Jayalalitha: Iconic film actress-turned-politician without parallel
New Delhi, December 6, 2016
1982. Jayalalithaa, the co-star of many a film with Dr M G Ramachandran, had just been appointed the propaganda secretary of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). It was one of the most intelligent moves of her mentor, MGR, the then Chief Minister of the state. It was also a turning point in the young actress-turned-politician's life.
I distinctly remember walking into the AIADMK office that day with my close friend GC Sekhar of Indian Express and now The Telegraph, who dragged me to interview her.
For someone like me, who had just reported economics and not politics, it was an electrifying moment in my life as I had just moved to Chennai from Mumbai. I had not seen many Tamil films.
We were with her on the first floor of the building for about half an hour before a huge crowd gathered to greet her. As soon as we entered, Jayalalitha said, “Enna Sekhar, eppadi irukke? (How are you, Sekhar? ) in a very warm affectionate manner. I could sense the rapport , intimacy and respect she had for my friend. Sekar was very close to her as a journalist from Indian Express. He introduced me to her. She greeted me, “Hello Ashok, how are you? Please have a seat."
First, I was struck by her stunning beauty. Next, I was highly impressed by the manner in which she greeted me. Impressed because never before had I heard a personality from the Tamil film world speak in impeccable English and with a lovely accent. I was floored. I became an instant fan of hers though I had not seen many of her films. Thereafter, I did to catch up on her progress in her film career.
The conversation veered around her film career and how she had entered the political world at a crucial time when her mentor needed her the most. She talked about her entry into films at a young age and how she would have done equally well if she had not strayed into films at her mother’s instances, Sandhya, herself a film actress who had acted in films with MGR.
When I left the AIADMK office , the first thought that crossed my mind , was: My , boy o boy, she’s star material in the political world, too. She will go far as an MP … the thought never occurred that she would slip into the shoes of her mentor MGR one day and also become the chief minister like him and carry on his legacy of pro-poor and welfare schemes for the masses.
She was a picture of grace and charm I had not encountered before in any film personality-turned-politician in her peer group.
After a long hiatus , by when I had moved to Delhi as an economic correspondent, I had the occasion to meet her a couple of times when she came to the capital as Chief Minister to meet the Prime Minister. I was also covering the Tamil Nadu beat those days. In a brief encounter, I asked her if she remembered my meeting her for the first time with Sekhar. She smilled and said, “I do”. Whether she actually remembered is not the question, the fact is that she had great public relations with the media, albeit only selectively. She could not stand criticism. But she loved adoration instantly. It was a challenge for any journalist to get into an argument with her, because of her perfect home work and fluent English, both of which made her win the day.
I still remember the day when she had convened a press conference in her office. My friend Murari of the Deccan Herald of Bengaluru had casually referred to her political style as being hysterical at times in one of his edits the previous day . Jayalalithaa had remarkable memory and remembered almost every journalist by name and the paper he or she was affiliated to.
Holding an Oxford dictionary in her hand, she asked, "Where is Murari?" Some 25 of us journalists gathered in her room that day were a bit stunned. When Murari showed up, she asked him: “How can you write such a thing about me? Do you know the meaning of Hysteria or someone being hysterical? Am I hysterical, certainly not?" She virtually took a class for about 15 minutes on English language and grammar. After all, she was a brilliant student who had studied at the Presentation Convent Church Park, one of the top schools of Chennai, and before that at another elite school, Bishop Cotton at Bengaluru. While it may be debatable whether it was proper to use the word hysteria, she had certainly won her argument that day.
Jayalalitha had said in interviews with publications that, had she not chosen a film career, she probably would have been practising lawyer. Any lawyer would have dreaded facing her in court because her home work was good, her oratorical skills were brilliant, and she was a multilinguist who could speak her own lines in Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam or Hindi cinema.
She was probably a reluctant film actress as her mother wanted her to continue the fillm legacy. Like probably Rajiv Gandhi, one of the most charismatic Prime Ministers of india, she was probably a reluctant politician, too, she had so many good years left to give to cinema. But the need of the hour was that MGR’s AIADMK needed a double-barrelled gun to counter the orotorial skills and penmanship of writer-author-turned politician M. Karunanidhi, Chief Minister before MGR. Jayalalithaa gave the strength that MGR needed to consolidate the hold of the AIADMK, a splinter group from the parent DMK, in Tamil politics.
The seeds of a great social welfare Chief Minister had been sown firmly by MGR. There was no looking back. Jayalalithaa quickly rose in fame and came into the Rajya Sabha as an MP. She did well in the House, participating in debates and discussions on Bills. The return from Rajya Sabha quickly saw her rise and after her mentor MGRs death, when the party tottered with MGR's wife Janaki as interim CM , she took the historic decision to split and scrambled supporters to resurrect the party to dizzy heights.
Jayalalithaa, a five-time Chief Minister and several times MLA, wrote her name in golden letters in history with her service for the poor. She launched several welfare schemes at affordable prices for the weaker sections under the brand name “Amma” (Mother.)
The most popular of these were the Amma Canteen, Amma Water, Amma Pharmacy and Amma Veggy stores. All of them gave her a distinctive competitive edge over her arch rival Karunanidhi and a stranglehold in Tamil Nadu politics. Even as her sickness had set in and she was unable to react quickly to the floods following unprecedented rains, it did not dent her image with her masses. They came out in large numbers and returned her to power in the 2014 assembly elections, her last term. She handled the Cauvery river waters issue with the deftness of a seasoned politician to the advantage of the people of Tamil Nadu.
One fondly hopes that O. Panneerselvam, her successor as Chief Minister, continues her legacy and her welfare schemes for the poor.
Think of it , after her death, unprecedented tributes have been showered on a Chief Minister of a state. The President , the Prime Minister, the Home Minister and almost half of the Union Cabinet is going to Chennai to attend her funeral. The Centre has declared one-day national mourning. Flags are flying at half mast in most government institutions. In a rare gesture, the flag at Rashtrapathy Bhavan is to be flown at half-mast. Rare honours indeed. Neighbouring states such as Kerala and Karnataka have declared mourning and closed down educational institutions. Even the Canadian government has paid glowing tributes to her welfare schemes. Sri Lanka has cancelled its annual St Antony Church festival.
Even as millions of fans in India and globally mourn her irreparable loss , I will never forget the first meeting I had with her in 1982. The day her political career had started. And what a career.
T. N. Ashok is a freelance journalist based in Delhi, writing on finance, economics, and commerce.
A former Economics Editor with wire service Press Trust of India (PTI) and contributor to leading economic journals and newspapers, he has travelled widely. He has also done a brief stint as a corporate communications professional with leading multi-nationals.