Sumalatha was raised in a Telugu family in Bethapudi, Andhra Pradesh. She gained popularity in Malayalam cinema and later married Kannada actor-politician Ambarish and has a son Abhishek Gowda. She began acting at age 15, after winning an Andhra Pradesh beauty contest in 1979. Her first film was Thisai Maariya Paravaigal in Tamil. Her Kannada entry was through Ravichandra opposite to Rajkumar. She entered Telugu through Samajaniki Saval and Malayalam through Moorkhan. She appeared in many Kannada, Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu films early in her career. Most of her Telugu films are with Chiranjeevi. She was the heroine of legendary Malayalam actor Jayan's last film Kolilakkam in 1981. Her most memorable Malayalam films include Thazhvaram, Isabella, Nirakkoottu, Thoovanathumbikal, Parampara and New Delhi. She has acted in many Kannada movies like Aahuti, Avatara Purusha, Tayi Kanasu, Karna, Tayiya Hone, Kallarali Hoovagi, Ravichandra in which she acted with actor Rajkumar. She received the best actress Nandi Award for her role in Shrutilayalu in 1987. She is a close friend of actress Suhasini Maniratnam, her co-star in a Telugu movie. Sumalatha reportedly speaks six languages, and has acted in five.