Janagaraj, who is back on screen after 10 years in the Prem Kumar directed 96, talks about the kind of comedy he would like to indulge in, keeping with the times. He knows what received acceptance – and even acclaim – back in the 80s and early 90s – will never work now. That’s why, Janagaraj tells us, he considers himself a newcomer. It makes it easy for him, without having to lapse into ‘enga kaalathula [back in our time]…’
Janagaraj is alive and well. And, he wants everyone to know that. The celebrated actor is back after a brief hiatus, during which rumour-mongers spread news of his death. He doesn’t mind the news so much as the ill intent behind it. “But, why do they want me dead is the question. Yes, I am old. Yes, I was away for a while. That doesn’t mean I’m gone, no? I am like Kabali in that sense. Thirumba vandhuttennu sollu should be my punch dialogue. Rajinikanth was once a good friend. I am sure he wouldn’t mind if I borrow this line for a while.”
Who knows, the actor may even use it as material for his upcoming films. “Not that I have signed a lot of films,” he is quick to point out. “But, it would make for a good copy, illaya?”
The actor says that Dha Dha 87, in which he shares screen-space with Charuhaasan, was meant to be his comeback film. When the director Vijay Sri approached him for the role, Janakaraj wondered why the filmmaker was risking casting him. “Unakku en pa indha velai?” [Why would you do something like this?] he asked him.
The young filmmaker persisted, telling him that he wanted only Janagaraj in the role. Because, no one else would suit it. “He was very insistent. I was enjoying my retirement. Sunny skies, a lot of time to myself, no rehearsals. No scripts. Importantly, no interviews,” he laughs. “It was truly my vasantha kaalam [spring]. But, Vijay wanted me to come back to this space again. Only God knows why,” he says.
The night before his first shot for Dha Dha 87, Janagaraj was a little nervous. He couldn’t sleep (“It was an early call sheet”) and spent the night reassuring himself that everything was going to be fine. “Before Dha Dha 87 came to me, I had listened to a few scripts, but none really impressed me. I didn’t want to do everything that came my way. I understood that it was time to be very selective. So, after a long wait, to actually start work again made me feel a little flustered. I was out of touch with the trends in cinema. A new crop of young men and women with new ideas is in the field. I am an old man. I didn’t know how I could cope with the demands. Thankfully, Vijay sat me down and explained that the film was about old men.”
Ultimately, Janagaraj struggles with being relevant. Much of his nervousness stems from this fact. “I feel like that person I was when I first started out. I choose to think I am a newcomer now; it’s easier with this new perspective. I can accept a lot of things that way. As an established artist, acceptance is not easy. You tend to interpret everything from the experience you have built over the years. Everything begins and ends with ‘Enga Kaalathula…[During our time…]’. It complicates the process.”
In this new avatar, Janagaraj has shed much of his mannerisms. That iconic laugh, for one. There won’t be many jokes pegged on his thangachiya naai kadichiruchu type of comedy, for another. “That comedy was in line with what was happening at the time. Everybody used to rejoice when the wife went back to her mother’s place. Now, I feel that is not right. So, I won’t be paying lip service to my past successes. I will be doing new things.”
This has the potential to pan out differently, Janagaraj admits. “The audience expects me to be the same. Nobody likes change. But, if they see the same things I did a decade or so ago, they will be bored. They will say that Janagaraj has not changed at all. With new things, I can visualise a different ending. And, that gives me hope.”
For the upcoming 96, Janagaraj tapped into his inner child to play a watchman. “Director Prem Kumar told me an interesting thing. He said that the watchmen of schools occupy such cherished spaces in our minds because they are childlike. This fascinated me. My role in the movie does not use any of my mannerisms. It is a dramatic role. I am a mentor-like figure to young Ram.”
The actor says it is always easy to lean on the kind of acting that has fetched him acclaim. “But, I am in a reckless mood. I want to showcase something different. Somewhere along the way, I will win you all over again.”
Janagaraj adds that he has done this before. His first few films had him in dramatic roles. And then, he found himself enamoured by the work of Peter Sellers. “I liked the fact that he kept his comedy simple and clean. I couldn’t do much about the clean part, so I kept it simple. I am a cheeky man. I like to intersperse my dialogues with something that adds a twist to it. Sellers wouldn’t approve of much of my work, but ultimately it is a homage to him.”
Of all his films, it is his work in Valayal Saththam that Janagaraj holds close to his heart. And, in typical Janagaraj style, it has his irrepressible humour. “The dialogue went ‘vandhavalum seriyilla, vechavalum seriyilla‘. When we went for the take, I said, ‘pakkathu veetukariyum seriyilla’. Everybody broke into laughter. That was a special moment. But it doesn’t get the kind of adulation my ‘pondatti oorukku poiduche’ does.”
The actor does admit that it wouldn’t be in line with what the audience considers acceptable today. “The times are changing, we have to swim. Or sink. I am a strong swimmer.”
96, starring Vijay Sethupathi, Trisha, Janagaraj and others, releases tomorrow.
The Janagaraj interview is a Silverscreen exclusive.