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.”