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Samyuktha Varma: Teenage scene-stealer
THE JAIL can at once invoke unpleasant thoughts. The bars of a cell can imprison one's body and soul, and fetter one's thoughts. The Malayalam film, ``Madhuranombarakattu'' (Bitter Sweet Wind) opens into a prison somewhere in Kerala as the camera zooms onto the face of Priyamvadha, a young convict serving out her sentence for murder. Her face lights up, almost banishing the pervading darkness and gloom, as her husband and two little children troop in to meet her.
Priyamvadha's expressions run the entire gamut of emotions: from bitter sorrow to celebrated joy as she caresses her boy and girl. Tears streaming down her cheeks, her eyes sparkle to see through the misty frames of a tragedy that has kept her away from her family.
Priyamvadha reminds me of another great actress. Kalyani in Bimal Roy's ``Bandhini''. Yes, in some of the scenes - virtual stealers - Samyuktha Varma, the 19-year-old star of Malayalam cinema today, bears a strong resemblance to the late Nutan, whose classic performance in that Hindi movie is simply unforgettable.
Samyuktha might not have reached that pinnacle yet, but the teenager's emotive ability holds out the promise of excellence, a feature one saw in several other works of hers recently.
In ``Swayamvara Pandal'', Samyuktha is Priya again, but a mentally-ill woman. Shocked out of her equilibrium - when she sees her lover receive a raw deal at the hands of her parents - Priya is pushed into a marriage with an unsuspecting man. Despite his folk's vehement protests, he takes it upon himself to cure his wife.
Samyuktha meets the challenge of a role that is multi-layered. As a child-like patient, she is probably even more convincing than as an adult lover and, later, as someone's mate, when she has to take the painful decision of choosing between the two men in her life.
Her fine artistic qualities are tested in deeper waters in ``Mazha'', where as Bhadra she falls hopelessly in love with the talented village priest, whose voice mesmerises her into a romantic trance. But in a cliched reference to a belief that the path of true love never runs smooth, Bhadra is whisked away by her parents to a city, far away from the music and melody of the temple that played Cupid to invoke the first notes of passion in her.
Years later, when she returns to the village, now as a young widowed doctor, she confronts life in its most cruel form, and Samyuktha's portrayal of a character - woven around disappointment, despair and death - has a rare touch of conviction that blurs most splendidly the real from the unreal.
Some days later, when I meet Samyuktha on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram, I am amazed at a completely different persona she exudes, the first sign of a good actor or actress.
Already 12 films old, she tells me, ``I love `Mazha'. My life is similar to the celluloid Bhadra. The part touched me. I cannot explain how. But it underlines the feelings of a woman and brings to the fore their delicate nuances. `Mazha' shows how women can restrain themselves... I still go to the temple of Shivasailam, where it was shot. I have tremendous faith in the deity there, and each visit of mine evokes a beautiful memory.''
So too, perhaps, each of the other 11 movies she has acted in. Her first was ``Veendum Sila Veetukariangal'' (scripted by Lohithadas), where she plays a very bold low caste woman, falling in love with a Christian boy. He is pampered and rich, and when they get married, the predictable happens.
At other times, if ``Thenkasipatnam'' was like a picnic, ``Madhuranombarakattu'' was physically very strenuous with wood powder blowing into her face in shots which capture fiercely gusty winds, the picture's leitmotif.
``I took ill during the shoot,'' she says, ``but I got back to the sets to complete the project''. She is dedicated and professional all right, one reason why she would like to stick to Malayalam cinema for the time being. ``That is the tongue I know best, that is what I can emote in with ease,'' she says.
She is, however, now brushing up her Tamil and English. `` I am doing my Bachelor's degree in English literature. I want to read books and improve my language. But I have very little time. I want to do so many other things besides acting,'' she says.
But is not acting her most significant aim in life ? ``No, that is not my aim in life, although I was fascinated by it even when I was a child. What I really want to do most is to be a mother,'' Samyuktha reveals after getting me to promise that I would not laugh at what she was about to say.
I do not, of course. Samyuktha may be just 19, but she is already a woman, a fact that her directors have capitalised on quite marvellously. She appears far more mature on the screen than she does off it. A rare depth is discernible.
(This story appeared in The Hindu dated May 4 2001)