Jayalalithaa, who excelled in the world of cinema and politics, was a reluctant entrant in both fields.
“I hate cinema, but my mother forced me into films; I hate politics, but MGR forced me into politics. Still I hate politics.” This is what she told N. Ram of The Hindu in 2009, during a private conversation.
Mr. Ram recounted how, when he asked her if she was feeling lonesome, Ms. Jayalalithaa, pointing to her confidante Sasikala, responded, “I have a sister who is taking care of me. If my mother was alive, she would have cared for me. I have my party cadres who care for me.” A thinking actor and an extremely popular and powerful politician, who controlled the party she inherited with an iron grip, Jayalalithaa proved she was a natural leader and true heir to M.G. Ramachandran when she won from the Bodinayakanur Assembly constituency in 1989, heading an AIADMK faction. Janaki Ramachandran, who led another faction, lost from Andipatti, which her husband won from a hospital bed in the U.S. in 1984.
The convent-educated Jayalalithaa — she studied first at Bishop Cotton in Bengaluru and later at Church Park in Chennai — was articulate and comfortable in multiple languages, and the skills came handy in politics. She was an outstanding student; in interviews, she revealed her ambition was to become a lawyer like Ram Jethmalani or Fali S. Nariman.
But family circumstances forced her into a career in films; her first lead role in a Tamil film was in 'Vennira Aadai', directed by C.V. Sridhar. “I created a storm at home. I fought, I wept but it had to be films,” she told an interviewer, recalling her protest against entering the industry though she had acted in Kannada movies as a child artiste.
Though her family hailed from Srirangam, her grandfather Rangaswamy Iyengar settled in Bengaluru, where he worked at Hindustan Aeronautics. Her father Jayaram, a lawyer by training, died when she was only two and her mother Vedavalli, better known with her screen name Sandhya (after whom her Poes Garden residence is named) worked in the Income-Tax department before taking the plunge into films. Vaasanthi, the author of Amma: Jayalalithaa’s Journey from Movie Star to Political Queen , her unauthorised biography, says, “While she was acting in Vennira Aadai, she was booked by director B.R. Panthulu for Aaayirathil Oruvan, in which she was cast opposite the matinee idol MGR, who was more than 35 years her senior.”
Jayalalithaa once declared that it was 'Aaayirathil Oruvan' that paved the way for her entry into politics. “It was a successful film, and it gave me an opportunity to meet and converse with MGR. It is not an exaggeration to say that the film paved the way for my entry into politics,” she said in a statement on the occasion of the 50th year of its release.
Despite her reservations, she took to acting like a fish to water. Cho Ramaswamy, in his memoir, recalled how she would effortlessly respond to his impromptu dialogues on the stage.
Both Jayalalithaa and her mother worked for Y.G. Parthasarathy’s drama troupe, the United Amateur Artistes. Her stint in theatre and grounding in Bharatanatyam — K.J. Sarasa was her teacher and her arangetram was presided over by Sivaji Ganesan — gave her an edge over MGR’s other heroines.
She continued to act opposite MGR and did 28 films with him, the maximum for any heroine. But she fell out with him in 1973 and revived the relationship only on June 4, 1982, when she became a member of the AIADMK and addressed the party’s conference in Cuddalore. She was nominated to the Rajya Sabha on March 24, 1984, and her seat number in the House was 185, once occupied by DMK founder C.N. Annadurai.
Stooping to conquer
She had a knack of reading the political situation and foresaw a revival of her fortunes in the 1998 Lok Sabha polls, necessitated by the fall of the United Front government. She put together an alliance, comprising the MDMK led by Vaiko and the PMK led by S. Ramadoss. She brought on board Vazhapadi K. Ramamurthi and they joined hands with the BJP, then seen as a political untouchable in the State. The serial bomb blasts in Coimbatore in 1998 boosted the prospects of the alliance.
But her decision to withdraw support to the BJP government led by A.B. Vajpayee paved the way for another election in 1999.
It closed the AIADMK’s participation in the government at the Centre. The DMK filled the gap and enjoyed power till 2013.