For a fascinating, fiery subject such as Jayalalithaa, it's a shame her life story has been limited to only 200 pages. Vaasanthi's biography of the current Tamil Nadu chief minister — Amma: Jayalalithaa’s Journey from Movie Star to Political Queen — feels like it ends even before it begins, although Amma's life story has been captured in its entirety.
Nevertheless, we're offered insights and peeks into the former actor's life — how ammu (as she was known during her childhood) was deeply affected by her father Jayaram's death which threw her into a tumultuous world that she never quite really emerged from, how she moved to Bangalore and then to Chennai, all the while constantly yearning for her mother Veda's company (alias Sandhya) who after she became an actress hardly had any time for her little ammu, how her dreams of becoming a doctor or a lawyer took a drastic turn plunging her deep into the big bad world of cinema, how she'd get entwined into the life of popular Tamil film star of yesteryear MGR, and his party the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, eventually taking over after his death and becoming the first woman chief minister of the state to serve a full term (MGR's wife was the first woman CM serving a mere 24 days in office), winning the mandate five times, as recently in the 2016 Assembly election.
Growing up, it was clear that Jayalalithaa never experienced the same 'normal' childhood as her friends. Vaasanthi provides one example of this in a chat between two friends.
Jayalalithaa often told Srimathi that she did not like the film-world atmosphere, and that the men there were crude and stared at her lustfully. ‘Jaya would say, ‘‘When I go home these rascals will be sitting there. I get so annoyed seeing them – all kinds of men, tall, short, dark, fair, thin and fat and oily! Mother asks me to sit with them and talk. I hate it.”’ She said this with a vehemence that Srimathi still remembers. It was obvious that Jayalalithaa felt she was being forced into doing things that went against her nature. Perhaps she also yearned for a normal family life like her other classmates had.
The book follows a neat chronological order of events and does not stray from its course, which, at times makes for a boring read. Perhaps, as someone who has grown up in Chennai, keenly following the events surrounding Jayalalithaa's life (or hearing and reading extensively about it) the book doesn't come as a surprise — instead it's clinical and passive, stopping short when certain events in Jaya's life could've benefitted (the reader) with some much needed poetic elaboration. Perhaps, for people to the north of the Vindhyas, who aren't familiar with politics in the south, this book is a good start. To compare it with Iruvar, the Mani Ratnam film loosely based on the relationship between MGR-Jayalalithaa-Karunanidhi would be injustice, for a movie is treated vastly different from a book and most importantly, Iruvar was really fiction. And we have to remember that this isn't an authorised biogaphy — meaning access to Jayalalithaa, the main source, is missing, as is the access to the key people in her life: her mother and her brother, Sasikala, Shobhan Babu.
Vaasanthi does manage to talk to RM Veerappan, a close personal aide of MGR, who "projected Jayalalithaa as a temptress" and who "was bent on breaking up the relationship at any cost, saying that he needed to protect MGR from an evil called Jayalalithaa", and to the late Solai, who was Jayalalithaa's speech writer when she was the AIADMK’s propaganda secretary. Although the author's sympathy lies with the protagonist — this is best seen when she writes on how RM Veerappan's views on Jayalalithaa influencing MGR seemed "far-fetched", she does dip into her journalistic sensibilities — after the special court indicted her in the hotel case and AIADMK cadre set fire to a bus full of girls of which three were consumed by the flames, she writes that "Jayalalithaa reacted like a bad loser".
Born into a Srirangam-based Tamil Brahmin family in Bangalore, Jayalalithaa ruled the roost in Tamil cinema since her debut with Vennira Aadai (1965) till 1978. She had an image makeover once she met her hero, MGR, which also gave rise to the many ups and downs in her life. When Jayalalithaa first started acting, Vaasanthi describes her as a braveheart, a "remarkably fearless" woman, who if she has made her up mind would continue with it channeling her steely determination. In the chapter 'A Star is Born', she writes:
She belonged to the Mandiam Iyengar community that hailed from Karnataka. But in an article that appeared in a magazine she was quoted as saying, “I am a Tamilian. My mother belongs to Srirangam.” That angered the Kannadigas in Karnataka who believed her to be a Kannadiga. Because of the threats she received she cancelled her scheduled dance programme at the Dasara arts festival in Mysore. Two months later, during the shooting of director Panthulu’s film at the Chamundi studios in Mysore, the organizer of the Dasara arts festival heard she was there, and decided to confront her. Th e studio manager got news that about a hundred protesters were marching towards the studio to beat up Jayalalithaa. So he ordered the gates to be locked. But the hooligans jumped over the gates and entered with lathis in their hands shouting in Kannada: “Where is the bitch?” They barged in, knocking down the guards and journalists standing at the door. Panthulu spoke to them in Kannada and pleaded with them to go away. But they demanded that Jayalalithaa should say sorry for having said that she was not a Kannadiga. Jayalalithaa was neither ruffled nor afraid. She looked straight at them and said in chaste Kannada, “I have not said anything wrong. Why should I apologise? I am a Tamilian and not a Kannadiga!”
From an independent being, Jayalalithaa turned into a puppet in the hands of MGR — he took control over her activities, her finances; in short, he wanted her to be with him till he didn't. Which happened during the time he started the AIADMK on 18 October, 1972, rendering him busy with politics. In the midst of a temporary release from MGR, Vaasanthi writes about how Jayalalithaa got involved with Telugu actor Sobhan Babu, even going as far as arranging a wedding ceremony with him, which, according to some friends quoted in the book, did happen.
The meat of the book focuses on Amma's political career — for those in the dark, she joined the party on 4 June, 1982, gave her maiden speech in Cuddalore ("an impressive, fiery oration"), how she reunited with an estranged MGR, and in the end became his political heir, ousting Janaki Ramachandran, MGR's wife, in the process. As Mukul Kesavan writes in this arresting piece, for The Telegraph,
In republican India, parties founded by individuals — M.G. Ramachandran, N.T. Rama Rao, Kanshi Ram, Mamata Banerjee — never manage to institutionalize succession. The successor is either personally anointed by the leader — Kanshi Ram’s naming of Mayavati in 2001 is a case in point — or the leader’s mantle is claimed through a war of succession. Jayalalithaa is an example of the latter route: she emerged as MGR’s undisputed successor only after fighting and winning a succession battle with his widow. This contest didn’t occur via the internal mechanisms of the party — there were none — but through fission and faction
All her life, Jayalalithaa has been a fighter and this book is proof of that. Whether she was constantly fighting a hate campaign brewing against her in the party or when it seemed that MGR's trust in her was fading or after MGR's untimely death, she has never given up. The one other theme that is a constant in the book is that of loneliness — it goes without saying that people at the top are lonely, and a woman who tries to reach there is even more so. In that way, the story of Jayalalithaa is the story of an everywoman: that of constant struggle, of trying to find approval an acceptance, of trying to make cutthroat decisions without seeming 'monstrous'. It's a book many women will identify with; after all women voters did play a decisive role in voting her back to power in Tamil Nadu.
Vaasanthi writes an objective account of Jayalalithaa's life, no doubt — there's no larger-than-life symbolism of the woman who turned from a glamourous actress to a de-glamourised caretaker of the state (her moniker 'Amma' translates to mother). But how she opted for politics and transformed into a leader, who then became a brand synonymous with populism, needs more sketching in the book.
The book could also do with some airtight editing: at certain incidents Vaasanthi offers us the Tamil words employed by the people (in the book), but mostly she goes with the English translation of it. Instead, if Vaasanthi could've been persuaded to employ the original Tamil words and phrases, coupled with a small glossary at the back, it would've made for some poignant reading. One more aspect that could've been fleshed upon is the dynamic between Karunanidhi and her, one that has constantly defined politics in TN till now. Amma: Jayalalithaa’s Journey from Movie Star to Political Queen could give rise to detailed case studies of the chief minister, her leadership and how the state transformed under her, but till then this book will just have to do.
Amma: Jayalalithaa’s Journey from Movie Star to Political Queen is published by Juggernaut