Jayalalithaa Jayaram was an enigma to most. A reluctant film star who was hurled into the industry as a teenager, Jayalalithaa went on to conquer it. Later, she struggled to find a foothold in the male dominant politics of the state. But though the odds were stacked against her, Jayalalithaa pushed on till she fulfilled her ambitions.
Veteran journalist V Jayanth, who has worked with The Hindu for several years and shared a friendship with the charismatic politician, recounts his memories of her. Even when the relationship between Jayalalithaa and The Hindu soured after she filed defamation cases against the publication, Jayanth says, he continued to share a good rapport with her – a voracious reader and a woman of sharp wit.
What was Jayalalithaa like as a person?
She was very sharp. Very intelligent. She measured every word that she wanted to say. If she said something that she should not have said, she immediately corrected herself. She was very clear in her thinking, very forthright about what she wanted to say. There was nothing namby pamby about her. She'd require a set of questions before interviews. She liked to prepare with statistics to back her up. But she could also be extempore.
Since when have you known her closely?
From 1987-88. This was when she first came into state politics. She was first in the Rajya Sabha but she was also the Propaganda Secretary of the AIADMK – that's when I first began to meet her. After MGR fell ill and she was gradually coming to the centerstage, we (journalists) started seeing her more often, talking to her more often. Once MGR died, she was the central figure.
Jayalalithaa did not let people into her inner circle too easily. How did your friendship happen?
I kept going back to her again and again on work. I had some good friends in her establishment. She was a voracious reader, she knew whom she was talking to. She followed whatever you were writing. Even a year after she became Chief Minister, she'd call me and say, "This is not what I said! Why did you give it this angle?" She read everything and took everything seriously too.
You knew her personally as well as professionally. And Jayalalithaa wasn't one to take criticism lightly. As a journalist working for a publication, did a conflict ever arise in your relationship?
In 1992, I was transferred to Sri Lanka by The Hindu. I was covering her at that time and I told her that I was moving. She was very upset because she thought she had a good equation with me and wanted to have that kind of rapport with The Hindu. She asked me if I wanted to remain here and said that she could speak to my editor to make sure that I continued here. I said that this was a good professional break and that I'd like to go.
But I told her that before I go, I'd like to have another interview with her. She said she was going to Ooty next week and was likely to be there for the next couple of weeks. I said I was prepared to go there to do the interview. We fixed up a date. But on the day I landed in Ooty, there was an item in The Hindu which was critical of her. It was about her public gatherings... how lorries and buses were being used to bring in people. She was very upset about it and when I went to the guesthouse to meet her, she said, "No, we're not having the interview today." I told her that I'd come all the way from Chennai for the interview and that I was going to Sri Lanka next week. I wasn't going to have another chance and I told her that I deserved this interview with her.
She said, "Why don't you give me some time?" So I left my number with the Chief Secretary and left. She called me at 2 pm and asked me to come at 3pm. And she did give an interview. It was one of her best interviews in which she spoke about the Sri Lankan issue in great detail. She was very forthright. I came back to Chennai and was transcribing the interview when she called me. She had a recording of the interview – she had a library of all the recordings. She said, "This last paragraph, I want it to be recast. I'm faxing that paragraph alone to you. My office will deliver it to you. She did that and then checked if it had been redone. She was very happy with the interview when it was published.
What did you and Jayalalithaa discuss other than politics?
I discussed her film career which she was very reluctant to do and she said nobody looks at me as an actor any more. So I told her that I wasn't reporting about her films but just wanted to know how she felt coming from that world into this. She said that the film world was one of exploitation. She said, "I felt exploited when I came here at around 15-16. But having got into it, I couldn't get out of it." I asked her in what way politics was different. She said, "Here, you're in touch with the people, you're a leader in your own right, you're trying to guide the destiny of a state. This gives you satisfaction." I told her that entertaining people was also satisfying but she wouldn't buy that argument. She was somehow never happy about her film career.
She developed a bond with MGR, but felt very let down when he died. She felt he should have anointed her before he died. She had to fight again to get control in the party. But all of them had to bite the dust and come back to her because nobody could win an election.
Did she ever speak to you about her friendship with Sasikala?
She'd always call her "sister". She didn't have a family. She's told me that it was MGR who introduced her to Sasikala and her husband Natarajan. Natarajan was the government PRO. Sasikala was running a video club in Alwarpet. They were a childless couple. MGR thought this was a good family to give her company. That is how it started. When MGR died, these two people took over and made sure that Jayalalithaa got into the party. From then on, there has been no turning back. At one point, she told Sasikala, you choose either your husband or me and Sasikala chose her. Not that she lost touch with her husband, but she remained with Jayalalithaa all through. Jayalalithaa was so dependent on her for everything. She had nobody else to turn to. Now, in the same place where Jayalalithaa was standing next to MGR when he died, Sasikala is standing at Jayalalithaa's funeral.