Tamil movie star Jyotika had a string of big hits and acclaimed roles in the late 1990s and 2000s. When she stepped out of the arclights in 2006 after marrying Suriya, her frequent co-star, she left a void that perhaps only she could fill.

The 42-year-old actor’s comeback was in 2015, with 36 Vaithyanile. The Malayalam movie How Old Are You? (2014), on which it was based, had been designed as a comeback for Manju Warrier. The Tamil remake helped Jyotika fulfill her ambition to headline movies in which she played age-appropriate lead roles, rather than being a supportive glam prop. In subsequent films, including Magalir Mattum, Naachiyaar, Kaatrin Mozhi (a Tamil remake of the Vidya Balan-led Tumhari Sulu), Raatchasi and Jackpot (co-starring Revathi), Jyotika has been at the front and centre of the narrative.

Jyotika 2.0 is arguably more interesting than the previous version. Her latest film sees her slip back into crusader mode. In Ponmagal Vandhal, Jyotika plays a lawyer who defends a serial killer. The movie, which has been produced by Suriya’s company 2D Entertainment, was to have been released in March. Instead, the closure of cinemas across the country because of the novel coronavirus pandemic led to a release through Amazon Prime Video on May 29 – a move that Jyotika hails as a gamechanger for Tamil films with potentially risky subjects.

Ponmagal Vandhal marks the directorial debut of JJ Frederick. Its cast includes such Tamil cinema veterans as R Parthiban, K Bhagyaraj, Prathap Pothen, Pandiarajan and Thiagarajan. In an interview with Scroll.in, Jyotika explained why she took a punt on a film with a novice director and how she expects the new and fruitful phase in her career to roll out.

What drew you to ‘Ponmagal Vandhal’, which has been written and directed by a first-time filmmaker?
It was definitely the message – it is something that needs to be said. There have been cases of children being abducted and women being abused and being raped for years, even during the [novel coronavirus] pandemic. It was something that had disturbed me emotionally, and I would talk about it at home. This social message needs to be highlighted, and it came as a film.

This young boy, a new director, walked in with a script, and I felt that it needed to be made, since cinema has a high impact. We have dialogue that questions the law in an appropriate way, which asks why there is a delay in justice.

Plus, it’s a lawyer’s role. For years there, there haven’t been films about lawyers, not even for the men. Ajith did play one recently [in Nerkonda Paarvai, the Tamil remake of the Hindi-language Pink]. But we haven’t had a courtroom drama, and one with a female lawyer.

Ponmagal Vandhal (2020).

And yet, it is a risk to take – to be in a film with an untested director.
Debutant directors have so much more spunk. They are more forward with the way they write, and they are not following a pattern for a script. They are bold and precise about what they want to say. They are there for the content that will result in a film. I am also keen on striking a chord with a new generation.

We have had a new breed of writers and directors in the past few years making some excellent films, like Pariyerum Perumal, Ratsasan and 96. But it is still a challenge when it comes to non-star films or women-centric films. It is changing – we had the film Kanna recently, with Aishwarya Rajesh.

The premiere of ‘Ponmagal Vandhal’ on Amazon Prime Video not only further opens up Tamil cinema to wider audiences, but also brings in younger crowds, does it not?
It is a brilliant platform. In Tamil Nadu, we don’t have too many multiplexes, so smaller-content films and women-centric films have smaller audiences. Content-driven films still need the backing of a big banner.

These platforms give the content the respect it deserves and fill a gap. We can gauge this from the trailer – it got 20 million views in two days. None of my films has had that kind of reach on social media.

Such movies deserve a proper release, since five times the effort goes into content-driven films over commercial films. They have fewer days to shoot. For instance, we shot the courtroom drama portions in Ponmagal Vandhal over nine days. We would go in with 35-40 pages of dialogue and finish our scenes. These films deserve much more, and OTT platforms are a boon. People across languages will be watching.

36 Vayadhinile (2015).

Since 2015, you have been a top-billed performer, with scripts revolving around your characters. To what do you attribute this major shift in the representation of Tamil actresses?
I think this is my journey as a woman. In all fields, a woman has to struggle and has to put in ten times more of an effort than a man.

I am also a mother of two kids. I would also like to spread the right message. It starts at home, and I want to take to the cinema. I want to make my daughter feel that she is as important as my son. In fact, I stop them from watching a lot of films [with poorly-written female characters]. I sit back and think, why don’t we have films that we can watch together? I want to be an example to my kids.

In the eight-odd years that I wasn’t working, there were very few woman-centric films except, perhaps, Mynah, starring Amala Paul. Whenever I went to a theatre to watch a film, I would see women shown in a bad light or wearing skimpy clothes. It was all about making films for men. The woman would always be behind the man.

I would feel very embarrassed at being a woman, I would feel dejected and low. I thought that being Suriya’s wife and having the opportunity, I can and I must take up roles that explore how women are in real life. Women multi-task in such a big way, they work and they run their households. Why are they shown as unintelligent?

All of this needs to be said. A social message is the need of the hour. Luckily, my first film that came out [36 Vaiyadhinile], did well and it was accepted by audiences. We didn’t know at the time how the film would fare. Nobody said, you are Suriya’s wife, sit down.

Jyothika’s speech at the JFW Awards in 2017.

You have frequently played a crusader in your recent films. Are you getting a variety of scripts to choose from?
I am getting a range, and I am looking for a range. There is a tendency to typecast. After I did a cop films, Naachiyaar, I got a lot of cop scripts. I am trying to pick a variety of roles, films in which women stand in a different light. In one of my upcoming films, I play a rural woman who faces a very different kind of battle. There is depth in her silence.

When will we see you and Suriya in a movie together?
We have left that open-ended. It is all about what content and script come to us. Nobody has written anything worthy yet.

Uyirin Uyire, Kaakha Kaakha (2003).