It's nearing 7 pm on a workday when we manage to catch Jyotika over the phone. She's just seen husband Suriya off and children Diya and Dev whisper in the background, seeking help for the day's homework. She's been busy the entire day, but this is the world Jyotika revels in, a far cry from the arclights that turned her into Tamil cinema's sweetheart nearly two decades ago. But, cinema is still an integral part of her life, and her latest Raatchasi, directed by Sy Gowthamraj is proof of that.
Is it really fair to use the word 'comeback' for actors? Do they ever go away? Which is why it rings right when Jyotika, still Jo to many, describes her current stint, beginning with 36 Vayadhinile (2015), as her 'second innings'. In many interviews last year, she said 2018 was her biggest year yet. But, going by her work in 2019, looks like she'll have to take back her words. Young writers and directors are making a beeline with strong scripts that makes choosing very difficult, she says. "They are writing with such confidence and skill. It gets difficult to choose one from among the 10 that come. And there's so much more input in the smaller films—the script and the performances go hand-in-hand to make the audience forget there's no action, songs and skin show. When I enter the sets in the morning, I am prepared, because this is a set driven by the desire to make good cinema. The schedule is tightly packed and wraps up within a month, so you are on top of your game. When surrounded by this kind of energy, you don't get tired."
A year ago, Jyotika mentioned in an interview to The Hindu how a heroine-driven project meant smaller budgets, which resulted in them struggling even to sign on a reputed music director, and how a long list of don'ts is in place even before it takes off. In 2019, she says these restrictions have helped them evolve within the space they have, and improvise. "I don't see much of a budget difference. But, we have lucked out in that we have a whole new crop of people who are fantabulous, be it directors, composers or technicians. Sean Roldan, Govind Vasantha… they come up with great music, and suit our projects."
The change in the roles coming Jyotika's way probably started with Naachiyar (2018), where the normally bubbly Jo played a tough cop. She attempted to move away from stereotypical roles even in Pachaikili Muthucharam in 2007, but this made more of an impact. "These films that I am a part of now have good content and a lot of truthfulness; the intention is to make pure cinema, and the budget entirely goes towards that. But yes, sometimes, I wish I knew why we don't reach larger audiences. Is it because they are not commercial, or massy? Or it is because they are city-based?" she wonders.
That way, Raatchasi will hopefully appeal to a demographic usually not represented in mainstream cinema—children studying in Government schools in rural India, in this case, Tamil Nadu. In addition, there's a lovely father-daughter track too. "I saw the film last week, and I think it is a complete film. Very heroic, if I could use that word. There's a lot of woman power, there's fun, and a lot of positive moments set in the school. We are showcasing a social message, and it has to be dressed with a little humour so the audience will come to see it, be entertained, yet take back something," she says.
This is a far change from the days of 36 Vayadhinile, the Tamil remake of the Malayalam hit How Old Are You? The film was received well, but no work came her way for two full years. "This time around, life has taken its own course. One thing I was clear about was that I will not do the wrong film. I'd done enough work, and if I stepped out, it had to be worth it. Suddenly, Naachiyar and Magalir Mattum happened with directors with a different thinking, and they were a blessing because they helped shift focus from 36 Vayadhinile's Vasanthi. Thanks to that, this year I've read some of the most beautiful scripts written for women. I am working with directors who are a generation or two younger than me; they see women very differently."
Jyotika was once Tamil Nadu's Jo, and continues to be for those in their late 30s or early 40s. For those younger, who had not seen her on screen, she was the 'anni', the wife of a popular star. And now, she's progressed to Maam for the young directors who take their scripts to her. Through all this, one thing has not changed — Jo's decision to play her age. "I want women to walk into my movies, and feel like they belong there. Women look beautiful playing their age. And, this is a wonderful phase of life when I am in close touch with the real world, thanks to my children. I derive my energy from the parents of my kids' friends. They don't treat me like an actress. Our simple conversations matter a lot and I am happy I get to be a part of experiences other than cinema. The willpower and strength of the regular woman, the choices she makes, that gives me great strength."
Yes, the younger directors respect her a lot, and some of them have grown up seeing her films, but Jyotika says that she agrees to work only when she is confident they will direct her well. "When I hear the script, see the strength of their content, and know they will manage the show do I agree to be part of a film. It is a 'give and take' relationship. By now, most know that I give my best in the first take. After the second, the performance comes down. I like to do the whole scene in one shot, like in theatre. And, it works well when the director tells me what exactly he needs from that scene," says Jyotika, who adds that in her second innings, she's learnt to cry without glycerine. "When I was younger, I just could not cry. I was never emotional. Now, real-life emotions and the highs and lows of being a mother, and possibly the hormones, ensure the tears flow freely. I did the entire 12 pages of the Kaatrin Mozhi climax in one shot. They were real tears," elaborates the actress who, till marriage, used to mug her lines in Tamil. Now, she speaks the deeply respectful version of the language, thanks to her family's Coimbatore connect.
Despite working at a time when actresses effortlessly switched industries, at least in the South, Jyotika stuck mainly to Tamil, "despite three times the money offered elsewhere". "I wanted to understand one language well, and I loved Tamil, and did not see the need to experiment. I chose to do a couple of films, such as Tagore, the Telugu remake of Ramana, because I loved what Simran did in the original. If you see, even when I worked in any other language, there would be a Tamil connect somewhere."
When I was younger, I just could not cry. I was never emotional. Now, real-life emotions and the highs and lows of being a mother, and possibly the hormones, ensure the tears flow freely.
So, what makes the audience connect with Jyotika after all these years? "Probably, because it's been a long journey. Actresses come for a brief while and go on. They've seen me from 17 to 40, as a teen, wife and mom, and I'll give credit to my girl-next-door roles too."
Jyotika has a couple of other films coming up, one of them with brother-in-law Karthi, directed by Jeethu Joseph and Jackpot, co-starring Revathy and directed by Kalyaan. And, despite the dizzying highs of the cinema industry and being part of a family that has four actors and a singer, what the actress craves is the peace and quiet away from the arclights. She's grateful to those who let her bond with cinema, such as Devi, who has been with Jyotika for about 18 years now, helping her raise the children. "She's like an elder sister, another mom to my children, and her physical presence at home allows me to go out and work. Ours is a joint family, and so my children get to spend a lot of time with their cousins."
She also loves her coffee mornings with friends and her long-term relationships with people. And, there is the quest to make at least five good films that will be remembered for long, like Rosshan Andrews, her 36 Vayadhinile director told her to.
Before we conclude, we do a semi-SWOT analysis. "My strength will always be Suriya, in every possible way. He's my friend, my confidant, my husband, my mom, even my Man Friday. He's the only person I can share some things with. My weakest link would be my children. I have a deep need for them, I can't sleep without them." You can almost hear her smile over the phone line.