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The tillana glitter is intact
IT IS a spacious flat. Nothing distracts attention from the elegantly framed photographs placed in a row across the vanilla walls. In their deep grey and brown tones, they immediately conjure up an era. Here are the Travancore sisters — Lalitha, Padmini and Ragini — in the flush of their youth and beauty. The sisters with President Radhakrishnan, with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, with Lady Mountbatten ... the photos have a magnetic power. As did the sisters who danced their way into the hearts of film-goers with their beauty and histrionic talent. The magic of the legend continues. Actress Padmini, now in her early seventies, has only to pay a visit to Chennai from the U.S. where she resides, and she is a star attraction.
A picture of grace and dignity, Padmini exudes a rare serenity too. Her heart-shaped face still retains its contours and despite the march of time the doe-like eyes which mesmerised audiences retain their glow. As you talk to her, she transforms easily for you into the lovely princess wooed and won, the Mohanambal without a parallel for her tillana, the bewitching woman who has her lover enthralled, the devoted wife, the paragon of virtue and sacrifice... During the interview, the veteran is focussed and never goes off at a tangent. She does not stress her achievements but the pride and joy in her work come through.
She is obviously happy residing in the U.S. "I love coming to India. But the U.S. has been good for me in many ways," she says reflectively. "I'm used to living there. I have been teaching dance in America since 1974. My dance school now has seven branches. I have only one son Premanand and he too lives in New Jersey; my grandson Naveen is 14. I keep myself busy with my classes and friends. "
But fame does not seem to have affected her.
"It all depends on an individual's nature," she replies. "We were brought up in a disciplined way by our mother. There was a "lakshman rekha" we had to obey. Mother came to a strange place (Madras) from Travancore, made us all stars and got us married too ... all arranged marriages and into the best of families. I married Dr. Ramachandran."
Was he supportive and understanding? "It was a very happy marriage," she says. "I miss my husband very much. He passed away on September 16, 1981. He was a true lover of the arts and could sing very well. My husband would sit in the first row during my dance recitals and was my best critic. My in-laws too were wonderful."
How did the journey into the world of films begin?
"I came to Madras when I was nine years old. But we had visited Madras before that. I used to stay with Paddu (Padma Subrahmanyam). We had a dance company called `Dancers of India.' My mother groomed and guided us." The cinema offers soon came and the girls were on their way to success and fame.
"My first movie was Uday Shankar's `Kalpana' in Hindi (1944) and my first Tamil film was "Manamagal" six years later for N. S. Krishnan. He had seen me dance in Thiruvananthapuram when I was eight years old. This was followed by "Thooku Thooki" in which all of us (the three sisters) danced to the song "Sundari Soundari." I also danced in "Mandiri Kumari." Dance helped us to act for it taught us to be expressive. In 1950, I acted in `Mr. Sampath,' the remake of `Miss Malini' in which Rekha's mother Pushpavalli acted. Then I did `Panam' with Sivaji Ganesan." "Panam'' was the beginning of a partnership that saw Sivaji and Padmini star together in 60 films. "He was my favourite star," she affirms. "We were a popular pair and the chemistry was perfect."
Padmini acted in quite a few films with Gemini Ganesan. Did she meet him on this visit?
"I was not able to. He is away," she replies. Padmini has a good memory and loves to hum songs from her films... "Inbam pongum vennila veesude..."
How did she enter the world of Hindi films?
"`Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai' (1958) was a big hit. It was great working with Raj Kapoor. I was the first South Indian actress he took to the North to work with him after Nargis left. I also acted in other Hindi films including `Kaajal' for which I won a Filmfare award for best supporting actress. I spoke my own lines."
Does she keep in touch with her contemporaries?
"Yes. Vyjayanthi is a good friend and I attended her dance programme in the U.S. Saroja Devi is a very good friend too. We acted in `Thenum Paalum' and both of us featured in that lovely song, "Manjalum thandal... " Padmini is very devoted to her family. She tells you how the family members met in Thalassery recently after 25 years and how she danced on the seashore for them.
"I am very proud of my niece, Shobana. She acted brilliantly in `Mitr.' Krishna (Lalitha's son) is a good dancer and so is Vineeth, my husband's brother's son. In fact I have come here to attend his wedding."
Does she find the attention from the media tiring...to answer questions again and again?
"I'm used to it," she says. "I enjoy it. Our job is to answer questions just as yours is to write. The wish of a true artiste is to stay in the limelight," she signs off with the statement which reveals her honesty and sums up her approach to her art.