Festive Special: Diwali is all about family and friends, says Janani Iyer
Amidst a setting of colourful arches and aathangudi tiles at Paati Veedu (a restaurant that specialises in traditional South Indian dishes), actress Janani Iyer, who recently rose to fame as one of the four finalists of Bigg Boss Tamil 2, poses for our lensman, in a special Diwali-themed cover shoot, styled by upcoming celebrity stylist Swarupa Sathakarni. The actress, who looks lovely in a pink sari teamed with a green peplum blouse, and sparkling diamond jewellery, lights up not just the diya in her hands, but also the room, with her infectious smile. “Diwali is all about family and films,” she begins. “I am a huge Vijay fan and I am looking forward to seeing his film Sarkar on screen. Last year too, I began Diwali day watching his film Mersal, at 7 am! So for me, Diwali essentially means spending time with family, watching films and eating sweets,” says the Chennai-based actress, who has acted in both Tamil and Malayalam films.
Diwali back in the day
Although her father’s family hails from Pudukkottai, Janani says she is a Chennai ponnu all the way. “All my Diwali memories are here in Chennai. We wake up early in the morning, mom makes us the traditional Diwali leghiyam (potion) and we take an oil bath, post which we do a puja and wear our new clothes,” says Janani, adding with a laugh, “I was a bit of a prankster when I was a kid. The night before Diwali, the kids in my colony and I would gather and chart out a plan as to which old uncle-aunty we would wake up early in the morning with crackers. Then we would place a loud atom bomb cracker or one of those ribbon crackers, like the 1,000-wala, outside their house in the wee hours of the morning, light them up, and wake the elders up. But of course, our plans to get away with it often backfired because we would invariably be scolded.” Sadly, her love for crackers faded away after a while, due to a fire accident. “When I was in the eighth grade, one of the flower pot crackers burst in my hand, and I was badly injured. I had blisters all over my hand for weeks, and couldn’t even write my exams. After that I have stayed away from crackers till date,” she confesses.
Janani, who started off as a model, shot to fame in 2011, when she played the female lead in director Bala’s film, Avan Ivan. Having acted only in a handful of films after that, the notable ones being Thegidi (2014), Adhe Kangal (2017) and Balloon (2017), Janani admits that her film career did not really take off as she expected. “That is why Bigg Boss Tamil 2 was such a huge platform for me,” she says, adding, “I was approached to do the show for Season One itself, but the timing was all wrong. So this time when the opportunity arose, I did not want to let it go.” She agrees that doing the show was a calculated risk. “I was missing from the big screen for a while, so I wanted that exposure. And I wanted to reach every household. In fact, I was telling Kamal sir (Haasan, who hosts the show) that if he can use the show as a medium to reach out to people for his political agenda, then actors like us doing the show to gain exposure need not necessarily be a bad thing,” she explains.
“I also wanted to do the show for giving my career a boost,” she says, adding, “I wanted directors out there to know that I am a Tamil-speaking heroine, I can read and write Tamil. I also wanted them to get a glimpse of my behaviour off-screen, and have them see me without makeup.” The gamble seems to have paid off. “The response has been amazing, especially from families and little kids who come up to take pictures with me. Work-wise, my phone has been ringing non-stop and I am busier than ever,” says Janani, adding that she has three scripts that she has checked out, two of which she will end up working on. “I hope to make an announcement real soon,” she promises.
In the house, Janani was often referred to as ‘vesha (poison) bottle’, a tag that she laughs off easily. “It was all done in good humour. And many would have known by now, who the real vesha bottles were,” she adds, as we sit down for refreshments post the shoot. As piping plates of paniyaarams and bajjis arrive, Janani reaches out for the molaga bajjis and recalls, “We used to crave bajjis inside the house. Rations were limited and a lot of planning went into deciding how to portion out supplies, so they lasted the entire week. Milk was always in short supply. We used to literally beg them to send us milk packets, but they wouldn’t pay heed to anything that we said. In fact, a lot of arguments used to happen with the kitchen team only because of the rationing of supplies.” Janani, of course, was known for being diplomatic and not taking sides with anyone while inside the house. “It wasn’t a strategy or anything of that sort. I wasn’t familiar with the show’s format, unlike some others. So, I genuinely did not know how to strategise or plan or get involved. It is just the way I am,” she explains.
Queen of the kitchen
One thing Janani is thankful for, she says, is that she was able to learn a wee bit of cooking. “I was someone who did not even know how to light a gas stove,” she says, exchanging meaningful glances with her mother sitting next to her. “Tell them how well I make dosas now, Ma,” she urges as her mother laughs and nods saying, “She used to fuss about eating fruits, especially bananas. All that has changed now. She even helps me out in the kitchen occasionally,” her mother adds.
New habits die hard
Apart from eating bananas and fruits which she never did before she came on the show, Janani lets us in on a few habits she formed during the show that she still, more than a month later, finds it hard to shake off. “These days, I need a wake-up song every morning to actually get up. I had the habit of wishing ‘good morning’ to the camera directly above me, and even now the first thing I do is look up, once I am awake.
I constantly search for my mic, which almost became a part of my attire, for all the days I was in the house. After coming out of the house, I was so dazed. Mahat, Riythvika, Aishwarya and I were all invited by Simbu for a special screening of his film Chekka Chivantha Vaanam and I remember having difficulty following the dialogues in the film. It was like the Bigg Boss house was a different world and reality was something else altogether,” she admits. As we wind up with piping hot cups of filter coffee, we cannot help but ask if she will ever do reality TV again. “Never again! I want to focus on films for now,” she signs off.
As Janani admits, she is someone who wasn’t familiar with even the basics of cooking. “When I was in the kitchen team, it was my fellow contestants like Ramya, and particularly Mumtaz, who helped me out,” she says. She recalls the solo cooking challenge set by Maggi as one of her most challenging moments on the show. “I was asked to make ven pongal and I had no idea what to do. I had to take my competitor Viji’s help to even figure out the ingredients,” she adds.
Janani and Mahat’s friendship was one of the talking points of the show. During his anger spells, Janani was one of the people in the house who could calm him down. “I knew Mahat before coming on the show itself. But on the show, he used to get angry for even small things, so I made the effort to calm him down and make peace.” The two, she admits, are still in touch. “After I was evicted, one of the first films I caught up on was Chekka Chivantha Vaanam, and I watched the show with him, too.”
Janani says that although being on the show for over 100 days was taxing, considering that the contestants had no contact with their families, it was fellow contestant Mumtaz (fondly called Momo) who stood in for everyone’s mom. Although the two share a close relationship now, Janani says things were not always smooth. “There have been arguments between me and Momo, and I used to close my ears and walk away. That is exactly what I do when I argue