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A firefly takes flight

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on March 10, 2018 Published on May 05, 2017
Centre stage: Surabhi is very active in theatre; seen here in the play Bombay Tailors

Centre stage: Surabhi is very active in theatre; seen here in the play Bombay Tailors

Just for laughs: CM Surabhi (left) and Vinod Kovoor (right), who co-starred in the hit sitcom M80 Moosa. Photo: K Ragesh

Just for laughs: CM Surabhi (left) and Vinod Kovoor (right), who co-starred in the hit sitcom M80 Moosa. Photo: K Ragesh   -  The Hindu

By the book: Educated in the arts, she adopts an academic approach to it. Photo: S Gopakumar

By the book: Educated in the arts, she adopts an academic approach to it. Photo: S Gopakumar   -  The Hindu

Winner takes all: A poster for Minnaminungu,in which she essays the role of a nameless woman

Winner takes all: A poster for Minnaminungu,in which she essays the role of a nameless woman

CM Surabhi, the winner of this year’s National Best Actress award, is no run-of-the-mill film star, but a performer who is at ease across mediums

It’s well past midnight when my phone blinks. When I answer, a feeble, weary voice greets me. “Am I disturbing you? I had promised to call back tonight,” CM Surabhi (popularly Surabhi Lakshmi) tells me. She has been performing through the day, thanks to her continuing association with various theatre groups in Kerala. I am pleasantly surprised, for that is rare. Especially if you have just won the National Award for Best Actress. But Surabhi, 30, who bagged the prestigious award for her first full-length feature film — Minnaminungu (The Firefly) — is not the run-of-the-mill star. “She is an actor with a difference, down to earth and genuinely humble,” says Vinod Kovoor, her co-star from the blockbuster sitcom M80 Moosa.

Surabhi, the fifth Malayalam actress to win the National Award, wears many hats. She is a trained classical dancer, an award-winning theatre professional and an immensely popular television personality. She is the first non-mainstream Malayalam actress to win the National Award. All the other four — Sharada, Monisha, Shobhana and Meera Jasmine — were popular, mainstream heroines. Surabhi, however, is a well known TV actor, who is waiting to make her cut in the film industry. “That’s why the award is a unique achievement,” says Janaky Sreedharan, critic and writer. “She has assimilated the best practices from all the creative genres — theatre, TV and film.”

Tears and laughter

Even though Minnaminungu is Surabhi’s first film as the female lead, the actress has been active in the Malayalam film industry for the past 10 years. “I have been treading on the fringes,” Surabhi says. “But I was sure I would get meaningful roles sooner or later.” The roles she did in the meantime, though small, brought her critical acclaim. Her portrayal of a hapless young mother in Lal Jose’s Ayalum Njanum Thammil was lauded by many. “I was determined to make it big,” Surabhi says.

In M80 Moosa, a social satire which has already completed over 300 episodes, Surabhi and Kovoor play a rural Muslim couple. Surabhi’s Paathu, the rustic yet charming middle-aged woman from Malabar who speaks a quirky dialect, broke stereotypes. M80 Moosa became a sensation as soon as it started airing in January 2014. “Surabhi’s versatility helped the character immensely,” says NP Sajeesh, who has written over 200 episodes of the series.

None of the Malayalam actresses who had previously won the National Award were known for their comic timing. “A leading actress doing humour is a rarity, in Indian cinema in general and in Malayalam cinema in particular. Surabhi handled them with ease and élan,” says Sreedharan. Actresses who excelled in comic roles often found themselves relegated to supporting parts; hence Surabhi breaking out of that mould is a big deal. “Surabhi has done just that. She has proved that she is comfortable and capable of negotiating both these worlds of acting,” says Sreedharan.

A distinct voice

Surabhi’s rural background is her strength, says Sajeesh. Born in a lower middle-class family in Kerala’s Kozhikode district, she had a difficult childhood. Narikkuni, the village in the suburbs from where she hails, has an eclectic mix of communities and is known for its secular culture. Surabhi imbibes much from her rural roots, and draws extensively from everyday interactions to shape the characters she plays better. “When I was growing up, it was common for street circus performers to swarm villages in and around Kozhikode in the post-harvest seasons,” says Surabhi.

“One such group used to come to our village as well. They would build a makeshift stage, and perform songs, dance, magic and acrobatic tricks. When I was hardly four, my father — who was a connoisseur of such shows and respected street artistes — put me on stage and made me perform as a blind girl. That was my first-ever performance and I was given a packet of peanuts and a slice of watermelon for it,” Surabhi laughs. She still feels obliged to those street performers for offering her that part. “That initiation helped groom the artiste in me,” she says.

Her academic approach to art makes Surabhi different from her colleagues. She grew up watching the plays of the legendary KT Muhammed and they influenced her in no small measure. “Even as a teenager, I knew I wanted to be an actor or a dancer.” This led her to study theatre. She is now pursuing a PhD in theatre from Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit in Kalady. She has a bachelor’s degree in Bharatanatyam, and masters in theatre arts. In 2012, she also completed her MPhil in performing arts from MG University, also in Kerala.

“Her observational skills are amazing,” says Kovoor, “and so are her improvisation skills”. Anil Thomas, who directed Minnaminungu, too vouches for the same. Surabhi borrowed a lot from a person she knew — the matron of her hostel in Kalady — to play the 45-year-old nameless woman in the film. “She would have studied her character and the scene so well that she’d add her own stuff to spice up the scene, and such ‘bits’ are always popular,” Kovoor adds.

In fact, M80 Moosa became a boon as well as a bane for Surabhi, the artiste. Though it made her popular, it also stereotyped her in the role of the woman who speaks the distinct Malabar dialect. “I accepted Minnaminungu as a challenge, to prove I could be someone else.” The character in the film speaks the Thiruvananthapuram (far-south Kerala) dialect, a challenge for someone who’s attuned to the Malabar way of speaking. “But she did a great job,” beams director Thomas.

Surabhi is no Kangana Ranaut or even a Tabu for that matter. Her upbringing makes her different from her peers in Malayalam cinema and beyond. One could probably compare her with Nawazuddin Siddiqui for the sheer fact that such a talent lay undiscovered for almost a decade, believes MK Sajna. Sajna is a freelance writer and media student from Malappuram, a Muslim-dominated district in Kerala where Surabhi is very popular, courtesy M80 Moosa.

“She is an unexplored gem. I hope the Malayalam industry will realise her worth and start using her talent better,” says Kovoor. But that is unlikely to happen, believes Sajna, given the way the Malayalam film industry works. Female leads are rare, and women struggle to find their space and voice, though things have changed a little of late, thanks to actresses such as Manju Warrier and Parvathy. For her sheer acting abilities, Surabhi draws comparison from the likes of Smita Patil or Shabana Azmi. “She is more like Patil, who was also fond of doing theatre” says Sajna.

“My theatre experience has taught me the art and craft of reincarnating into different avatars while acting,” Surabhi says. She was moved by the story of Minnaminungu and felt it could enhance her reputation as a film actor. “I am happy that by accepting me as an actress the industry and, especially, the national award jury, have helped turn the spotlight on the lives of local communities in the country. I hope this will pave way for a trend, however feeble that is going to be.”

Body politics

Surabhi’s award is also the recognition of a non-mainstream body, feels Sajna. She is not ‘fair and lovely’ and her body language is quite unlike that of a star. The award also means much from a women’s rights perspective, points out Sajna.

Surabhi is evolving faster as an actor, says Sajeesh, thanks to her deep understanding of the nuances. Acting is also the art of breaking rules, Surabhi tells me. “If you have to act well, you must learn the art of acting in the first place and then break or unlearn all the rules and deconstruct yourself to be the character you want to be.”

An academic approach, she says, is bound to help actors. Acting requires rigorous training and a serious approach. “Sadly, many people think otherwise. Theatre taught me discipline. You can’t bluff out there; there are no retakes. You are on your own on stage, and that’s why I love theatre even now,” says Surabhi, who is still an active presence in Kerala’s theatre movement. She has won several awards for her performances in plays such as Bombay Tailors and Yakshikathakalum Naattuvarthamanangalum (Fairy Tales and Folklore).

Other than KT Muhammed, she is influenced by the writings of Vaikom Muhammad Basheer and Bertolt Brecht. “I can relate to Basheer a lot thanks to my sense of humour. I re-enacted KT’s plays by blending them to the experimental theatre of Brecht,” she says. Surabhi has directed several plays, so will she direct a film ever? She laughs, “You never know. Art takes myriad forms and I am an artiste to the core.”

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Published on May 05, 2017
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