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Bold and beautiful

DEEPA GANESH

Jayanthi, the Kannada actor from yesteryear, took on unprecedented challenges. This actor, clearly ahead of her times, stuns you with her liberated outlook that refuses to slot things as right and wrong

Photo: Bhagya Prakash K.

FREE SPIRIT Jayanthi: ‘If you have the right attitude, nothing is wrong'

As Jayanthi walks down the stairs that leads to the drawing room of her house, she greets us with a namaskara. Her hands are folded and her gaze is fixed firmly on the steps. Looking at the long staircase, I wonder if it is possible to cut her long story short.

More than five decades in the film industry, 500 films in six languages, heroine in over 300, co-starring with Dr. Rajkumar in nearly 45 films, which is the highest for any heroine, the attractive actor of yesteryear, Jayanthi, has her kitty full of achievements. At 66, Jayanthi is stunningly elegant, though age has physically slowed her down a bit. Drawing me into an affectionate hug, the glamour diva of ‘60s and ‘70s says: “What else can I tell that you don't already know?”

It was a chance beginning. Jayanthi, then Kamala Kumari, moved to Madras with her mother Santanalakshmi in the Fifties to learn dance. Her teacher, Chandrakala, once took them to the studios and Jayanthi's bright face and lively nature caught the attention of quite a few. Soon, small roles came her way, but not all were happy experiences. Once, when the roly-poly teenager was in a dance sequence with the veteran Tamil actress Savitri, she had stormed out in anger over “these fumbling newcomers”. NTR had put the teenager fondly on his lap and had asked in mock-seriousness, “Will you be my heroine dear?” In the coming years, it seemed like a prophecy: Jayanthi went on to act with him in over six films.

The small, insignificant appearances on screen happened without much difficulty, but when Y.R. Swamy asked her to play the heroine in “Jenu Goodu” (1963) it was a clear ‘no' from her mother. “My dream is to see her as a classical dancer. To act in films will be taking her away from her purpose,” she categorically told Y.R. Swamy. She refused to allow her dreams to be scuttled, and even for a progressive Santhanalakshmi the world of films was not for girls of respectable families. “Many of my relatives wouldn't speak to us because my mother was training us in dance. My mother was too bold to be troubled by all this. However, she had a problem with films,” recalls Jayanthi. Y.R. Swamy wouldn't give up either; not once, but thrice he visited their home and convinced Santhanalakshmi that not everyone in the film world was “bad”. Santhanalakshmi relented.

Within a year came T.V. Singh Thakore's “Chandavalliya Tota”. “I had put my feet in water. I decided I'd rather swim than retreat,” says Jayanthi of her decision to continue in films. It was her first film with Rajkumar who, by then, had made quite a name. “If I had been watching films regularly, and if I had realised that Rajkumar was a star, then it would have perhaps bothered me. I was oblivious to all this and had no trepidation whatsoever. He was very helpful and the film was a hit. People thought we made a great pair on screen and we went on to do 45 films. Rajkumar treated me with great respect, in fact, I was the naughty one,” she recalls how while everyone called him “annavru” she always called him “Raj” or “Mutturaj.” The legendary actor was amused by this and would often ask her, “Say that again!” The film won a national award and Jayanthi was swamped with offers.

Jayanthi is perhaps the among the few Kannada actors who got to perform a wide range of roles: from the docile, submissive wife and queen in the magnificent mythologicals to the defiant, radical modern woman in films that could be seen as heralding the New Wave. Jayanthi played them with panache. She wore swim suits, t-shirts, skirts — outfits considered “too mod” for Kannada cinema, with a “so what?” attitude. The well-endowed Jayanthi oozed sexuality and was never ashamed of her body. “If you have the right attitude, nothing is wrong,” she explains. “I was a gundamma, fed on ghee and sugar. Heroes would tease me about my size, but then I would turn back and ask them, ‘I am not looking cheap, am I? If I look muddu in these western clothes despite being fat, then why make a fuss?' And they would laughingly agree that I was looking cute after all.”

She remembers an interesting episode with director M.R. Vittal who refused to accept her notion of ‘fashion'. Jayanthi came on the sets and Vittal demanded, “What's this, why are you wearing your sari below the navel?”

“That's fashion appaji, I will look good, let it be please,” she had pleaded.

“Don't teach me. Lift it up, now!” he had yelled at her.

“You are so old fashioned, you won't even allow me to look beautiful…,” she had quarrelled with him. The next day, when they were shooting outdoors, Vittal told Jayanthi that she had to get on top of a branch of a tree for one of the scenes. No sooner had she got there, Vittal got the ladder removed. “Now be there. You want to give me a lesson on fashion is it?” he left her there for a good half an hour. “Imagine such a thing happening now!” says the actor who won the President's gold medal for her path-breaking portrayal in “Miss Leelavathi”.

“I always had a penchant for taking on challenges.” Hence, Jayanthi took up films other heroines had turned down. She learnt horse riding, swimming and even sword fighting. “I was keen to learn. I wanted to understand women from different perspectives. I was very fond of languages. So, when I knew I would learn from a film I never refused it.”

Women in films had more than their share of difficulties. Jayanthi not only took on challenges in her career but also in her personal life. A liberal woman, Jayanthi handled her life with great courage. “When I think of Kalpana and Manjula, I want to cry. They were such good human beings, very talented actors too. But they ended up having such troubled lives… poor things,” she recalls. It was not just men who treated them badly, they were also to blame, says Jayanthi. “When you know you are vulnerable and can be exploited it calls for extra caution.”

“For us, passion came before everything else. We toiled night and day for that one word of appreciation. It was a kind of madness. But now everyone plays it ‘safe'. If you have a good figure, you are a good actor. Times have changed. We gained a lot, but we also lost quite a bit. And I do not regret it…,” she says solemnly, but the smile is back in an instant.

Jayanthi is the next in our series on women who walked unbeaten paths

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