In Tamil director Bala’s Naachiyar, Jyothika plays the titular profanity-spouting commissioner of police whose mission is to secure justice for minor rape victim Arasi (Ivana). If rules are to be broken and suspects are to be tortured, so be it. The February 16 release has several problems – from its depiction of juvenile crime to its suggested punishment for rape – but what the movie does do is give Jyothika one of her most striking roles in a career that spans 43 movies.

Modelled somewhat on action heroines such as Vijayshanti and Malashree, Naachiyar says little and thrashes a lot. She carries a lot of righteous anger, but delivers no long sermons. She seethes with restless anger and a yearning for swift justice.

Naachiyar (2018).

Naachiyar continues the re-invention of Jyothika’s screen persona as a champion of women. In 36 Vayadhinile (2015), her first film after a five-year sabbatical, she plays a demure yet motivated housewife and entrepreneur who embarks on a journey of self-discovery after her husband and daughter migrate to Ireland and leave her behind. In Magalir Mattum (2017), Jyothika’s Prabhavati takes her mother-in-law (Urvashi) on a road-trip to meet her childhood friends. She is the catalyst who helps the women take a break from their drudgery and loneliness.

The chasm that exists between Naachiyar and Pallavi, the coquettish college student from her Hindi debut Doli Saja Ke Rakhna (1998), is huge. In her entry scene in Priyadarshan’s romantic drama, Pallavi is seen holding a pile of books that extends all the way up to her head. An inquisitive Inder (Akshaye Khanna) takes a book from the pile to get a look at her face. Pallavi looks scared and concerned – words that Anbuselvan (Suriya) also uses to describe Jyothika’s character Maya in the blockbuster Kaaka Kaaka (2009). He cites them as the qualities that drew him to her.

Magalir Mattum (2017).

Many of the older characters played by Jyothika yearned for love and marriage. They needed the assistance of their leading men to achieve domestic bliss. In Poovellam Kettupaar (1999), Janaki (Jyothika) and Krishna (Suriya) wear disguises to convince their warring families to let them get married. In Dumm Dumm Dumm (2001), Ganga (Jyothika) and Adithya (Madhavan) first collaborate to prevent their alliance and then work towards making it happen. Kushi (2000), which is considered her breakthrough, is a battle between two lovers and their struggle to accept their feelings for each other.

They may have looked vulnerable, but the women played by Jyothika were also outspoken and confident, even if marriage was the final goal. Jyothika’s spirited persona was superbly explored by Gautham Menon in Kaaka Kaaka. Her character Maya pursues and compels a reluctant Anbuselvan to reciprocate her feelings and marry her. She looks him in the eye and declares, “I want to cry in your arms. I want to always be madly in love with you. I want to make love to you.”

Kaaka Kaaka (2003).

In Sillunu Oru Kadhal (2006), Kundavi (Jyothika) attempts to bring back her husband’s former lover to make him happy. Her efforts as the dutiful wife end up bringing her husband closer to her. In Mozhi (2007), Jyothika plays Archana, a deaf-and-mute woman who initially shies away from marriage because she is worried that her child will be born with deficiencies. Of course, love prevails in the end.

Jyothika has more often than not played the stereotypical heroine, eager to break into a dance against the backdrop of the Alps or a Tamil village. She has also enthusiastically cheered on as the hero takes the centrestage. But flashes of her present feminist avatar are present in two films from the 2000s. In Priyadarshan’s Snegithiye (2000), college student Vasumati (Jyothika) and her friend bring closure to a rape victim. The more interesting instance is from 2003. The hugely forgettable Three Roses, starring Rambha, Jyothika and Laila, begins with a unique disclaimer by the three female characters. “Until now, when our heroes fought, we’ve hid behind trees and cheered for them,” Laila says. “When we were happy, we’ve sung a duet with them too.”

Jyothika joins in: “We’ve gone hungry for love and cried our hearts out lying on the bed. In the same bed, we’ve also dreamt about the hero and also fought with our parents for the sake of love. We have danced around trees in a duet song but now we have come to fight.”

Whatever else this knockoff of Charlie’s Angels does or does not achieve, the segment speaks directly to Jyothika’s exciting and promising present.

Snegithiye (2000).