The month of May reminds us of a great loss. South Indian film industry and millions of fans woke up to the tragic news of actress Shobha's suicide on May 1, 1980. At a time glamour and melodrama ruled the roost, Mahalakshmi Menon aka Shobha successfully used her “girl next door” image for box office success and stardom. That fateful day, the dream girl of millions decided to call it a day owing to marital discord and depression, just days after she received the best actress award for her riveting performance in the Tamil film 'Pasi' (Hunger).
When Shobha was giving her first state award- winning performance in front of the camera, she was just three years old. Sharing screen with Savithri in the 1966 Tamil film 'Thattungal Thirakkappedum', Baby Mahalakshmi, the lone daughter of a Malayali couple settled in Chennai (Madras, then), was unknowingly following the footsteps of her co-star who was the female icon in South Indian cinema. Incidentally, Savithri too had started as a stage artiste at an early age before she worked her way into films as a teenager.
When 'Mahanati', the bilingual biopic of Savithri, and 'Dirty Picture', a film inspired by the life of Silk Smitha, were released, they rekindled memories of watching another uncredited and much fictionalised Malayalam biopic of Shobha - 'Lekhayude Maranam Oru Flashback' - by director K G George.
The movie - still considered as one of K G George's best - opens with a newsreel-styled footage with commentary about actress Lekha's death. Celebrities (some of whom we will later see as characters in the film) are shown paying their last respects, along with thousands of fans, to the departed actress. Soon enough, we see an overambitious mother taking her teenage daughter Shanthamma to Chennai, the dream city of cinema aspirants, seeking an acting career for the daughter. Instead of opportunities, they face rejection and exploitation. First by an assistant director who promises her a role and then by those posing as producers and directors and finally a pimp who operates with a string of aspiring actresses. We are also introduced to Pushpa whose characterization reminds us of Silk Smitha. She is content with her tiny cabaret dancer roles. “Do you think I earned all these money acting in films? The rich who see me on screen check in to hotels and call me offering attractive money,” she tells Shanthamma who is now known by the screen name of Lekha.
Lekha's career twist
Lekha’s acting career takes wings when Suresh Babu, a talented director interested in making serious films, casts her in a film that is curiously titled 'Oru Veshyayude Katha' (Story of a sex worker). She wins the national award for her role in the film. Lekha, who receives a new lease of life with the film, falls in love with the already-married director. Her plan to do select movies is shattered with her greedy mother signing contracts indiscriminately to continue her luxurious life.
This forces Lekha to leave her home and free herself from the clutches of her mother and her relatives who consider her just as a cash cow. She wants to live on her terms with her lover. However, Babu ends the relationship because of media gossips and family pressure. Lekha was emotionally dependent on Babu. She had no friends or relatives whom she could trust. In one of their last conversations, they discover that their expectations from the relationship do not match. While Babu considered it as a mere extramarital affair, Lekha saw a loving life partner in him who would be with her forever. This disconnect leads her to depression and the decision to end her life.
'Lekhayude Maranam Oru Flashback' received mixed response because of its exploitative storytelling and the realistic portrayal of the lives of celebrities, who were exposed only through glossy cinema magazines. Remember, in an age without television, internet or social media, film journalists had control over how those in the world of films are portrayed. The movie has a scene in which film journalist Kottoor and his cronies brag about launching and ruining the careers of celebrities. Incidentally, it was Kottoor who rechristens Shanthamma as Lekha and promises to publish her pictures in a film magazine to launch her as heroine.
Lekhayude Maranam Oru Flashback was acknowledged by many as a meticulous documentation of the rot and the dirty secrets of the tinsel town. Undoubtedly, the film was an inspiration for many other films that narrated real as well as fictitious stories that the audience could relate to real-life heroes and heroines.
'Thirakkadha' was director Ranjith’s take on the much-talked about Kamal Haasan-Srividya relationship.
KGGeorge had to face criticism for taking too much of creative liberty in narrating a story that was unmistakably Shobha’s. George was threatened with lawsuits by Shobha’s mother.
Balu Mahendra's displeasure
He had revealed in an interview that director Balu Mahendra, whom Shobha was married to at the time of her death and with whom George shared a good rapport, did not take the character of Suresh Babu lightly.
George had earlier directed the film 'Ulkkadal' with Shobha in the lead and Balu Mahendra as the cinematographer.
Balu had directed Shobha in many films including 'Kokila', 'Azhiyatha Kolangal' and 'Moodu Pani'.
KG George gives enough hints about the flawed relationship between Lekha and Babu. One among them is Babu's cold response to Lekha's narration of her nightmares. She tells him that she often sees two giant hands lifting her up and dropping her down to the sharp rocks, in her sleep. Then she pleads him to save her. But Babu cold shoulders her by saying, 'I will try. Let us see.'
Shobha’s death still remains a mystery. The characters in 'Lekhayude Maranam Oru Flashback' are convincing but they remain soaked in cinematic liberties. Though Balu had claimed that he was shaken by Shobha’s suicide, he was under the shadow of murder charges after Shobha’s mother accused him of abetting suicide. Balu had also revealed that his next film 'Moonram Pirai', which broke box office records in Tamil and Hindi, was based on his pain of losing Shobha soon after she came in to his life. Balu was married to TV star Mounika apart from his wife Akhileshwari till his death in 2014. The mother whom the film portrayed as the villain turned out to be one of the victims in real life. Shobha’s mother could never come to terms with her daughter’s death. She fought a legal battle for long and then killed herself after surviving for nearly four years.
Shobha was a thorough professional who was unfazed by criticisms, gossips or the larger-than-life images of her male co-stars. She confidently delivered roles that could never be overshadowed by the superstars of four South Indian languages. Films like 'Shalini Ente Koottukaari', 'Ormakal Marikkumo', 'Pasi', 'Nizhal Nijamagirathu', 'Azhiyatha Kolangal' and 'Mullum Malarum' would keep her aura alive for years to come.
(Dress Circle is a weekly column on films. The author is a communication professional and film enthusiast. Read his past works here.)