More than one review of the recently released “Kabali” mentioned the age gap between Rajnikanth and his lead pair Radhika Apte and that the latter looked just way too young to be the Super Star’s wife. Beside these reviews were interviews with director Ranjith who mentioned the Rajni from “Mullum Malarum” (1978) as a character that he admired a lot. That set me thinking of the actresses that acted with Rajni in the early phase of his career. It was like a telephone directory on the S page - Srividya, Shoba, Sripriya, Sridevi, Saritha. That last name – Saritha.
My mind refused to go past Saritha. Two specific moments kept popping up in my mind for the next few minutes. The first was a scene from the unforgettable “Agni Saatchi” where she played a troubled wife with a horrific past. There was a scene where she confronts Rajnikanth (playing himself, in a cameo) in his house after watching the movie ‘AvargaL’ (where Rajni played a sadistic husband) in a theatre. Her performance in that scene was symptomatic of a lot of what made Saritha a standout actress. Firstly, she could play a dramatic scene with complete conviction, without seeming theatrical. Secondly, she was not only endowed with large, powerful eyes but knew exactly how to use them. And finally, she was a master at playing mercurial characters. Her expressive face and complete control of body language meant that she could play her roles at a pitch that was just perfect for the role.
The second moment that I could not manage to get off my mind was the scene in “Vedham Pudhidhu” where she welcomes an orphaned Brahmin kid into her house. As the kid hesitates for a moment, she says, “Endha koviluku ponaalum ellaa saamiyum onnu theyn, endha veetuku ponaalum ellaa thaayum onnu theyn…vaa rasa.” Now, if you’ve seen “Vedham Pudhidhu,” you will know that this line is uttered by a Mother who lost her son in the same unfortunate accident in which the kid lost his father. The emotion that Saritha imbues into that line is reason enough to watch the movie again.
These two movies – “Agni Saatchi” and “Vedham Pudhidhu” – to me were the highlights of her career that was shaped to a large extent by K Balachander. He gave her a plethora of roles that gave a new dimension to the word ‘author backed.’ KB, the author and auteur he was, knew how to back the actor who, to her full credit, knew how to effectively project the writer’s thoughts and even present some of KB’s eccentricities on screen in ways that seemed completely beyond the grasp of some other heroines of KB’s (except maybe Suhasini). “Thappu ThaaLangal,” “Nool Veli,” “Thaneer Thaneer” and “Achamillai Achamillai” all featured Saritha at the peak of her powers. Even in a much lesser effort such as “Kalyana AgathigaL,” Saritha could still do full justice to what was quite a sketchily developed character.
But the bigger question that I asked myself as I recounted memories of Saritha’s wonderful performances was whether Tamil cinema can get out of the (mostly male) star dominated cinema that can very rarely carve space for heroines like Saritha who oozed talent, not glamour, who was the pivot around which a movie revolved, not just a cog in a star-studded wheel. I hope that with talented performers like Aishwarya Rajesh (“Kaaka Muttai”) that writers and directors in Tamil cinema – and more importantly, audiences – will warm up to tales that go deeper into the female psyche and project the pains and pleasures of women in an authentic manner. The recently released “Iraivi” and “Oru NaaL Koothu” give me hope. If only actresses in the Saritha mould are allowed to be relevant for a longer time, we can then stop worrying about male stars being paired with heroines half their age!
The “AvargaL” scene:
The “Vedham Pudhidhu” moment -- Start watching at 1:20:55 (for the scene that I had mentioned in the third paragraph)