Jayalalithaa: The Icon Who Owned The Narrative In Cinema And Politics

Geetika Sachdev
·5-min read
A woman walks in front of a portrait of Jayalalithaa, a former film actress and now head of the state opposition party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), in the southern Indian city of Chennai March 2, 2009. India will hold a general election between April 16 and May 13, election officials said on Monday, kicking off a mammoth process in which 714 million people will be able to cast their votes. REUTERS/Babu (INDIA)
A woman walks in front of a portrait of Jayalalithaa, a former film actress and now head of the state opposition party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), in Chennai 2009.

Jayalalithaa Jayaraman or ‘Amma’, as she was fondly called, was one of India’s most charismatic politicians who took oath as Tamil Nadu’s chief minister six times. She was perhaps one of the few woman politicians who plunged headlong in a male-dominated world, and had cabinet ministers prostrating themselves at her feet. A populist leader for the poor, Jayalalithaa was worshipped no less than divinity as she inspired a cult following, with followers calling her ‘Adi parashakti’, which means the ultimate powerful goddess in Tamil.

On Jayalithaa’s 73rd birthday, we bring to you some lesser-known facts about the Iron Lady.

Humble background

Unlike other women leaders with strong affiliation to political families, Jayalalithaa belonged to a middle-class family from Melkote village in Mysore. Her father, Jayaram was a lawyer, who passed away when she was only two years old. She was raised by her mother, Sandhya, a small-time actress, who was also a professionally-trained classical musician and dancer. She wanted Jayalalithaa to pursue cultural arts.

Jayalalithaa studied at Bishop Cotton Girls’ High School in Bengaluru, and often described herself as a convent-bred girl, with a keen interest in academics. She was multilingual, and was fluent in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Hindi, Malayalam, and English. Besides, she was also trained in classical music, western classical piano, and various Indian classical dances.

Taking the cinema world by storm

Jayalalithaa made her debut as a child artist in a Kannada film titled Sri Shaila Mahatme, which was released on the silver screen in 1961. She was cast opposite Kannada actor Rajkumar. She also participated in English theatre while at school, and played small roles in Tea House of the August Moon and Undersecretary between 1960 and 1964.

J. Jayalalithaa was worshipped no less than divinity as she inspired a cult following, with followers calling her ‘Adi parashakti’, which means the ultimate powerful goddess in Tamil.
J. Jayalalithaa was worshipped no less than divinity as she inspired a cult following, with followers calling her ‘Adi parashakti’, which means the ultimate powerful goddess in Tamil.

Jayalalithaa, a state topper in school exams, was forced to take up acting to help her family overcome a financial crisis. Despite being awarded a scholarship, she gave up her dreams of pursuing higher studies to join the film industry.

Actor and late Tamil Nadu chief minister MG Ramachandran, who mentored Jayalalithaa, inducted her into the world of films. She acted in more than 140 films, and was a successful actress of her times.

Beating gender stereotypes

Although most women of her time struggled to speak in English, Jayalalithaa was fluent in the language. She was also headstrong in her decisions, even when it came to taking up roles in films.

Initially, she was a part of a few run-of-the-mill films, but gradually Jayalalithaa started to move away from stereotypical roles, where she was not given as much importance as the actor. She then started to consciously take up roles, where she could play strong characters.

Her personal life was always considered fodder for tabloids, but without paying much heed to controversies, she continued to live life on her own terms.

Political career

MGR inducted Jayalalithaa into the regional All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party, and in 1991, she became the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. After completing the first term, she lost the elections in 1996, in the wake of corruption charges and anti-incumbency.

After a lull, she reinstated her position as chief minister in the 2001 elections, and went on to hold the position again, from 2011 to 2016. Surprisingly, she returned to power even after being convicted in the Pleasant Stay hotel case, and another land case.

Embroiled in controversies

Jayalalithaa had fought many legal battles and courted several controversies. Whether it was the midnight arrest of her political rivals or her decision to withdraw support to the Vajpayee-led government in 1999, she managed to ruffle feathers every now and then. Media reports reveal that she also earned the moniker ‘Imelda Marcos of India’, thanks to her ridiculous levels of ostentation.

In 1995, when she was chief minister, she was in the eye of a public storm when she arranged a lavish wedding for her foster son, featuring 10 dining halls and other paraphernalia. She disowned her son a year later.

Once again in 2014, she landed in a massive controversy. She became India’s first incumbent chief minister to be disqualified from holding her seat, after being convicted in a disproportionate assets case. She was sentenced to four years in jail and was imposed a fine of Rs 100 crore, but was later acquitted by the Karnataka High Court, only to resume as CM on May 23, 2015.

Also read: Voices of Opposition: Meet India’s New Generation of Women Politicians

A series of pet projects

Jayalalithaa’s nickname ‘Amma’ was associated with several projects, including the much-talked-about canteen scheme. Other schemes on her name included Amma Bottled Water, Amma Salt, Amma Pharmacies and more recently, Amma Cement.

Several media reports point to the fact that she had allegedly used the Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC) — which has a monopoly on the sale of alcohol in the state — to fund her other projects.

But there were other milestones that made her even more popular among the masses. Tamil Nadu became India’s first state to allow government hospitals to carry out medical procedures on transgenders.

Jayalalithaa has left an indelible mark - both as a film star and a politician - and it almost seems unlikely that anyone else can ever step into her shoes.

(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)

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