Remembering the actress-politician, who aspired for the Nobel Prize, on her 72nd birth anniversary.
Jayalalitha’s film career can be divided into two phases – before MG Ramachandran (MGR) and after MGR. After doing 28 films back to back with MGR from 1966 to 1969, there developed a dent in their relationship.
MGR found another protégé, namely Latha, a Chennai-based girl of royal lineage, who was not only beautiful but was also a dancer. Jayalalitha wanted to be a part of MGR’s iconic super-hit Ulagam Chuttrum Valiban (The man who roamed around the world) but MGR steadfastly refused her overtures.
Overwork had taken a toll on the actress. Jayalalitha wanted to pursue her doctoral research and hoped that she would win the Nobel Prize someday. But her aspirations remained a pipe-dream. Her mother pushed her into films for the love of lucre.
She had had a troubled childhood. Her father Jairam was an alcoholic who destroyed the family’s fortunes and passed away when she was just two years old.
Her grandfather was the family physician for the Mysore maharaja. Jaya’s mother Sandhya was a supporting actress in Tamil cinema. Jaya recalled that she was bullied in school and became an object of ridicule just because her mother had been a character artiste and never the lead.
She withdrew into a shell and channelized all her anger into hard work, with dedication and commitment. She excelled in her studies. She even attended Stella Mary’s College in Chennai before her mother compelled her to give up her educational aspirations. Such was the intense pressure that even while travelling in trains for shootings, Jayalalitha was coerced into her dance rehearsals – her dance teacher accompanied her to the shootings.
What did Sandhya achieve at the end of all this? Jayalalitha’s aggression seems to stem from this bitter experience that she was exposed to in her formative years.
Her brother turned out to be a failure in life, having dropped out of engineering college. She never seemed to have any filial relationship with her brother. She never mentioned him in any of her interviews.
She mentioned in an interview that her experience of working on the 1968-release Izzat wasn’t something that she enjoyed – she didn’t like the slow pace at which shootings of Hindi films were conducted. Leading actresses had to wait forever for the hero to arrive. . Jaya was an introvert by nature – and being a voracious reader, books were her only solace. She used this hobby to kill time while waiting for the next shot.
When her mother suddenly passed away, Jayalalitha was devastated for she knew nothing about finances. Sandhya had been managing her shooting dates, remuneration, and schedules. When her mother’s sister Vidyavathi (also an actress) tried to appropriate her wealth, Jayalalitha rose like a phoenix from the ashes.
MGR came to her rescue and he nursed her back to health when she suffered a nervous breakdown and was seriously ill.
It is so unfortunate that Jayalalitha ended up taking revenge on those people who were never responsible for her plight. Her mother was primarily responsible for the way her life turned out. Her haughty nature and rampant use of MGR’s name gave her an image of an actress who was arrogant, egoistic, cantankerous and vituperative. She admitted that, as she grew up, she became more defensive with an 'eye-for-eye' approach—she was no longer the docile and sensitive teenager who cried at home when her classmates heaped insults on her.
Jaya was supposed to host a show along with veteran actress Sowcar Janaki.
When everything was ready, Jaya threw a fit saying she would not share the stage with Janaki. Major Sundarrajan (a character actor in Tamil cinema) tried to make her see reason – but she was adamant. Sadly, Janaki had to bow out of the hosting opportunity, forced to admit that she lacked the clout that Jaya had.
When the 1966 super hit Phool aur Patthar was remade in Tamil, MGR reprised the role Dharmendra had played in the original and Janaki enacted the role of Meena Kumari. Jayalalitha was cast as a vamp played by Shashikala in the original.
But the entire script was changed—Janaki was made to die in the end. Jayalalitha was portrayed in a positive light and the film showed MGR and Jayalalitha getting married. No wonder – Oli Vilakku (1968) bombed at the box office. Jaya insisted on getting top billing in the credit titles and the producer SS Vasan told Janaki that if he didn’t accede to Sandhya’s request, his film would not see the light of the day.
Such was the clout Sandhya had as Jayalalitha’s mother—all thanks to the MGR connection. Eventually, Janaki (who was actually the leading lady) found her name at the end of the credits.
Post-1970, Jayalalitha’s career took a remarkable twist. She made films where her histrionic abilities came to the fore. She acted with Sivaji Ganesan, Muthuraman, Jayashankar, Cho Ramasamy, Ravichandran, AVM Rajan, and Sarath Babu. A film with Rajinikanth never materialized.
Like the 1957 release Sharada (that had Meena Kumari and Raj Kapoor), Jaya acted in Thanga Gopuram (Golden dome) where she gets married to a much older Major Sundarrajan. She also played the title role in Engirundho vandhal (She came from nowhere, 1970) that was the remake of the mega Bollywood hit Khilona and the Telugu film Punarjanma. The film was a major success.
Most of the Bollywood thrillers that Sadhana acted in were remade in Tamil with Jayalalitha playing the lead.
Her double role in Vandale Magarasi (1973) directed by the legendary KS Gopalakrishnan was highly appreciated. A rip-off of Seeta aur Geeta, the film had Jaya pairing up with Jayshankar and political commentator Cho Ramasamy. MN Rajam, CK Saraswathy, VS Raghavan, Pushpalatha and SN Lakshmi lent good support to this film.
Between the years 1971 and 1976, Jayalalitha’s career was at its peak. Her acting competence was being appreciated and she earned the sobriquet of Kalaichelvi. When she entered politics, she became puratchitthalaivi.
Jayalalitha quit films in 1978 when she was 30 years old. Her last film Nadiyai Thedi Vandha Kadal (The sea came to meet the river) with Sarath Babu was a box-office disaster.
But she had no regrets. Her only regret was that she didn’t treat her maternal grandmother well. After her mother’s sudden demise, her grandmother stayed with her in Veda Nilayam at Poes Garden. She was fond of Shammi Kapoor and Cary Grant. She remembers watching and enjoying Bollywood hits like Kashmir Ki Kali and An Evening in Paris.
During later years, she made amends with her contemporaries like Sowcar Janaki, Saroja Devi, Chacchu, Vennira Adai Nirmala, etc but there was an iron wall around her that made it impossible to access her. How an intelligent woman like Jayalalitha could be so vulnerable to external forces remains a puzzle. No one could fill the void her absence created in Tamil cinema – not even MGR’s chosen apprentice Latha Sethupathy. Nor did she leave any political successors who could lead Tamil Nadu on the path of progress and development. But there is no doubt that she was an intellectual – one of the rarest of rare cases when a south Indian actress could occupy the pride of place as the chief minister of the state.
(After working in the corporate world for close to two decades, Bhagyalakshmi started her second career innings as a head-hunter. She is passionate about Hindi movies and loves retro music. When her family shifted to Chennai in the 80’s, Bhagya had a taste of Tamil cinema too. In the long term, she plans a book on two of her favourite directors – Guru Dutt and K Balachander. She travels across the country on work and is based in Mysore.)