Jayalalithaa Jayaram: From Alluring Actress to Powerful Politician


(This Article is a condensed version of an article written on the occasion of Ms. Jayalalithaa Jayaram’s 60th birthday in 2008.It was reproduced here on the occasion of the Tamil Nadu Chief minister’s 66th birthday early this year on February 24th. Now it is posted here again without any changes at a time when Ms. Jayalalithaa is in the spotlight due to her being convicted on charges of acquiring disproportionate wealth.)

Jayalalithaa Jayaram (b: Feb 24, 1948)

Jayalalithaa Jayaram (b: Feb 24, 1948)

India in general and its Tamil Nadu state in particular have spawned many colourful political personalities. Standing out among these figures is Ms. Jayalalithaa Jayaram the actress-politico of Tamil Nadu.

The Former chief minister and Anna – Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (ADMK) leader turns 66 today (Feb 24th). Earlier her name was spelled with one A (Jayalalitha) at the end. Later a second A was added (Jayalalithaa) due to reasons of numerology.

Looking at her rotund appearance today few would imagine of a time when she 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 – sixties to the mid – seventies of the last century.She was the dream – girl of many a teen – ager and the favourite pin – up star of many fans.

Among those infatuated by her was the famous actor – politician M.G.Ramachandran (MGR).with whom she paired in more than 25 films. Though unmarried Jayalalithaa was regarded as the love of MGR’s life.

However she has been linked romantically to other people including actors like Shoban Babu, Ravichandran, Jaishanker and Mutturaman.

Jayalalithaa was born on Feb 24th 1948 in Mysore in 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 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 re-iterating that she was Thamizhian” and not a Kannadiga Jayalalithaa’s father Jayaram was a 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. The veteran actor Sivaji Ganesan who presided called her a “thangachilai” or golden statue on account of her fair, glowing skin.

Veteran film director BR 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.

Ayirathil Oruvan

Ayirathil Oruvan

Her passport to success was her second Tamil film “Aayirathil Oruvan” (one man in a thousand) 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.

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 a hundred films in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada , Hindi and even one English movie “The Epistle”. More than 70 of these ran for more than a hundred days in theatres.
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 KV 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 cremony where the chief minister of 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 elan in her film career and was a favourite among teens of that era. Many of her costumes were designed by her.She was one of the first heroines to don bathing costumes. Jayalalithaa was a bombshell in bikini.

Jayalalitha 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.

It was MGR who brought her into politics. Jayalalithaa became the ADMK’s propaganda and later administrative secretary. She was Rajya Sabha MP in 1984

After MGR’s death in 1987 the ADMK founded by MGR split with his wife Janaki and paramour Jayalalithaa leading the two factions. In 1989 she entered Tamil Nadu legislature as an elected MLA.

Jayalalithaa triumphed over Janaki in the 1989 polls and the AIADMK party united under her leadership.It swept the polls in 1991. She was elected chief minister and held office from 1991 – 1996.She remains the imperious yet undisputed leader of the ADMK today.

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 but controlled events.She then won a by – election and became CM till 2006.She was elected chief minister for the third time in 2011 and holds office currently. With elections to the Indian Lok Sabha due this year Jayalalithaa has set her sights on Prime ministerial office.

Few in her party dare to call her by name and so she is either “Amma” Or “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 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.

Sycophancy 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 (dhoty) clad party men standing in a line fell down like ninepins as she alighted from the aircraft. When they got up the white verties 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 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 so. 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 KKSR 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 they acted together in , there were scenes of MGR touching Jayalalithaa’s feet like removing a thorn from her sole or massaging a sprained ankle.

Apparently the man who founded the ADMK had a fixation for 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 pix of her 800 plus shoes, sandals and slippers.

[After presenting a bouquet to greet his leader, Jayalalithaa, on her victory, the outgoing Chief Minister, O. Paneerselvam, seeks her blessings at her Poes Garden residence, Feb 2002]

[After presenting a bouquet to greet his leader, Jayalalithaa, on her victory, the outgoing Chief Minister, O. Paneerselvam, seeks her blessings at her Poes Garden residence, Feb 2002]

A funny phenomenon are 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 about is her arrogance. She is virtually a dominatrix with party people and treating 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 former 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 was the party’s command. None dared to disobey let alone defy.

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” ordering the arrest of several journalists including the then executive editor Malini Parthasarathy. The influential newspaper group had to tug at strings in New Delhi to make her back down

I once witnessed first – hand the utter contempt she had 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 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 journos 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 similiar incident under present circumstances.

While her haughty demeanor and arrogant attitude deserves to be condemned there is perhaps a rationale for such behaviour. The ascendancy of Jayalalithaa in a Tamil Nady milieu can be viewed as an ironic contradiction.

Despite the breeze of cosmopolitanism blowing in through Globalization , 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.

A file picture of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa at a function in Chennai. Photo: M. Vedhan-courtesy: The Hindu

A file picture of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa at a function in Chennai. Photo: M. Vedhan-courtesy: The Hindu

In that context the situation can be quite dicey for her. If she were to be democratic and easy – going the people surrounding her would exploit it to their advantage. Instead of appreciating her conduct they would very likely regard it as a weakness to 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 demonstrators 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 a thin border 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 something else 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 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 used to called “anthap Pombiley” (that woman) or “Paapaathy” (Brahmin woman) often.

Once when she was in the opposition a DMK minister Duraimurugan tried to strip her in the Assembly.

When she raised a question the present chief minister Karunanidhi replied “Go and ask Sobhan Babu”. This was a Telugu film star with whom Jayalalithaa was involved romantically at one stage.

Even the 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 diagreement. Soon acid was thrown u 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 organized a hostile reception for him in Chennai. Members of the ADMK woman league raised their sareees and in a protest demonstration.

“Subramanian Swamy has met his waterloo” gloated Jayalalithaa publicly. “I will send Jayalalithaa to the loo without water” reorted Swamy.

Due to a dispute with the Kachipuram Holy man Sri Jayendra Swamigal, Jayalalitha 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 the duo 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 Saikala is a controversial issue for Tamil Nadu. They are seemingly inseparable despite occasional periods of estrangement.. Sasikala who is caled “Sinnamma” by party people used to wield enormous influence but is cut down to size in recent times. Corruption cases against both Jayalalithaa and Sashikala are continuing still.

Jayalalithaa in her voice ♫

Whatever her deficiencies Jayalalithaa remains a towering figure in Tamil Nadu politics.She is nowadays referred to as “Amma” and food outlets providing cheap,healthy food are being opened in the state as “Amma Unavaham”.

Jayalalithaa’s arch rival Karunanidhi is an octogenarian. After his demise there will be no one to match Jayalalithaa in stature and popularity.

She will then be the solitary moon among lesser stars in the Tamil Nadu political firmament.

DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at djeyaraj2005@yahoo.com