Jayalalithaa: The Unloved Child who Became the People’s Amma

Jayalalithaa, young, actress
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Jayalalithaa juggled many parts - actress, leader, and Amma. Through snippets of her life, we explore the brand she leaves behind.

Sitting comfortably in her pink sari, Jayalalithaa, the actress turned politician poured her heart out to a television host, sharing intimate details of her personal life, which were until then, speculative gossip.

Sharing a moment of truth, she said:

I am human, like everyone else. I do experience emotions and, I wouldn’t be normal if I didn’t experience feelings of anger and other emotions.

Her persona and political career, however, have been presented as a larger than life story – one in which a dramatic twist of destiny turned a shy, reclusive girl into a reluctant political leader, who took on the mantle to save the masses.

But, behind this is the story of a meticulously constructed narrative of a larger-than-life persona.

Jayalalitha started writing about her life in the Tamil weekly ‘Kumudam’ in 1978. Her narrative strengthened when she became the ‘Propaganda Secretary’ for the political party, AIADMK. She described its leader, M.G. Ramachandran as her “everything – mother, father, friend, philosopher, guide” and her association with him gave wings to her political ambitions.

Born into a Tamil Iyengar family in Mandya (then in Mysore state), Jayalalithaa began life as a child deprived of a mother’s love.

When I look back on my life, I seem to have spent so little time with my mother. I’ve never really been satiated with the kind of love I expected and wanted and needed from my mother.

She makes public, certain private snippets of her life. As she tells her story, her father was “a gentleman of leisure”, who squandered the family’s wealth. She loved collecting Rock Hudson’s pictures and had a crush on the cricketers Nari Contractor and Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi.

This narrative is juxtaposed with how her mother Sandhya, an actress, pushed Jayalalithaa into an acting career, shattering her dreams of becoming a lawyer.

These heart-warming, seemingly honest stories performed their role – that of brilliant a public relations exercise. They were like film scripts where the lead protagonist – an innocent, shy reclusive girl – becomes a fighter and takes on the mantle to save the world.

Jayalalithaa, who says she never liked acting, was a successful actress nonetheless, with over 125 films in Hindi, English, Telugu, Tamil, and Kannada. A trained dancer, she knew how to enchant fans with her acting prowess, dance manoeuvres, and risqué outfits. She hogged the limelight as a star – a celebrity – who could mesmerize the masses.

Once she had her share of the limelight, she decided to retire from films. Soon after that, Jayalalithaa joined politics – reluctantly at first. Both acting and politics were careers she did not necessarily like, but took up upon someone else’s insistence. As she puts it:

I had to enter films for my mother’s sake, I had to enter politics for Mr. MGR’s sake.

When she joined politics, her appearance and image changed. Her outfits changed. They were no longer risqué. She covered herself from head to toe.

But, in 1980, an ugly incident in the Legislative Assembly took place. In a dispute over the state budget, opposition members sought to humiliate her in the Assembly. In her version, her sari was pulled. In their’s, she broke Karunanidhi’s spectacles.

She knew her image as an actress had to change. For the electorate to take her seriously, she had to come back with a vengeance. Over a period of time, the sexy, romantic actress image transformed to Amma – the mother!

She had put on weight and covered herself from head to toe. A religious dot on her forehead now marked her Tamil brahmin origin.

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Jayalalithaa now no longer emotes to entertain. She is poised and comes across as a person who is fully in control of her emotions. “When you are a leader, you learn to control your emotions. You learn not to show your emotions openly. You have to,” she said.

As Chief Minister, she got her political opponent Karunanidhi, arrested over corruption charges. Videos of the unceremonious arrest, were broadcast on television. Images appeared in the press where her party workers – including MLAs and senior ministers – were shown prostrating to her. Jaya TV, a well-known mouth piece, shared her narrative and vision to the masses. It served the purpose. Her supporters turned into die hard fans. She achieved the status of Amma – the commanding mother, the Puratchi Thalaivi (the revolutionary leader), from whom everyone ought to seek blessings. It was brilliant political posturing which established her as a stick-wielding authority.

Even during her illness, officers and politicians conducted meetings in reverence to her photograph – as she languished in the hospital.

Her opponents called her vindictive, undemocratic and dictatorial. However, she responded with a populist scheme, named after her – the Amma Canteen. Hundreds of subsidized canteens serving sambar rice for five rupees, and idlis for a rupee each sprung up all over Tamil Nadu. She knew, the way to the electorate’s heart was through their stomachs. Amma, the stick-wielding Puratchi Thalavi, became the food-giving benevolent mother. State coffers paid to promote brand Amma, and even the likes of Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze have sung praises for her populist schemes.

Jayaram Jayalalithaa, the star turned Amma, is a political brand – built over many years of careful planning. The interplay of power and personality politics plays out like a theatrical on the electoral stage, where an innocent, reclusive girl turns into a revolutionary leader. After all, politics is a theatre played out by mere actors, some outperforming the other.

No one could put it better than Jayalalitha when she said:

I can’t say I like it but it came naturally to me. I’m a natural actress… I’m a spontaneous natural actress.

For Jayalalithaa, Tamil Nadu was her stage, where her many performances transformed her from unloved child to people’s Amma. Jayalalithaa is human. But, it is Amma, her brand, that will form her legacy.

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