Fingers artistically poised on her chin, while her short, grey and wavy hair — though not flying dramatically in the wind — brings out her charming personality; finding it uncomfortable to pose for the camera, she asks me to chat with her. Believe it or not, this camera-shy woman is veteran actor Sowcar Janaki! Has partha gnabagam illayo magically surfaced your mind yet?
The stunningly cute Sowcar has been a milestone along the path of women empowerment, and in the glamorous film industry. She is also an inspiration to all women who know even the smallest details of her life story. Hoping to uncover more tidbits of her experiences, City Express caught up with her for an hour-long chat, where we discussed the little things in life and the evolution of the Tamil film industry.
But before we get there, here’s a brief about Sowcar (for those who need their facts refreshed and for the unfortunate ones who don’t know her too well). Sowcar was born in 1931. Her family was an outcast as her father refused to abide by certain age-old traditions. Like her dad, Sowcar turned out to be a rebel (more on this later). With her strong command of English — thanks to her daily reading of an English newspaper under the strict supervision of her father — Sowcar was a popular radio jockey.
Hooked by her voice at the age of 15, director B N Reddy offered her a role in his film. Excited, she shared the news with her family, but it wasn’t received well. She was quickly married and sent away. Later, her family was desperately in need of money, and Sowcar remembered the film offer. With her three-month-old baby, she went to Reddy, but he had already finished working on his film. To make ends meet, she asked for help and he directed her to his brother. Thus came the first — Shavukar (1949) — of hundreds of films.
Shunned by directors many times for her stout stature, she found a place in the Tamil Film industry with actors including Sivaji Ganesan, MGR, Kamal Hassan and Rajinikanth.
We ask Sowcar, who looks no older than 60, how she managed her work-life balance. She was a grandmother at the peak of her career! “As a child, I wasn’t allowed to watch films and there was a lot of social stigma. But I let my kids do whatever they wanted. I didn’t interfere with their lives, but I’d be strict enough so that they wouldn’t lie to me. If anyone fell sick, I’d leave a nurse at home if it wasn’t possible to cancel my shoot. I made it a point to be free on weekends. I gave my everything to my career — not out of passion, but to support my family needs. I wanted them to have good education, food and shelter. After giving them a bath every weekend, they’d quarrel over who would sleep in my bed that night,” she recalls.
Sowcar was a great cook and would bring food to the sets for the cast. Sivaji Ganesan’s favourite was her kathurika kozhambu. “He would tease his wife saying she couldn’t cook it like me,” she laughs. “Those days, the film industry was a family! There was good rapport and no back-biting. I had the liberty to choose my costumes if I didn’t like any. For the song Partha Gnyabagam Illayo, for instance, I wore a saree I bought abroad. We would encourage each other during reading rehearsals. The industry began to change in the 70s when films started getting commercialised.”
Sowcar says she’s “terribly disappointed” by how the industry has changed. “Nowadays, people keep you waiting all day and finally pack up without taking the shot. How difficult is it to be decent?” she rues.
Did you know that Gemini Ganesan was quite a prankster and her most comfortable co-actor was Sivaji Ganesan? He would watch her act on the monitor and praise her. No doubt, they looked wonderful together on screen. “He would compliment me in public using superlatives. I’d be thrilled! We would always rehearse together. If my character needed a little over-acting, he would tone down his and vice versa. It was a challenge working with the great actor! If they remember Sivaji Ganesan, they remember me,” smiles Sowcar, who has done about 387 films in Hindi, Bengali, Malayalam and Telugu.
As a rebel, she handled criticism and discrimination with dignity. How did she have the guts to perform bold roles while being a mother and a grandmother? “Life is something beautiful and I don’t regret anything. My father was a rebel, and I’m like him. We used to have troubling renting a house because no one wanted us. But it didn’t matter. I’ve been a good citizen and mother.”
Sowcar may be 85, but her spirit is still young. A testament to women empowerment, Sowcar says in her powerful voice, “We take our own decisions and don’t need anyone dictating terms to us women.”