Breaking the Male Bastion

Janaky Sreedharan

It is not always that an actor rewrites the narrative of cinema by the sheer force of her talent. Kalpana almost did it by a rare energy, spunk and gaiety she brought on screen. She became endearing to a generation of women who didn’t want to wallow in self-pity and coyness, but wanted to laugh their way through life despite all the pain and struggle.

The sexist nature of the film industry doesn’t allow the comic genius of women to rival the male performances. But Kalpana held her own against heavyweights like Jagathy Sreekumar and even matched up to the comic capers of Mohanlal in certain unforgettable cinematic moments. She is one of the few who has donned the role of a man with a rare natural ease and flair. As a feisty policewoman in Ishtam, she marked a space where sharp gender differences disappeared much to the excitement and pleasure of the audience. Those scripts were definitely written for her, and like Manju Warrier, she marked a niche of her own. She struck a special rapport with the audience, evolved her own idiom, style and slang.

There is an irreverence in humor which is not amiably accepted in a woman. Kalpana was breaking a male bastion, as she scaled new heights of humor rooted in a distinctive gendered ethos. For once, we had a female actor who didn’t raise laughter by inviting ridicule on her portly figure and graceless clumsy movements, but through her rustic wit, carefree body language and sassy intelligence. And beneath the nonchalant veneer was a deep sadness and pathos lining her face, shadowing her eyes and curling her lips. Sensitive directors tapped into the soul of her talent and drew out moving performances: in films like Spirit, Bangalore Days and Kerala Café, the characters she essayed were stark, grey and hardly funny. Through Kalpana, Anjali Menon could successfully delve into the discontent smouldering within a rural housewife in Kerala. (Bangalore Days)


As a surly disgruntled proletarian woman, her histrionic talent sparkled and grew mellow with age. If exaggeration was the heart of her comedy, understatement and sobriety marked her serious roles. But unfortunately, Kalpana was yet to be explored. She was offering a rare possibility for script writers and filmmakers to make forays into hitherto untested waters of the changing Malayalee woman’s psyche. Her unconventional deportment signaled a space to embody a different kind of a woman -- a mature woman, all eager to experience new desires, novel lifestyles and different sensibilities. Her maternal role didn’t conform to the idealized images the viewers were nurtured on.

Kalpana could have lived on to give us more incisive insights into her artistic gifts, as Malayalam cinema is witnessing a lot more of bold experiments by way of plot treatment and characters. She would have been a treasure house of earthiness, courage and charged performances erasing male-female borderlines and crossing over into that creative world of androgynous vision. But pulling a fast one on us, Kalpana has left in a hurry.