A new book reveals how a once shy girl became Tamil Nadu’s ‘Amma’…. M.R. Narayan Swamy reviews Jayalalithaa – A Journey
Title: Jayalalithaa – A Journey; Authors: Papri Sri Raman and Renu Kaul Verma; Publishers: Vitasta
How did a beautiful, doe-eyed woman of the 1970s become one of India’s most charismatic politicians? What made a once-shy girl to take to the male-dominated world of politics? And just how did a single woman overcome deaths of people close to her, loneliness, humiliation and salacious rumour-mongering to emerge as the undisputed leader of Tamil Nadu?
The answers to these and many other questions are unveiled in this moving pictorial tribute to J. Jayalalithaa, a glossy coffee-table book whose authors do not hide their admiration for a controversial political leader who wanted to rise much beyond the Chief Minister’s post that she held when she died in December 2016.
There is only a partial reference to the corruption charges hurled at her, allegations that have sent her long-time aide V.K. Sasikala to jail. The authors are more concerned about the fascinating rise and rise of Jayalalithaa who, in later years, helped make Tamil Nadu, for all its faults, one of the best-administered states in the country.
Work on the book began when Jayalalithaa was alive. The authors saw her as “one of the most beautiful women in Indian politics” besides being very articulate and intelligent. One of the biggest attractions of this book are the priceless pictures of the star, from the time she was a school student and played Lord Krishna on stage, to the time when she took the first confident steps in politics, courtesy MGR.
What was the secret of Jayalalithaa’s success?
Jayalalithaa captured the imagination of the voter consistently for 33 long years, helping to make the AIADMK the most successful political outfit in Tamil Nadu. Her story, however, began decades earlier — by the time she was five she began to be cast as a child artiste on stage. She loved photography — and P.G. Woodhouse. “A very Chennai girl.” A young woman who wanted to become a lawyer ended up entering the film industry when she was just 16 years old. Tamil Nadu, which she made her home in the 1950s, embraced her warmly.
The authors are clear that she was a born star. (“I am a spontaneous, natural actress.”) Jayalalithaa “was the first heroine to appear in short-sleeved dresses, skirts, gowns and woollen suits” in Tamil cinema. In 1966, she was the highest-paid female lead in Tamil movies, a position she held till 1980. She had 117 box office hits in three languages. And when no one was looking, she also wrote a couple of short stories and two novels.
Much before MGR became her mentor, Jayalalithaa’s closest friend-cum-guide was her mother Sandhya. When she died, Jayalalithaa knew nothing about running a house, operating a bank account, writing a cheque, paying income tax, not even how many servants were there in the house or their salaries. “Everyone took advantage of me, so I had to learn everything the hard way.”
Once politics attracted her, there was no looking back. This part of her life story is relatively well known. Her foray into Dravidian politics despite her Brahmin roots, her closeness to MGR who founded the AIADMK after breaking from the DMK, her tenure as Rajya Sabha member, her first election campaign, how she took on MGR’s widow after he died, how she was viciously attacked in the Tamil Nadu assembly, and how she, in the end, proved that she alone deserved MGR’s political legacy. The poor identified with her. For them, she was their Mother, the Amma. The grief on the streets of Tamil Nadu was genuine when she passed away.
Allegations have constantly dogged Jayalalithaa the actor and politician. Often they hide the contributions she made to Tamil Nadu’s rise as one of India’s best-performing states. The AIADMK’s welfare politics played a role in empowering the poor.
Jayalalithaa (and earlier MGR) provided bicycles to rural girls students to go to school, and laptops and scholarships. No wonder Tamil Nadu has more girl students in engineering, medical and professional colleges and technical schools than any other state. Tamil Nadu also has most working women in India. Jayalalithaa was the first to introduce police stations operated by women. Tamil Nadu is the second-largest state economy and the second-most industrialised state after Maharashtra. In her final years, Jayalalithaa provided low-cost mineral water, food and vegetable stores. Her Amma Canteens were an instant hit.
Jayalalithaa was a tall leader, one who could be friends with Narendra Modi but would never bow to him. After all she had her own dreams. As she once said, “I never thought I will become the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. If I am offered a higher post, I will accept that.”