On the screen, she ruled the hearts of the masses. As Amma, their Chief Minister, their reverence and devotion continued. She is probably the only woman politician who has had men lining up to prostrate themselves at her feet.
She trumped the Opposition and kept her feet firmly planted in the male-dominated political arena of Tamil Nadu.
Seen as a goddess incarnate by supporters and party workers, Amma, as she is fondly known, was battling for life at the time of publication. Having had a heart attack last evening, the leader, who underwent heart surgery, is being kept on life support.
Here is a snippet of her journey from Ammu to Amma:
The silver screen
Born on February 24, 1948, in Mandya, near Mysuru, she lost her father when she was just two. Soon after, she moved to Bengaluru and studied briefly at Bishop Cotton Girl's High School till her mother, Vedavalli, moved to Chennai to give her and her brother a better life and education. She later became a small-time actress.
Ammu, as she was fondly called by her doting mother, proved to be a diligent student. Fluent in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Hindi, Malayalam, and English, she trained in classical music, western classical piano, and various forms of classical dance, including Mohiniattam, Manipuri, Kathak, and Bharatanatyam. She made her debut in movies as a child artist.
She started her film career in the 1960s as an actor. An accomplished dancer, artist, and performer, she acted in over 140 films. Her screen name was 'Jayalalitha'; the extra ‘a’ was added for numerological reasons in 2001, during one of her stints as CM.
Actor and politician Khushbu Sundar says,
I think she was a complete actor — glamorous, beautiful, and up to date with the fashion. She had lead roles but still was a heroine of the masses.
MGR and politics
MG Ramachandran (MGR), her co-actor-turned-politician, is said to have been responsible for bringing her into politics. Considered his protégée, soon after his death, Jayalalithaa proclaimed herself his heir.
In 1982, she joined AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) started by MGR. In 1991, she first became the chief minister, though not the first woman CM the state had seen. In the 1996 elections, fought against the backdrop of corruption charges and anti-incumbency, she lost her seat. She is Tamil Nadu's second female CM after Janaki Ramachandran, MGR’s widow, whom she outsmarted.
But she fought her way back to power in the 2001 polls. She has been Tamil Nadu’s CM thrice — from 1991 to 1996, 2001 to 2006, and 2011 to 2016. Jayalalithaa came back to power in 2011 despite being convicted in the Pleasant Stay hotel case and the TANSI land case and sentenced to one year of imprisonment in 2011 only to be subsequently acquitted in both cases.
“She is one of the strongest women we have seen in the political scenario in India. I used to be with her and had the opportunity to meet quite a few times personally. I was lucky to spend some time with her,” says Khushbu.
Sixty-year-old Rani, a house help and proud member of the AIADMK cadre, voice quivering with emotion, says,
I had joined the party when MGR was at the helm, but it was Amma who showed me how far a woman can go if she sets her mind to it.
Such is Rani’s love for Amma that when she was not sleeping or working, she stationed herself outside Apollo Hospital pretty much every day in the two months since Jayalalithaa has been admitted there. Today is her grandson's wedding, and as soon as the thali ceremony wrapped up, she left the marriage hall and rushed to Greams Road, where the hospital is, to find out about her beloved Amma.
Controversies and incumbency
In 2014, Jayalalithaa became India's first incumbent CM to be disqualified from holding office due to a conviction in a disproportionate assets case. Though she was sentenced to four years in jail and fined Rs 100 crore, she was later acquitted by the Karnataka High Court and resumed office as CM on May 23, 2015.
Over the last few months, she has been under the radar because of her ailing health, but despite the opposition raking up the issue, she won the Assembly elections in 2016.