KR Vijaya clutches a handful of old, worn-out photographs as she takes me on a trip down memory lane. There’s one with her parents, the young Vijaya’s beaming smile instantly recognisable in the black and white photo; another in which she stares morosely into the lens, all teenage moodiness and vibrating tension. Her hair is a little unwound in the photo, and it is apparent that the young Vijaya is not too pleased.
It’s hard to reconcile with the fact that the young, sullen woman in the photo is the personification of grace and kindness that we’re used to seeing on screen. “But, I am a normal person,” Vijaya insists. “I have good days and bad days like everybody else.”
The actress, who’s in her late sixties, is in a lot of pain at the moment. Worry lines bracket her eyes and her mouth. She wears a simple cotton sari, one hand casually draped over the armrest. The other caresses a photograph of her husband, the late M Velayudhan Nair.
Everything about Vijaya’s home screams quiet elegance. Tanjore paintings adorn the wall, dainty little enamelled chairs dot the hall; the caretaker offers us tea on gold-edged bone china set.
One misstep and something just might break.
This old-world elegance is very in tune with KR Vijaya, the actress and the person. She speaks in soft, dulcet tones about an era long gone.
“Saroja akka, me and a few others are the gatekeepers to that age. There’s so much we know, so many experiences we shared that have become lost and gone away with the wind. I like to reminisce now and then. That’s when I feel my age,” Vijaya says.
A Keralite by birth, Vijaya’s army man father decided to move the family to Palani when she was “10 to 11 years old”. “My parents had a mixed marriage, which was a rarity even then. My father was from Andhra, and my mother – an orthodox Malayali woman. I grew up with the best of both worlds, in a sense. But, even as a child, I was aware that society looked at our family differently. We were a normal family, but to the outsiders, we were probably big exceptions to the norm.”
Her father, Subramanyam, had great love and passion for the stage. “He had a presence that was just hard to ignore. As children, we loved watching him act out stories from his life. He expressed with his whole body. As the eldest, I wanted to be most like him. So taking to the stage was natural.”
At the age of 15, KR Vijaya was cast in Karpagam. “As far as roles go, it was pretty iconic… and hard hitting because I die early in the film. A lot of people cautioned me about it and told my parents that it was not a very good omen. I was convinced that I’d not get roles after that. But, somehow, here I am, 500 movies later.”
The film saw her share screenspace with ‘Gemini’ Ganesan and Savithri. “They had such a presence, and even then, had eyes only for each other. My legs used to shake every time I had a scene with Ganesan sir. It was my stage experience that gave me confidence.”
In her decades-long career, Vijaya has had the rare opportunity to be a part of a lot of devotional films. “I think it was my face that got me all those films. My features are distinctly South Indian. I am not glamorous, even though many have tried hard to make me look that way. I have a very homely appeal, and this fetched me those roles.”
Being a part of this genre is no easy task, Vijaya says. “There are a lot of rules and regulations involved. First and foremost, the actors playing Gods onscreen have to be very careful. There’s a no meat and dairy diet for everybody, and we have to be very pure in our thoughts and ideals. It is a huge responsibility. Not everyone holding a vel can become Murugan. You have to do the penance for it.”
Three years after the release of Karpagam, when Vijaya turned 18, her parents decided to get her married. “Back then, it was different. Nobody asked for my opinion. All my decisions were made for me. So, I never questioned anybody. I married the man of my parents’ choice, and I must say, it was the right decision. My husband was the greatest. Without him, I feel as if I’ve lost a limb.”
With the birth of her only child, Hemalatha in 1967, Vijaya settled comfortably in married life. “I had no compunction about giving up acting. I’d done a few films, found success. And then, I officially retired from films. Or so I thought.”
But Aroor Das, dialogue writer and famous Tamil poet, was most insistent that Vijaya return. “He said that I was wasting my time and talent by retiring so early. Besides, is 19 the age to give it all up?”
Vijaya felt frustrated at not being allowed to rest. “I’d been working nonstop for years. I thought with my marriage, I’d get the time to rest a little,” she says.
That was not to be. For Vijaya, the years after her marriage proved to be her busiest. “At the time, there were ideas that a working woman was doing something wrong, sinful even, by not devoting herself to her family. The result was that I always had that niggling sense of guilt. Even though I had an opportunity others dreamed of, I didn’t really enjoy it completely. In the back of my mind, there was the idea that I was neglecting my family to be in front of the cameras.”
Like Saroja Devi, Vijaya’s career was largely guided by others. “I did not study beyond the first or second grade. I don’t remember much about my education, and I am not literate at all. First, my parents guided me. Then my husband and my mentors. I have never made a decision in life that was not guided by these people.”
So, Vijaya says, she cannot take credit for her success. “My family life was the blessing of my parents. My career was the blessing of my husband and others like Aroor Das. It is their intelligence that I reaped the benefits of. They held my hand every step of the way.”
In front of the camera too, Vijaya says she depended on her co-star to help her along. “Stars like MGR sir and Sivaji sir had that innate something that let them shine onscreen. I was just basking in their presence.”
It is not humility that makes Vijaya speak this way. She truly believes that without the people in her life and without God, she would not have been able to scale the heights that she has. “I am not humble. Without my father, I wouldn’t have found out about my love for theatre and films. Without my parents, I wouldn’t have found my husband. And without him, I would not have the life or career that I have now.”
Movies of this age bore KR Vijaya. “They have so much violence. Everything is about stealing, killing, hitting someone…it’s become the trend to show the vices in life. I heard that there was a movie devoted to chain snatching. Why would people pay money to watch such unpleasant experiences onscreen? This is why I largely stay away from Tamil cinema these days.”
The actresses too, seem factory assembled, Vijaya points out. “They all look alike, dress alike. One actress will find success and then everybody will rush to change themselves to look like her. There’s no originality. In my time, every actress had a quirk, that individual something that defined them. Now, everybody seems the same. They’re all bland.”
As one of the very few actresses to reign in Tamil cinema after marriage, KR Vijaya finds the ‘unofficial’ retirement of married actresses puzzling. “We lived and worked in a far more progressive industry back then. There was no pressure to maintain our waistlines. Talent mattered. Now, a female actor is judged on the basis of her attractiveness, and not on her acting talents. What does this teach our girl children? Or even our boys?”
Marriage must never be a deterrent to career, Vijaya says. “Back then, only actresses worked after marriage. Other women largely chose to stay at home once they got a husband. Now, other women go to work after marriage. And, actresses are ‘retired’ by the industry. It’s strange how things have changed.”
Morality is also absent, Vijaya thinks. “By and large, we all lived by a code of honour. Now, the songs itself are in such bad taste. They objectify everything. It’s not something I’d personally endorse.”
As she gets older, Vijaya is often assailed by health issues. That has led to quite a few death hoaxes. Vijaya is appalled, yes. “I had to go and get a PR person to draft a statement. I’d just fractured my leg and I was in a lot of pain. But someone had written that I’d passed away. There were so many messages and calls from people who were shocked at the news. I think they were even more shocked when I picked up the calls and answered. If it weren’t so morbid, I’d have found it funny.”
It’s barely been a year since her husband passed. And it’s only now that Vijaya feels able to begin her career once again. For the first time in her life perhaps, the actress is making decisions for herself.
Up next for Vijaya is a role in Maaya Mohini, in which she plays a saint.
“I’m learning to do things on my own. It’s going to take a while to find my feet,” she says, leaning on her caretaker.
The KR Vijaya interview is a Silverscreen exclusive.