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Jayalalithaa Jayaram (1948–2016): End of an aura

The actress-turned-chief minister of Tamil Nadu was probably the last of the Southern cine stars who could translate on-screen success into mass adulation and political success.

Shriram Iyengar

Jayalalithaa Jayaram, actress, politician, chief minister of Tamil Nadu, passed away at the Apollo Hospitals in Chennai on 5 December 2016. She was 68.

Prime minister Narendra Modi said, "Deeply saddened at the passing away of Selvi Jayalalithaa. Her demise has left a huge void in Indian politics. My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Tamil Nadu in this hour of grief."

Jayalalithaa, who won four terms as chief minister of Tamil Nadu, was admitted to the hospital on 22 September for treatment of a lung infection. Her condition worsened and she was in a coma for a few days, but she came out of it and was recovering when she suffered a heart attack on Sunday evening (4 December). 

Beginning her career as a child artiste, Jayalalithaa went on to become one of the most celebrated Tamil film actresses. Her partnership with the biggest star of Tamil cinema in the 1960s and 1970s, MG Ramachandran, who was also the state's chief minister for 10 years, bestowed on her an exalted position in Tamil politics.

Born in a Tamil Iyengar family in Mandya in the erstwhile Mysore state on 24 February 1948, Jayalalithaa had to give up her education because of her family's dire economic situation. However, she managed to complete her matriculation from Sacred Hearts school in Madras, as the city was then known, before entering the film industry.

With her training in classical music and Bharatanatyam, Jayalalithaa's film career was almost a given. Her mother, who took the screen name Sandhya, was a small-time actress. It was at the arangetram, an introductory dance performance at young Jaya's school, that Tamil screen legend Sivaji Ganesan earmarked her for future cinematic success.

While Jayalalithaa began her career as a child artiste in the Kannada film Shri Shaila Mahathme (1961), it wasn't until Chinnada Gombe (1964) that her debut as a lead actress happened. It was at one of her mother Sandhya's film premieres that director BR Panthulu noticed the young Ammu and decided to cast her in his film. The same year, she made her debut in Tamil theatre in the play The Undersecretary alongside actor-playwright 'Cho' S Ramaswamy, later to become a strong critic of Jayalalithaa the politician.

In an interview with Simi Garewal, the late chief minister had revealed that she wasn't too keen on a career in films. She said, "There was a battle royale at home for three days, but when mother explained to me the circumstances, I realised that there was really no way out."

Jayalalithaa's stint in Tamil cinema began with Vennira Aadai (1965). In hindsight, it was perhaps a sign that the reign of the most famous unmarried woman in Tamil Nadu began with her playing a widow.

After Vennira Aadai came a period of unprecedented success for Jayalalithaa in the Southern film industry. Between 1965 and 1972, she delivered a string of 14 hits, at an average rate of two a year. Films like Galatta Kalyanam (Tamil, 1968), Deiva Magan (Tamil, 1969), Engirundho Vandhaal (Tamil, 1970), Pattikada Pattanama (1972) and Raman Thediya Seethai (Tamil, 1972) were critical and commercial hits. Playing characters ranging from poor women to rich brats, Jayalalithaa brought a new bold, brave persona to women in Tamil cinema. 

Such was her popularity in that period that heroes would often submit to her holding the title role in films like Adimaippenn (Tamil, 1969), Kanni Thaai (Tamil, 1965), and Sumathi En Sundari (Tamil, 1971). In the golden age of stars like MGR and Sivaji Ganesan, Jayalalithaa emerged as the undisputed 'third pole' in the Tamil film industry. Her high point came in the period between 1969 and 1973, when she won 5 Filmfare awards. She maintained the record when she won 5 consecutive Tamil Nadu state awards between 1971 and 1975.

Despite these successes, Jayalalithaa was not too fond of her cinematic career. In her own words, "I didn't like it [her career in films], but when I decide to do something, whether I like it or not, I have to do it exceptionally well." 

Although a pathbreaker, Jayalalithaa did owe a large part of her political success to her mentor, MG Ramachandran. With Ramachandran, Jayalalithaa scripted one of the most successful partnerships in Tamil cinema. Beginning with Aayirathil Oruvan (1965), the two created an iconic pairing on the Tamil screen. Some of their memorable films were Chandhrodhayam (1966), Kannan En Kadhalan (1968), Maattukara Velan (1970) and En Annan (1970). In many ways, she complimented MGR's popularity as the female star in Tamil cinema.

The pairing, phenomenally successful on screen, moved off screen when MGR inducted Jayalalithaa into the AIADMK, the ruling party in Tamil Nadu, in 1982 as propaganda secretary, the most powerful post in the party after that of general secretary, held by Ramachandran himself. [The AIADMK is a curiosity in that its general secretary is its most powerful leader, as in Communist parties, though the party itself does not subscribe to the Communist ideology.] The oratory and multilingual skills of Jayalalithaa soon made her a public face of the AIADMK. Her political career graph continued upwards when she was elected to the Rajya Sabha in 1984, and reached its peak when she took over as chief minister of Tamil Nadu on 24 January 1991, more than three years after the death of her mentor and closest associate.

While 1984 was the year that witnessed the assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi, probably the most powerful woman modern India has seen, Jayalalithaa's star began rising that same year in the South.

It was natural, perhaps, that an actress should fill the vacuum left by MGR on the political stage when he died of kidney failure on 24 December 1987. While she had to fight the faction led by MGR's widow Janaki Ramachandran for control of the party, she was successful in reuniting and taking charge of the AIADMK in February 1989.

It took her another two years, however, to defeat the DMK in the assembly election held soon after the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi at Sriperumbudur in the state and be sworn in as the first woman chief minister of Tamil Nadu on 24 June 1991. Until that happened, Jayalalithaa had to endure much humiliation and some violence at the hands of her political opponents, first Janaki, who was acting chief minister for a while, and then the DMK led by five-time chief minister M Karunanidhi. But after 1991, she became the biggest, most intractable opponent of the DMK in bipolar Tamil Nadu while Janaki faded away from politics. MGR's widow died in 1996.

Jayalalithaa's only tryst wth Hindi cinema was in the film Izzat (1968), directed by T Prakash Rao. She played a cheerful tribal woman who falls in love with the suave and urbane Dharmendra. However, the film failed to set the box office alight, and Jayalalithaa's career in Hindi cinema was stillborn. 

One of the legacies of Jayalalithaa would be her stature as an iconic figure that paralleled MGR and his mentor, CN Annadurai aka Anna, in Tamil Nadu politics. A Tamil Brahmin and a female politician at that, Jayalalithaa overcame the double indemnity of gender and caste to establish herself as the most powerful woman in the South. 

A loner by nature, Jayalalithaa did succumb to the vanities of cult worship. In the latter half of her political career, she came to be idolised by her followers as 'Amma', or mother. Corruption, nepotism, and dictatorship were the other accusations levelled against her. In 2014, she was disqualified from the post of chief minister after she was convicted and sentenced to imprisonment in a corruption case.

But resurgence was a theme repeated time and again in her career in films as well as in politics. When her rivals had written her off as a political force, she staged a comeback by getting re-elected as chief minister in 2016, becoming the first chief minister of Tamil Nadu in 35 years to manage the feat. She held the post till the end.

As a screen and political icon, Jayalalithaa achieved demi-god status among a large section of the electorate of Tamil Nadu. Her aura, built around her cinematic work, grew in vibrancy during her political career. By the time her end came, she was, after MGR, the only chief minister of Tamil Nadu to enjoy such undisputed political power. Her death creates a vacuum that might see a radical restructuring of Tamil politics. With her passing, and the nonagenarian Karunanidhi's withdrawal from active politics, Tamil politics may well see the end of an era when star power ruled over the ballot box.