Back in the early sixties, a sixteen year old girl was sitting on the sets of Tamil movie Aayarathil Oruvan (One in a thousand) reading a book. She was actually the heroine of the movie which incidentally was her first film. The hero was the legendary MG Ramchandran who was also a rising star in Tamil politics with enormous clout. The entire cast and the crew were waiting for his arrival on the set for the shooting to begin.
No wonder, when the great man imperiously walked in, every one rose from his seat in salutation save the young heroine. She retained her place and continued reading her book ignoring the obsequies being lavished on MGR.
The fact that this incident is being remembered nearly five decades later is an indication of the near cult status Jayalalitha was able to carve for herself in her relatively short life, not to mention the several obstacles that littered her path.
She excelled in movies becoming the leading female star of her time. Her career in the rough and tumble of Tamil politics was equally dramatic where she adorned the chief minister’s chair for six times. In later years, the feisty Karan Thapar would be at the receiving end of Amma’s famed temper as she would walk out from one of his grilling sessions with a parting shot. “It was not a pleasure meeting you sir. Namaste.”
Jayalalithaa lived her life on a grand scale. Destiny put a magnifying glass on almost all her public actions. As a screen goddess she delivered an unbelievable number of hits. Eighty out of the eighty five movies she made in Tamil went on to celebrate silver jubilee at the box office. Every single one of her twenty eight Telugu films was a platinum jubilee success. If it was Hemamalini in Bollywood, another Iyengar lady who enjoyed an enormous fan following, it was Jayalalitha whose rise in Kollywood was phenomenal.
Her proximity to MGR raised many eyebrows. The limelight she got was making it clear she was his anointed successor. At the time of his death in 1987, MGR was a good thirty one years older than her; Jayalalitha was denied a place in the cortege and rudely pushed off the gun carriage by a relative of the patriarch. She soldiered on displaying a stoic composure which, some say, actually helped her image with the masses. Her labours finally bore fruit when she inherited MGR’s political mantle and went on to be the undisputed leader of the AIADMK.
Like all political leaders, Jayalalitha’s legacy would draw mixed judgments. No one, however, would dispute the vigor she brought to her leadership though her detractors may argue she took it to an unhealthy extreme. Photos of senior colleagues prostrate on the floor in obeisance would remain etched in public memory for a long time.
Jayalalithaa was willing to take tough decisions. It was during her reign that LTTE was virtually driven out of Tamil Nadu soil. The notorious sandal wood smuggler Veerappan was also shot dead by the police during her tenure. She outdid her rivals in populist measures, gifting grinders, mixers, pressure cookers and other items of modern living to her electorate with her smiling face prominently emblazoned on them. Of course, it did not ingratiate her with the economists. The infamous marriage ceremony she held for her foster son in the 1996 actually went to the Guinness Book of world records for its extravagance and earned her voters’ ire. She lost the following election.
As in the case of most individuals Jayalalitha’s persona was at least partly a product of her childhood. She was born in a prosperous family of Brahmins. Her grandfather was a surgeon to the Wodeyar royal family of Mysore. The Jaya in her name-her brother is called Jaya Kumar- originated from that association. Unfortunately her father, trained to be a lawyer, squandered away the family wealth. She lost him when she was only two years’ old. Her mother had to take to acting to support her family.
That is how Jayalalithaa found herself in the movies. She had to relinquish a promising academic life- she was one of the top ranking students at her board exams and had obtained a seat at the prestigious Stella Mary’s college in Chennai, but was forced to opt out and join films to support her family. Her buxom good looks and spirited acting found a ready audience though. With MGR, she went on to make a magical pair on the Tamil screen that in the sixties mesmerized viewers.
It is tempting to compare her, Puratchi Thalaivi (the Revolutionary Leaderene) as her supporters prefer to address her, with the other revolutionary icon that passed away recently. Like Jayalalitha, Fidel was every inch a showman. He caught the headlines with many of his actions, be it the massive health care and educational reforms he initiated in Cuba, or the playboy image that stuck to him as a result of his penchant for acquiring mistresses. Castro may have been better known internationally, especially for his dogged opposition to the US. Amma, on the other hand made up with additional glamour and an insouciant disregard for the hurdles a male dominated society threw her way. Along with Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir and Indira Gandhi she would pass into popular lore as the Iron Lady who was “not for the turning.”
It was sad to see her lifeless. The face that had launched hundreds of movies lighting up the silver screen with myriad emotions, the leader’s visage that had inspired strength and determination has been rendered inert by the cold fingers of death. Despite a tumultuous life, one could discern a childlike calm on her features. In her final repose she reminded one of the carefree school girl finding peace in her mother’s lap after a particularly demanding day. I could not help remembering the song she had crooned to Dharmedra in the 1971 film Izzat, her lone Bollywood venture. Ruk Ja Zara…