by D.B.S. Jeyaraj
India in general and its Tamil Nadu state in particular have spawned many colourful political personalities. Standing out among these figures is Jayalalithaa Jayaram, the actress-politico of Tamil Nadu.
The Former Chief Minister and All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (ADMK) Leader turns 62 today, February 24.
Earlier her name was spelled with one ‘a’ (Jayalalitha) at the end. Later a second ‘a’ was added (Jayalalithaa) due to reasons of numerology.
Jayalalithaa had become well-known for her rigid stance against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). She was instrumental in passing a resolution in the Tamil Nadu legislature that LTTE leader Velupipllai Prabhakaran be arrested and extradited to India for the Rajiv Gandhi assassination.
When chief minister, Jayalalithaa was extremely hard on Sri Lankan Tamils resident in Tamil Nadu in a bid to wipe out all presence of the LTTE in the state. When Tamil civilians were affected in Sri Lanka during the war against the LTTE ,Jayalalithaa justified it as being inevitable at times of war. Supporters of the LTTE loved to hate her describing her as “Paapaathi” (Brahmin woman).
A woman walks in front of a portrait of Jayalalithaa in Chennai March 2, 2009.
But all things changed utterly last year during elections to the Lok Sabha . In a remarkable change of stance Jayalalithaa expressed full support for the LTTE and confronted the Congress-led Indian Central Government and DMK state government of Tamil Nadu.
She advocated an immediate end to the war if she and her allies got the bulk of seats allocated to Tamil Nadu (39) and Pondicherry (1).Jayalalithaa was supported by parties like the MDMK, PMK, CPI, CPM etc in the campaign.
The LTTE and its supporters misread the political situation and hoped for a defeat of the Congress and its ally the DMK.The unrealistic expectation was that if the BJP captured power at the centre with The AIADMK winning the lions share of 40 seats , Jayalalithaa would get New Delhi to restrain the Sri Lankan govt from proceeding with the war thus providing a respite to the beleaguered tigers.
So great was this expectation that tiger and pro-tiger organizations amidst the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora began singing paeans of praise to the “Puratchi thalaivi”(revolutionary leader) and “Ithayatheivam” (god of the heart).
Laudatory messages sent to Jayalalithaa were lapped up by the AIADMK leader who must surely have relished this bizarre twist where those who had vehemently criticised her earlier were now fawning at her feet.
But the hopes became dupes when the Congress-DMK combine won the elections.
With that defeat ended Jayalalithaa’s short-lived honeymoon with tiger supporters. Events moved rapidly and the LTTE itself was vanquished and virtually destroyed last May.
Looking at her rotund appearance today, few would imagine the time when Jayalalithaa was slim and lissom. That she was, and a ravishing beauty too.
As an actress, Jayalalithaa was the uncrowned queen of Tamil cinema during the mid-’60s to the mid-’70s of the last century. She was the dream girl of many a teenager and the favourite pin-up star of many fans.
Enna Porutham MGR~from Ragasiya Police 115
Among those infatuated with her was the famous actor-politician, M.G. Ramachandran (MGR), with whom she paired in nearly 30 films. Though unmarried, Jayalalithaa was regarded as the love of MGR’s life.
Podhumoo Intha Idam~ Naan, starring with Ravichandran
However, she has been linked romantically to other people including actors like Shoban Babu, Ravichandran, Jaishanker and Mutturaman.
Jayalalithaa was born on February 24, 1948 in Mysore in the Karnataka state. Because of this, many think she is a Kannadiga and her political rivals often call her that.
The reality is that she is from a Tamil Aiyengar Brahmin family hailing from Sreerangam in Trichy. Her grandfather was a physician in the service of the Mysore Maharajah. Hence the family relocated to that state.
Despite her detractors ridiculing her as a Kannadiga, Jayalalithaa has always been proud to assert her Tamil identity.
In 1970, long before she entered politics, Jayalalithaa told a Kannada journal that she was a Tamil and not a Kannadiga. This caused a furore in Karnataka.
When Jayalalithaa was shooting for a Tamil film “Ganga Gowri” in Bangalore (now Bengalooru), a Kannadiga mob surrounded her and threatened to kill her if she did not retract.
But the courageous Jayalalithaa refused to be intimidated and stood her ground, reiterating that she was Thamizhian and not a Kannadiga.
Jayalalithaa’s father Jayaram was an irresponsible wastrel who squandered the family fortune. This led to her mother, Vedavalli, becoming a film actor to support the family.
She took on the name Sandhya. Soon she relocated to Chennai, or Madras, as it was known then.
Jayalalithaa’s given name was Komalavalli, but her pet name is Ammu. She studied at the elite Bishop Cotton High School in Bangalore and later at the Church Park Convent in Madras.
In 1964, she passed out second in the state matriculation exam and was given a merit scholarship. She did not pursue higher studies as her destiny was films.
She learnt Bharatha Natyam and carnatic music and had her dance arangetram in 1960. Veteran actor Sivaji Ganesan who presided called her a “thangachilai,” or golden statue, on account of her fair, glowing skin.
Veteran Film Director B.R. Bhanthulu saw her at a film function and got her to act in a Kannada film. The maestro Sreedhar gave her a break in Tamil films. She played the role of a schizophrenic widow in Vennira Aadai (White Dress) and got rave reviews.
Passport to success
Her passport to success was her second Tamil film, Aayirathil Oruvan (one man in a 1,000) where she played leading lady to MGR. Despite the 32-year difference in age, the duo was a hot pair. They acted together in 28 films.
Jayalalithaa in Kattazhagu Tangamaghal from Kavalkaran
Among her successes were Adimai Penn, Naan, Maatukkaara Velan, Aathiparasakthi, Pattikaadaa Pattanamaa, Kavalkaran, Engiruntho Vanthaal, etc.
Her last film was Nathiyai Thedi Vantha Kadal in 1978.
Jayalalithaa has acted in more than 100 films in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, Hindi and even one English movie, The Epistle. More than 75 of these ran for more than 100 days in theatres. Eight were silver jubilee (25 weeks)hits
She has also sung songs in her own voice in some if not all films. She has a creamy, croony voice. Her first film song was Amma Endraal Anbu, written by Vaali and composed by K.V. Mahadevan.
An accomplished dancer, she lit up the screen and stage by her performances. Her dance drama, “Kaviri Thantha Kalaichelvi”, was a smashing success.
Though she played glamorous roles, she was a good actress and made an impression if given challenging roles with scope to display histrionic ability.
Thirumangalyam was Jayalalithaa’s 100th film. There was a felicitation ceremony where the Chief Minister at the time, Muttuvel Karunanidhi, was the guest of honour. He praised her as one who had “devised literature in acting” (“Nadippukku ilakkiam vahuthavar”).
She exuded chic and élan in her film career and was a favourite among teens of that era. She designed many of her costumes and was one of the first heroines to don bathing costumes. Jayalalithaa was a bombshell in bikini.
Jayalalithaa was versatile. She has been a columnist, short story writer, novelist and film producer.
Her house, named Veda Nilaayam after her mother, is in Poes Garden. There is an indoor skating rink built there. She also has a grape arbour in Andhra Pradesh, which she uses to get away from the crowd.
In recent times she bought an estate in Kodagu region where she retires frequently for extended periods neglecting politics.
It was MGR who brought her into politics. After his death in 1987, the ADMK founded by MGR split, with his wife Janaki and paramour Jayalalithaa leading the two factions.
Jayalalithaa triumphed and the party united under her leadership to sweep the polls in 1991. She was elected Chief Minister. She remains the imperious yet undisputed leader of the ADMK today.
Jayalalithaa became the ADMK’s propaganda and later administrative secretary. She was Rajya Sabha MP in 1984. In 1989 she entered Tamil Nadu legislature as an elected MLA. Jayalalithaa was chief minister from 1991-1996.
She was re-elected as CM in 2001 but had to relinquish office for a few years due to a legal wrangle. Jayalalithaa handed over reins to a caretaker CM O.S.Panneerselvam but controlled events. She then won a by-election and became CM till 2006.
Few in her party dare to call her by name and so she is either “Amma,” “Madam” or “Thalaivi.” Since MGR was called “Puratchi Thalaiver,” or revolutionary leader, Jayalalithaa is addressed by its feminine equivalent, “Puratchi Thalaivi.” Like MGR, she too is called “Ithaya Deivam” (Goddess of the Heart).
Many in her party treat her as a living deity and at least one of her former ministers pats his cheeks reverentially when referring to her. Some ministers have gone on record saying their ambition in life is to be her servant or be a watchdog in her kennel.
There was a time when in a movie called Thanipiravi MGR played Lord Muruga and Jayalalithaa his consort Valli, in a dream sequence. A picture of both together as Murugan and Valli was framed and worshipped by many.
Likewise, Jayalalithaa has played divine roles in many other films. Pictures of Jayalalithaa in such roles are hung in many dwellings. Some people light camphor and lay flowers before them.
Sycophants went to the extent of depicting her as the Madonna in posters. Enraged Catholics protested and the posters were removed.
Falling at her feet or touching them as a mark of respect is almost a ritual for many of her followers. Touching or falling at the feet of elders to seek their blessings is customary in India.
But in the case of Jayalalithaa, ADMK sycophants have taken this practice to ridiculous levels. Even party veterans older than Jayalalithaa prostrate themselves publicly.
One amusing scene in the past was when Jayalalithaa visited a remote area by helicopter. Verty-clad party men standing in a line fell down like ninepins as she alighted from the aircraft. When they got up, the white vertys were all red due to the reddish soil. It was a sight!
Once she was questioned by a north Indian journalist about this “falling at her feet” practice and asked why she did not put a stop to it, she replied that her supporters were doing so voluntarily due to their affectionate regard for her and that she was unable to prevent it.
This was not correct because it is well-known that she likes it and encourages it. That’s why the sycophants do it. Jayalalithaa also utilises this act to humiliate people.
In one instance a man who had left her party and criticised her returned to its folds again. The media was called in to witness the return of the prodigal. This man, K.K.S.R. Ramachandran, was a big-made man with a very big moustache.
He was required to prostrate himself four times before a smilingly-seated Jayalalithaa under the pretext that the photographers had not got a good shot. The picture was released to all papers.
According to some observers, even her mentor and paramour MGR had some kind of a foot fetish for Jayalalithaa.
In many of the films in which they acted together, there were scenes of MGR touching Jayalalithaa’s feet such as removing a thorn from her sole or massaging a sprained ankle.
Apparently the man who founded the ADMK had a fixation on her feet. Now members of MGR’s party are at Jayalalithaa’s feet, metaphorically and literally.
Like Imelda Marcos Jayalalithaa herself had a fascination for footwear. There were media reports and pictures of her 800 plus shoes, sandals and slippers.
A funny phenomenon is the sycophantic references to her feet by party men when commencing their speeches. In a disgusting spectacle they begin by paying homage to her “potpaadangal” (golden feet) or “thamaraithiruvadigal” (lotus feet).
One point on which she is often criticised is her arrogance. She is virtually a dominatrix with party people and treats them like her minions and serfs.
There was a time when Jayalalithaa would be the only person sitting on a stage while others would remain standing or seated on the floor. Later she dispensed with this practice but allows only selected people to sit next to her.
When a senior Minister, Munu Aathi, dared to sit next at a function, she flared up and publicly ordered him to move back.
On another occasion a Congress cabinet minister from Tamil Nadu tried to sit next to her on a flight to New Delhi. She shouted at him to get lost and referred derisively to his caste.
The man was a Dalit. There was a big outcry and a public apology was demanded. She did not budge.
At inner meetings of the party she remains seated while the rest sit on the floor or remain standing. There have been press conferences where her ministers stand behind her with folded hands while she sits on a sofa.
During election campaigns Jayalalithaa goes around on whirlwind tours in her luxurious trailer-van. Short roadside meetings are held where candidates have to stand on a stool while she talks. Even central cabinet ministers like Mani Shankar Aiyer had to undergo this.
There is no inner party democracy in the ADMK. Jayalalithaa appoints, removes, transfers, promotes, demotes, expels and recruits at her own discretion. Ministers are appointed, fired or shuffled according to her whims. Her wish is the party’s command. None dares to disobey let alone defy.
Contempt for media
She is an autocrat who does not tolerate criticism. She looks down upon the media and brooks no dissent. Once she even took on the powerful “Hindu” newspaper , ordering the arrest of several journalists including Executive Editor Malini Parthasarathy.
The influential newspaper group had to tug at strings in New Delhi to make her back down.
I once witnessed firsthand the utter contempt she has for the media. It was in early 1985 and I was in Tamil Nadu on an assignment. Jayalalithaa was then a Rajya Sabha (upper house) member and propaganda secretary of the ADMK.
An Indian journalist pal took me along for a press conference held by her. Thank God, we were all given chairs to sit. She started off with a bang by asking the Herald Review correspondent to stand up. This was a news magazine of the Deccan Herald newspaper.
Once the journalist identified himself, Jayalalithaa pitched into him. Apparently in an article the scribe had referred to Jayalalithaa as being “hysterical.” She took offence to that and launched a tirade about the meaning of hysterical.
If anyone had doubts about her being hysterical, Jayalalithaa’s performance that day demonstrated what hysteria was all about.
She then ordered him to leave but to the credit of the fourth estate, they protested at the treatment meted out to their colleague. With Jayalalithaa remaining adamant, the journalists announced that they were walking out en masse.
She then relented and conducted the conference with the correspondent in attendance.
This, however, was at a time when MGR was alive and Jayalalithaa had not become party leader or Chief Minister. I do not know how the journalists would have reacted to a similar incident under present circumstances.
While her haughty demeanour and arrogant attitude deserves to be condemned, there is perhaps a rationale for such behaviour. The ascendancy of Jayalalithaa in a Tamil Nadu milieu can be viewed as an ironic contradiction.
Despite the breeze of cosmopolitanism blowing in through globalisation, the state of Tamil Nadu is basically conservative. It is a patriarchal, male-dominated society with strict notions of a woman’s role and place. Jayalalithaa is a woman.
Tamil Nadu society at large has contempt for women actors in the cine field who do not behave as ‘good’ women should. Woman film stars, in spite of their glamour, are not respected and regarded with disdain in private. Jayalalithaa was an actress.
The dominant political ideology in the state is that of Dravidianism. This is based on archaic concepts of the Aryan-Dravidian divide where the Brahmin community is seen as Aryans and other Tamils as Dravidians. Anti-Brahminism is a core element of Dravidian discourse. Jayalalithaa is a Brahmin.
Thus, one can see that the Jayalalithaa phenomenon goes against the grain of three dominant concepts in Tamil Nadu. She is a woman, a film star and a Brahmin.
The success of this embodiment in the socio-political realm of Tamil Nadu is a contradiction. Jayalalithaa, in a way, is an exception or aberration.
In that context, the situation can be quite dicey for her. If she were to be democratic and easygoing, the people surrounding her would exploit it to their advantage. Instead of appreciating her conduct, they would very likely regard it as a weakness and take advantage.
An Indian editor once told me of an incident that happened in 1988. The ADMK had split after MGR’s death and both factions were trying to take control of the party headquarters building. When Jayalalithaa joined demonstrations, party supporters mobbed her.
Sadly, she had to be rescued by the Police from her own supporters. Jayalalithaa used to wear pure white sarees with thin borders then. The Indian editor told me that her saree and blouse were full of grubby finger marks. Apparently, her supporters had used the opportunity to try and fondle her or squeeze her.
In later life she had her own set of bodyguards to prevent supporters from getting close to her. There was an urge on the part of some males not merely to simply touch her but also do “squeeze” if they could.
When she entered politics, many party members were dazzled by her beauty and easy accessibility. They were extra-attentive to her and ever ready to make physical contact. A regional leader from Madurai called “Pazhakkadai” Pandi went ballistic once on stage. He was reprimanded by MGR.
Thereafter the order went out from MGR that Jayalalithaa should be treated with reverence. This changed the situation. Soon party people showed great subservience to her. Slowly she was promoted as a superior, cult figure.
After MGR’s death Jayalalithaa was quite vulnerable. It was then that she realised she had to assert unquestionable superiority over her party people to remain in control. Superiority and not equality was necessary. The followers had to be put in place as inferiors.
This she began to do. Soon she became an authoritative figure. She grew into her role and her inherent traits of arrogance came to the fore.
She humiliated her followers to show who was boss and trampled them underfoot. Incredible as it may seem, they seem to like it, with even highly educated professionals paying pooja horizontally to the boss lady.
Her detractors and political rivals continue to attack her on what they think are her weak spots. She is called “anthap pombiley” (that woman) or “paapaathy” (Brahmin woman) often.
Once when she was in the opposition, DMK Minister Duraimurugan tried to strip her in the Assembly.
When she raised a question, the present Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi replied, “Go and ask Sobhan Babu.” This was a Telugu film star with whom Jayalalithaa was involved romantically at one stage.
Even recently DMK Deputy Leader Anbalaghan retorted to a charge by her, derisively asking her about her “past.”
This state of affairs may help to understand the reasons for her arrogant conduct but it certainly cannot condone it. Moreover, there is a vicious, vindictive streak to her that often manifests itself in controversial ways.
There was a woman administrative officer (IAS), Chandralekha, with whom she had a disagreement. Soon acid was thrown by goondas on Chandralekha’s face.
As Chief Minister she abused her authority and incarcerated her rival, Karunanidhi. The Police carried the howling man away.
When maverick politico Dr. Subramaniam Swamy fell foul of her, Jayalalithaa organised a hostile reception for him in Chennai. Members of the ADMK Women’s League raised their sareees in a protest demonstration.
“Subramanian Swamy has met his waterloo,” gloated Jayalalithaa publicly. “I will send Jayalalithaa to the loo without water,” retorted Swamy.
Due to a dispute with the Kachipuram “Sangara madam” Holy seer Sri Jayendra Swamigal, Jayalalithaa went to the extent of getting him arrested on what seemed to be false charges.
Jayalalithaa was corrupt to the core. Together with her “life friend” (uyirtholi) Sasikala Nadarajah, she engaged in massive corruption. Sasikala was like a woman Friday to her. Their corruption and amassed wealth has often been publicised in the media.
Jayalalithaa was arrested after her downfall in 1996 on corruption charges. Newspapers were full of stories about her assets and properties. Her corpulence was a sign of her ill-gotten opulence.
Jayalalithaa’s relationship with Sasikala is a controversial issue for Tamil Nadu. They are seemingly inseparable. Sasikala, who is called “Sinnamma” by party people, wields enormous influence.
She also adopted as son, Sashikala’s nephew and arranged a grand wedding for him where huge sums of money were spent in vulgar celebration. Even now various family members of Shashikala hold powerful positions within the party.
Whatever her deficiencies, Jayalalithaa remains a towering figure in Tamil Nadu politics. Jayalalithaa’s arch rival Karunanidhi is an octogenarian. After his demise, there will be no one in the state to match Jayalalithaa in stature and popularity.
She will then very likely be the solitary moon among lesser stars in the Tamil Nadu political firmament.
(This is a slightly updated version of an article written for “The Nation” in February 2008)
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org