Jayalalithaa, the actor: Her intelligence and strength were apparent in her choice of roles

From a docile woman yearning for a family life to a Western-educated, “haughty” brat, there was no role that Jayalalithaa couldn’t pull off.
Jayalalithaa, the actor: Her intelligence and strength were apparent in her choice of roles
Jayalalithaa, the actor: Her intelligence and strength were apparent in her choice of roles

My first memory of watching J Jayalalithaa on screen was in the song “Ninaithen Vandhaai”, from “Kaavalkaran”. Even in the small box television set in which I was watching it, Jayalalithaa, dressed like an Egyptian princess, looked every bit regal. The graceful dance movements only added to her aura. She had something that not many heroines paired opposite the charismatic M G Ramachandran had. She was not just his shadow. She was a personality by herself, no matter what role she was playing.

From a shy and vulnerable 17 year old in “Vennira Aadai” – her first Tamil movie – Jayalalithaa’s evolution as an actor is in itself a story. “Vennira Aadai” – where she plays a mentally unstable patient who falls in love with her psychiatrist – was proof enough for her histrionic talent. To carry a role of that kind at that age should have been a challenge but Jayalalithaa pulled it off with her characteristic élan. The film was the launch pad for many actors but Jayalalithaa would outshine them to become the most successful debut of all.

Such was her on-screen presence that M G Ramachandran – already established as Tamil cinema’s superstar then - chose her as his heroine for his movie “Aayirathil Oruvan”. In the film, Jayalalithaa played the role of a princess who falls in love with a rival prince (MGR) enslaved by her family. “Aayirathil Oruvan” turned out to be a super-hit and from then on began a partnership that would not only play a defining role in Jayalalithaa’s life but alter the course of Tamil Nadu’s political history. Jayalalithaa and MGR acted together in 28 films – the highest number of times MGR was paired with the same heroine.

For the next decade or so, she was constantly seen with MGR and Sivaji Ganesan – the reigning stars of the time – donning a variety of roles. From a docile woman yearning for a family life to a Western-educated, “haughty” brat, there was no role that Jayalalithaa couldn’t pull off.

Thanks to her forceful personality, Jayalalithaa often landed roles that portrayed her as either a headstrong or independent woman. Nevertheless, she was determined to let the world know that she was no run-of-the-mill actor. She picked and chose roles that would offer her scope to perform. She didn’t mind acting with actors who were of a lesser league when offered a substantial role. One such film, “Muthu Chipi”, featured the song “Thotta idam thulanga varum” (whatever you touch will prosper) - a song that continues to reverberate in AIADMK meetings.

In “Engirundho Vandhaal”, she played a tirelessly patient caretaker of a mentally unstable Sivaji Ganesan. In “Suryagandhi’, she played the role of a wife who earns more than her husband (Muthuraman), a woman who is torn between her commitments to the family and her husband’s burning jealousy. 

In “Sumathi en Sundari”, she plays an actor who conceals her identity and gets married to Sivaji Ganesan. One of her finest performances, “Sumathi en Sundari” saw her showcase a wide variety of emotions in a roller-coaster ride – from happiness to self-doubt, from desperation to sorrow.  Several of her performances including the one in “Engirundho Vandhaal” and “Suryagandhi” saw her walking away with Filmfare or State film awards.

Jayalalithaa won the Tamil Nadu State film award for best actress in 1971 for her performance in “Thanga Gopuram” where she marries a man as old as her father. “Anadhai Aanandhan” – loosely based on Oliver Twist – saw yet another stellar performance from her. In “Adimai Penn”, she played a role in which she educates and trains MGR (who is forced to live in a two feet cell) on the basics of life. 

“Adimai Penn” was also her launch as a singer. “Amma endraal anbu” till date remains a popular song among AIADMK cadre and supporters, and not without a reason.

Normally, such meaty roles were hard to come by for female actors. But Jayalalithaa was fond of defying the norm.  Members of my family – ardent MGR-Jayalalithaa fans- would often recall how gossip columns had unusual titbits aboutJayalalithaa. That she looked arrogant and sat cross-legged in sets, and always carried an English novel with her.  Unlike many female actors of her age, the persona of Jayalalithaa was also built by myths about her.

I’ve often wondered if Jayalalithaa herself had carefully built the myths around her even when she was an actor. With her stunning looks and physical appeal, she perhaps had a reason to do so.

Jayalalithaa was also a trendsetter in Tamil cinema. Perhaps the first one of that kind.

She was the first heroine to wear a skirt on screen. She popularized a bottom-wear that has now come back in vogue as leggings. She wouldn’t stick to a monotonous hairstyle. Experimentation was her forte.

But Jayalalithaa also ensured that her experiments never affected the roles that she was playing. If anything, the roles were accentuated by her experiments in costumes and looks.  

If MGR carefully built his political career through later films of his, Jayalalithaa was irrefutably a part of it. If MGR played the role of a crusader for the rights of ordinary people, Jayalalithaa would play his able and intelligent love interest.

“Nam Naadu” released in 1968 was purportedly a film in which MGR chose to test his political waters. It had a song featuring Jayalalithaa greeting him for a political victory (Vaangaiya vaathiyar aiya). She was also the heroine of “Annamitta Kai” – MGR’s last movie while he was still with the DMK in 1972. He would soon launch AIADMK and continue to act in movies, several of which featured Jayalalithaa.

While some heroines would often speak about how MGR offered them a chance to enter the political arena, it was Jayalalithaa who was intelligent enough to grab the opportunity and make it her own.

Like Bhanumathi before her and much later Ramya Krishnan, Jayalalithaa had a strong personality that sometimes overshadowed her male leads. It showed on screen too. Such heroines were rare in the male-dominated world of Tamil cinema and were largely relegated to negative, taming-the-shrew kind of roles. But Jayalalithaa stood out. She had remarkable intelligence to match her strong personality.  She perhaps wanted to be remembered for good roles. And she did a slew of them. 

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