Jayaram runs his fingers through the stubble on his head. He explains, “It’s for a Telugu film.” In Bhagmati, he plays a khadi-clad politician. It’s a completely new role for the comedy legend, who began his acting career at 22, and went on to make cult classics like Melepparambil Aanveedu, Sandesham, and Peruvannapurathe Visheshangal.
We’re not laughing right now, though. Jayaram has a mild cold and fever. And his last few films sank at the box-office. Even Aadupuliyattam, which had a fairly good run, was panned by critics. When we settle down, I can’t help but ask, “Is acting even fun anymore?” He retorts immediately, “I still stand in front of the camera with sweaty palms. It’s as fun and thrilling as it was 30 years ago when I appeared for my first shot in Aparan.”
30 years ago is when he moved from a small-town in Kerala to Chennai. A Chennai that has now doubled in traffic, crowd, and pollution. But, he insists, “Madras is my home. This is where my children grew up.” Of course, like every migrant parent, he wants his children to stay connected with their roots.
“I am a story-teller,” his eyes glint, “I tell them stories about my past.”
His memoir, Aanakkadhakal (Elephant Tales), describes the sleepy town he grew up in, Perumbavoor. A modest house near a temple, in front of which stood a majestic banyan tree; this was Jayaram’s world as a child. Under this tree, mahouts camped with their elephants during festival seasons. It’s a far cry from where he is now: with two Kerala State Awards, one Tamil Nadu State Award, four Filmfare Awards, and the Padma Shri (India’s fourth-highest civilian award) in his pocket.
It all began with Aparan.
A psycho-thriller, Aparan was directed by one of the most revered directors in Malayalam, P Padmarajan. Jayaram glows as he remembers the ‘80s and ‘90s, “It was the time of geniuses like Padmarajan, Bharathan, and Lohithadas. There were great writers, filmmakers, and technicians. Kollywood had the likes of K Balachander, Balu Mahendra, and Sridhar. It was a golden period.”
Actors make more money now, but there was more freedom then. Jayaram says, “Earlier, off-screen rapport between the actors was strong. During lunch breaks, we would lay down under the shade of trees for a nap.”
He pauses, “Today, we go and sit inside the caravan after every shot. No one is to be blamed. We are losing privacy. There are people waiting with their mobile cameras. In the last 14 years, I haven’t taken a dip in the river Pampa during my yearly pilgrimage to Sabarimala.
I don’t want my picture to go viral on Facebook with the caption, ‘Actor Jayaram’s bathing picture’.”
The years have made him cautious. He picks every word carefully, with measured political correctness. In 2014, one casual remark during a promotional event snowballed. In no time at all, an angry mob was attacking his house at night, demanding apologies.
“It’s a strange stage in life,” says Jayaram. “Most of my colleagues aren’t around anymore. Kuthiravattom Pappu, Oduvil Unnikrishnan, Philomina, Thilakan, Kalabhavan Mani, Sukumari, Kalpana…the list is endless. When you are over a certain age, this feeling slowly starts seeping in. A lot of people with whom you started your career aren’t around. Not just in career, in life too. Many familiar faces have disappeared. For one, Sainuddin, one of my closest friends and colleagues in mimicry and films, is long gone. Padmarajan was a father figure. When my movies fail, or when I am worried of not getting any good projects, I miss his presence. If he were here, I could just go to him.”
A lot is missing, but not everything. He says, “After every film, I come back to this house and hole up. I cut myself off from acting and movies. I have no friends in the industry. The person I confide in is my wife.” He met Parvathy, a former actress, on the sets of Aparan. Gradually, friendship turned into love. In Kamal’s 1990 classic Shubhayatra (Happy Journey), the duo played a married couple from Kerala, struggling to build a life of their own in Bombay.
Two years after the movie released, Jayaram and Parvathy were married.
His mother, Tamil by birth, was raised in Kumbhakonam. Jayaram laughingly recalls, “She was a staunch fan of Malayalam films. Perhaps, the biggest ever fan of actress Sharada. Her movies, Thulabharam and Swayamvaram were mother’s favourites.
At my wedding, Sharada was one of the guests. Amma was so star-struck that she even forgot that it was her son’s wedding.”
Jayaram himself is a fan of Prem Nazir, an actor he loves doing impressions of. “The adulation began even before I entered movies,” says Jayaram. He went on to act with Nazir in Dhwani. “During the shoot of Manassinakkare, Sheela, my co-star who has acted with Nazir in over 200 films, told Sathyan Anthikkad that I reminded her of Prem Nazir. That was a unique compliment,” he smiles.
Finally, we saw him talking to a group of Malayalee tourists, giving them autographs. I overheard him telling them that he had many film offers lined up. I was so amused. What a fine liar!”
Kalidas’ second movie, Ente Veedu, Appoontem (My Home, Appu’s Too) was so heartbreaking that Jayaram still hasn’t watched it fully. Jayaram says, “It’s about a kid who murders his baby brother by accident. A role that could cause emotional trauma to the child. Parvathy and I were confused about letting him act. Honestly, I have never watched that movie till the end. It’s so heartbreaking. But surprisingly, Kannan (Kalidas’ pet name) had the intelligence to treat it professionally. He knew it was cinema and not anything more”.
At just 10, the boy whose parents had once thought he couldn’t act, won a National Award for the Best Child Artiste, for his performance in Ente Veedu, Appoontem.
“I think he always knew what he wanted to become. He would enact scenes in front of his sister, who would later, come tell us about his hidden talents. We didn’t know he had a skill to do impressions until his friends from college told us. I am happy with his choice.”
Jayaram, who is best known for comedy, thinks it’s the hardest act to pull off, “I think humour is everyone’s favourite genre. Comic scenes are the toughest to perform. At a regular shooting location, there will be hundreds of onlookers. The rapport between the actors definitely improves the scenes. Those days, we all used to read scripts together, rehearse together before the actual take. We could improvise a lot.”
This is certainly true of one close friend and colleague – Kamal Haasan. Jayaram has collaborated with him in a number of movies, like Panchathanthiram, Thenali and the recent Uttama Villain. “The jokes in Panchathanthiram were mostly impromptu. Someone would crack a joke in between the scene and we would all laugh over it,” he says. The camaraderie between the duo goes back to their younger days, “I think it was humour that bonded us.
I know the kind of jokes that would crack him up, and vice versa. Our off-screen relationship work wonders in the movies we work together.”
When I point out that many felt he outperformed Kamal Haasan in their combination scenes in Uthama Villain, Jayaram smiles, “That scene where I tell him about his daughter, that was shot in a single take.”
Jayaram, a former mimicry artist, makes acting look like a barrel of laughs. So, when he talks about some of his toughest scenes, it’s surprising, “It was the climax scene of Siddique’s Friends. It was shot in Coonoor, near Ooty. Mukesh and I get into a scuffle at the edge of a cliff. For some reason, we shot it the old-fashioned way, instead of using VFX. I was made to hang onto a bamboo pole at the edge of the steep, dangerous cliff.” He laughs, “Now when I think of it, I wonder why I hadn’t refused to do that. That scene was tough, physically.
“More recently, in director Kamal’s Nadan, I played a theatre artiste. Just days before shooting that particular scene, my mother passed away. I went ahead and shot the scene before I could recover from that trauma.” Jayaram pauses, “I had always thought I could safely separate myself from the characters I play.
That day, I realised it isn’t always possible. Sometimes, our grief becomes the character’s. The tears you see in that scene in Nadan, they’re real.”
Jayaram was once the proud owner of an elephant. In fact, the elephant was named after his son (Kannan). Not everyone was pleased, he says, “I had a hard time with the animal welfare group and other organisations. It was like a witch hunt. I was criticised for no reason.”
“Elephants are a part of our culture. Kerala is a state where elephants are given the best treatment. We consider them equal to God. The people who criticise me don’t realise this,” he says. “They say we should leave elephants in the forest. In 1977, the government banned elephant trapping. Now, the elephant population has gone beyond what the forest can take. The animals have no food in the forest, so they raid villages.”
“I loved watching them,” he says. The burst of energy in his voice vouches that. “Among them, two elephants, Raveendran and Savithri, were my favourites. We used to call them Prem Nazir and Sheela,” he says. After the demise of Raveendran, he obtained the forest departments’ permission to preserve his tusks. They adorn Jayaram’s living room now.
“My only regret is that I couldn’t stay with him (Kannan, the elephant) all the time. He was taken care of by my workers in Perumbavoor,” he says.
Jayaram is also a well-known percussionist. He has performed chenda at several stages in and outside the country. “I practice chenda everyday. For the past three weeks, I have been learning to play drums. Drummer Sivamani’s brother is my trainer.”
This is another side to Jayaram’s persona. He is in love with journeys, forests, and the wilderness. “We spent five days inside Rathambore wildlife sanctuary recently,” he tells me, “We have been to all the forest ranges in India: North, West, North-East, everywhere. We spent last Christmas on top of Mount Alps. In a tent.”
Then, he spills yet another secret. His love for photography. He shows me the photographs from his journeys. His eyes twinkle with excitement, “Some day, I hope to show this to the world.”