Sahithya Jagannathan was just 16 when she told her parents that she didn’t want to get married. As a young, impressionable woman, it was life-changing for her when Sushmita Sen won the case to be able to legally adopt in the country. That was the very first time that the idea of children and starting a family was dissociated from the idea of marriage.
Although it was the starting point for her to question norms, her choices did ruffle a few feathers along the way. “I come from an uber-conservative Tamizh family. The fact that I’m wearing a dress or that I wanted to do the same things as my brother, was a lot for everyone to stomach. But my mother was my absolute warrior my entire life. She’s been someone I’ve looked up to, and who braved battles that I didn’t even know about until recently, just for me to live the life that I’ve always wanted.”
Her career trajectory as a model started off when she walked into a store and got asked to enter the Miss Chennai pageant. “It was literally like Miss Congeniality! Until then my idea of makeup was moisturiser. I’d never worn a dress or heels before. My mother thought learning to groom myself and some essential soft skills would always come in handy. But I went on to win the pageant and discovered that it was something I loved to do. It changed my life.”
Jagannathan represented India at the World Miss University pageant and recalls how winning the ‘Miss Speech’ sub-contest was special -- from being called a ‘vaayadi’ (chatterbox) as a child, she was now winning titles for her spoken skills. She was also part of Miss India 2014 and has acted in a few Telugu and Tamil movies. “Gradually, I became the model who spoke too much. It also helped that I came from a journalism background. I was writing columns for national publications and able to juggle my modelling and journalism career at the same time.” She also hosted stage shows and television spots on Star Sports and Sun TV. “What I really love about being on stage is the energy with which you get to connect with so many people. I live for human connection and I love what I do.”
When Jagannathan met MC, actor and voice artiste, Cary Edwards, nearly a decade ago, the couple decided to move in together based purely on the idea of commitment without the need for the external validation of a marriage certificate. “I’m honest with my family and friends about how I live my life. I’m open to healthy criticism and reasonable conversation. So, I had multiple conversations with my parents and they finally accepted my decision. But it was from the extended circle that I started receiving brickbats about my decisions. Indian cinema does not help at all. The people depicted in live-in relationships only want to do it because they want to party, have sex, because it’s illicit and illegal, and there’s something wrong with it.”
Jagannathan has always wanted to be a mother. She was just three years old when she decided she wanted a boy called Tom Thumb and a girl called Thumbelina. In 2021, she and her partner gave birth to twin babies – a boy and a girl. “So, it’s almost like the dream came true, but thank God I got better at naming the babies,” she chuckles.
Being a public figure, however, the joy of motherhood was clouded with harsh judgement from outsiders and vicious trolling. “The online trolling went a bit far – right from my pregnancy announcement, people were photoshopping me with horns or using unsavoury words. I’ve been called a Hindu traitor for being in a relationship with someone who is perceived as Christian. I’ve been told I’m ruining Indian and Tamil culture. Then when my children were born, they were called ‘illicit’ and ‘illegal’, and the fact that they’re born out of marriage means that they’re somehow ‘less’ than other children.”
Did she ever feel she was setting up a harder life for her kids? “I don’t think so. We live in a world where your home, family and the circle that you create is the only safe space you can control. As soon as you go out in the world, no matter what choices you make, you will be criticised. We’re doing what makes sense to us. We’re doing what makes us happy and we’re going to give our children a happy home.”
However, the negativity did take a toll on her mental health, so she made a conscious decision to step off social media and focus on one of the happiest phases of her life. “Also, people who aren’t going to pay your bills or change potty diapers don’t get to have a say in your life and how you raise children!”
She does admit that there were logistical issues as well. Registering her name in the hospital was problematic because they didn’t have a ‘Miss’ option for her– every pregnant woman was expected to register as ‘Mrs’. Joint surnames on the birth certificate were a challenge. Also, in Tamil Nadu, you have to register for a PICME number to get a birth certificate. The form asks for the mother’s name and her husband’s name.
“Subtly, even for paperwork, you are told that there is only a certain way in which you are allowed to have children. That was something we had to escalate because if I wrote his name, we would be committing fraud; he’s not my husband. But if I didn’t write it, my partner’s name wouldn’t be on my children’s birth certificates. The software is meant to make your life easy, but it doesn’t unless you conform to what is acceptable in society. Hopefully, by the time we get to school admissions, we won’t have much trouble, but if the past is anything to go by, I’m sure we will.”
After she delivered via emergency C-section, Jagannathan was back at work with her first event three weeks later, sharing the stage with the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. “It was a big deal, but everyone had a lot to say. ‘Clearly, she’s one of those entertainment mothers that does not care about her children. ‘Clearly, she’s out there and skinny, so she must be formula feeding her children’.
“I was pumping behind a tree because we live in a media industry that doesn’t know how to support new mothers on their breastfeeding journey, by offering them privacy or timely breaks to breastfeed. I’ve leaked on camera, had to do wardrobe changes, and had to pump while other people were giving shots... Now, though, I’m proud of the fact that women in the media industry in Tamil Nadu, be it events or television, can happily talk about pumping because I have had that uncomfortable conversation with everyone from the lighting anna to the director. That sensitisation has been done.”
She also speaks of the unfair criticism her partner has faced. Post-partum, he made a conscious choice to work from home a lot more because he wanted to spend time with his children. “But there were people who were questioning his employment status and asking if I was dominating or forcing him to stay at home so that I could ‘gallivant’ about, because I was more interested in my figure and career than my children. That’s the thing, there’s no winning with society. If he’s out working, he’s the father who’s not involved.”
Career-wise, Season One of Jagannathan’s podcast ‘Awkward conversations with my Amma’ successfully put a mic on the kind of dinner table conversations that she has with her mother, which help them push each other out of their respective comfort zones. Season Two is in the offing as well. What she would really like, though, is a talk show. “Whether it’s on a digital platform or television, we need talk shows to push boundaries. Most media at this point is still catering to what we have been for decades – albeit with better technology – and I think people are ready for new, real and authentic content that makes you think. I’d love to create content that’s more mainstream, in line with my life choices, and just talking to other people out there interested in pushing boundaries.”
Since she’s become a mother, Jagannathan has turned her lens inwards to see what kind of a parent she is and how she can be better. It has accelerated how much she introspects, works on herself, and the pace at which she’s pushing herself to grow. “My children will be treated and spoken to the same way, irrespective of their gender. If my son wants to run around wearing a frock, I don’t care. My son wears bows and my daughter doesn’t. My son likes pink, but my daughter doesn’t. People think I’m trying to stir things up, but I’m honestly not. I just let them choose who and what they want to be.”
She firmly believes that no matter what our children do, how we react to them is our responsibility, not theirs. “It’s important to not pass on your biases to the next generation. The freedom to choose is the best gift you can give your children. I’m not saying we’re perfect, but we’re working hard to be the best we can.”
Her advice to Her Circle readers is to trust themselves and their instincts. “More importantly, trust your dreams and hopes for yourself. You will have an entire planet of people - that’s now being amplified thanks to the internet - that’s going to tell you why you’re wrong and why you’re not enough. You are enough, you are beautiful, you are fabulous. More importantly, you are right, as long as it’s right for you. It doesn’t need to be right for everyone. As long as it’s right for you, it’s good enough. So go out there, live life on your own terms, and remember, your parents don’t own you. They are people who brought you into this world, your custodians and your guardians, but you are your own person. So go out there and live your life. If your parents come along for the ride, well and good. If not, it just makes you stronger.”