Why Malayalam Cinema’s Usual Rules Do Not Apply To Urvashi

In her four-decade-long career, the sheer range of characters she has played set Urvashi apart from her contemporaries.

“Now full eattu, no hungry for dinner,” says Vanaja (Urvashi), slapping away her daughter’s hand as she reaches for a hot chapathi. As Achu (Meera Jasmine) bursts out laughing, her mother explains that she has decided to converse only in English at home after she lost out on a lucrative insurance policy because she couldn’t speak properly to a prospective client. What follows is two minutes of comedy gold as Vanaja, in broken but confident English, gives her not-very-encouraging daughter instructions to make a “lady’s finger” curry.

Achuvinte Amma (2005) was an enjoyable movie in which one of Malalayam cinema’s most talented actors made her comeback as an enterprising insurance agent—it also won her her first National Award, for best supporting actress. When she played mother to then 23-year-old Meera, Urvashi was just 36, and had been away from the limelight for five years after her marriage.

Urvashi and Meera Jasmine in 'Achuvinte Amma' (2005)
Urvashi and Meera Jasmine in 'Achuvinte Amma' (2005)

There’s a certain calculus of age across Indian cinema. As male stars grow older, they move on from romancing women of a similar age to those who are young enough to be their daughters. But as women stars age, their only hope for relevance is to play mother or aunt, sometimes to the men who once wooed them on screen. This trajectory can frequently be depressing, relegating former scene-stealers to background figures who may or may not get the chance to do some ‘character’ acting.

In her second stint in the Malayalam industry, Urvashi is an exception to this rule. Though she is no longer a ‘leading lady’ and mostly plays ‘mother roles’, she continues to command the screen. She does not need to defy her age—she owns it. One reason for her continuing popularity is that Urvashi has never banked excessively on glamour. For her, it has always been about the acting.

“Urvashi’s style of acting isn’t really derived from theatre, but what we call ‘modern’. I guess when she reads a scene, she identifies the many layers of emotions in it. See how she smoothly dials down tension and grief using humour in Bharatham. And she has never tried to be a Miss Perfect, or the kind of pop culture figure who sets fashion trends. As a millennial, when I look back at the 80s and early 90s when she did all her iconic roles, I can only see a genius actor who gave life to a variety of characters on screen,” says Aswathy Goplakrishnan, film critic with Silverscreen.in

Urvashi and Mohanlal in 'Bharatham' (1991)
Urvashi and Mohanlal in 'Bharatham' (1991)

While Urvashi did not agree to be interviewed, HuffPost India spoke to several people who have worked with her and observed her career for this story.

Defying stereotypes

Years ago, Kamal Haasan admitted to being “petrified of sharing screen space with Sridevi and Urvashi”. It seemed like an odd comparison between two actresses whose careers followed vastly divergent paths, but Haasan had perceptively zeroed in on two undeniable similarities between them—versatility and impeccable comic timing. There could not have been a better successor to Sridevi’s child-woman in Sadma (1983) than Urvashi’s similar role as Revathy in Kakkathollayiram (1991). Her excited reaction in the scene where her brother (played by Mukesh) imitates Tom and Jerry to cajole her into eating shows her at her finest. While other actors have tried to pull off similar characters, they have often ended up as exaggerated caricatures.

However, while Sridevi was a true-blue superstar in Indian cinema who, despite her phenomenal talent, chose to act in many Bollywood commercial potboilers, Urvashi has always tended to focus on ‘ordinary’, well-rounded characters and has seldom vied for glamorous roles.

Urvashi started her nearly four-decade-long (and going strong) acting career as an eight-year-old in the children’s film Vidarunna Mottukal (1977) and first appeared as a heroine at the age of 13 in the Tamil hit Mundhanai Mudichu (1983). In the Bhagyaraj-directed film, where he played the hero, she acted as a young stepmother to the child of a man she manipulates into marriage (while somehow remaining a sympathetic character throughout). In a Mathrubhumi interview, Urvashi said, “I have been acting as mother from my first Tamil movie. I had not completed 14 years when I acted in Mundhanai Mudichu… From this movie, I played the character of mother in different shades in numerous movies throughout my career.”

K. Bhagyaraj and Urvashi in 'Mundhanai Mudichu' (1983)
K. Bhagyaraj and Urvashi in 'Mundhanai Mudichu' (1983)

But it was in 1986 that Urvashi the actor got her first big break. In actor-director Venu Nagavally’s semi-biographical love story Sukhamo Devi (1986), she played the temperamental, moody and stubborn Devi, who was nothing like the archetypal heroine in those days—despite being married to a man against her wishes, she refuses to accept her husband and chooses to live in the memory of her former lover.

Indeed, Nagavally can be credited with having given Urvashi some of the finest characters of her career. Sarojam in Kalippattam (1993) is terminally ill but wins you over with her wit. Annamma (Lal Salam, 1990) is a quiet and unassuming wife who thinks the man should lead and the woman should follow. Swagatham’s (1989) Fifi is a tomboy from a broken home who is brazen in her show of affection for her boyfriend, who eventually abandons her.

Across her films, what really set Urvashi apart from her contemporaries was the sheer range of characters she has played. In the same year as the comedy-drama Ponmuttayidunna Tharavu (1988), she did Thanthram, a revenge thriller co-starring Mammootty, in which she played a woman who marries the man who molests her and later gets trapped in a game of power and greed. One of her most controversial roles would be the IV Sasi film Varthamanakalam (1990) in which she portrayed a gang-rape survivor who eventually kills her attackers. In the same year, she did the political drama Lal Salam and Vishnu Lokam, in which she played a wacky travelling performer who stands out more than the actual heroine of the film.

Urvashi as Fify in 'Swagatham' (1989)
Urvashi as Fify in 'Swagatham' (1989)

Queen of comedy

If Venu Nagavally gave Urvashi well-rounded characters, Sathyan Anthikad nurtured her comic talent, starting with Ponmuttayidunna Tharavu (which has now attained cult-classic status). As Snehalatha, who lovingly cons her boyfriend into gifting her a gold chain only to dump him after, Urvashi’s first foray into comedy was a revelation, even to Anthikad.

“I thought she was just an okay actress until she came onboard. But I was blown away by her spontaneity. After Mohanlal, she is one actor who gave me absolute satisfaction as a performer. Her character, Snehalatha, is devious. I still can’t get over the scene where she innocently recounts the gifts he gave her. A million expressions flit across her face, and such effortless timing too,” recounted Anthikad.

Urvashi and Sreenivasan in 'Ponmuttayidunna Tharavu' (1988)
Urvashi and Sreenivasan in 'Ponmuttayidunna Tharavu' (1988)

A year later, in Mazhavilkavadi, she had viewers in splits as the Pollachi-born Anandavally, who falls instantly in love with her father’s new Malayali assistant (Jayaram). Her introduction is gold—as she spots a tall, handsome man speaking to her father, her eyelids drop and with exaggerated shyness, she walks up to her mother and turns her back to him. She lifts what could have been a clichéd scene several notches with her comic finesse. That’s why, till date, we recall her more than the actual heroine of the film.

One of Urvashi’s most memorable roles is Kanchana in Thalayanamanthram (1990), also directed by Anthikad. As a middle-class housewife who longs for a fancier lifestyle, Urvashi brings subtlety to the vice of greed and serves it with humour. There’s a scene in which she casually eyes her sister-in-law’s gold chain and wonders how much it weighs. She animatedly points at the little black beads which string the gold together— “That adds more beauty to it, no?”—and then, just as quickly, shrugs away her greed. “I don’t know much about gold because I am not interested, really. Even the one I am wearing is at my husband’s insistence.” Her entire persona exudes acquisitiveness and passive aggression, but she manages to make it funny and even endearing. It’s the kind of role that would have turned one-dimensional in the hands of a lesser actor, but with Urvashi, it unfolds like a masterclass in acting.

The early ’90s produced a bunch of films that gave strong roles to Urvashi—Mukha Chithram, Kakkathollayiram, Kadinjool Kalyanam, Bharatham, Malootty, Aham, Venkalam, Sthreedhanam, Narayam, Midhunam, Kalippattam, to name a few. She remains the only Malayalam actor to have bagged the State Award for Best Actress thrice in a row—for Mazhavilkavadi (1989), Thalayanamanthram (1990) and Bharatham (1991).

Holding her own

While Malayalam cinema has had its share of heroines who were only allowed to be an empty, glamorous distraction for the hero, it also often made space for powerful, author-backed roles for women. Urvashi thrived with her versatility, while many of her contemporaries were consigned to playing second fiddle to male stars. For example, the talented Shobana often ended up as a mere consort for Mammootty, Mohanlal or Suresh Gopi, bar a few exceptions such as Manichithrathazhu and Pakshe, while Parvathy frequently found herself boxed into parts as the submissive girl-next-door or wife.

This comes into relief if we look at films in which Parvathy and Urvashi shared space. In Thalayanamanthram, Parvathy played the marshmallow-hearted daughter-in-law and wife to Urvashi’s calculating homemaker. In Swagatham, the vivacious Fifi (who gets pregnant by her boyfriend) competes with Parvathy’s docile, traditional Veni, who loses her mind on hearing of her husband’s death.

It’s also interesting to note the power equation Urvashi had in films starring male superstars. She is one of the few female actors who could match wits with Mohanlal in every scene. In Bharatham (1991), she plays a girlfriend who provides him emotional support and in Aham (1992), she essays the role of a wife who is blindsided by her husband’s mental illness; her reactions to him, intertwined with naivety and humour, are riveting. These two superb actors playing off of one another have created among the most watchable moments in Malayalam cinema. Similarly, Urvashi riffs with Mammootty in a number of films, most notably New Delhi (1987), where she plays his journalist sister, and Inspector Balram (1991), where she is infatuated with the widowed policeman.

“At her peak, Urvashi was perhaps the only popular heroine who just could not be objectified. She, without her knowing, had transcended her physical appearance,” said veteran film critic Ayyappan Ramachandran.

Urvashi in 'Vishnulokam' (1991)
Urvashi in 'Vishnulokam' (1991)

Malayalam actor Jagadish, who starred opposite Urvashi in Sthreedhanam (1993) and Bharya (1994), says, “I grew a lot as an actor while working with her. She gave me a lot of confidence and there was a lot of give and take when you worked with her. As a person, she always took a bold stand and was not afraid to call a spade a spade. She is one of the most well-read actors I have ever met.”

Jagadish also acted with Urvashi in Narayam (1993), where in one scene she flawlessly renders Arabic to stunned teachers at a government school. “Her affinity to pick up languages amazed me. Urvashi spoke better Tamil than a Tamilian. She was never an ornamental heroine—if she was in it, rest assured [her appearance] would be substantial,” says Jagadish.

But while Urvashi is remembered for her roles of ‘substance’, she has never been overly concerned about the length of a role, and has created magic even in cameos. In Yodha (1992), she was on screen for barely 15 minutes, yet it is tough to forget her mischievous Damayanthi, who cracks you up with her brilliant one-liners.

Then there are films she reportedly didn’t take a penny for and simply did for the love of cinema—such as PT Kunju Muhammed’s Garshom (1999; about Gulf migration) and MP Sukumaran Nair’s Kazhakam (1996; on the plight of temple workers, one of her most underrated performances). But such generous acts seldom made news.

A missing voice

Back in the early ’90s, Urvashi became one of the first women actors who addressed misogyny, sexism and male domination in cinema off screen. She always maintained that there weren’t enough roles written for female actors in Malayalam cinema, and that crossing the age of 30 meant becoming largely redundant. In a 2017 interview with Shubha Rao for Silverscreen, she said, “Where are the roles for women? There are few writers who will develop a female character, with all her quirks and personal growth.”

Yet, while Urvashi does not hesitate to share her opinions, her own voice—literally—was missing in a large body of her early work. It continues to be a point of contention that some of her best characters were dubbed by Bhagyalakshmi. The reason for this, according to whispers, was that Urvashi did not sound feminine enough. Bhagyalakshmi has said in an interview earlier that Urvashi begged director Sathyan Anthikad to allow her to dub for at least some of his films but was discouraged, as the heroine back then had to have a “sweet” voice (indeed, most A-list female actors opted for a dubbed voice back then). It’s even more ironic that Urvashi’s late sister Kalpana, who primarily acted in all-out comedy roles, was encouraged to dub in her own voice since that genre was not bound by such rigid patriarchal standards or rules. Today, however, in her 50s, Urvashi speaks in her own voice onscreen.

Urvashi with her sisters Kalpana and Kalaranjini
Urvashi with her sisters Kalpana and Kalaranjini

‘Putting on a happy face’

Acting seemed pre-destined for Kavitha Ranjini well before she became known by her stage name Urvashi. Her father Chavara V.P. Nair was an actor and her sisters Kalaranjini and the late Kalpana also starred in several films. She herself started acting in films as a child, and was not able to complete her schooling as a result. Tragically, her brother Prince—who appeared as the love interest of Silk Smitha in the cult softcore film Layanam (1989)—died by suicide when he was in his mid-twenties. Urvashi has opened up about how excruciating it was for her to perform in a comedy sketch just weeks after his death. “We had to put on happy faces while performing on stage... while we were suffering inside,” she has said. She has also spoken in the same interview of her grief at not being able to heal a rift with her sister Kalpana, who died before they could sort out their issues.

In October 2000, Urvashi married her first husband, actor Manoj K. Jayan, and had a daughter a year later. Over the next five years or so, she took a considerable step back from films until, in 2005, she made a successful comeback with Achuvinte Amma.

On the personal front, however, things were not going so well. In 2008, the dissolution of her eight-year-long marriage to Jayan was accompanied by a fraught custody battle over their daughter. In addition, allegations of alcoholism dogged her—including in the form of viral videos that ostensibly showed her under the influence—even after her second marriage and the birth of her son in 2014.

In an interview to Nere Chovve in Manorama News, she was asked about being judged for her personal choices despite being one of the finest actors in Indian cinema. Urvashi responded: “It might be that I am like family to them and it shows their concern. Having said that, the support I got during these trying times was amazing.”

A fresh innings

Over the past few years, Urvashi appears to have become more comfortable in her skin and has frequently spoken of the satisfaction she gets from motherhood and from playing maternal roles. “I think when a mother’s role gets highlighted in the movie, the character became the heroine and such roles make headlines,” she said in a 2019 interview.

Jagadish notes that while Urvashi has primarily been playing “mother roles” of late, these usually do not fit the stereotype of the forever martyred matriarch. From the loud, immature housewife who is pushed into the minister’s chair in Sakudumbam Shyamala (2010), or the hilarious mother and wife in Aravindante Adhithikal (2018), she was the reason why these otherwise middling films became watchable. Magalir Mattum (2017), a predictable tale of three middle-aged women re-discovering themselves, was salvaged only because of the power-packed performances of three veteran actors—Urvashi, Bhanupriya and Saranya Ponvannan. She also won a State Award for Rajasenan’s Madhuchandralekha (2006), where she plays an obnoxious, paan-spitting wife (in a rather problematic script in which her character is written so as to inspire sympathy for the husband, whom she pretty much hands over to a younger and more nubile woman).

Urvashi with Tovino Thomas in 'Ente Ummante Peru' (2018)
Urvashi with Tovino Thomas in 'Ente Ummante Peru' (2018)

She was last seen in Ente Ummante Peru, in which she plays mother to Tovino Thomas—the first-look poster, hearteningly, had Urvashi and Tovino sharing credits. “When you work with a talented actor, automatically your acting gets better. That’s what happened when I worked with Urvashi chechi,” said Tovino in a television interview.

“What worked in her second stint would be her signature style. See how it added sparkle to an otherwise ordinary film like Aravindante Athithikal,” says Navamy Sudhish, film critic with The Hindu.

Urvashi has said that she has never been conscious of her appearance at any age, and this perhaps is what has allowed her to keep evolving as an actress over the decades. At the age of 51, her screen presence is as powerful as ever. The hope now is that the celebrated young Malayalam filmmakers of today—with whom Urvashi has barely collaborated—find even better characters to keep this actor on screen for years.