The trailer for Bala's upcoming thriller Naachiyar shows Jyothika playing a rough and tough cop who brooks no nonsense. The teaser for the film, which saw the actor mouthing a common sexist and casteist cuss word, had sent ripples across social media, with several people objecting not to the word in particular, but to the gender of the person uttering it.
The trailer suggests that Jyothika has transformed herself into a character she has never played before – not just the cop role but how she's playing it. The aggression is distinctly different from the cutesy, "bubbly" roles that defined her career when she was acting with the industry's top heroes.
Jyothika, who made her debut with Priyadarshan's 1998 Hindi film Doli Saja Ke Rakhna, entered the Tamil industry with Vaali. In the film, she was the whimsical creation of a young man (Ajith) trying to impress a woman (Simran) with a fake love story. The O Sona girl, the half-sister of Nagma – who had done superhit films like Baasha and Kadhalan – became quickly popular. The 2000 film Kushi, in which she starred with Vijay, made her a big hit with the audience.
Jyothika in Vaali
In her first stint, Jyothika was known for her expressive eyes and over-the-top gestures (in a recent interview, the actor said that in those days, she was "over-acting" and not acting). The "loosu ponnu", the south Indian version of the manic pixie, was becoming the most favoured characterisation for heroines in mainstream Tamil films. The "feminine innocence" of the yesteryear heroine was further infantilised to create a child-woman whose "enthusiasm" and exaggerated gestures passed off as "cute".
As the next generation of heroes after Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan became larger-than-life and turned into demi-gods, the women they pursued on screen were increasingly relegated to song and dance sequences which would be preceded by a "romance" track. Jyothika, who is frequently described as "bubbly", played several such roles; but she also made some interesting career choices.
In Rhythm, for instance, she signed up to play a married woman who dies in a train accident. The same year saw the release of Snegithiye, a thriller which had only women actors in lead roles – a proposition that's still considered risky in Kollywood. Jyothika also experimented with genres when given the opportunity, doing films like the adventure fantasy Little John (in which she starred with American actor Bentley Mitchum), Perazhagan (in which she played a dual role, one of which was the visually challenged, de-glamourised Shenbagam), June R (which is about a young woman who "adopts" a mother) and Mozhi (her portrayal of a hearing and speech impaired woman won her the Tamil Nadu State Film Award).
In Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu, she played a single mom who attempts suicide because of a failed relationship, while in Pachaikili Muthucharam, she played the villain – a woman who seduces men and blackmails them for money. To be sure, Jyothika's acting wasn't on par with the likes of woman actors like Sridevi, Revathi, Gautami, Madhavi, Urvashi and many others who had ruled the screen before her time. She didn't have their versatility, but she remained likable to the audience, succeeding especially in romantic films like Dum Dum Dum and Sillinu Oru Kadhal.
Her character in Gautham Menon's Kaakha Kaakha, which established Suriya (whom she would eventually marry) as a star to reckon with, is still remembered by many as among her best. Fans of Suriya and Jo will swear that the couple, who acted together in seven films, shared the best on screen chemistry.
Jyothika had acted with both Kamal Haasan (Tenali, Vetaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu) and Rajinikanth (Chandramukhi was a massive hit) and all the younger stars (Vijay, Vikram, Suriya, Prashanth, Madhavan) by the time she predictably called it quits to marry Suirya in 2006.
Her comeback to cinema with 36 Vayadhiniley, the remake of the Malayalam film How Old Are You, saw the actor asserting herself and being vocal about women characters on screen. While many have appreciated her for speaking up, several have also cast aspersions on her intentions, believing her statements to be "marketing" for her films. Many have also been dismissive of her return to cinema, accusing her of sticking to doing vanilla, 'feel-good' films that use feminism as a crutch.
But going by what we've seen so far of Naachiyaar, Jyothika seems determined to stay and do so on her own terms. She isn't playing to attract the family audience, she's looking to establish herself as a "mass" star, the one who is greeted by wild cheers and loud whistles. While we've had actors like Vijayshanti who have ably performed fight sequences, a woman swearing and wearing her aggression on her sleeves – and being welcomed for it – is new.
While mainstream Tamil cinema is still dominated by male star vehicles, we're seeing some interesting changes in characterising the female hero – whether that's Jyothika in Magalir Mattum, Nayanthara in Aramm and Dora or Revathi in Gulaebaghavali. They get "mass" moments, the hero walk, and even punch dialogues. What's more, the audience seems to be lapping it up, at least in the metros.
Bollywood has its Vidya Balan and Kangana Ranaut. In the south, actors like Nayanthara, Trisha, Anushka Shetty, and Jyothika have reached a certain phase in their career when they are confident that their name on the title cards alone can bring audiences to the theatres. And they seem to be finding producers and directors who are willing to take a chance, too.
It's too early to pass any judgment about Naachiyaar, but one can safely say that the film is a sign of the times; even if it turns out to be terrible, it still signals the arrival of an exciting moment in Tamil cinema as far as gender is concerned. We're finally going to see a woman actor do her job, minus the baggage of marriage and motherhood dictating the roles she's "allowed" to do.