Jyotika has had the same phone number for over 20 years.
“That’s true. It’s quite a task for me to keep changing it often, so I don’t even attempt it,” she says, shaking her head.
“Moreover, all my near and dear ones, my relatives and the people who mean the most to me, have this number. It’s also the same number on which Suriya and I first started texting, when we met and began dating,” she grins, when I ask her how she’s managed to retain it for so long.
But her mobile number is the only thing that has not changed about Jyotika. Earlier this week, the actor-producer completed 25 years in films — her first project, the Hindi film Doli Saja Ke Rakhna, directed by Priyadarshan, was released in November 1998 — and looking back at her journey makes for quite whirlwind reading. From Kushi and Kaakha Kaakha, to Chandramukhi and Mozhi, to 36 Vayadhinile and Ponmagal Vandhal, the 45-year-old’s repertoire of work reads as a masterclass for female leads in the industry to stay relevant over decades.
Then again, Jyotika has never been one to rest on her laurels, as impressive as they may be. After moving to Mumbai last year — in a move that surprised many — she is now preparing to make her second coming in Bollywood with a line-up of intriguing releases slated for 2024, even as she balances her commitments in the south Indian film industry.
But right now, our focus is on her latest release, the Malayalam film Kaathal – The Core, which hit screens last week, in which Jyotika shares screen space with Mammooty for the first time. Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Jeo Baby, the drama follows a long-term marriage between a couple coming to a standstill, when the wife unexpectedly files for divorce claiming that her husband is a gay man.
In what could be her bravest role till date, Jyotika shines in the character of Omana, as she matches Mammooty on-screen in a searing yet vulnerable performance arc, that culminates in one of the best-filmed emotional confrontations in recent memory.
Talking to us from Mumbai, Jyotika explains why Kaathal is a game-changer in her career, taking on a new challenge with her upcoming Hindi projects, winning the National Film Award with Suriya as the producers of Soorarai Pottru, and much more.
Excerpts from an exclusive interview:
Omana is such a difficult and brave character to take on; you’re essentially playing a woman who is admitting that her husband doesn’t desire her and that she’s deprived of physical touch from him. How did you perceive the role when it was offered to you?
I knew about the film in the first place when Mammootty Kampany called me, and Jeo Baby sir and the two writers of the film — Adarsh and Paulson — came home. A couple of things immediately took me by surprise. First, they wanted someone from the Tamil industry to be cast opposite Mammootty sir. Secondly, my character of Omana was given almost equal importance to that of Mathew (Mammootty) in the film.
Even after 25 years in the industry, this kind of progressive thinking was still a revelation for me. I’ve had so many conversations with high-profile filmmakers who think they are doing us a favour by casting us alongside big heroes. I tell them I understand it’s a big-budget film, but given my weight of experience, can I atleast get two good scenes? But it never works out, as they think we are not being thankful to them.
Then, of course, came the fact that I was being asked to work with two stalwarts of Malayalam cinema like Jeo Baby sir and Mammooty sir.
On a side note, I’ve watched The Great Indian Kitchen five times, and I’m now also working with Nimisha, the actress of the film in a Hindi web series, so somewhere the universe is connecting me to the whole team!
And finally, the writing.. it’s always the writing that makes the actor. Every scene Omana is part of felt different, and every line of dialogue I uttered felt like I’d never said it before, even though I’ve played so many housewife roles in my career. For instance, the scene where my daughter and I are sitting at a table, and having a drink together. They told me that all this was perfectly natural in a regular Christian household. They had managed to depict a modern-day family so beautifully.
I mean, I also have friends who have not had a physical relationship with their husbands for a long time, who are in marriages without any sort of intimacy. The writing was so fantastic that it was easy for us, as actors, to connect to it.
The drama in ‘Kaathal – The Core’ is quite dialled down, in the sense that despite it being such a heavy topic, the arguments are quite low-key and the emotions are subtle. This works to a large extent in the film; was the script written as such? Did you have any conversations with the director about it?
No no, I didn’t suggest any changes to the script at all; I’m like the least talented person in that whole group. (laughs)
See, one of the key things that intrigued me about the Great Indian Kitchen is that there’s such little dialogue in it. You just keep seeing multiple shots of that basin, filled with food and leftovers, again and again. Each time they showed that sink, I was riveted and kept watching it, even though it was repetitive.
Similarly in Kaathal, here, you see that there are a lot of walking and silent shots, that just take us into the world as it is in real life. I think we’ve come too far from the real world in our cinema, no? I’d often see Jeo removing a lot of lines from the script and leaving some things unsaid. Like, when a sister tells her brother that he needs to help her, and stand by her after all these years. There isn’t any need for her to be dramatic and give him a backstory of their entire relationship together. All it needs is a single line of dialogue, and then she walks away. So the beauty of Kaathalis that it feels unscripted to a large extent; almost the way things are said and done inside our homes.
More and more Indian films feature characters from the LGBTQIA+ community nowadays, and you’re obviously aware of the discourse around such topics. Still, since the movie deals with the sensitive subject of homosexuality, did you have to prepare yourself in any way before going to set?
No, just like you said, the conversation is all around us, and it’s understood that a movie on such a topic definitely had to be put out there. But when I heard the script, my first audience to the narration were my teenage kids, Diya and Dev. When I told them that this film and the storytelling excited me, they immediately told me that the subject matter was amazing, and I could see the appreciation and normalcy with which they accepted it. I keep realising every day that there’s a lot to learn from them.
I’m sure Mammooty sir had a lot more preparation to do for his role. But for me, due to the mindset we are all in today, it was just about embracing this beautiful film with an open mind and supporting it wholeheartedly.
Mammooty has this knack of making actors around him perform even better when they are in scenes with him. Did you feel that way too?
Yes, absolutely. We only have a few scenes together which are quite low-key, but needed high-end performances. I’ve got to say this about him; he is so different from any other hero I’ve met — from any age group — and stands apart with his thought process and mindset. Even the posters of Kaathal, that come from Mammootty sir’s production house, feature images of Mathew and Omana equally.
When I met him on set, I almost felt like he was a hero in real life; he was just so extremely in charge of what he was doing, but also let everyone else just do their thing.
We all know that now he’s experimenting with his choices, and once he believes in the script, he’s ready to give himself totally to it. Since he’s aged with cinema for all these decades, this is his way of respecting the medium and giving back to it, which is phenomenal.
You said that any project you sign nowadays is with your children in mind. What would you want their takeaway to be after watching a film like ‘Kaathal’?
In the case of Kaathal, the takeaway is actually for people from our generation. The kids are in a great space; they are very forward-thinking and understanding, they don’t have any kind of hierarchy in their head, and they welcome everything. They are non-judgemental of so many issues in our segregated society, even the caste system. So the learning is for all those who are stuck in their heads from the older crowd. We should all be learning from the younger generation when it comes to these things.
This is your first release in two years since ‘Udanpirappe’ in 2021, whereas Suriya’s last appearance on-screen was also a year-and-a-half ago. Have both of you consciously taken a step back from acting to focus on other productions with 2D?
No, not at all. With respect to Suriya, he’s just been really busy working on Kanguva (She adds that he’s perfectly fine after a recent accident on the sets of the period epic). It’s this magnum opus kind of film that’s really demanded a lot from him physically. So he’s been stretched to the hilt filming it, for over a year now. As far as my work goes, I wanted to take a little bit of a breather after COVID and I also moved to Mumbai. This involved shifting the children as well, so it became a whole family thing. I also stopped taking narrations for some time. Some good work did come my way, but playing a crusader for some kind of social issue or justice got repetitive after a point.
About the move to Mumbai, there was a lot of debate on why you shifted cities…
I really wanted to clarify this. The move to Mumbai was because of my parents, who were unwell, and I wanted to be there with them. I have been in Chennai for 25 years, away from my mom and dad, and figured now would be a good time to move back. There were great educational options in Mumbai for the kids as well. But we do plan to come back to Chennai after four or five years. As of now, we are functioning between both cities as Suriya is largely shooting in Chennai; we keep flying to each other! But I’ve been busy working in Mumbai for the past year and signed on a few Hindi projects.
But, why start (almost) from scratch in a new industry all over again? Why take on such a challenge at this point in your career when you already have an established fan base in Tamil cinema?
It’s easy for an actor to just get very comfortable in that zone where people are loving you and you keep doing the same stuff and filling your pockets. I did a lot of work in the south, but frankly, apart from Malayalam cinema, I feel that nobody really writes for women. There have been some good female protagonists in the last decade, but even then, most of them are rooting for men! It’s such a tilted imbalance. Is there no other work for them than to serenade every move of the hero? So now, I have a chance to experiment a bit more, play gray characters, and push myself to reach another level.
Could you tell us about your upcoming work in Hindi cinema?
So, first up for release is the untitled film with Ajay Devgn, and then there’sSri with Rajkummar Rao which is the Srikanth Bolla biopic. I’m also doing a web series for Farhan Akthar and Excel Entertainment that I’m excited about. All the shades of these women I’m playing now is so different to what I’ve done earlier. That’s probably why I signed a Malayalam film too, because I’m not thinking about working in different languages; I’m just looking at growth.
2D has built an image for itself as a production house that backs socially-conscious, progressive cinema. Now after winning the National Award for ‘Soorarai Pottru,’ do you and Suriya feel more responsible as producers to the industry at large?
2D was started as a company to make small-budget projects. We wanted to back small films that made for good cinema, with no agenda behind it, and we will continue to keep doing that. Right now, we are making a film with Karthi and the 96 director C. Premkumar. Definitely, an honour like the National Award does feel like a heavy responsibility, but the process will always be focusing on different scripts, or backing films that need a release like Gargior Sillu Karuppatti, when they didn’t have too many buyers.
There was a lot of debate when both of you decided to release ‘Soorarai Pottru’ and ‘Ponmagal Vandhal’ direct-to-digital in 2020, but you paved the way for streamers and theatres to co-exist back then. Three years later, how do you look at this balance in the market?
Back then, we were in a very different phase with COVID rampant. The idea was just to get the films to release somehow, because a number of families — not just ours — were dependent on it. A lot of money put into the projects was stuck, and it was affecting the lives of multiple people. At that point, it really felt like the right decision to take.
Today, from the perspective of a producer, there is enough and more content coming to both streaming and theatres; I genuinely look at them as a brother-sister concern. Both have their set of audiences, and I don’t see a reason to divide the mediums at all.
And now, the question everyone keeps asking you…
(smiles) I think I know what’s coming…
Two years ago, you told me that you and Suriya were ready to work together again, but it still hasn’t happened. Why not? You could produce the film yourself, yes?
Oh believe me, we are so ready. We are desperate to work together again, in fact, but nothing interesting at all has come our way. Sure, we could produce it, but someone has to first write and be ready to direct it! And we really don’t want to do something immature at this stage in our respective careers, so we keep patiently waiting. But seriously, it’s not like people keep asking us and we keep rejecting it. Nobody’s even writing roles for us, or thought of casting us together in ages; I think they like us off-screen more than on-screen…
On that note, it’s really interesting that both of you are on quite different trajectories as actors; he’s a pan-Indian big-budget movie star, while you are breaking boundaries with these fascinating off-beat projects. What are conversations about cinema in your household like?
We just commonly talk about doing good films. This is a very important thing between both of us. Of course, Suriya has his own path; a very difficult spot to be in actually, as he’s a hero who has to satisfy his fans plus do a good film. But I believe he still somehow manages to achieve it, with films likeSoorarai Pottru and Jai Bhim. For me, the priority is to have women walk out of the theatres with their heads held high. That’s what the men think after a movie, right? I want women to feel the same way, and I’ve been very lucky in having these films come to me at the right time.