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'Thalaivi' embellishes the cult of Jayalalithaa

Kaveree Bamzai/New Delhi
Filed on September 9, 2021

(Publicity still)

The late Tamil Nadu chief minister is portrayed as a strong woman who survived and thrived in a male-dominated world, not unlike its star.


In Mani Ratnam's 'Iruvar' (1997), after Anandan sends for Kalpana, telling his emissary that it is time for her to return, she conveniently dies in a road accident on her way back.

Anandan, the stand-in for MG Ramachandran, the late three-time chief minister of Tamil Nadu, is played by Mohanlal, and Kalpana (Aishwarya Rai), is a somewhat fictionalised version of J. Jayalalithaa, who was six-time chief minister of the south Indian state. But Jayalalithaa will no longer be effaced or erased, either from history or from public memory.

The first season of 'Queen', a 2019 web series on MX Player directed by Gautham Vasudev Menon, ends when GM Ravichandran (a version of MGR) dies, ending Shakthi Seshadri aka Jayalalithaa's time in his shadow.

In the second season, viewers will see her emerge as the state's Amma, its most powerful woman, who makes men quiver with a mere glance.

But 'Thalaivi', which is being released on Friday (September 10), directed by Vijay and starring Kangana Ranaut, takes us on the journey from Ammu — as MGR is said to have called her — to Amma, tracing Jayalalithaa's arc as a recalcitrant actress and reluctant politician.

MGR, played with intensity by Arvind Swamy, is her mother, father, guru and God, she says.

He is also her lover but refuses to give her the status she yearns for, keeping her at the distance mandated by the party and his advisers.

As Jaya evolves, so does her interest in politics, which she had thought was all about ''paisa (money), power, position aur pehchan (identity)''.

She begins to see the impact of her words and actions and realises the truth of what MGR had told her —"if you give people love, they will respond in equal measure''.

In 'Thalaivi', Jaya goes from being pushed into the world of glamour by her ambitious mother, made to drop her studies, to becoming one of the leading stars of her time and inextricably linked to MGR. But soon she realises that the world has little use of her when she becomes older, with producers offering her sister roles.

She refuses, saying when a lion ages, it does not become a cat. Quite. It actually becomes a wiser lion, and slowly Jaya learns how to treat the world the way it regards her — with suspicion initially, and later with awe by the women, and by fear by the men.

In a particularly telling scene at the end of 'Thalaivi', when Jayalalithaa becomes chief minister, her all-male Cabinet colleagues assemble before her, refusing to sit out of respect.

She removes the chairs permanently so they will forever have to stand in front of her.

For the cinematic Jaya, it is payback for all the taunts and slights she has had to endure over the years, all the machinations to remove her from MGR's life, from the film industry, and from public life. There are glimpses of her private life, her utter loneliness, and her not-so-splendid isolation.

As RM Veerappan's character (played with sinister perfection by Raj Arjun) tells her: “Izzat par, jaan par, aatma par vaar hota hai, Himmat rakho'. (They will attack your honour, your life and even your soul. Have courage.)"

It is something Jaya had in spades, whether it was the need to take steroid shots to keep herself going or making a speech praising MGR in the middle of a DMK stronghold.

Tamil Nadu politics of the 80s was dominated by M. Karunanidhi and MGR.

With MGR passing on in 1987, it fell to Jayalalithaa to take on M Karunanidhi and his Kauravas. A scene in Thalaivi underlines this, when Jayalalithaa was infamously assaulted in the Vidhan Sabha (Tamil Nadu assembly). She vows to take revenge on those who attacked her, comparing herself to Draupadi.

MGR died in 1987, Jayalalithaa in 2016 and Karunanidhi in 2018.

Since then, the politics of the Dravidian state has been orphaned.

Curiously though as film scholar Maya Ranganathan has noted, the youth in the state have become more politically conscious.

She cites the suicide of Anitha because of the implementation of NEET — pan-India pre-medical test — the state and the protests against Jallikatttu as examples of youthful assertion of a Tamil identity, which no longer needs to find a representation in a leader.

Rajinikanth's hide-and-seek with politics and Kamal Haasan's niche political party, Makkal Needhi Maiam, are evidence of this cultural shift.

That may have something to do with the continuing interest in Jayalalithaa as a cultural and increasingly as a feminist icon.

Her contentious inheritance has made it easier for filmmakers to interpret her life the way they choose. And writers and filmmakers such as Menon are enjoying revisiting that era. Not enough, says film scholar Selvaraj Velayutham. "There are far and few political biographical films in Indian cinema (exception being historical films) and this is also the case in Tamil cinema. Even so, they are not documentaries (true to the characters) and are intended for mainstream entertainment, with some degree of poetic licence in the added action and drama."

The purpose of the film, he adds, is to tell a human story and as an audience, we expect a strong performance because of the cult of Jayalalithaa, her aura and her charisma.

Much of the cult owes its origins to Jayalalithaa's own serialised account of her life in the Tamil popular magazine 'Kumudam', which is the source of much of the depictions in literature and cinema. In that, she had spoken about her fondness for academics, her childhood dreams, and aspirations so removed from films or politics, her relationship with her mother, MGR, and an unnamed co-actor. This was before her entry into active politics, or soon after, and this has provided fodder for the depiction of the life of the young Jayalalithaa.

As for her life in politics, it was widely documented, says Ranganathan.

"I remember Khushwant Singh's effusive praise of her maiden speech in Parliament. Most journalists have recorded that she was highly intelligent, erudite and unlike politicians of the time, aloof and to the point in her answers and did not suffer fools gladly.''

This was during the initial days.

That she was thrown out of the gun carriage that carried MGR's body to the funeral site was for all to see on TV. She was the butt of ridicule at that time. But then she headed a breakaway faction and became the undisputed leader of a united AIADMK and also the chief minister. These have perhaps consolidated the image of a strong woman, says Ranganathan.

The incidents that followed have only helped in her assuming a larger-than-life persona, magnified usually by the rival Sun TV.

And the image of her as more sinned against than sinned is a fall-out of the rise of her associate Sasikala, which is shown all-too-briefly in 'Thalaivi'.

The rise of her family and the power they wield has irked many and in comparison, people seem to be willing to forget and forgive Jayalalithaa's excesses. Will we ever know the entire truth about her life? wonders Ranganathan, or will these semi-fictionalised accounts, some the result of her own manipulation, continue to fascinate those addicted to fairy tales?

(The author is a senior journalist and author, most recently of 'The Three Khans and the Emergence of New India')





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