Off-screen deity, on-screen goddess

Posted on December 8, 2016


Looking back at the Jayalalitha persona, refracted through her appearances on the screen, both big and small.

It’s tempting to imagine that, right from the beginning, destiny had designs on Jayalalitha. There she is, barely in her teens , billed as “Kumari Jayalalitha,” in the 1962 Kishore Kumar-Sadhana starrer, Man-Mauji, directed by Krishnan-Panju. (The duo would go on to direct her again in Engal Thangam, opposite MGR.) She appears in a dance sequence, as Lord Krishna. She’s already assuming a male role. She’s already being positioned as an object of worship. Before she became the much-venerated Amma, she was an actress, the screen goddess of her era.

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How does one remember a star who ruled the screen for as long as Jayalalitha did, with a filmography studded with so many hits? You could recall her presence – say, in the song Oru naal yaaro, from Major Chandrakanth. She looks like a freshly minted cherub, as sweet as P Sushila’s voice. You could recall her work with Sivaji Ganesan – whether as the thespian’s daughter (Motor Sundaram Pillai) or his love interest (Galatta Kalyanam). You could recall her films with MG Ramachandran, from their first (Aayirathil Oruvan, 1965) to their last (Pattikaattu Ponniah, 1973), with one magical song (Ennai theriyuma, from Kudiyirundha Kovil) after another (Ninaithen vandhaai, from Kaavalkaran). You could look back at her films with the next generation of actors, Muthuraman and Ravichandran. But there was always this sense that something was missing, that she was holding back, that her persona was far more fascinating than her performances seemed to suggest.

Jayalalitha entered films when men and women weren’t equal. This is true of Tamil cinema even today, when heroines are mere eye candy (and as disposable as a candy wrapper), but the leading lady of the 1960s was even more of a patriarchal construct, bent over from the burden of representing a man’s idea of “Indian womanhood.”

Consider Jayalalitha’s debut in Tamil cinema, in Sridhar’s Vennira Aadai (1965). Nirmala is the nominal heroine, but the story revolves around Jayalalitha’s character, Shobha, who was widowed mere hours after marriage. The trauma has left her with a mental condition, which is gradually cured by a psychiatrist (Srikanth). Shobha falls for Srikanth, who cannot tell her he is engaged to Nirmala, lest she lapse into her original condition. After many plot twists, we reach the final scene. Shobha accepts that she’s meant to be loveless, alone.

Seen today, the film blurs the line between professional and personal, reel and real. Early on, we see the ebullient Shobha in a series of riotously colourful “Western” attire – skirts, high-waisted Capri pants, sleeveless tops. But midway through the movie, after her “cure,” she turns demure, more “Indian” – thereon, she’s seen in dignified saris. In the last scene, she emerges in a white sari.

Most of the films Jayalalitha appeared in followed this progression. She’d begin the movie as a specific individual – the imperious, wealthy, convent-educated achiever we perceived Jayalalitha to be in real life – and slowly transform into a generic heroine, as her character is “tamed.” One of the most famous of these parts came in Pattikada Pattanama (1972), where her character is named Kalpana. In her first scene, she alights from a flight from London, where she’s been studying. She’s wearing hippie clothes, go-go sunglasses. When her mother asks her how London was, she replies, “Oh, it was simply fab, mummy!” She agrees to marry a villager (Sivaji Ganesan), but soon finds she cannot cope with the lifestyle change. “Let this village go to hell,” she screams. “I don’t care. It’s not Paris. Damned village people. Old-fashioned brutes. Don’t know the ABCs of civilisation.” But by the end, she realises the error of her Western ways. She falls at her husband’s feet. The last scene has them heading to a happily-ever-after. On a bullock cart.

Given the kind of films being made in Jayalalitha’s time, the kind of submissive roles she had to essay over and over, perhaps it’s no surprise that she eventually broke away into a different field, one in which hers was the hand that cracked the whip. And what a different field it turned out to be, as she revealed in Simi Garewal’s television show. When asked about her serene, calm exterior, she said, “When you are a leader, you learn to control your emotions. You learn not to show them openly… I keep my emotions to myself. They are not for public display. I have never lost my temper in public. I have never wept in public.” In other words, after so many years of acting out her emotions, she had to learn how to act like she had no emotions.

But what was she really like? For the quintessential “Jayalalitha scene,” we may have to look beyond the films Jayalalitha made. We may have to look at Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar (1997). The MG Ramachandran-equivalent character, Anandan, is hunting for a new heroine, and he’s in a screening room, watching a clip featuring the Jayalalitha character (called Kalpana, like the Pattikada Pattanama heroine). This is the first time we see her, in a song that goes Hello, Mr. Ethirkatchi. With these opening words, she’s already hinting at the breakaway Opposition Party Anandan will form after she enters his life – but there’s some opposition from her too, when she’s cast in a film opposite this mega-star. On the set, everyone falls at his feet, but Kalpana demands, “Why should I? This is a democracy. Everyone’s equal.” A woman who does not see why she has to follow the man-made rules of a man-made world – that sounds like Jayalalitha, all right.

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Posted in: Cinema: Tamil