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Jayanthi: Kannada cinema’s unconventional, glam diva

Last Updated : 30 July 2021, 20:19 IST

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In the early 1960s, the star system reigned in Kannada cinema. The industry mainly produced family dramas. The female lead lacked prominence in such films. Films were invariably hero-oriented.

A small crop of directors broke this trend in the second half of the decade. Y R Swamy, N Lakshminarayan, Puttanna Kanagal, and M R Vittal began making women-centric films. One actor who did justice to their powerful subjects was Jayanthi. She delivered versatile performances.

Jayanthi made people sit up and take note of her talent in her third film ‘Chandavalliya Thota’ (1964). It appeared as if she had no jitters about debuting as a heroine.

Directed by T V Singh Thakur, Jayanthi played a strong-willed woman who holds together a family in turbulence. She was young but essayed a middle-aged mother’s role with grace. She was convincing in the emotional portions.

After the film’s success, Jayanthi revelled in unusual roles in films described as bold for their time. Though the movies ended on a conservative note, heroines were reluctant to essay the central characters in them, and Jayanthi stepped in where others feared to tread.

Two films of Vittal showcased Jayanthi’s ability to bring great dignity to complex characters. In ‘Miss Leelavathi’ (1965), Jayanthi played the titular character who doesn’t believe in the institution of marriage. She played a rebel who defied the taboo against pre-marital sex.

She essayed a schizophrenic in ‘Eradu Mukha’ (1969). Directors are often afraid actors could ruin such characters with exaggerated performances. Jayanthi stayed clear of over-acting and delivered a restrained performance in the psychological drama.

Jayanthi’s confidence in pulling off glamorous roles made her a mass favourite. Be it in ‘Bettada Huli’ (1965) or ‘Jedara Bale’ (1968), she excelled as a glamorous and adventurous woman. Of course, there was a lot of talk about her swimsuit avatars. But her outfits never came across as vulgar.

She balanced such roles with those of talkative and hot-headed characters opposite Rajkumar in ‘Choori Chikkanna’ (1969), ‘Paropakari’ (1970), and ‘Bahaddur Gandu’ (1976).

With Puttanna

Kalpana and Aarathi were Puttanna Kanagal’s go-to-heroines. Yet, two significant roles in Jayanthi’s illustrious body of work came out in Puttanna’s films. She left a strong impact as a wronged woman in ‘Edakallu Gudadda Mele’ (1973). In ‘Masanada Hoovu’ (1985), she stole the show as the madam at a brothel.

Interestingly, Puttanna’s first Kannada film was with Jayanthi. Titled ‘Savira Mettilu’, it also featured Kalyan Kumar. It was an unfinished project until it was revived by producer D B Basavegowda two decades after Puttanna’s death.

Acting prowess

Leelavathi was an established actor when Jayanthi began her career. By then, B Saroja Devi had moved on to the Tamil industry. Jayanthi’s contemporaries were Krishna Kumari, Sowcar Janaki, Harini, and Kalpana. Aarathi came in a bit later.

Kalpana and Aarathi were fine actors. Yet, they couldn’t achieve the versatility of Jayanthi. Kalpana’s intense performance in ‘Sharapanjara’ (1971) became a double-edged sword. While it catapulted her to stardom, the melodramatic style became repetitive. Aarathi was effective in Puttanna’s films. But outside of his projects, she came across as just a passable actor.

Jayanthi could match the emotional energy of Kalpana, the liveliness of Aarathi, and the tomboyishness of Manjula. She was a perfect all-rounder.

Stereotypes

Jayanthi wasn’t image-conscious. She busted the belief that a heroine must be skinny to succeed. Dilip Kumar didn’t have the six-pack abs of today’s heroes but that didn’t stop him from being a legend.

Jayanthi, who had a vibrant screen presence, infused life into her characters. She backed her physical attractiveness with good performances in roles that had many layers in films such as ‘Nanna Thamma’ (1970) and ‘Kasturi Nivasa’ (1971).

Legacy

Jayanthi struck an emotional connection with the audience. That is the biggest secret to her longevity. With her performances in ‘Chakra Theertha’ (1967), ‘Punarjanma’ (1969), ‘Samshaya Phala’ (1971), ‘Kula Gourava’ (1971), ‘Kalyani’ (1971) and ‘Mannina Magalu’ (1973), people felt she represented the attributes of a Kannada woman.

(As told to Vivek M V)

(Puttaswamy is a well-known Kannada film historian and author of the award-winning book ‘Cinema Yana’).

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Published 30 July 2021, 18:08 IST

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