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|Jayalalithaa- A Portrait
Penguin/Viking | Rs 499
Release date: May 2011
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
Colour of corruption