You could never call her a neglected or forgotten actress.
Many veteran filmmakers and actors -- Raj Kapoor, Sivaji Ganesan, Kamal Haasan, and more -- called upon Padmini, who made New Jersey her home for nearly three decades until her recent return to Chennai, whenever they were in New York. And often, particularly during the 1980s and 1990s, she would be asked by some of the best-known directors including Hrishikesh Mukherjee (who directed her opposite Raj Kapoor in Aashiq) if she could do a significant character role in their films.
"I don't feel a compelling urge to go back and resume my career," the actress had told me 25 years ago, weighing her career options following the death of her husband, physician KT Ramachandran. "I have done practically everything an actress wants to do, I have played all kinds of roles. I have even played a man!" She was referring to her role as a street performer in Mera Naam Joker, befriended by a down and out loser (Raj Kapoor) who realises, in a scene that shocked many, that his new friend is indeed a woman.
"And I have also worked with some of the best actors and actresses, and for some of India's best-known directors," she continued.
"I think I am doing something very interesting here," she said, looking at over a dozen children practicing their Bharata Natyam steps. "I just cannot leave them and go back to India."
"When they are done, I am sure there are going to be more students," she continued, adding that she was not merely teaching them the grammar and steps of classical dancing. "I also get them to find out about Indian culture, religions, and spirituality."
Padmini, who had only one child, a son, started her dance school at the basement of the Hindu Temple in Flushing, New York and moved it to her home some 30 miles away in New Jersey. "I forget how many children I have," she would joke, adding she felt she blessed she could train dozens of children month after month. The Padmini School of Fine Arts, started in 1977, was the first major Indian classical dancing school in America.
A trained Bharata Natyam dancer, she was proud of teaching the art to second generation Indian Americans. "You watch them dance, and you cannot believe they were raised in America," she added.
While a modest lifestyle ensured she was not afraid of financial constraints, she was certainly afraid of death. Her older sister Ragini and younger sister Lalita, both actresses, had succumbed to cancer midlife. The three were famous as the Travancore Sisters.
"When it is time to go, I know you just cannot do anything," she had said. "But I pray that at least I am active till my last breath." Though she had a number of ailments including diabetes, she remained feisty, and often amazed people with her anecdotes going back to the earliest years of her career in the 1950s.
Her co-stars included Raj Kapoor (who directed her in Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hain and Mera Naam Joker), Shammi Kapoor (in Singapore, directed by Shakti Samanta), Sanjeev Kumar (Chanda Aur Bijli), Ashok Kumar (Kalpana, which also featured her sister Ragini), Sivaji Ganesan (Tillana Moganaambal), MG Ramachandran (Madurai Veeran), A Nageshwara Rao (in Laila Majnu, her first major film, 1949), Nargis (Pardesi, an Indo-Russian production directed by KA Abbas), Vyjayanthimala (Bahar) and Bhanumati (Laila Majnu).
Along with Vyjayanthimala and Waheeda Rehman, Padmini paved the way for South Indian actresses such as B Saroja Devi, Jayaprada and Sridevi to play major roles in Hindi films. She still had a few regrets, however. She would have liked to be in a few art films, she confessed. "It would be very tempting to do even a small role in a Satyajit Ray film."
She did get to do an art film, Vasthuhara directed by G Aravindan (Oridathu, Thampu) in 1991. It was among half a dozen films she did after she settled down. "Sometimes the old habits just won't die," she said in another interview. "I get tempted to do a small part in a film now and then. But I am not going to stage a comeback. "
Working in a brief role in the Aravindan film was something special to Padmini who spoke Malayalam, Tamil, Hindi, Telugu, and Kannada, and acted in movies made in each of those five languages. The Aravindan-directed film was in Malayalam, the mother tongue of the actress born near Thiruvananthapuram. She was the daughter of Thankappan Pillai, a landlord, and Saraswathi Amma, a homemaker.
Her parents were not too happy with the sisters working in films, Padmini had said. "But when they saw we were getting a lot of acclaim, they were happy," she added. "And none of us ever embarrassed them."
Many interviewers asked her from time to time about the erotic dances and scenes she did for the Raj Kapoor films, especially Mera Naam Joker.
"What I did is for everyone to see, I will never be embarrassed by it," she said. "I did those scenes at the height of my career. It wasn't anything like a struggling actress doing those scenes. I firmly believe those scenes were crucial to the films."
Photographs: Paresh Gandhi