Saravanan’s Udanpirappe, Jyothika’s 50th film, is the 10th film in what she calls her second innings. It is quite telling though that the past six years, beginning with 36 Vayadhiniley, have shown the audience a Jyothika quite unlike what they have seen before. Off-screen too, she speaks with a clarity that comes after great thought, and adopts positions arrived at after taking into consideration all angles.
When Jyothika, affectionately called Jo, tells you this is her first-ever festival release, there is happiness and a righteous pride in her voice. But then, she also takes the opportunity to speak about why it is time to give women their due in the industry.
“Men have all the time to grow into their stardom. Women are not given that kind of time. I’m lucky the audience got to see me as a young girl of 17, as a young woman, and now as a mother and middle-aged woman. The audience is never allowed to see that kind of growth. And so we usually don’t get the chance to show this side of ourselves. I’m so glad I got that chance,” she says.
She also wishes the audience supported female-led films better, because without that, the industry would not take notice of these creations. “When these films are watched, the films will get bigger, the budgets will get bigger, the existing hierarchies will change,” adds Jyotika, who is excited for Udanpirappe, where she shares screen space with Sasi Kumar and Samuthirakani. “It is a beautiful film, and the best part is that it speaks of how women today really are.” In fact, the trailer showcases a very dignified quiet Jyotika, a happy departure from her giggly characters of yore. It also looks like the kind of film that rides on emotion, and has something important to say.
The release during a festival also speaks of the fact that there is an audience that watches these films, and which encourages experimentation, says Jyothika, who also hopes that like we have gotten this far, there will come a time when a film is just a film, and not a female-oriented film or one made by a female director.
This is one of the reasons Jyothika is delighted about the OTT space. It has allowed her (her Ponmagal Vandhaal was among the first big Tamil films to drop on OTT) to showcase her work to an expanding audience that is willing to look beyond the ‘four songs, two fights, some love’ routine.
“The theatrical space is geared towards male-led films. I feel OTT is our space. I can’t imagine getting a release during a festival in theatres because hierarchy-wise, it would go to the men first.
I’m lucky in that I have absolute support from my family, which is rare. That is my power. It allows me to do that kind of work I want to.”
In the case of Ponmagal Vandhaal, which speaks about child sexual harassment and rape, Jyothika is deeply satisfied it has reached its intended audience ” after watching the film, a child gathered the courage to speak up about her sexual abuse. “I was moved when I heard about this. Even if some children’s lives improve, my goal is served. I did this film for a purpose, and I think that has been achieved. How many know that based on statistics, Tamil Nadu ranks high on the list of children abused, and that rape within families is more in number here. I wanted to get that message out.”
Even in her first innings, Jyothika mixed up her trademark Khushi-type bubbly roles with some that called for a certain gravitas, with characters that were not really celebrated on screen till then ” like the supportive wife of Priyamaana Thozhi. Some of these films are still spoken about. Those films also did not objectify the woman, something Jyothika is very particular about.
Jyothika chooses her films herself, focusing on whether the core plot and treatment appeal to her. “Movies do have a huge impact on people. And we have that power, so why not use it? If the Avengers movies play their part, our movies can too, and should,” Jyotika feels.
In Udanpirappe, Jyothika says she represents 90 percent of the women who are homebound, who are silent crusaders. “The power of that silence, that is what my character is all about,” she says. “We have all seen how many women stoically bear the biggest of pressures, they hardly vocalise them. That silence is part of every woman, and I wanted to channelise that. You know, among all my films, and despite the fact that this is a strong role, I had very minimal dialogues,” she smiles.
Over the two-odd decades she has been in cinema, Jyothika has been known to refuse big-ticket films, even if others considered such decisions career-killing choices, considering they featured the reigning stars. “I continue to be that way,” she laughs. “I said no then, I say no even now, in Telugu and Tamil. I do a film only if I see myself being there and saying those things on screen. For me to choose a movie now, it has to be worth the time away from my kids. This is a very precious time, and every month and year brings with it so much learning,” she says.
Jyothika makes a very valid point about the role of female perception in a script, and why it is important to her for a film to be narrated with a certain empathy. “Even love stories are narrated through a man’s eyes. One rare departure was Sillu Karuppatti [which 2D Entertainment, run by Jyotika and Suriya, presented]. It was real. We need real love stories. Why should the woman always be the one leaving and going? Why should a man always pine? After all these years, we need to write better,” she says.
The opinions that Jyothika holds now have come from a place of engagement and conversation with people from different fields. “I once met with IAS officer Amudha Periasamy, who told me that those with popularity have so much power over people. I decided that once I get the mic, I have to say the right thing. You are not doling out advice, but putting forth a point of view that is as valid as anyone else’s.”
Jyothika has always acknowledged the anchors of her life. Other than Suriya, there are Devi akka, who has helped raise her children, her manager Thangadurai, who has been with her from the beginning, and her assistant Prasad, whom she has worked with for 25 years now. “These are relationships with people who are very important in my life, and they have to be acknowledged. If I don’t give Devi her due, I don’t think I will be happy as a person. They give me so much of their time and love, and it is my responsibility to give them the respect and space they deserve. These three people, besides my family, are my pillars.,” she says.
And when she speaks about her children, you hear a mother who is an active participant in their lives, but who also has the ability to be a bystander and observe. “Recently, Diya came to me and said the relationship she loved most in Udanpirappe is the one between my character and my sister-in-law. I was amazed she noticed the female point of view. I was happy she learnt that one can have friends within the family too. I want to be a part of movies that get people to think. I have a role as a mother, and I need my films to strike a chord among my ‘school run’ friends. I need my children to be proud of my work,” says Jyothika, whose children have seen only Version 2.0 of Jo on screen. “I don’t think they want to go into flashback and see the earlier Jo,” she laughs.
Udanpirappe will premiere on Amazon Prime Video India on 15 October.
Subha J Rao is a consultant writer and editor based out of Mangaluru, Karnataka. There, she keeps alive her love for cinema across languages.
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