The Road To Ammahood

A forthcoming book paints a sympathetic picture of Jayalalitha

Jayalalithaa- A Portrait
Penguin/Viking | Rs 499
Release date: May 2011
J. Jayalalitha, one of India’s most enigmatic political figures, came into politics with three disadvantages of sorts: she was a film star, a woman, and a Brahmin at that. However, over the decades, she has transformed herself into a charismatic leader of a Dravidian party that was left rudderless after the death of the iconic M.G. Ramachandran, generally referred to as MGR or (by fans) as ‘Vathiyaar’ (teacher, or leader). It wasn’t easy to step into the shoes of a man revered as ‘God’ by his supporters, but she did so with fortitude, fighting all the way “the crude, male-centric, sexist politics” of Tamil Nadu. In about 500 pages and 25 chapters, Tamil writer and journalist Vaasanthi portrays Jayalalitha’s journey with the empathy of a woman. Here, in a conversation with Sugata Srinivasaraju she shares insights from the book, to be published by Penguin in the first week of May, just before Tamil Nadu gets a new government.

Mysore to Kollywood

At birth, Jayalalitha was also known as Komalavalli. The ‘Jaya’ in her name was a prefix everyone in her family used—her father was Jayaram and her brother Jayakumar—to emphasise their connection to  the Mysore palace, the then king being Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar. Her grandfather had been the palace surgeon to the rulers of Mysore. Jayalalitha lost her father when she was two. In some autobiographical sketches she wrote in the 1970s for a Tamil magazine, she recalls vividly the image of her father’s corpse. He had died in mysterious circumstances, having squandered away her grandfather’s considerable wealth. Later, the family moved to Bangalore, where her maternal grandparents lived. Her mother Vedavalli, an independent-minded woman, did not want to be a burden on her parents, so she started working as a typist. Then Vedavalli’s sister Vidyavathi, who was an air hostess and had got some breaks in films, encouraged her to also come to Chennai to try her luck in Kollywood, which she did, taking the screen name Sandhya. She always kept in mind that she had to bring up the children well and they should lead good lives, perhaps because of the awareness that her father-in-law had been a prosperous professional and would have wanted that very much. She put Jayalalitha and her brother in school, first in Bangalore and then in Madras.

First Frame

Jayalalitha wanted to pursue her studies and even got her friend to get an application for Stella Maris College and obtained a seat there. But by then, her mother had persuaded her to join films, on assurance from producers stunned by Jayalalitha’s looks that shooting would take place only during summer vacation and the young woman wouldn’t miss classes. Her first film had already been done when she was 15 and still in school—Chinnada Gombe, a Kannada film directed by B.R. Panthulu. Her first Tamil film was Vennira Aadai (1965), directed by Sridhar, and when MGR saw the rushes of this movie, he decided he wanted her to co-star in his Adimai Penn (1969). This is how her connection with MGR began, when she was still a teenager. Initially, Jayalalitha threw tantrums, saying she wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer, not an actor. But her mother said their finances were not as good as she thought it was. That decided it.

Poison Tongues

Jayalalitha and MGR became a popular pair despite their inter-generational age difference—31 years. He was born in 1917, she in 1948. On the suggestion of C.N. Annadurai (founder of the DMK), their first film was shot in Goa, because of the anti-Hindi agitations in Tamil Nadu. She also paired with other stars like Sivaji Ganesan, but it was with MGR that the chemistry worked. But there were forces around MGR that didn’t want her to be paired with him. They felt MGR was becoming obsessed with her. They brought in other actors. They also started a slander campaign against Jayalalitha, saying she was arrogant. They accused her of not following the rules: people would be waiting for hours to meet MGR but “this little girl”, this “woman who was born yesterday”, would walk straight into his room. They also thought MGR’s do-gooder image would be sullied by his dalliance with Jayalalitha, so they worked towards breaking the relationship.

The Chalice Breaks

“People kept working to break her relationship with MGR, in the film world and in politics.”

Around 1970, due to the persistent efforts of some people, MGR drifted away from Jayalalitha and started acting with other heroines, like Lata and Manjula. She too started pairing with other heroes, including Shoban Babu, a Telugu star with whom she developed a close relationship, which however did not lead to marriage. This was her first rift with MGR. As to marriage, Jayalalitha says she has never been against marriage per se. Perhaps the man she may have wanted to settle down with was already married, although it was not uncommon in the Tamil film industry for married men to take another wife.

Image Manager

For 10 years, there was no connection between MGR and Jayalalitha; he entered politics and became chief minister in ’77. It is widely believed that MGR brought her into politics; she has disputed this in an interview, saying she entered politics by choice. MGR thought Jayalalitha might make a good propaganda secretary for the AIADMK. Karunanidhi, the orator, was becoming a difficult opposition leader, always maligning MGR in his speeches, and MGR wanted a counter, someone who could speak well and pull crowds, and he was never in doubt about Jayalalitha’s talent. He sent his speechwriter Sholai to train her. She was formally appointed propaganda secretary in 1983. She was a great success in her new role. MGR had tried out actors like Nirmala, but it hadn’t worked. It is only Jayalalitha who became a successful representative of MGR.

Ms Memorious

Jayalalitha used to address MGR’s speechwriter as “Mr Sholai”. The ‘Mr’ honorific was quite strange in the Tamil world those days. The first time Sholai met her, he says, he went with a speech ready. She asked him to read it. Then she asked him to repeat it once again. She made him repeat it thrice. After that, she repeated it verbatim, not missing a single word. Sholai was simply astonished. (This chimes with the apocryphal story of a national politician quoting Shakespeare to jibe at her, only to be amazed at her repartee: she quoted back from exactly where he had left off.) Sholai also remembers she had a vineyard in Hyderabad and a bungalow on Mahabalipuram road, but would tell him she didn’t want anything and wanted to sell everything. She wore no jewellery either. Given the corruption charges that engulfed her during her first term as CM, this comes across as surprising.

Ammu Aggrieved

As propaganda secretary, Jayalalitha became a roaring success. Seniors in the party and the coterie around MGR didn’t like this. They again got down to using rumour and character assassination as weapons. Jayalalitha’s story is about how difficult it is for a woman to survive in politics. It is also about how one woman transformed herself to survive in that atmosphere. MGR, too, wielded tremendous control over her. In fact, he got her to stop writing about her life in a Tamil magazine. Under the influence of some party officials, he again started distancing himself from her even though she tried very hard to legitimise her relationship with him. But the cadres loved her.

“In no more than three listenings, she mastered a speech, leaving her tutor astonished.”

Meanwhile, MGR fell ill. He was shifted in 1984 to the US and Jayalalitha had very little information about his illness. Even when he came back from the US after treatment, he didn’t meet her or call her. MGR was her only anchor in politics. She grew desperate and wrote a series of letters to him, which strangely got leaked. It started circulating among her political opponents. In those letters, she tells him how she “yearns” to meet him, asks if he has “forgotten” or “forsaken” her, argues that he is not being fair to her and wonders if he doesn’t know how much his “Ammu” (a pet name) loves him.

No Longer a Follower

After MGR’s death in 1987, Jayalalitha, a Brahmin, a Srirangam Iyengar to be precise, became the head of a party that had its roots in anti-Brahmin sloganeering. To get into the shoes of MGR was no joke. But she incredibly brought the party under her absolute control. MGR’s wife Janaki, who was chief minister for a brief while, could not win the elections after his death. But Jayalalitha’s faction won a number of seats. It did not mean anything to the voters that Janaki was MGR’s wife. To them, Jayalalitha was his heir, though MGR never openly declared her so. In fact, he never named anyone, famously saying once, like Napoleon, “After me, the deluge.”

Draupadi Moment

The budget session of the assembly in 1989 was a turning point for Jayalalitha. As an opposition leader, she said Karunanidhi had no moral right to be CM. All hell broke loose and she was manhandled, with some DMK members allegedly trying to pull at her pallu. There are photographs of her with dishevelled hair and tears in her eyes. That day, she must have sworn revenge, like Draupadi, resolving that she would re-enter the assembly only as chief minister. This incident is the root cause of her hatred for Karunanidhi. It’s this enmity with Karunanidhi that has shaped all her actions. Tamil Nadu politics in the last two decades has been a fight between these two leaders. The DMK took the unthinkable decision of joining the BJP, a Hindutva party, mainly to checkmate Jayalalitha. After she had faced humiliation in the assembly, she acquired the image of a wronged woman and used it to effect. During the next election in 1991, she told people that Karunanidhi was a Duryodhana and there was a Dusshasana among the legislators who had tried to disrobe her. The electorate responded by giving her a thumping majority.

Bigger than the Master

“After being attacked in the assembly in 1989, she described Karunanidhi as a Duryodhana.”

Till her first big victory in the polls, she wasn’t very confident of winning votes on her own. She always thought MGR was the talisman. She would say, “Vote for MGR, let’s bring back MGR’s rule.” But the 1991 landslide victory, in alliance with the Congress, gave her blinding self-confidence. From then, she saw herself as the winning face of the party. It came as a revelation to many that she had gradually pushed MGR to the background. There was always this fear inside her that without MGR she was a nobody. She had been terrified of being alienated from him, but now she had overcome her fears. This led to overconfidence and made her go berserk during her first term as chief minister. The gigantic cut-outs, people falling at her feet, the controversial wedding of her foster son, the scams—all this happened during her first term. She behaved maturely in her second term.

Keeping out the past

I like to see Jayalalitha’s life as a mansion in which she kept shutting one door after the other. She completely disassociated herself from her brother’s family, her aunts and all her remaining blood relatives. Even her sister-in-law was unable to explain to me why she did so. In some of her writing of the early 1970s, she speaks fondly of her brother. But she no longer maintains contacts with family or friends from the early times.

“Jayalalitha’s life is like a mansion in which she has kept shutting one door after the other.”

She underwent another important transformation. When she entered politics, she completely deglamorised herself. It was as if she wanted to shut the door on the “actress” chapter of her life. I don’t know if, in her very private moments, she relives those memories. I wonder because she is also a creative person, having written a novel in Tamil, and therefore cannot be devoid of sensitivity. It is intriguing, therefore, how she may be dealing with her memories of being an actress and with memeories of people from her early years. Friends have tried to contact her, but she has not responded. They have gone to her house to invite her to the weddings of sons or daughters, but she has never responded.

People with a film star past are usually never without make-up. Not Jayalalitha. No hint or trace that she was once a glamorous star. This adds to my theory about her shutting doors on the past. She knew early on that women or film stars were not respected. Politicians used to often say that, after all, she was an actress, and when she gave her first political speech in Cuddalore, she faced taunts of “cabaret dancer”. One has to link her deglamorisation with those humiliations.

The Banyan Tree

Jayalalitha’s only friend is Sashikala. When they met, Sashikala was running a video cassette shop, and Jayalalitha would borrow videos on rental. Somehow, she took a liking to her. Nobody knows how their relationship became so strong. In fact, only Sashikala can write a biography of Jayalalitha. She has remained loyal to her, not turning approver against Jayalalitha even when she was jailed. Jayalalitha has said that Sashikala came to help her and has become more than a sister. She says people with a family have a lot of relatives to take care of them, but she doesn’t have any. Sashikala had filled the gap. Sashikala even sacrificed her husband Natarajan for Jayalalitha’s sake. But that’s a different story.

Survivor Queen

As I studied Jayalalitha’s life, I started empathising with her. I started looking at it from a gender perspective. As a woman, I could see how she must have felt betrayed. In the film world, they tried to destroy her by not allowing her to be paired with MGR; they tried that again when she entered politics. These things wouldn’t have happened if she were not a woman. We should remember that she came to politics without a pedigree. I realised as I talked to people about her how difficult it must have been for a woman to survive in the crude, male-dominated and sexist politics of Tamil Nadu. She once described her feelings with passion during an election campaign: “I stand before you having come swimming in the fire of life.”


Two Lives, Intertwined

Born on February 24, 1948, near Mysore, Karnataka

Education 

  • Studied in Bangalore and Madras. Is a matriculate.

Acting Career

  • 1963 Film career begins at 15 at the prodding of mother Sandhya. Features in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam films. Last film Nadhiyai Thedi Vandha Kadal in 1980.
  • 1970 Breaks off from mentor, co-star MGR after he chooses new heroine. Becomes friends with Telugu star Shobhan Babu.
  • 1981 Relationship with MGR revived. Joins AIADMK the following year.

Political Career

  • 1983 Appointed propaganda secretary of AIADMK
  • 1984 Nominated to the Rajya Sabha. MGR hospitalised in the US following a stroke. He also undergoes a kidney transplant. Jayalalitha writes to then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and Tamil Nadu governor, S.L. Khurana, saying she should be made interim chief minister in MGR's absence. This upsets MGR.
  • 1985 MGR returns from the US
  • 1986 Forms Jayalalitha Peravai (Conference), a parallel outfit. Sacked from her AIADMK post.
  • 1987 MGR passes away.
  • 1988 AIADMK splits into two factions. One backs MGR's widow Janaki and the other, Jayalalitha. Jaya elected MLA.
  • 1989 Alleges her saree was pulled in the assembly by DMK minister
  • 1991 Wins general elections in alliance with the Congress. Made Tamil Nadu CM.
  • 1992 Acid thrown at IAS officer Chandralekha, allegedly over SPIC disinvestment, hits national headlines. Lawyer Shanmuga Sundaram of DMK brutally beaten up in 1993.
  • 1995 Presides over controversial lavish wedding of foster-son V. Sudhakaran, bosom buddy Sashikala’s nephew
  • 1996 Loses power to the DMK
  • 2001 Did not contest elections because of her entanglement in corruption cases. But AIADMK returns to power with a huge majority; becomes chief minister. After SC strikes down her appointment, O. Paneerselvan named interim CM.
  • 2003 Supreme Court acquits her. Contests mid-term poll and wins. Becomes CM again.
  • 2004 Case filed against The Hindu for breach of privilege of state assembly turns into a freedom of expression issue
  • 2004 Shankaracharya of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham arrested after the murder of a math ex-accountant
  • 2006 Loses the elections. DMK comes to power.

***

Goddess, Me

  • Senior leaders routinely prostrate themselves at her feet, notwithstanding their age and political standing
  • Newspaper advertisements put out by partymen describe her as the “lighthouse of peninsular India” and the godmother and saviour of Tamils
  • A party secretary of Madras once declared himself dead and went through the cremation rites to bring her prosperity
  • A woman party MLA with supporters dressed only in neem leaves went in procession to a temple outside Chennai to ward off evil spirits from their leader
  • A minister in her cabinet ate rice served on the ground at a temple to ensure a long life for the Puratchi Thalaivi

***

Colour of corruption

  • TANSI land deal case: Land acquired for state body sans public interest. Jaya Publications and Sasi enterprises gained Rs 3.5 crore and Rs 55.88 lakh.
  • Coal import case: Inferior grade coal imported for state electricity board at escalated prices. Fraud put at Rs 117 crore.
  • Pleasant Stay Hotel case: Kodaikanal: all objections by local bodies overruled by Jayalalitha as CM
  • 40 properties across Chennai belonging to friend Sashikala and her relatives was identified by investigating agencies.

***

Trapeze artiste

  • AIADMK wins 1991 poll in alliance with Congress following Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination
  • Ties up with BJP in 1998, but pulls out after Vajpayee declines to bail her out of court cases
  • Attends Sonia Gandhi’s famous tea party in 1999 but slams her foreign origin in 2002
  • Cosies up to Congress after 2004 debacle, but BJP now said to be again interested in her
Next Story : The Octopus Garden
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