Best known for her work in Malayalam and Tamil films, film actress, stage artiste, dancer and Padma Shri recipient, S Sukumari was 10 when she started her career with a cameo in the Tamil film Oru Iravu (1951). She went on to act in more than 2,500 films in Malayalam, Tamil, Hindi, Telugu, Oriya and Bengali, in the course of a career spanning more than five decades. She was known for films such as Ithiri Neram Othiri Karyam (1982), Nandi Veendum Varika (1986), and Vrutham (1987). An accomplished dancer and versatile performer, she featured alongside yesteryears’ actors like M G Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganesan, Nageswara Rao and Prem Nazi, as well as contemporary stars such as Mammootty, Mohanlal, Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan. Married to famous film director-producer Bhimsingh, Sukumari has been honoured with the Tamil Nadu State’s Kalaimani Award in 1991-92, the Kerala State Award on four occasions, the Padma Shri in 2003 and the National Award for the Best Supporting actress in 2011 for her role in the Tamil film Namma Gramam (2010).
She was born on 6 October, 1940 in Nagercoil, erstwhile Travancore, to Malayali parents Madhavan Nair and Sathyabhama Amma. While her father was a bank manager, her mother was the niece of Narayani Pillai Kunjamma, a famous beauty who spurned the king in favour of marrying the aristocratic landowner Kesava Pillai of Kandamath. She had four sisters (Rajakumari, Sreekumari, Jayasree and Girija) and one brother, while the famous Travancore Sisters – Lalitha, Padmini, and Ragini, were her cousins. Sukumari is also related to the Travancore royal family through her cousin, Ambika Sukumaran.
Studying at Poojappura LP School until second grade, she then moved to Madras, where she studied until fourth form. Visiting the sets of a film, she bagged her first film, making her film debut in the lead role in the Tamil film Oru Iravu. She went on to act in several Malayalam and Tamil films of the black and white era, such as Thacholi Othenan (1964), P Venu's Udhyogastha (1967), Chettathi (1965), Kusruthikkuttan (1966), Kunjali Marakkar (1967), Yakshi (1968) and Karinizhal (1971). Sukumari’s popularity continued to grow with Priyadarshan-directorials Poochakkoru Mookkuthi (1984), Oodarathuammava Aalariyam (1984), Boeing Boeing (1985) Vandanam (1989), as well as Balachandra Menon films like Karyam Nissaram (1983) and Manicheppu Thurannappol (1985). She also essayed a key role in the role in the Adoor Gopalakrishnan-directed Nizhalkuthu (2002). Sukumari also has many noteworthy mother roles to her credit.
A versatile and talented dancer, she was well-versed in Kathakali, Bharatanatyam, Kerala Natanam, and also played many musical instruments. Performing on stage from the age of seven, across India and the world, she was also a well-known stage artiste. She was a member of the famous Cho Ramaswamy's theatre group; Viveka Fine Arts, as well as of Y G Parthasarathy's and Pattu's drama troupe, Rajasulochana's dance troupe, Travancore Sisters' Dancers of India troupe, T D Kusalakumari's troupe, and Padmini's independent dance drama troupe.
Over the years, she won several state and popular awards for her work in films such as Chattakkari (1974), Ezhunirangal (1979), Chiriyo Chiri (1982), Koodevide (1983), Karyam Nissaram (1983), Arappatta Kettiya Gramathil (1986), Thoraimugam (1996), Samaantharangal (1998), apart from many Lifetime Achievement awards.
Sukumari’s memoirs have been compiled in a book titled Ormakalude Vellithira by M.S Dileep. Sukumari Sradhanjali Parambara is another book on her life.
On the personal front, Sukumari was married to director A Bhimsingh in 1959. He died in 1978, when she was 38. The couple had a son, Suresh, who has acted in films such as Amme Narayana (1984), Yuvajanotsavam (1986) and Cheppu (1987), and is also a professional doctor.
Sukumari passed away on 26 March, 2013, in Chennai following burns she had suffered while lighting a traditional lamp in February that year.
Many awards have also been instituted in Sukumari’s name such as the Mikacha Nadi Sukumari Puraskaram, Sukumari Smaraka Foundation Award, and Famea Sukumari Puraskaram.