J Jayalalithaa is unique in Indian history for being the first screen goddess to channel her glamour and acting prowess into a position of near-unchallenged power and political influence. Before the troubled stint in the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam that eventually led to chief ministership, Jayalalithaa was a megastar in Southern cinema with a career that spanned three decades in Tamil, Telugu and Kannada and involved roles that ranged from oomph object to melodramatic heroine. She even appeared in the Hindi movie Izzat in 1968.
Jayalalithaa’s film career was moulded by her mother, the actress Sandhya. Jayalalithaa was cast at the age of 13 in the obscure English language film Epistle, directed by Shankar V Giri in 1961. Her first Kannada movie, Chinnada Gombe in 1964, was a hit. Her first Tamil film was Vennira Aadai the following year.
Her life changed in more ways than one when she acted with MG Ramachandran in Ayarathil Oruvan in 1965. They appeared in over 25 films together and their on-screen chemistry was complemented by their rumoured off-screen relationship.
The hit parade that began with Ayarathil Oruvan stretched on until the end of the ’70s. The successes include Chandhrodhayam (1965), Major Chandrakanth (1966) and Arasa Kattalai (1967). In Yaar Nee? (1966), the Tamil remake of Woh Kaun Thi? (1964), Jayalalithaa plays the archetypal mysterious woman in white and her troubled twin.
An entire documentary can be made on the costumes and hairstyles sported by Jayalalithaa during her glory years. In Raja Veetu Pillai (1967), she dresses up as a cowgirl with shorts. In Panakkara Pillai (1968), she is the picture of abandon in fitting clothes and a headband (a regular accessory). In the Telugu hit Baghdad Gajadonga (a remake of The Thief of Baghdad), Jayalalithaa prances about in a shimmering harem pants ensemble, and she is matched all the way by co-star NTR’s similarly blinding costume.
Jayalalithaa’s sultry screen image reached its apogee in the fantasy song Ninaithen Vandaai from Kaavalkaaran (1967), co-starring MGR. The imagery was inspired by ancient Egypt. Jayalalithaa, naturally, was Cleopatra.
Although Jayalalithaa was most closely associated with MGR, she also appeared with other leading Tamil stars, including Sivaji Ganesan and Jaishankar. In Pattikada Pattanama (1975), Jayalalithaa plays a character she made her own – the spoilt and entitled city-bred woman who is ultimately tamed into submissiveness.
Jayalalithaa’s superstardom enabled her to headline numerous doubles roles and heroine-oriented melodramas, including Suryagandhi (1973), Thirumangalyan (1974) and Unnai Sutru Ulagam (1977). The movie Thanga Gopuram (1971) both reflects on her stardom as well as anticipates her transformation into a meta-object. Jayalalithaa plays the long-suffering Seetha as well as herself in the song Rajathi Rajathi. A sequence following the song clears the confusion for audiences who might have been wondering why the otherwise demure Seetha was leaping off the stage. Seetha’s husband, played by Major Sundarrajan, introduces the women to each other. Of course I know her, Seetha says, she has appeared in so many films.
Jayalalithaa wound down her acting career in the early ’80s to follow her mentor MGR into politics. By 1992, she was Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. The state government funded the prohibition advocacy film Neenga Nalla Irukkanam, starring Nizhalgal Ravi as an alcoholic and Bhanupriya as his beleaguered wife. Jayalalithaa appears as herself in the movie.
Jayalalithaa also sang on occasion in her films, such as in her hundredth production Thirumangalyam (1974). She hummed a few lines from the Hindi song Aaja Sanam Madhur Chandi Mein Hum from Chori Chori in an episode of Rendezvous with Simi Garewal. She also spoke to Garewal of how she had to “fight to consolidate my position in the party, to assert my supremacy”.
One of the slinkiest tributes to Jayalalithaa is in Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar (1997). The period piece is a thinly disguised account of the friendship that curdled into bitter rivalry between MGR (played by Mohanlal) and M Karunanidhi (Prakashraj). Aishwarya Rai, making her acting debut, plays a double role: she is Pushpavalli, the wife of actor-turned-politician Anandan (Mohanlal) who dies after an illness, and Kalpana, a rising film star. Anandan is introduced to Kalpana through the song Hallo Mister. The jazz bar setting reminds us of the numerous club songs performed by Jayalalithaa; the film-within-the-film setting comments on her larger-than-life image; Vairamuthu’s loaded lyrics, which contain references to a “Mister Opposition” and “I will never leave you” are a warning to Anandan that he cannot shake off his destiny.
Karunanidhi, the Dravida Munnetra Kazgaham chief and Jayalalithaa’s most implacable opponent, was Tamil Nadu’s chief minister at the time. Iruvar ran into numerous roadblocks before and during its release. The movie is regarded as one of Ratnam’s most accomplished works, and a rare attempt to portray a demagogue both as a flesh-and-blood character and a spirit who will never go away.