The year 1965 would bring MGR and Jayalalithaa together, his most paired heroine and political successor. In the aftermath of MGR’s death, in April 1999, she would tell her interviewer Simi Garewal, ‘One-third of my life was dominated by my mother, the other part—a major one—was dominated by MGR. Two-thirds of my life is thus over. One-third remains, and this part of my life remains for myself . . .’
Once ‘terrified of meeting strangers’ and hating the limelight, Jayalalithaa, in her own words, was ‘propelled by fate into two high profile careers’—films and politics—neither of which she really desired or liked, but then, as she said, once she put her heart into it, she gave her fullest. She described her introduction to MGR in the autobiographical series that she wrote for twenty-four weeks, beginning in late 1978, that was later aborted. On the first day, on the sets of Aayirathil Oruvan she greeted MGR who said ‘welcome’ to her. It was to be a no-holds-barred welcome. He became her ‘mother, father, friend, philosopher and guide’ and ‘sort of took over [her] life’.
MGR was of a ‘very strong character’, like her mother, and he ‘dominated [her life] completely’ after her mother. She said she was ‘never in awe’ of him but ‘respected him a great deal’. She ‘admired his intellect’ and ‘felt a lot of sympathy for him because he had a hard life’, like herself.
MGR came to fill her mother, Sandhya’s, shoes after her death. Jayalalithaa wrote about a time when she had been unwell for two–three days, at the end of which she fainted at home on the sofa. The only man at home, her uncle, was out of town and her two aunts did not know how to respond. Jayalalithaa’s manager telephoned MGR for help. MGR called for a doctor and came over to Jayalalithaa’s place. The doctor wanted Jayalalithaa to be hospitalized and MGR asked the aunts to get ready. As the aunts did not come down, MGR decided to see for himself what was keeping them. What he saw was the sad spectacle of the aunts fighting over the house keys. An angry MGR took the keys from them and asked them to come downstairs.
It took some hours for Jayalalithaa to regain consciousness at the hospital. MGR was patiently waiting around all this time at her bedside and when she woke up, she did so in MGR’s presence. MGR handed over the house keys to her. She learnt of the circumstances only later.
‘I will always remember this act with gratitude. Who would have taken such trouble? He wanted to protect me, and he guarded them and handed them over to me. If not, I don’t know what all would have been lost! I cannot even imagine it,’ wrote a grateful Jayalalithaa.
Karnan’s (1964) director B.R. Panthulu offered Jayalalithaa a role in Chinnada Gombe (Gold Doll, 1964). Seeing the ‘rushes’ director C.V. Sridhar signed her up for his Vennira Aadai (White Dress, 1965), which became her debut Tamil film. Panthulu also signed up Jayalalithaa for Aayirathial Oruvan, as heroine opposite MGR.
MGR was shooting for Panam Padaithavan in the same studio that Vennira Aadai was being made. He entered the sets of Vennira Aadai one day and Jayalalithaa wrote that she was not aware that she had to greet the hero. Director Sridhar beckoned Jayalalithaa over and told her: ‘MGR has come. You are to act in his film . . . He is a big hero. Go greet him and talk to him.’ As Jayalalithaa folded her hands to say ‘vanakkam’, MGR motioned her to sit down. Jayalalithaa wrote that she did not remember what she was asked or what her response was.
Aayirathil Oruvan was only the third occasion. She would say later that the movie ‘laid the base for [her] political life’.
In the first scene in Aayirathil Oruvan, instead of thanking MGR for having freed her, Jayalalithaa’s character scorns him thus: ‘You have bought me, making me a slave worth 2 lakhs.’ As Jayalalithaa did the shot without any inhibition, MGR told her: ‘You remind me of Bhanumathi madam. After a long time, I see her courage, spirit, enthusiasm and zest.’ Jayalalithaa said ‘Many thanks’ in response.
(Image Courtesy: Penguin Books)
Jayalalithaa would usually go in before the others, be seated next to the director and read a book, and sometimes, she would even cross her legs. No one had taught her to stand up and greet MGR or the others on their arrival. Two or three days went by like this. But later, some busybody drew MGR’s attention to this fact, persuading him that the behaviour was indifferent, if not disrespectful.* MGR appears to have spoken to Panthulu, who spoke to Sandhya, who in turn spoke to her daughter. Jayalalithaa grew upset, and said she would rather go back to college and quit acting. The following day, Jayalalithaa refused to come out of her room. Nambiar and MGR had already arrived at the set. As Sandhya enlisted Panthulu for help, he came home to plead: ‘I am older and ask you to do this for me.’ Jayalalithaa then said, ‘I will do it for you.’
After this, greeting MGR became a preoccupation for her. Sometimes MGR went directly to the shot. Jayalalithaa would go over, hang around to catch his eye so that she could quickly wish him and return to her seat.
On their first shoot for the song Naanamo (Are you shy?), she was to lie down on MGR, who was seated on a bed. It was their first night as per the movie. She said that until then no man had ever embraced her. The bed and the embrace made her shake involuntarily. MGR, who sensed that it was because of his embrace, asked her, ‘Why? Why this much weakness? Why so much nervousness?’
She also possessed a strong fighting spirit. When the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association (TNCA) refused her membership, saying no woman had been independently given membership—only wives, daughters or siblings of males had been admitted—Jayalalithaa said that her father died when she was a year old and she could not bring him back to life for the sake of the membership nor could she marry just to become a member. ‘Just because I don’t have a dad or a husband, how could you refuse me the membership?’ Of course she became the first woman member of the TNCA.
MGR appears to have been greatly fascinated by this brilliant convent-educated girl, who was indifferent to his superstar status, and the relationship proved most intense on and off screen.
Sivaji Ganesan, Karunanidhi, MGR and Jayalalithaa
She described their bond thus:
Our relationship is very peculiar. Although he is so much older than me, every spare moment on the sets we would spend talking to each other, discussing every subject under the sun. We used to talk about science, philosophy, literature. Both of us are deeply interested in classical music, astrology and astronomy. We have so much in common.
Among other things, they shared the same determination, charisma, crowd-pulling capability, and an interest in film and politics. But they were also very different, as time showed. While on the sets of Raman Thediya Seethai (Sita that Ram Sought, 1972), MGR, reading Jayalalithaa’s palm, told her that she would enter politics. ‘Me? In politics? No way,’ said Jayalalithaa. ‘Write it down, Ammu [Jayalalithaa]. My words will surely come true,’ he replied. Little did MGR know then that he would be the one to make those words come true.
Excerpted with the permission of Penguin Books India from the book ‘MGR: A Life’ by R Kannan.
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