Renowned South Indian actor Jayanthi died on Monday at her Bengaluru residence. She was 76.
Her son Krishna Kumar told Bangalore Times that the actor died in her sleep, and that she had been dealing with age-related ailments for the past few years.
Her fans called her “Abhinaya Sharadhe”, the goddess of acting. Known for her work in Kannada, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam cinema, Jayanthi made her debut at the age of 14 in YR Swamy’s Kannada film Jenu Goodu (1963). She acted in more than 500 films in a career spanning 50 years. She also appeared in films in Hindi and Marathi. Her most recent appearance was in the Netflix series Brown Nation in 2016.
She was born on January 6, 1945, as Kamala Kumari. A byword for glamour in the 1960s and 1970s, Jayanthi’s on-screen pairing with Kannada star Rajkumar was immensely popular. The duo acted in 45 films together.
The film that catapulted Jayanthi to stardom was MR Vittal’s Miss Leelavathi (1965). Her performance as the titular rebel won her the President’s award too. This is also the film that earned Jayanthi the title of a “glam diva” for her westernised costumes. The swimsuit made its debut in Kannada cinema with Miss Leelavathi.
In the late 1960s, Jayanthi played a variety of roles across genres in Kannada cinema – from the mythological to the modern – with remarkable ease. She simultaneously made her debut in Tamil cinema with Vedantam Raghavaiah’s 1962 folklore film Mangaiyar Ullam Mangatha Selvam. Jayanthi played an underwater princess in the movie.
A string of small roles and cameos followed, leading up to one of her first big roles in Tamil in Joseph Thaliath Jr’s 1966 drama Kaadal Paduthum Paadu. The breakthrough came in 1968 in K Balachander’s Ethir Neechal, in which she played the mentally challenged Paaru.
In 1968, Jayanthi also appeared in SS Vasan and SS Balan’s Hindi film Teen Bahuraniyan, followed by a small role in Pramod Chakravorty’s Tum Se Accha Kaun Hai (1969).
Back in Karnataka, Jayanthi’s on-screen chemistry with Rajkumar was widely appreciated in the hit films of the 1970s, including Paropakari (1970), Kasturi Nivasa (1970) and Kula Gaurava (1971).
In 1973, Jayanthi delivered one of the most memorable performances of her career as Madhavi, the wife of an ex-Army veteran in Puttanna Kanagal’s Edakallu Guddada Mele. The war cripples Madhavi’s husband. The young and feisty Manju (Chandru) moves into their neighbourhood and Madhavi finds herself drawn to him despite herself.
“I had outrightly rejected Puttu’s (Puttanna Kanagal) offer as I did not like the story at all,” Jayanthi had told Deccan Herald. “I also feared that people will reject such a story. After his repeated pleas, I agreed and he made a brilliant film which also won the State award.”
Kanagal’s film featured memorable songs, one of which is the opening song Viraha, in which a lovelorn and lonely Madhavi sets the tone for the film.
The prolific actress continued to appear in Telugu and Malayalam films while headlining many important Kannada films. Jayanthi delivered another memorable performance in another Puttanna Kanagal film, Masanada Hoovu (1984), in which she played Tara Devi, a brothel owner. Kanagal crafted Tara Devi’s character beautifully, and Jayanthi played the part with finesse.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, as Jayanthi grew older, she selected age-appropriate roles in such films as Belli Modagalu (1992) and Gopala Gopala (1996).
Jayanthi was renowned for her ability to mould herself according to the changing trends in cinema. But she most fondly remembered the early days of her career. “In our times we had a strong sense of unity and a pure sense of (the medium),” she told The Hindu. “When we would wind up the first schedule of a shoot and then get together again after a week for the second schedule, we would have tears in our eyes. We would miss each other. We sat down and ate together. Directors treated us like their children. We were like family. There was so much respect.”