Indian actress Jyothika, who has now re-emerged from her hiatus with a string of powerful women-centric films like ‘Ponmagal Vandhal’, is frightfully pragmatic about ageism that still plagues the entertainment industry.
The 41-year-old actress, who has survived in the South Indian film industry for more than two decades with a self-imposed sabbatical in between, feels that her film industry is still youth-obsessed and that older female actors continue to be underrepresented on screen.
“I think it is still harsh, especially for the women. We see heroes till the age of 70 whether we want to or not,” said Jyothika in an exclusive interview over email with Gulf News.
“A male actor’s salt-and-pepper look and his moustache are spoken about and celebrated which is not a get-up change, according to me. When a woman is turning old, their looks are spoken about. She still tries to look young yet is considered old,” explained Jyothika.
The actress, who has featured in a series of glamorous roles in the first innings of her career, claims she has now shifted gears after her comeback. Actor Suriya’s wife is now keen to be a part of empowered women films in her ‘second innings’ as an actor and wants to create a space which will allows older acting talents to bloom.
“Doing films on middle-age women could be intense. You cannot play a cop or a lawyer when you’ve just entered the industry, it takes a lot of confidence. Most of the roles I have picked are for 35-plus women now. So, people should give us that space to grow as actors, just like heroes. If this doesn’t happen, there’s not going to be a Meryl Streep here,” warns Jyothika.
Her new straight-to-digital film, ‘Ponmagal Vandal’, directed by JJ Fredrick, is a fine example of her intent to pave way for strong women roles. In this courtroom drama, out on Amazon Prime Video, Jyothika plays a feisty lawyer Venba who re-opens an old case about a serial killer who preys on young children…
Excerpts from our interview with Jyothyika as we discuss her latest film that touches upon the sensitive and relevant topic of child sexual abuse and more …
Q: What prompted you to be a part of ‘Ponmagal Vandhal’?
A: I don’t remember the last time I was reading a newspaper and didn’t come across a single news piece on child and women abuse. It had really disturbed me. Then one fine day, this young boy, our director [JJ Fredrick], walks in and hands me the script of ‘Ponmagal Vandhal’ that underlines the same cause. It made me sit up and hear him. The film is a complete package. It is a thriller; it has an intriguing story and an important social message. We are questioning the law for the delay in justice. I felt that this message needed a public voice, so I decided to be a part of it.
Q: What did you want the audience to take away from this film and what was the most challenging part about your role in ‘Ponmagal Vandhal’?
A: Through this film, I want to reach out to women, not just in India, but all around the world, and urge them to speak up and voice their opinion towards the injustice they have to face. The most challenging part of the film was the courtroom scene where I had to speak in Tamil at a stretch. I polished my Tamil for this film, but I am still not very fluent. So, that was a challenge for me.
Q: The movie deals with the grim topic of child sexual abuse, did you have any reservations about this project being too exploitative and graphic?
A: Emotionally, as a woman and a mother, I could totally relate to the subject of the film. ‘Ponmagal Vandhal’ has treated these issues very sensitively and made sure that it wasn’t very gory. It has respectfully raised the questions and addressed these issues.
Q: While I enjoyed the film and your performance thoroughly, the court scenes did not have the desired impact or punch... Your thoughts?
A: We wanted to make a movie that would focus on a serious topic like child abuse and also make the audience question the judiciary. It was a very honest film and we wanted to keep it as authentic and real as possible. This is what is happening, not just in India, but everywhere in the world. Our intention with this movie is only to depict this harsh reality as honestly as we can.
Q: How have you evolved as an actress and how do you look back on your career filled with some sturdy roles and interesting films?
A: I do feel that I have evolved as an actress. I did a lot of commercial cinemas and big-hero films in my first innings. Over time, I realised that there were very few women-centric Tamil cinemas and about 80 per cent of the films continued to misrepresent the gender. For my second innings I wanted to focus on cinema that sheds a new light on women and how women tackle different situations. Irrespective of the genre, I want all the women who watch my work to feel dignified. Going forward, I want to pick movies that have a strong message and something that my children can be proud of.
Q: What was the director’s brief to you and what was the homework that you did for this role?
A: When the director approached me with this script, he was so passionate about making this film. I think his passion and energy were so infectious that I had to say yes. Moreover, being a mother, I could relate to the script on an emotional level, so I had to say yes to the film. You just can’t say no that energy and we all joined hands to portray that passion on screen. As far as homework is concerned, I had to brush up and polish my Tamil as I am still not fluent with the language.
Q: The movie also touched upon nepotism in judiciary and how the rich can get away with murder... Does the economic inequality make your blood boil?
A: In 'Ponmagal Vandhal', we are not trying to attack the judiciary system of our country. There are both, good and bad, sides of any system. With this film, we are only asking questions to the not-so-perfect side of the system. Our motive with this film is only to address the injustice that sometimes is delivered to the innocent beings. We have kept our story real and authentic.
Q: Can big-screen cinema halls and web platforms co-exist in this ‘new normal’ reality?
A: I believe that cinemas and streaming platforms can function in a complementary manner. While there is no denying the fact that every actor wants to see his/her fans clapping in the theatres for them, but I do believe that the OTT [over-the-top or streaming] platforms, like Amazon Prime Video, are a great alternative for content-based films. Movies that find it difficult to get a theatrical release can opt for these platforms. I don’t feel that there needs to be a competition between the two and that both can co-exist.
Q: Do you have an acting method or are you more impulsive as an artiste?
A: I am an impulsive artist. I prefer my first takes. In fact, I can never do beyond two takes as it turns out to be very artificial. It’s usually the first take that is the best. Most of the scenes in ‘Ponmagal Vandhal’ are first takes, about 95 per cent of them. The other five will probably be the second takes, which would be the result of some technical error from the other side. I feel for most of the actors, what you say or do for the first time is with absolute conviction. For me, I always prefer to do it straight rather than doing rehearsals umpteen number of times and then give the shot.
Q: What’s your idea of a perfect film and do you read reviews of your films?
A: For me, a perfect film is one that is depicting what is really happening in society. What makes it really perfect is how close it can get to reality. Not just the story; the performances, the screenplay, the costumes, how real can they look, all this constitutes a perfect film for me. I do read some of the reviews and I appreciate constructive criticism. I take notes and work towards them.
Jyothika’s recommendations on what to binge-watch:
“In this quarantine time, I watched Taapsee Pannu’s new movie ‘Thappad’ on Amazon Prime Video, since it’s a new film. Another one I would recommend seeing is ‘Paatal Lok’. It was a fabulous show, all the episodes were extremely real and we saw a very raw and real side of human nature. We just started seeing this series called ‘The Family Man’ and it seems very interesting.”
Jyothika on life in lockdown:
“We live in a joint family, so we have a lot of kids in the house who are always playing and running around. We have played board games with them and watched movies. With so many people in the house, it is always a big party. I think the lockdown did help me to spend more time with my family members and I hope we can continue to keep the spirit alive even when things will go back to normal,” said Jyothika on what this COVID-19 social distancing has taught her.
Don’t miss It!
‘Ponmagal Vandhal’ is streaming on Amazon Prime Video now.