Jayalalithaa’s growing up years were tumultuous and unpredictable. A polyglot who was fluent in several languages, including Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Hindi, Malayalam and English, she was also a dancer and a voracious reader. However, this multi-talented daughter of an actor was plonked in the film industry though her ambitions lay elsewhere.
In Bengaluru, Jayalalithaa attended Bishop Cotton Girls' High School and later completed her education at Sacred Heart Matriculation School, popularly known as Church Park, in Chennai. She excelled at school and earned several top ranks.
“Though this is the fifth time she is becoming the chief minister, it’s hard to digest that she is the same girl we knew from years ago, the girl who came first in class, the one who introduced us to author Alistair MacLean, the world of Hindi movies and sketching," said Srimathi Iyengar speaking to The Times of India earlier this year, about her classmate in Sacred Heart Church Park Convent, Chennai.
A 1957 class photograph of Jayalalithaa (sitting on the ground extreme right) taken when she was in the fourth grade of Bishop Cotton Girls High School, Bangalore.— Photo courtesy: EGK & Son Photo Studio, Bangalore.
Srimathi recalled that Jayalalithaa had one of the most expansive home libraries at the time and that all her friends used to borrow books from her.
Another classmate remembered Jayalalithaa as a “reserved person” who chose her friends carefully.
Years later, in an interview with Simi Garewal on her show “Conversations with Simi Garewal”, Jayalalithaa spoke of the highs and lows of her childhood:
“I remember I had won first prize for an English essay I wrote at school. And I was so anxious to show my mother the prize. I stayed up till midnight and when she came back, she found me sleeping in the living room. When she asked me why, I showed it to her.”
Stating that the days she spent at school were the best, Jayalalithaa also spoke about suffering from an inferiority complex – perhaps why she’d come across as being “reserved”: “My classmates were girls who came from the upper crust. Though I was born into a wealthy family myself, when I was insulted or made fun of, I didn’t know how to retort. I would go home and cry.”
Jayalalithaa excelled at school and was offered a government scholarship to study further. She won the Gold State Award for coming first in 10th standard in not just her school but also in the entire state.
"She had a room in her house that had wall to floor cupboards filled with books of every kind. She was also the only one among us who knew Hindi, so she would take us to the movies and translate the dialogues verbatim," said Srimathi. As for sketching, it was a passion of Jayalalithaa's, and classmates would see her drawing whenever she had a free moment.
Srimathi and Jayalalithaa became friends when they were in Class 5. Srimathi’s father, a film photographer named ‘Stills’ Chari, was the one to shoot Jayalalithaa’s portfolio for Radha Silk Emporium. It was with this assignment that Jayalalithaa entered the world of advertising and movies.
Jayalalithaa's first foray into films and ad shoots at 16 (Pic courtesy: DBS Jeyaraj)
Jayalalithaa presented the portfolio to actors and directors in the Tamil film industry, including MG Ramachandran, who’d become her co-star and political mentor.
Jayalalithaa’s dreams, as a young student, did not lie in this direction. When she was in Class 10, her friends recall her stating that she wanted to study further and try for the civil services but even then, she was aware that she probably would end up doing films on her mother’s insistence.
In the interview with Simi Garewal, Jayalalithaa revealed that some of her schoolmates had mocked her because her mother was an actor, that too a character actor and not a heroine. “Children can be very cruel. I made up for all of this by being first in class. When I left school, I won the award for the best outgoing student. When my mother told me I needed to take up acting, I tried to resist. For three days, it was a battle royale at home. But what could I do at 16?” she asked.
Those close to Jayalalithaa, who knew of her aptitude for academics, were upset when she joined the film industry. After high school, Jayalalithaa had joined Stella Maris College, Chennai, to study law but her mother Sandhya persuaded her to opt out and get into films because of a financial crisis.
Despite her reluctance, Jayalalithaa was a natural performer in the industry. She was only 3 years old when she had her first Bharatanatyam lesson. Under the tutelage of KJ Sarasa, one of the finest dancers and choreographers of her time, Jayalalithaa quickly grew to be an accomplished artist.
Bharatanatyam dancer: Jayalalithaa at her first Arangetram (Pic courtesy: DBS Jeyaraj)
At Jayalalithaa’s debut dance performance at the Rasika Ranjani Sabha in Mylapore, there were many film actors who’d come to see the young girl’s talent, including big stars like Siivaji Ganesan. Sivaji is said to have predicted to Sandhya that her daughter would become a huge film star.
Jayalalithaa’s first Tamil movie was the memorable “Vennira Aadai”. But it was the grand success of “Aayirathil Oruvan” in which she was paired with the legendary M G Ramachandran, that catapulted her to superstardom.
From class topper, Jayalalithaa went on to rule the Tamil film industry and later achieved success in politics, becoming the chief minister of Tamil Nadu five times.