by Awanthi Vardaraj
Yesterday, Dec. 5, Jayalalithaa Jayaraman, chief minister of the state of Tamil Nadu, India, and one of the earliest feminist influences in my life, passed away. She was an iconic actress, a writer extraordinaire and an adroit politician, and her life deserves to be celebrated.
I want to write about her for myself, and for girls like me who grew up during the Jayalalithaa era. When I was 11 years old, I remember seeing a photograph of her — a powerful woman surrounded by a sea of men — and it had a profound impact on my life.
Jayalalithaa was born in 1948; her father died when she was two years old, and she was raised by her grandparents in Bangalore while her mother worked as an actress in Chennai (then known as Madras). She visited her mother during her summer holidays and eventually moved to live with her mother when she was 10. She was a voracious reader, and passionate about her education; she excelled in school and won awards and scholarships. She was fluent in several languages, including Tamil, English, Telugu, Kannada, Hindi and Malayalam.
When she was 16, she was spotted by the film producer B.R. Panthulu, who was taken with her extraordinary beauty; he signed her to do her first movie, the Kannada film Chinnada Gombe. Being an actress was never a part of Jayalalithaa’s plans; she wanted to go to university and study law. She consented to doing one film on the condition that she would go on to continue her studies afterwards. That first movie catapulted her to superstar status; she was a talented actress and the offers just kept coming.
Jayalalithaa went on to dominate the South Indian movie industry for fourteen years; she was versatile and multilingual. She acted in 142 films during the course of her career, in six languages. The majority of those films were in Tamil, and 28 of those films were opposite M.G. Ramachandran, or MGR as he was affectionately known. MGR was one of the most popular actors of Tamil cinema. He was thirty-five years her senior, and married, but their on-screen chemistry was undeniable. They became friends and (allegedly) lovers. He influenced her deeply, and she was his muse.
MGR stepped away from films in the early seventies; Jayalalithaa was still acting at the time. Towards the end of her acting career, she followed MGR into the turbulent and deeply misogynistic world of Tamil politics — at his behest, it is said. She was a writer at the time; a columnist, a novelist and a writer of short stories. She has claimed in subsequent interviews that she was not attracted to the remorseless world of politics, and she feared that she wasn’t cut out for it. Whatever her private fears may have been, she seemed to have an instinct for politics.
Although she became a member of the political party AIADMK, the party that MGR was leading at the time, her rise to the top was marred by personal attacks that were launched against her, and by violent attacks that were sometimes physical. MGR died in 1987, and there were concerted efforts by some of the people surrounding him to keep her away from his funeral. In March 1989, she was subjected to assault in the Tamil Nadu assembly by members of the opposition DMK; violence erupted inside the assembly between members of the two parties, and Jayalalithaa was physically attacked. When she tried to leave the building, a DMK minister attacked her; her sari was torn and a portion of it was pulled off her. She left the building swearing that she wouldn’t enter the assembly again until she was the chief minister. Two years later, at the age of 42, she unseated the DMK’s M. Karunanidhi as chief minister and swept to power, becoming not only Tamil Nadu’s first woman chief minister, but also the state’s youngest.
In many ways Jayalalithaa was a progressive and compassionate chief minister; she was referred to as “amma,” which is Tamil for “mother,” and it was a name that persisted throughout her career. In her first term she introduced the “cradle baby scheme,” which continues to this day; in an effort to combat female infanticide and correct the severely skewered male-to-female ratio in the state, the scheme was introduced to ensure that unwanted female children would be given up for adoption instead of being killed. She set up India’s first company of female police commandos in Tamil Nadu in 2003, during her second term; they received the same training as their male counterparts covering the handling of weapons and bomb detection and disposal.
Jayalalithaa was passionate about uplifting women and believed that families would be raised up as women were raised up. She has many welfare schemes to her credit, including baby-care kits for mothers who give birth in government hospitals, canteens that sell food at the remarkably cheap rate of one rupee (one cent; these canteens hire women to cook the food and staff the canteens), cheap mineral water, free laptops for all high school and college students and more. It is to be noted that other states have taken a leaf out of Tamil Nadu’s book and have implemented some of the schemes.
For all that, her career has not been without controversy. She was exceedingly autocratic, particularly in her first two terms as chief minister. In 1995 she came under fire for the ostentatious wedding of her foster son, which holds two Guinness records: one for the largest number of guests at a wedding, and another for the largest wedding banquet to date. Several corruption cases were filed against her (by the DMK when they came to power) and she has spent time in prison. She was barred from running in the 2001 elections because she was found guilty of criminal offenses, including alleged land-grabbing. She was acquitted in this case, and in others, but she was slammed with a disproportionate assets case for which she was sentenced to four years in prison in 2014 (the case itself had been filed 18 years prior). She was in office at the time, and holds the dubious distinction of being the first chief minister in India to be disqualified from their post. In 2015, she was acquitted, and she made a triumphant return as chief minister. In May 2016, she was elected as chief minister again, becoming only the second person to serve consecutive terms as chief minister in Tamil Nadu.
Jayalalithaa was unapologetic throughout her life, and minced no words when she talked about her struggles. She once said that there was no way to win as a woman; if you’re ruthless, she said, they’ll accuse you of being uncaring and unfeeling, and if you’re too soft, then they’ll say that you’re no good. She developed a deep admiration and connection with other female politicians around the world, including Hillary Clinton, with whom she shared a close friendship.
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She was also incredibly private. When other politicians took to social media to connect with their bases, she stayed away. She rarely talked to the media, and she seldom gave interviews. She was an old-school politician, preferring to let her actions do the talking. She once talked about how it wouldn’t be easy to “wish her away” when she was addressing the subject of chauvinism in Indian cinema. “They can’t do without women in films. They need our glamour. They can do without us in politics. They try very hard to do without us. But where people like me are concerned, they can’t just wish me away.”
It’s going to be an interesting time in Tamil Nadu without Jayalalithaa at the helm; she appointed no successor, and believed that a successor would emerge, much like she emerged after the death of MGR. Whilst I have no doubt that will happen, it is safe to say that her passing has changed the political face of Tamil Nadu. An era has come to an end.