya and Bengali films, besides Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam.

She had the ability to take on any character on screen with an ease. She brought to life the Anglo-Indian mother in K.S. Sethumadhavan’s ‘Chattakkari’ and later transformed to play a Brahmin widow and grandmother in Mohan Sharma’s ‘Graamam’. The former role won her a Kerala state award while the latter brought her national acclaim as Best Supporting Actress in 2011.

She would enact both tragic and comic roles with elan, remember her performance as Dickiammayi in Priyadarshan’s laugh riot ‘Boeing Boeing’?

Born in 1940 in Trivandrum, Sukumari was the eldest child of Madhavan Nair and Sathyabama Amma. When she was in the fifth grade, she accompanied her paternal aunt Saraswati and her cousins, the Travancore trio — Padmini, Lalitha and Ragini — to Chennai. “Actually, she had gone to the station to bid them goodbye,” Bhimsingh said.

Soon she was travelling along with their dance troupe, Pushpanjali, to perform shows all over India and abroad, often donning male roles.

Her first dance performance, for a film, was at seven and at ten, she entered films with ‘Or Iravu’ after being spotted on the sets with her cousins. Besides movies, she was also an active in the theatre for 40 years and has travelled worldwide with Y.G. Parthasarathy’s and Cho Ramasamy’s drama groups.

“In Cho Ramasamy’s group, there were no female actors and these roles were done by Cho until amma [Sukumari] joined the group,” Bhimsingh said.

Sukumari was a committed artist. One incident Bhinsingh points out is when she “packed her bags and went to shoot in Trivandrum the day after my father [late director Bhimsingh] passed away in 1978. She was 70 then and her concern was for the producer and director.”

Not even heart surgery could keep her away from completing a dubbing schedule and even after having a stent inserted, she flew to Dubai for a shooting schedule. “Despite my protests she refused to back out and finally I had to yield when K.P.S. Lalitha [Malayalam actor] agreed to travel with her to Dubai.”

Noted director K.S. Sethumadhavan, who directed her in 1974’s “Chattakkari”, compares her to a marathon runner. “Sukumari was a very active person and a cooperative artiste. She had this ability to cultivate pleasant friendships with people on the sets.”

His son, Santosh Sethumadhavan, who cast her in the remake of ‘Chattakkari’ in another role, said. “Sukumari was a bundle of energy. She delivered her dialogues perfectly, sometimes improvising them.”

Malayalam director Lal Jose cast Sukumari in 14 of his 18 films.

“She used to refer to me as her boyfriend and I used to call her my girlfriend,” Jose said.

“She was a mother, sister and a friend to me. Sukumari means positive energy. She never spoke ill of anyone and believed that everyone was good. On the sets, she would inquire about the well being of all and was involved in their lives.”

A recipient of several awards, including the prestigious Padma Shri, Kerala and Tamil Nadu state awards. She loved cooking and derived great pleasure from entertaining guests and whipping up a meal for them, often friends from the industry.