It all looks official. Janaki Sabesh has a paper in hand, conversing with her team. A few heads turn in recognition. A man walks up to her, tells her he loved her in Gilli, she was so funny as Vijay’s young mother. Janaki says thank you, still surprised that people in Kerala know her Tamil movies so well. But she has been in Thiruvananthapuram, attending the IFFK, as an official of QUBE, the technical partner of the festival. She tells people not to ask her about the movies at the festival because she couldn’t watch any, she and her team had to make sure there were no glitches in any of the screenings. But then she politely agrees for photos and talks with all who recognise her.
It is not just the funny mother roles in Tamil cinema, there was one little-noticed ‘Chithi’ in Mohanlal’s Photographer. Ranjan Pramod, the director, is a dear friend, and she had loved the film. Janaki surprises you by speaking her Malayalam bits with a tiny accent. "My mom is from Thrissur and dad is from Kochi. We are all from Palakkad – Tamilians settled in Palakkad," she says. Every December she is in Kerala. "We have been partners of the IFFK for more than eight years. This year, we were also the technical partner in IFFI, Goa. And now the Chennai fest has started," Janaki says, a day after she has gone back to Chennai.
She is travelling again to Jodhpur, but this time in an entirely different avatar – as a storyteller, to attend a literary festival. If you have to put an order to all her jobs, it starts with acting, something she never thought she would do. She had done theatre in Delhi – there was a paper on theatre for her Masters in Mass Communication. But it is quite by accident she landed in Minsarakanavu, directed by Rajiv Menon. Two years later, she found herself starting a corporate job. "I have been with the company for nearly two decades. Was part of the digital revolution. Before 2005, there was no digital and we used to go and convince theatre owners to convert to digital," she says. But she is a ‘totally marketing person’, she says.
In movies, she has been choosy about her roles – 28 films in 23 years. She didn’t want to be typecast but she loved that her roles were mostly laced with comedy. When Jeans came, she had asked director Shankar if she wasn’t too young to play Aishwarya Rai’s mother. "He said he wants me to be a young mother. After Jeans, there started a trend, shattering the image of a mother. It started the whole idea of a young mother – mothers who don’t have wrinkled faces and grey hair. Here was a lady wearing salwar kameez!" Janaki says, still looking the same as she did 20 years ago. Jeans, Gilli, the Singam series all saw her play mother to stars. She didn’t mind playing the mother. "I am not in the race. It is purely by chance I got into the industry. I had no fairy godmother or father. My father taught me to never say no to an opportunity. It is a chance to prove myself. In retrospect, all that has been helping me do my storytelling better. Storytelling is the sum of all my experiences," says Janaki. She is happy when she is recognised by children as that storyteller aunty, and not an actor. She has then a halo around her head, she jokes.
It is when Geeta Ramanujam of Kathalaya, a prominent storyteller, came to her office for a lecture, that Janaki realised this is her calling. She had published a series for children called The Learning Train – Mathematics made simpler through rhymes. She used to go to ‘kutty kutty places to sing along for children on weekends’. And then Geeta impressed her so much she went to train under her and evolved her own style. Starting from home with one or two children and then going to schools, tying up with publishing houses. Her daughter is her creative co-founder, she says happily.
All this has happened to her, she believes like Paulo Coehlo, because the universe conspires. Now, she is part of a web series too, Black Sheep. "I have just been at the right place at the right time. I just wanted to drive a car, be happy and bubbly. That is what I bring into the workplace. I’ve been very fortunate to bring the same on the screen. ‘You just have to come on screen and we start laughing’, I have heard so many people say." They do on the sets too, when they see her. She is just as funny in life. That’s her biggest gift, and Janaki cannot think of a life without humour.