Celebrating a big screen beauty

Celebrating a big screen beauty

In Bellary, the cute, plump, little girl studying in sixth standard was always her teacher’s pet, as she excelled in dance performances.

The girl’s father was an English professor at St Joseph’s College, Bangalore and her mother who was artistically inclined, recognised her daughter Kamala Kumari’s talent, and took her to Chennai (then Madras) and enrolled her at a famous dancing school.

Kamala Kumari, who entered the Kannada filmdom in 1963 with the movie Jenu Goodu, with her screen name as Jayanthi, went on to become an actress in six major Indian languages. Coincidentally, this year happens to be the 50th year of Jayanthi’s acting career and the 100th year of Indian cinema. Speaking about her journey, the actress says, “The other students in the dancing school would make fun of me because I was an overweight child. One day, when I was crying in the corner of the dancing hall, veteran Tamil comedian Manorama called the other girls and reprimanded them — ‘Do not tease this girl! You should remember that none of you have learnt anything overnight’ ”

With no background in cinema and no godfather, the teenaged girl went on to become the most sought after actress. “When I was a dance student in Madras for about an year, I happened to watch a shooting sequence at The Golden Studio, in Kodambaakam. Y R Swamy, who was directing the Kannada movie Jenu Goodu, was looking for a new face, for the role of the third heroine. Swamy sir asked me if I would consider acting in the film. But my mother was averse to the offer,” she says, recalling her first encounter with a film director.

Jayanthi’s mother, who was keen on grooming her only daughter as a classical dancer, gave consent for her acting career, and Swamy named the teenager as ‘Jayanthi’. The actress never looked back after her first movie, and went on to be the leading lady for superstars like Dr Rajkumar, N T Rama Rao (Telugu), Gemini Ganeshan (Tamil) and Shammi Kapoor (Hindi).

Jayanthi, who has acted with Rajkumar in 34 Kannada movies, fondly recalls her first meeting with the then emerging superstar of Kannada cinema. “I had seen Rajkumar’s first movie Bedara Kannappa and was horrified to see him in the hunter’s costume. When I got introduced to him personally, I was glad to see a smart, good looking young man. I was not nervous while acting with him, as he was humble and was a guiding light to newcomers like me.”

Jayanthi’s movie with Rajkumar, directed by Singh Thakur, Chandavalliya Thota, went on to win the President’s gold medal for the best Kannada film in 1965. And the actress continued to shine as a heroine for the next 20 years in six Indian languages. “In those days, the director was considered god. We would surround the director and listen attentively since the entire shot would be narrated at a stretch. Later, each artiste would be tutored by an assistant director. I would memorise the sequence by assigning each scene to a finger tip,” she explains.

Reminiscing about how Rajkumar was always a fitness addict, she says, “I would get up only around 9 am. However, despite working late into the night, Rajkumar would try to wake us up, so that we could join him for an early morning walk.”

Jayanthi played the title role of Miss Leelavathi in the 1967-68 Kannada film, which was avant garde for that era. “Miss Leelavathi had a modern theme, especially since it was made at a time when the Kannada film industry was still conservative. The actress was shown as a rebel who refuses to marry, and has a care free attitude towards pre-marital sex. I had to wear a swim suit for the movie,” says Jayanthi, who got the President’s National Award for this film. “I received the award from Indira Gandhi, who was the I&B Minister at that time. After Mrs Gandhi gave me the award, she called me again, kissed me on my cheek and wished me lots of good luck,” recollects Jayanathi.

Jayanthi went on to act with most of the Tamil superstars of 1960s and 1970s. She was a favourite with acclaimed Tamil director K Balachander, whose movie Iru Kodugal became a superhit, in which Jayanthi was the leading lady for Gemini Ganeshan along with Sahukar Janaki. “I also acted with annatchi (Gemini Ganeshan) in another superhit Tamil movie Velli Vela,” recalls the actress.

Speaking about her experience in Telugu cinema, the actress recalls an anecdote, “As a 10-year-old girl, when I had gone to see a shooting of my idol N T Rama Rao, he made me sit on his lap and asked me jokingly whether I would become his heroine.” The little girl had blushed, not knowing in the least that she and NTR would indeed become a successful screen pair and deliver superhits in Telugu like Jagadeka Veeruni Katha, Kula Gowravam, Justice Chowdhary etc.

The Kannada film industry has honoured her with the unique title of ‘Abhinaya Sharade’ (Goddess Sharada in Acting). Jayanthi has been the recipient of four Filmfare Awards, Karnataka Rajyotsava Award, Honorary Doctorate from Mysore University, many state awards and a National Award. Even in her mid-sixties, the goodlooking actress continues to embellish the throne of Kannada film industry.

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