The recent conviction and consequent imprisonment of Jayalalithaa Jayaram on charges of acquiring disproportionate wealth during her past term of office (1991-96) has resulted in the former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister being under media spotlight for many days now. This week’s ‘Spotlight’ column too will be about Jayalalithaa but the focus will be on certain aspects of her family background, early life and scintillating career as a film star and not on her politics or present plight.
People looking at her physical corpulence – which may be a sign of her ill-gotten opulence – would not believe that the rotund lady of today was at one time slim and lissom. Indeed she was and a ravishing beauty too! As a sparkling actress on the silver screen, 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 teenager and the favourite pin-up star of myriad fans.
Jayalalithaa has acted in over 140 films in several languages. Of these around 90 were Tamil films. She acted opposite the famous film star-politico M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) in 27 films. MGR was her lead actor in films, paramour in personal life and mentor in politics.
Tamil ethnicity, Tamil Nadu roots
Unlike many other South Indian actresses of her time Jayalalithaa has a remarkable ancestry. She is of Tamil Vaishnavite Brahmin Aiyengaar stock hailing from Srirangam in the Trichy district of Tamil Nadu state. Both her paternal and maternal grandparents relocated to the state of Karnataka which was formerly known as Mysore. Jayalalithaa herself was born in Melukote in the Pandavapura division of Mandya district in Karnataka. Since she was born in Karnataka there are many who think Jayalalithaa is a Kannadiga. She is however a “Thamizhachi” (Tamil woman), fiercely proud of her Tamil ethnicity and Tamil Nadu roots.
An incident that occurred decades ago when Jayalalithaa was a film star without any involvement in politics illustrates both her courage and pride in being Tamil. It was the year 1970. Jayalalithaa had agreed to perform with her dance troupe at an exhibition held at Bengaluru (then Bangalore) in Karnataka. Due to her shooting schedule going awry Jayalalithaa had to cancel the performance at the last minute. This led to Vatal Nagaraj, the leader of a Karnataka-based political outfit known as the “Kannada Chaluvali Vatal Paksha,” issuing a statement condemning her for cancelling the event despite being a Kannadiga woman.
Vatal Nagaraj, a Kannadiga chauvinist, was a dreaded figure in Karnataka like Bal Thackeray of the Shiv Sena was in Maharashtra state. In spite of Vatal Nagaraj’s fearsome reputation, Jayalalithaa responded bravely by issuing a statement contradicting him. Jayalalithaa said though born in Karnataka she was a Tamil and not a Kannadiga. An infuriated Nagaraj then warned her not to set foot again on Karnataka soil. Jayalalithaa replied that if and when necessary she would set foot on Karnataka soil.
A few weeks later Jayalalithaa was at Premier studio in Bangalore where the shooting of the film ‘Ganga Gowri’ was taking place. The director was the famous Kannadiga filmmaker B.R. Panthulu in whose film Jayalalithaa had first acted as a heroine. A gang of thuggish activists from Vatal Nagaraj’s outfit got to know of this and invaded the studio premises. The mob surrounded Jayalalithaa and demanded that she withdraw her statement of being a Tamil woman and apologise to the people of Karnataka.
Jayalalithaa was defiant. She refused to do so and kept repeating, “I am not a Kannada woman. I am a Tamil Woman” to the mob that had encircled her. It was with great difficulty that members of the film crew, studio workers and media personnel prevented the goondas from assaulting the unflinching actress. Finally the Police arrived and dispersed the mob. Jayalalithaa however remained unbowed and unafraid to the very end.
This incident happened when Jayalalithaa was not engaged in politics or entertained any political ambition. Jayalalithaa reiterating her Tamilness even in the face of danger was therefore not a political stunt but a genuine reaction that reflected her inherent courage and Tamil consciousness. In later life several of her political opponents tried to portray her as a Kannada woman in a cheap ruse to alienate her from voters in Tamil Nadu. This did not work. Incidentally Jayalalithaa contested and won handsomely from the Srirangam constituency in the 2011 state elections. As stated earlier Srirangam is where her family hailed from originally.
Jayalalithaa’s maternal grandfather, Rengasamy Aiyengar, had resided at No. 61 East Chithirai road in Srirangam. He then moved from Srirangam to Nellore in Andhra Pradesh. Thereafter he relocated to Karnataka where he worked at Hindustan Aeronautics. Rengasamy had three daughters and a son. His second daughter was named Vedavalli, who later turned to acting in films and adopted the screen name Sandhya. She was Jayalalithaa’s mother.
Jayalalithaa’s paternal grandfather was Dr. Narasimhan Rangachary. He too moved to Mysore and served as the court physician to Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV, who reigned as the Maharajah of Mysore from 1894 to 1940. A large part of what is today the Karnataka state was under the suzerainty of the Wodeyar dynasty during British rule. Rangachary had a son, Jayaram. Vedavalli was given in marriage to Jayaram as his second wife with the concurrence of both families. Jayaram’s first wife was Jayamma, a Kannada woman from Narasipur in Mysore.
Vedavalli had two children by Jayaram. One was a son, Jayakumar, and the other a daughter, Jayalalithaa. Jayalalitha was given her grandmother’s name Koamalavalli at the time of birth. The name Jayalalithaa was adopted later. It was derived from the names of two houses where she resided in Mysore. One was “Jaya Vilas” and the other “Lalitha Vilas”. Her name was originally spelled with one ‘a’ at the end. Later another ‘a’ was added for numerological reasons. Jayalalitha became Jayalalithaa. However, she was widely known by her pet name “Ammu”. Nowadays she is referred to as “Amma,” meaning mother or Madam.
Jayalalithaa was born in the lap of luxury on 24 February 1948. Her paternal grandfather Dr. Rangachary had amassed much wealth as the Mysore Maharajah’s personal physician. Fate however decreed that his daughter-in-law Sandhya and granddaughter Jayalalithaa become actresses due to financial reasons. The circumstances that led to this situation are by themselves interesting.
Jayalalithaa’s grandfather Rangachary died before she was born. Thereafter things took a turn for the worse. Jayalalithaa’s father Jayaram though a BA graduate had never worked in his life. Worse still, he was a recklessly extravagant spendthrift and wastrel. Within a very short period, he squandered away the family fortunes on alcohol, women and gambling. Jayaram died before his daughter reached the age of three. Whatever that remained of the family wealth went to Jayaram’s first wife.
The widowed Vedavalli was left destitute and returned to her father’s home in Bangalore. She learnt shorthand and typewriting to take up a clerical position to help support the family. Her younger sister Ambujavalli had moved to Chennai (then Madras)and was working as an air hostess. She also started acting in dramas and films using the nom de plume Vidyaavathy. After a while Jayalalithaa’s mother also relocated to Madras and stayed with her sister. She worked in a commercial firm and began dabbling in acting.
Soon Vedavalli became a full time actress using the name Sandhya. Sandhya as an actress never became a star but was able to garner many roles. She played the leading lady in a few films including ‘Minnal Veeran,’ opposite the swashbuckling hero actor Ranjan. Most of her roles however were in a supportive capacity.
Meanwhile Jayalalithaa lived with her maternal grandfather and unmarried aunt Padmavalli in Bangalore. “Padma chithi,” as she called her aunt, was like a foster mother to her. Jayalalithaa studied at Bangalore’s famous Bishop Cotton Girls school in her early life. She would go to Madras to be with her mother during school holidays.
Once Sandhya took her daughter to the studio with her. The film ‘Shree Shaila Mahathmiya’ was being shot. While Jayalalithaa was watching the shooting, a problem arose. The child actor playing the Goddess Parvathy in a school drama scene in the film had not turned up. The producer turned to Sandhya. Jayalalithaa was swiftly dressed up as Parvathy and the scene was shot. This was her first screen performance.
In 1958 Padmavalli got married and left her father’s home. Sandhya then got down her children to Madras to be with her. Jayalalithaa was admitted to the prestigious Sacred Heart Matriculation School popularly known as Church Park Presentation convent or Church Park. She was 10 years old then.
Jayalalithaa was a brilliant student at Church Park and placed first in her class most of the time. She particularly excelled in English. Jayalalithaa’s maternal great grandfather had been a lawyer practising in Karur. It was Sandhya’s hope that her daughter too would become a successful lawyer like her grandfather. The daughter too subscribed to that ambition.
Sandhya however made sure that apart from studies, Jayalalithaa also learnt music, dancing and singing. She learnt Western classical music and how to play the piano at Church Park. Jayalalithaa also learnt carnatic music at home from the vocal guru Gopalakrishna Sarma. The danseuse K.J. Sarasa taught her Bharatha Natyam. She also learnt Kathak and Mohini Aattam.
Sivaji Ganesan’s prophecy
Jayalalithaa’s Bharatha Natya ‘Arangaetram’ or debut performance was in May 1960. It was held at the Rasika Ranjani Sabha hall in Mylapore. She was 12 years old at the time. The Chief Guest was the great Tamil thespian Sivaji Ganesan. Sivaji in his address commended Jayalalithaa’s dancing. He also praised her physical beauty particularly her figure and fair complexion by describing Jayalalithaa as a “thangachilai” or golden statue.
Sivaji Ganesan also called upon Jayalalithaa to act in films when older. He was definite that she would take to acting. Sivaji predicted then that “Ammu” would become a great film star. Sivaji’s comment did not go down well with Sandhya and Jayalalithaa. Both mother and daughter shared the vision of Jayalalithaa becoming a lawyer. Yet within five years Sivaji Ganesan’s prophecy came true. Furthermore Jayalalithaa was to play leading lady to Sivaji himself before the decade was over.
Her mother Sandhya and aunt Vidyavathy acted in dramas produced by the famous Y.G. Parthasarathy the father of comedian Y.G. Mahendran. YGP as he was known ran the drama troupe United Amateur Artistes (UAA), which staged English and Tamil plays. Soon Jayalalithaa while a school girl began acting in some YGP plays along with her mother and aunt. She acted in plays such as ‘Malathi,’ ‘The Whole Truth,’ ‘Tea House of the August Moon’ and ‘Under Secretary’.
Former Indian President V.V. Giri’s son Shankar Giri saw some of these plays and was impressed by Jayalalithaa. Shankar Giri approached the mother Sandhya and told her that he wanted to cast her daughter in an English docudrama called ‘The Epistle’. Sandhya reluctantly agreed with the condition that shooting should be held only during weekends or school holidays. The film however dragged on and was finally released years later when Jayalalithaa was a star. It was a flop.
Meanwhile, Jayalalithaa continued with her studies and passed her SSLC/Matriculation exams with flying colours. Her marks were the second highest in the state. Entitled to a merit scholarship, Jayalalithaa obtained admission to Stella Maris College in Madras to follow PUC classes when the academic term began. A brilliant career based on education seemed to be beckoning at that juncture. Destiny decreed otherwise.
Adieu to studies
Sandhya had acted in a Tamil film ‘Karnan’ produced and directed by Kannada filmmaker B.R. Panthulu. The film ran for over a 100 days and a celebration was arranged at the Woodlands Hotel. Jayalalithaa dressed in a silk saree accompanied her mother to the event. She was a “sweet 16” then and a dazzling sight. B.R. Panthulu saw her and immediately decided to cast her opposite Kalyankumar in the Kannada movie ‘Chinnada Gombe’ that he was making.
Sandhya demurred saying her would be studying for her PUC in two months’ time. Panthulu promised to finish all shooting within two months. Sandya agreed and Jayalalithaa started acting. She was paid Rs. 3,000. Panthulu kept his promise and completed shooting in six weeks. Jayalalithaa forgot all about films and got ready to attend classes at Stella Maris.
It was at this point of time that one of the greatest film directors, C.V. Sridhar saw the rushes of ‘Chinnada Gombe’. Sridhar was planning to shoot a colour film with newcomers under his famous banner Chitralaya films. He felt Jayalalithaa was ideal to act in the role of a schizophrenic widow in his film ‘Vennira Aadai’ (White Dress). Moving swiftly Sridhar went to the YMCA swimming pool to meet mother and daughter. Sandhya was thrilled that the maestro Sridhar wanted her daughter to act in his film.
Jayalalithaa however refused to act in more films. She wanted to study. There was a heated argument at home. Finally Sandhya revealed that the family was in dire straits financially. Acting opportunities were becoming scarce for her and debts were piling up due to their extravagant lifestyle. Being launched by Sridhar meant glowing prospects and a bright future in an acting career. The daughter was asked to make the correct choice. After a long night of deep thought Jayalalithaa conveyed her decision in the morning. It was adieu to studies.
Jayalalithaa’s first Tamil film ‘Vennira Aadai’ made history even before it was released by getting an ‘A’ certificate as an adults only film. The last time a Tamil film got an A certificate was in 1951 for ‘Marma Yogi’. Apparently the Film Certification Board was upset by some shots of Jayalalithaa bathing and dancing in the film. The movie when released ran successfully for over a hundred days in several theatres. Jayalalithaa got rave reviews. Thousands became her fans overnight. A star was born! A fragrant sign of this stardom was in posing for advertisements extolling the virtues of Lux soap.
She began to get a lot of film offers. The biggest and life-changing break came in the form of B.R. Panthulu again. The man who made ‘Chinnada Gombe’ Kannada film with Jayalalithaa now wanted to make a colour film in Tamil with the legendary M.G. Ramachandran (MGR).This was the first MGR film by Panthulu. MGR wanted a new face as his leading lady. Panthulu suggested Jayalalithaa. So MGR and wife Janaki watched the Kannada and Tamil film starring Jayalalithaa. It was MGR’s wife Janaki who insisted that MGR act with Jayalalithaa.
The film was Jayalalithaa’s second Tamil film. It was based on the Rafael Sabatini character Captain Blood. The film named ‘Aayirathil Oruvanor’ or ‘one in a thousand’ was a block buster. MGR was 48 years old and Jayalalithaa only 17. Despite the 31-year age difference the pair hit it off grandly on screen. More films followed and the duo made 27 films together in nine years. Almost every film was a commercial success. The jewel in the crown was ‘Adimai Penn’ or slave girl with Jayalalithaa in a dual role. The film released in 1969 was produced by MGR himself.
It was in this film that Jayalalithaa sang in her own voice for the first time on screen. Usually actors merely lip synch for the screen while the numbers are actually sung by playback singers. The singers P. Susheela, S. Janaki and L.R. Eeaswari used to voice for Jayalalithaa. It so happened that MGR once heard Jayalalithaa singing softly by herself and felt she sang well. So a solo was given to her in ‘Adimai Penn’. The song ‘Amma Endraal Anbu’ was written by lyricist Vaali and music composed by K.V. Mahadevan. She had a creamy, croony voice and the song got popular. She sang in her own voice in some other films too. Jayalalithaa’s first screen song began with the word “Amma”. Years later millions of supporters began calling her “Amma”!
Love of MGR’s life
The immensely-popular MGR had a network of fan clubs known as Rasikar Mandram. Though several actresses such as Bhanumathy, Padmini, Saroja Devi, Manchula, K.R. Vijaya, Latha, etc. had acted paired with MGR, it was Jayalalithaa who captured the hearts of his fans. MGR’s wife Janaki was called “Anni,” meaning wife of the elder brother by fans, who also referred to Jayalalithaa as “Sinna (small) Anni”. MGR himself was infatuated with her. Though they never formally married, Jayalalithaa was regarded as the love of MGR’s life.
There was a time when MGR and Jayalalithaa were estranged. While Jayalalithaa faded away from the screen, MGR formed his own political party and became Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. After a few years of separation there was rapprochement between both. MGR enticed her into his party and launched her on a successful political career.
A living deity
Many in her party treat her as a living deity now. Years ago 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 too. Pictures of Jayalalithaa in such roles are hung in many dwellings. Some people light camphor and lay flowers before them.
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, party sycophants have taken this practice to ridiculous levels. Even party veterans older than Jayalalithaa prostrate themselves publicly. An amusing phenomenon is the sycophantic references to her feet by party members when commencing their speeches. In a disgusting spectacle they begin by paying homage to her “potpaadangal” (golden feet) or “thamaraithiruvadigal” (lotus feet).
Interestingly enough this penchant for Jayalalithaa’s feet was shared even by her mentor and paramour. According to some observers, 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.
In spite of her unofficial liaison with MGR, the actor to whom Jayalalithaa was linked romantically was Telugu actor Sobhan Babu. He was however married and refused to divorce his wife formally and marry Jayalalithaa. Once when a Tamil magazine had a gossip article about this relationship, Jayalalithaa wrote an open letter to the publication in which she stated that both of them were in love and would marry if and when Sobhan Babu divorced his wife. That never happened and to this day Jayalalithaa is single and referred to as Selvi or unmarried woman.
As an actress Jayalalithaa sparkled on the silver screen. She acted in 142 films from 1964 to 1978 in the Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Hindi and English languages. Of these 77 films ran for over 100 days and 18 for more than 25 weeks. Her feature film in Tamil was ‘Nadhiyai Thedi Vandha Kadal’. In 1992 when she was Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Jayalalithaa acted in the Tamil film ‘Neenga Nallaa Irukkanum,’ in which she played herself on screen.
Though she played glamorous roles, she was a good actress and made an impression if given challenging roles with scope to display histrionic ability. 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 a trendsetter in fashion for young women. Jayalalithaa was one of the first heroines to don bathing costumes on screen and was described as a bombshell in bikini.
Among her successful films in Tamil were ‘Adimai Penn,’ ‘Naan,’ ‘Maatukkaara Velan,’ ‘Aathiparasakthi,’ ‘Pattikaadaa Pattanamaa,’ ‘Kavalkaran,’ ‘Engiruntho Vanthaal,’ ‘Kumari Penn,’ ‘Kandhan Karunai,’ ‘Nam Naadu,’ ‘Chandrothayam,’ ‘Kudiyiruntha Koavil,’ ‘Engal Thangam,’ ‘Enga Maamaa,’ ‘Suryakanthi,’ ‘Avan Thaan Manithan,’ etc. Apart from MGR, Jayalalithaa acted opposite stars such as Sivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganesan, Jaishankar, Ravichandran, Muthuraman, A.V.M. Rajan, N.T. Rama Rao, A. Nageswara Rao, Krishna, Sobhan Babu, Rajkumar and Kalyankumar.
An accomplished dancer, she lit up the screen and stage by her performances. Her dance drama, ‘Kaviri Thantha Kalaichelvi,’ was a smashing success. Jayalalithaa was versatile. She has been a magazine columnist, short story writer, novelist and film producer.
Let the last word about her splendid acting career be in the words of her arch enemy in politics Muttuvel Karunanidhi, the DMK leader. ‘Thirumangalyam’ released in January 1974 was Jayalalithaa’s 100th film. There was a felicitation ceremony where the Chief Minister at the time, Karunanidhi, was the Guest of Honour. Recalling that his late leader C.N. Annadurai had once described actress Bhanumathy as “Nadippukku Ilakkanam Vahuthavar” (devised the grammar of acting), Karunanidhi praised Jayalalithaa in similar vein as “Nadippukku ilakkiam vahuthavar,” which means “devised literature in acting”.
(D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)