That Jayalalithaa Jayaram was an anomaly in more ways than one was common knowledge but what truly separated her from the others, be it as an actor or a politician, was the manner in which she constantly shattered sexist barriers. To call Jayalalithaa a popular leader would be an understatement. Even by the standards of Tamil Nadu politics, ‘Amma’, as she was popularly known, was the gold standard and very few inspired the kind of frenzy that was common amongst her supporters.
Earlier this year, in February, during her birthday celebrations there as a mass tattooing spree where the late chief minister’s supporters got her picture permanently enshrined with the words 'Amma everything for us’ on their forearms. Her death brings the end of many eras and as the days pass it would become abundantly clear that not only was Jayalalithaa the last of the actors to dominate politics but also perhaps one of the last politicians to play the role of a leader to near perfection.
India is a unique country where actors constantly become politicians and politicians, more often than not, indulge in play-acting. Much like actors across the world, actors in India, too, spend days or even months preparing for a role but unlike anywhere else in the world actors in India also spend years preparing to be a politician. Popular cinema icons such as M G Ramachandran and N T Rama Rao, or MGR and NTR as they were better known, started playing everymen in their films once they made up their minds to join politics full-time.
Once MGR launched his political outfit, originally called Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (ADMK) and later christened All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), upon his expulsion from the M Karunanidhi-led Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), he began to mobilise the voter by preaching his political ambition with films like Netru Indru Naalai (1974), Idhayakani (1975), Indru Pol Endrum Vazhga (1977). Similarly NTR, too, acted in films like Sardar Papa Rayudu (1980), a social-historical and Naa Desam (1982), a remake of Lawaaris, where unlike the Hindi original the thrust, was the protagonist’s search for an identity. By that standard even Amitabh Bachchan’s last few releases before he joined active politics were social dramas like Pukar (1983), Coolie (1983) and Inquilaab (1984) with strong socio-political statements especially Inquilaab, where the hero (Bachchan) shoots the entire cabinet to cleanse the system, in hindsight, could be seen as a stepping stone to entering politics.
But Jayalalithaa had no such preparation. In fact, it is said that she simply followed her mentor MGR, as his ‘voice’ in a literal sense. In a freak accident in 1967 where a fellow actor, M.R. Radha, shot at MGR, the latter’s voice changed as the bullet hit throat. By the early 1980s MGR’s had kidney trouble and as a result, the throat as well as ear problems (he had also lost some of his hearing as a result of the shooting) resurfaced.
Following MGR’s death, Jayalalithaa become a natural contender to lead the party, but this did not come easy as one fraction supported Janaki, MGR’s widow as the leader. MGR had not nominated Jayalalithaa as the successor. In the book, Amma: Jayalalithaa's Journey from Movie Star to Political Queen novelist-journalist Vaasanthi writes that the moment Jayalalithaa, who was 38 years old when MGR died, tried to place a wreath in the gun carriage carrying the departed chief minister’s body, she was assaulted by some MLAs and Janaki’s nephew, Deepan, who pushed her out of the carriage. They verbally abused her and called her names including a prostitute. An injured and insulted Jayalalithaa did not attend MGR’s funeral and drove away. The party cadre split into two, and although Janaki managed to become the chief minister for a brief period, her government was dismissed and within two months of MGR’s death, Jayalalithaa became the leader of the opposition in the state.
In February 1989, she merged the two fractions of the AIADMK but things were far from perfect. In March 1989, the ruling DMK members in front of the assembly speaker assaulted Jayalalithaa and as she walked out in a torn sari, she swore never to return to the House as long as M Karunanidhi was in power. By May 1991, following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, Jayalalithaa partnered with the Congress in the assembly elections and swept the state polls, winning 224 out of 234 seats and all 39 Lok Sabha seats.
Actors often have a tendency to take themselves far too seriously. But Jayalalithaa was cut from a slightly different fabric. When she had joined active politics she was made in-charge of the then chief minister MGR’s nutritious noon meal scheme, and this perhaps, somewhere laid the foundation of her political agenda. She was not the first politician in India to indulge in populist schemes, but almost all her schemes were clearly focused on making life better for the common woman. One of the first measures introduced by her was the cradle baby scheme that put a check on rampant female foeticide in the state and her government was the first to introduce all-woman police stations in the state. She also introduced a 30 per cent quota for women in all police jobs and created nearly 60 all-women police stations during her first term.
During her second term in power she also started the first all-women commando cell in the state. The fact that Jayalalithaa’s first tenure as chief minister up until then also had the largest number of women in the assembly, 25 in total, spoke volumes. She may have gotten embroiled in court cases following charges of corruption and disproportionate assets cases that first surfaced following her lavish spending on the marriage of her ‘foster son’, V N Sudhakaran, the nephew of her close aide Sasikala in September 1995, but nothing diminished her popularity among the masses. Not even a 30-day judicial custody in connection with the Colour TV scam in December 1996.
Like many Indian politicians, Jayalalithaa had her fair share of crests and troughs. Across her career, Jayalalithaa was found guilty by courts, sentenced to imprisonment by special courts, her nomination dismissed by the Election Commission, indulged in last minute deals for political benefits such as voting for the Congress-BJP backed Pranab Mukherjee as the President of India while openly supporting P A Sangma’s candidature with Trinamool Congress and Biju Janta Dal; bringing down governments, like masterminding the fall of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led coalition in April 1999 by withdrawing support for a confidence vote in the Lok Sabha. These are things that can tarnish any politician’s reputation but in Jayalalithaa’s case, these typical Indian neta-esque antics had little bearing on her electorate. Rather these fell short to undermine the good that her welfare schemes translated on the ground.
She was a combination of an astute politician who commanded nothing less than unadulterated reverence from her party, especially men, who used to prostrate themselves before her to demonstrate their obeisance. Her ruthlessness, too, was a thing of legends, and she was even referred to as a “consummate autocrat” in a US embassy cable released by Wikileaks. For millions who benefitted from her schemes such as Amma Canteen or Amma Unavagam, a food subsidisation programme where one could buy an idli for as just Re 1 and a plate of sambar rice for just Rs 5, or Amma Kudineer (water) where the people of the parched state could get bottled water for Rs 10 a litre or Amma Pharmacy that sold quality medicines at fair price, it didn’t matter how she got it done as long as she did it. When her political opponents were promising laptops and such, she offered mixer-grinder and table fans.
Jayalalithaa could connect with people on a level that many consider impossible or too negligible to indulge in. To cite a personal example - this writer’s grandfather, the late Arudra, was a well-known poet and film lyricist who had penned some of the early hits of Jayalalithaa in Telugu - one day his daughter, and this writer’s mother, Kavita, wrote a letter to Jayalalithaa even though she could have simply asked her father to get the star’s autograph or better still take her to meet her as they lived a few streets apart in then Madras’ T-Nagar area. The postman who carried the mail saw the actor sitting in her garden and mentioned that Arudra’s daughter had written a letter to her as he handed some of the day’s fan mail. Jayalalithaa immediately signed a photo and wrote a small thank you note and asked the postman, a Bhaskar Rao, to give her letter to the young fan.
For a film star to graduate into anything halfway more serious than a character in the so-called meaningful cinema they partake in, in the name of a social consciousness, is an achievement in itself. More so for women considering the rampant misogyny that exists in not just Indian films but also Indian politics and social sphere. Here, calling a Mayawati “worse than a prostitute” or Smriti Irani being told that what she is really is or political bigwigs like Sharad Yadav talking about saanvli southern women and their dancing skills in Parliament is considered just another day in the office. For Jayalalithaa to fight this kind of sexism, first in films and then in politics, and also being taken seriously, is no mean feat.
For millions, she was the one who represented a generation of young children who were forced to live a certain dream that was not necessarily theirs. She had wanted to join the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) or become a professional but destiny made her an actor and she reluctantly entered the business to support her family. In her death, many people have shared instances of how Jayalalithaa became the poster girl for an entire generation that was tired of how things were. In a facebook post, a Charanya Kannan writes how the then 16-year old Church Park educated English speaking Jayalalithaa sat reading her book while the entire cast and crew would stand up when the veteran MGR walked into the sets of Ayirathil Oruvan, her debut film opposite him, and set the standard that would define everything she did from that point onwards.
Jayalalithaa’s death in all probability brings down the curtains on a film star becoming not only a formidable political entity but also a saviour of millions of nameless Indians who believe that things do get better.
Gautam Chintamani is the author of ‘Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna’ (2014) and ‘Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak- The Film That Revived Hindi Cinema’ (2016)
An appeal from Swarajya
At Swarajya, we rely on our readers' support through subscriptions to sustain our media platform. Unlike larger conglomerates, we are unable to relentlessly chase advertising money — our model is largely built on your patronage.
Your support has never been more crucial. We work tirelessly to deliver 10-15 high-quality articles daily, ensuring you receive insightful content from 7 AM to 10 PM.
If you believe India's story has to be articulated in a way it has never been done before without shrugging it off, become a patron (or) subscribe now for ₹̶2̶4̶0̶0̶ ₹1999 and get 12 print issues, unlimited digital access for 1 year, a special India that is Bharat T-shirt (Offer ends soon).
We are counting on you!