‘Sowcar’ Janaki, who turns 90 this year, took up acting to earn a living but stayed on to become a star
Whether as the orthodox woman in Edhir Neechal, a night-club singer in Pudhiya Paravai or a socialite in Thillu Mullu, ‘Sowcar’ Janaki could add a distinct touch to the roles she essayed. She has portrayed many strong characters and was paired alongside some of the leading heroes of Tamil and Telugu cinema of the time.
Janaki made her debut in the L.V. Prasad-directed Telugu film Shavukaru, released on April 1, 1950. At that time MGR’s wife V.N. Janaki was already an established actor, hence the 17-year-old débutante was referred to as ‘Sowcar’ Janaki, a name that stuck with her through a 70-year career that saw her play everything, from protagonist to brief cameos, in nearly 400 films in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Hindi.
Sowcar Janaki, who turns 90 this year, lives alone in Bengaluru but stays connected with family and friends through email, WhatsApp, and video calls. In fact, she apologises for not being tech-savvy enough to use Zoom call for this interview! Janaki says her 90th birthday doesn’t hold any special significance for her, especially in these testing times.“Everyone’s health is more important than my birthday celebrations,” she says.
“I chose to act not because it interested me; it was merely a means of livelihood,” says Janaki, recalling the day when she landed at B.N. Reddy’s office in 1949, infant in arms and husband in tow, to ask him for a role.
“When I was barely 12 or 13, years old, B.N. Reddy had heard my voice on radio and offered me a chance to act in his films. When I checked with my parents, they had panicked and got me married,” laughs Janaki.
Her fluency in several languages, including English, always bewildered the industry, a gift she attributes to her chemical engineer father. “Every morning, he would make us read The Hindu aloud, often correcting our pronunciation and intonation. I would also listen to BBC keenly,” says Janaki. She sat for her Matriculation examination when she was pregnant and passed it in the first division.
Janaki’s early married life was fraught with difficulties, especially after her husband quit his job and they faced financial difficulties. After convincing her husband that she needed to work to support the family, she approached B.N. Reddy to accept his earlier offer. He suggested Janaki’s name for the Telugu film Shavukaru, made by his brother B. Nagi Reddy and Chakrapani, of the newly launched Vijaya Vauhini Studios. After a screen test, Janaki was selected to play the female lead, opposite N.T. Ramarao.
In 1952, Janaki forayed into Tamil cinema with T.R. Sundaram’s Valayapathi, a story based on one of the five classics of Sangam literature. There was no looking back after that. She essayed a wide range of roles – negative, humorous, naïve. “I always loved to play emotionally charged roles,” she says with a laugh.
Only twice in her career, Janaki recalls having asked directors for a role. First, for her début, and second, for a role in the Tamil remake of Meena Kumari’s Phool aur Pathar. “Oli Vilakku was finalised with MGR and Jayalalitha reprising the roles of Dharmendra and Sashikala. Someone suggested I call up and ask MGR to cast me in Meena Kumari’s role. With some hesitation, I did so. To my surprise, he immediately agreed.” “I got to do more satisfying projects in Tamil,” says Janaki, saying the Telugu industry did not recognise her talent. The veteran’s latest outing was the Karthi-Jyotika-starrer Thambi in 2019.
Two films that Janaki holds close to her heart are director K. Balchander’s Iru Kodugal (1969) and Kaviya Thalaivi (1970). “Suchitra Sen played the dual role of mother-daughter in the Bengali original and I produced Kaviya… I consider the film as one of my biggest achievements. Iru Kodugal was again a powerful role, remade in Telugu as Collector Janaki, with Jamuna in the title role,” she says wryly.
Her roles in Rajnikanth-starrer Thillu-Mullu (Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Golmaal), and as Chilakamma, speaking in Srikakulam dialect in Samsaram oka Chadarangam, were much talked about for her great comic sense.
Janaki’s culinary skills are legendary. She is known for the lunches and dinners she would host at her palatial home in Chennai. At a time when Sanjeev Kapoor’s Khana Khazana was the only cookery show on television in the mid-90s, Janaki hosted a cookery show called Ruchi-Abhiruchi, spread over 30 segments, on Gemini TV.
However, her dream of opening an Indian restaurant in California did not take off. “My children discouraged me, probably they thought it wasn’t becoming for a celebrity to run a restaurant,” she says. However, an opportunity did come her way when she stumbled upon an announcement in The Hindu about the popular restaurant Coconut Grove on Harrington Road being shut down. “I jumped at the chance and took the place on lease for three years between 1992 and 1995. Within the next six months, there wasn’t anybody who had not eaten at my Coconut Grove. I would prepare some 25 dishes every day with a staff of 50 to 60 chefs. I would procure fresh fish from Marina beach. Those three years were enough for me to prove a point to my children,” she says.
Separated from her husband after their children got married, Janaki says there was a void between them. “I didn’t spend much time with my husband. When I get home from shooting, there was nobody to talk to about my films or my work. I was just a mother. I’ve led a lonely life,” she says, stoically but with a touch of melancholy.
“Today, I have no responsibilities,” she says, confessing to being an incurable romantic, in love with nature now. “Life is uncertain. You have to exit when the curtain is down. Be prepared and go peacefully, that’s my only wish,” says the stalwart.
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