KPAC Lalitha in the Malayalam movie Jilebi. Her acting prowess is spread over more than 500 films in Malayalam. She has twice won national awards for supporting roles. Image Credit: Supplied

An affectionate mother, a caring aunt, a nagging mother-in-law, a jealous neighbour: KPAC Lalitha was all this and more to us. She brought these characters alive in cinema with so much conviction that we felt they were part of our family. For Keralites, in a way, she’s been part of their household for more than four decades.

That’s why her death on Tuesday at the age of 73 (she died four days short of her 74th birthday) cast a pall of gloom over the Malayalam film fraternity. I can’t remember a time without KPAC Lalitha movies. But always in supporting roles, never the lead character or a heroine.

I don’t think Lalitha ever cared about her roles. Whatever be the character, it was essayed with simplicity and elan that was so unique to her. A fleeting role and a major acting part were always secure in the hands of Lalitha. I don’t ever remember a character poorly done by Lalitha.

Lalitha started life as Maheswari Amma and made her first foray into acting through the stage provided by Geetha Arts Club in Changanacherry. She debuted in the play Bali (Sacrifice), which was the first of many appearances on stage. She moved on to Prathibha Arts Club before joining Kerala People’s Arts Club in Kayamkulam, a left-leaning theatre group in Kerala. Playwright Thoppil Bhasi renamed her Lalitha, and the name stayed with her.

Life and times of Kerala actress KPAC Lalitha

KPAC Lalitha Mammootty
KPAC Lalitha with Malayalam superstar Mammootty. Apart from movies, she was a regular fixture in Malayalam television with the comedy serial Thateem Mutteem, in which Lalitha played the grandmother and matriarch of the family. Image Credit: Facebook Public Profile/KPAC Lalitha

Starting out as a singer, Lalitha went on to act in KPAC plays such as Mooladhanam, Ningal Enne Communistakki, Swayamvaram, Anubhavamgal Palichakal, Koottukutumbham, Sarsayya and Thulabharam. She had become an accomplished actress by the time she switched to movies. To differentiate from another Lalitha, she prefixed her name with KPAC.

When director K.S. Sethumadhavan decided to turn Thoppil Bhasi’s play Koottukudumbham (Joint Family) into a film, it was only natural that he cast Lalitha in the same role she essayed in the play. That debut in 1969 led to more than four decades of histrionics in the Malayalam film industry. Lalitha acted in other South Indian language movies, but the bulk of her 500-odd films was in Malayalam.

KPAC Lalitha with Mohan Lal in Ittymaani-1567577044527
KPAC Lalitha with Malayalam superstar Mohan Lal in the movie Ittymaani. She has acted with almost all the big names in Malayalam cinema. Her pairing with actor Innocent was very popular. Image Credit: Supplied

A humble housewife, a bold village woman or a besotted lover were some of her early roles as Lalitha paired with some of the legends of Malayalam cinema: she was a sweetheart to Sathyan, a mother to Prem Nazir and wife to Mammootty (in Kanalkkattu). Lalitha has played a gamut of roles, but portrayals of mother and mother-in-law remain etched in memory.

Playing a mother came naturally to Lalitha. Even in her younger days, she performed older roles with such panache that we empathised with her. We cried when she cried; we rejoiced at her happiness on-screen and hated her when Lalitha played a scheming mother-in-law.

For an actress who cut her teeth on stage, Lalitha didn’t bring none of that baggage to the cinema. Absolutely shorn of exaggeration, she breathed life into characters so well that they were true to life. I, and the rest of Malayalis, would have seen such characters in our family and our neighbourhoods.

■ Born: February 25, 1947, at Ramapuram, near Kayamkulam, Alappuzha district, Kerala.
■ Real name: Maheswari Amma
■ Parents: K. Anandan Nair and Bhargavi Amma
■ Marriage: 1978
■ Spouse: Bharathan (late)
■ Children: Sreekutty and Sidharth
■ Films: More than 500
■ Awards: Two national awards. Amaram (1991), Santham (2000)
■ Kerala state awards: Neelaponman (1975), Aaravam (1978), Amaram (1990), Kaninjool Kalyanam, Sandhesam, Godfather (1991)
■ Autobiography: Katha Tudarum (Story will continue). It won the Cherukad award.

From a wisp of a girl in Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Swayamvaram, Lalitha’s characters straddled several generations. The roles in Aaravam, Vengalam, Amaram, Godfather, Manuchitrathazhu, Ponuttayiudunna Tharavu, Veendum Chila Veettu Karyangal, Niram, and Aniyathipravu continues to reside in the memory of Keralites everywhere.

Her marriage to art director and filmmaker Bharathan in 1978 only gave further impetus to Lalitha’s career. In fact, Bharathan’s Amaram landed her first national award (supporting role) in 1991 and followed it up with another in 2000 for her role in Jayaraj’s film Santham. She won several Kerala state awards as well. One of her best performances came in a movie, where she didn’t appear in person: her powerful voice brought a pivotal character to life in Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Mathilukal.

In her later years, Lalitha came into our homes through television. She played comic roles too; her role as the prickly matriarch in the TV series Thatteem Mutteem cracked us up.

Lalitha may no longer be around, but her roles will remain green in our memory. For she’s been a part of lives. And it will continue to be. Rest well, KPAC Lalitha.