Nellambari is the iconic antagonist in the hit film, Padayappa (2001). She was a childhood fascination of mine, heartless and determined, with some barely –there moments of humanity. I was drawn to her determination; she spends eighteen years of her life in a room, watching the wedding video of the man she couldn’t ‘have’ (who is the ‘hero’ Padayappa). There is something admirable in someone so resolute, someone who knows what exactly they want and will stop at nothing to attain it. Ramya Krishna, who plays the role of Neelambari has done a fantastic job. This begs the question, how does one understand a character that bears a closer resemblance to a bunch of characteristics than to a fully developed character? She is all evil and still believable. She tells people not to soil her feet by crying near it, stomps on flowers she couldn’t own, asks her nephew to pretend to fall in love with a girl to set her up to public humiliation, tries to poison someone, and even tries to agitate a bull into gorging a woman to death. The one time she questions the motive behind why her brother left the woman he loved to marry another, it becomes about how the brother is selfish because he did not think of her (for some context, the woman the brother loved is Padayapaa’s sister. By cheating the sister, he’s reduced Neelambari’s chances of marrying Padayappa). She exhibits some feminist ideology right after, by chiding the girl her brother married, saying its girls like her who don’t express their wants but adhere to the demands of others, which make it hard for girls everywhere.
None of this is to say Neelambari is a caricature. Quite the contrary, she comes across as an acutely real person, who’s deeply self-aware and exists as a testament to self- acceptance. This contradiction between who she is on paper (that is to say not believable) and who she is on screen is that the on screen person is real. Padayappa is essentially a commercial venture and Neelambari’s character exists to highlight everything Padayappa is not. But Ramya Krishna exceeds this requirement and thus creates the human in Neelambari.
She always wears an expression of indifference, and modulates her voice to convey the barely concealed haughtiness. Her smile bears a steely determination and unadulterated evil. These nuances aside, the acting itself is very convincing and inundated with familiarity. You feel you know a Neelambari, sometimes it feels like you are a Neelambari.
There is also some scope in the storyline for this, Neelambari’s parents and brother who spoilt her with no limitations, she’s rich and entitled in an agrarian proletariat surrounding, essentially privileged without accountability.
Neelambari is not both good and bad, she’s pure evil. But by juxta positioning that with her idea of love, she’s pure evil and her (idea of) love/hate for Padayappa motivates her. With superhuman determination and rancor, she is unbridled in expressing what she wants and feels. She is human because she is whom a person would be, were they ‘all bad’. If this were to be explained mathematically, under ideal conditions (all good or all bad) Neelambari would be one hundred percent human.