Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Mother of all Politics and Daughter of an erstwhile Actress: Jayalalithaa, Amma

(Jayalalithaa 1948-2016)

On 4th November, eminent painter, Shibu Natesan and myself were in Tanjavur, one of the richest districts in Tamil Nadu and we were staying that the Tamil Nadu Tourism Guest House situated a couple of kilometres from the famous Brihadeeswara Temple, visiting it was our purpose of being there. The guest house premises suddenly came to a flurry of activities, as an unexpected high tide at a sea shore, and we could see hoards of politicians clad in white and the hall mark towels around their shoulders were busying around and huddling up in each corner to discuss something. I noticed the flags tied to the cars in which they came; the black and red flags with the picture of MGR right in the middle (or is it that of Periyar?). The scene resembled a scene from a typical Tamil movie which has ample amount of political feuds portrayed to add effect to the heroic retribution towards the end of the narrative. Tamil Nadu cannot survive without its melodramatic politics and its manipulative leaders.

 We looked at each other and we knew the gravity of the situation. The activities pointed towards one thing: Puratchi Talaivar Amma, Jayalalithaa’s post-life political scenario in Tamil Nadu. O.Panneerselvam, the party General Secretary had already been appointed as the caretaker of the government with Jayalalithaa’s name still remaining as the Chief Minister of the state. When we were there she had been in the Apollo Hospitals in Chennai for more than a month. We thought of pushing ourselves out of Tamil Nadu for the fear of getting trapped in the mayhem and all hell that would break loose in the streets of Tamil Nadu, god forbid, had it all those activities been indicating the demise of Jayalalithaa. Tamilians are famous for their unbridled expression of grief at the death of their political leaders; they could immolate themselves, vandalise the streets, shops, business establishment, vehicles and cry aloud. Unlike in many other parts of the world, street vandalism is not a sporadic outbreak of lawlessness in Tamil Nadu; violence post-dead of their beloved leaders is a way of expressing their grief because in Tamil Nadu both politics and films are emotional entities, not two separate social phenomenon to be left to the people involved.


What makes Tamil Nadu politics so special is the corporeal involvement of people with both politics and cinema. The relationship is visceral, guttural and sanguine, showing its inability to transcend itself to the higher planes of diplomacy and aesthetics. MGR’s death had caused in earlier in 1987. That was when Jayalalithaa was pushed down from the vehicle carrying her beloved leader’s dead body and it was then she made a silent vow to herself that she was going to be the next queen and king maker at times in the state as well as national politics. Perhaps, Jayalalithaa might have forgotten everything the day she was admitted to the hospital; languishing between consciousness, delirium, dream and the visions of the other world, if she had asked for anything must have been her own deliverance from the world and the machines that were going into her innards through various bodily openings. The dead and the dying are less concerned with the lives of the people who are living; living is confusion and death is clarity and Jayalalithaa had almost reached that clarity a couple of months back and I am sure she never wanted to return to confusion.

During those five days that we had spent in Tamil Nadu, visiting the exquisite temples from the medieval period, I noticed how the iconography of Jayalalithaa had changed over a period of time. When I was travelling in Tamil Nadu fifteen years back, in all the posters and hoardings she was shown with a gown which covered from upper torso to the waist level, giving her a sort of asexual appearance. There had been speculations about her upper body, which once had disturbed many a young man out of his sleep. The erstwhile tinsel town sexy heroine no longer wanted her to be seen a sex siren who could dance her way into the lives of men. Despite all her efforts, Jayalalitha had exactly done the same in the case of her mentor and boy friend, M.G.Ramachandran, the reigning superstar of Tollywood in 1950, 60s and 70s. Jayalalithaa through teenager arrogance challenged the macho of MGR (which was already sagging at different levels while his political fortune was on the rise) and he had no other way that accepting her as his muse and girl friend, ruffling many feathers but with his superstardom and political influence MGR could keep all rumours under check.

(Jayalalithaa in one of her movies)

This time, Jayalalitha, acquitted by the court of all cases pertaining to the accumulation of disproportionate wealth, was safely back on the throne and even had made a circular that would make everyone both in the State Assembly and elsewhere address her only as ‘Amma’, not by name. A conscious construction of this Amma image however had its journey through rough roads. The flex hoardings and the political posters all over Tamil Nadu now showed a Jayalalitha, without her special mantle (of course she had taken it off a few years back) and a highly touched up and younger looking Jayalalithaa had taken the central position. The full body length pictures were carefully avoided, instead the bust form was projected. The typical raising of her right hand or the typical folding of her palms in salutation to the people had been removed. It was just a photograph exuding a benevolent authority. What surprised me were the fairness of the face and the redness of the lips. In some of the photographs, a few strands of white hairs were shown along the hairline across her forehead and in some other photographs the white hairs were completely removed. She was shown mostly in a blue sari, with some prints on it, but clearly giving a message of her shedding the image of someone hoarding thousands of silk saris. Her jewellery looked sparse. The most important thing in those posters was the presence of the loosening skins just below her chin, especially on the right side of her face. Jayalalithaa whose dimples, plump cheeks and double chin, defining her hagiographic appeal in the contemporary posters, had preferred to show her natural ageing but surprisingly showing a healthy face and smile. The transformation of herself into a new age Mother seemed complete in those posters.

When a biography hits the stands, one could be sure either the subject of the book has become so important in some field that people are now curious to know about the person or his or her fame has reached to the pinnacle that he/she should be honoured by a biography or his/her death is imminent. A cursory browse at the airport bookstalls perhaps would reveal what the country reading or rather what the publishers want the country to read. Chancing upon a biography of Jayalalithaa’s biography written by author and journalist, Vaasanthi in Bangalore airport a couple of months back suddenly made me curious and I knew something was going to happen to Jayalalithaa. When I picked up the book, Amma was already in the hospital. When a famous personality is hospitalised, the research wings of the media go into a hysteric mode; they dig up all what has been archived and make inferences. And the packages of television programs, condoling the death or the pages of the newspapers extolling the life of the dead are already made and kept. Jayalalithaa gave enough time for the press to prepare her life for publication. Even the timing of her death or the announcement of it is well timed- 11.30 pm. Newspapers could fill all their editions with the story of her death. Television channels get enough time to line up their spots on the next morning. Today is Jayalalithaa’s day.

(Jayalalithaa with MGR in one of the movies)

Two lives are intricately connected yet with no obvious connections; the lives of Jayalalithaa and the film diva Rekha. Two reluctant nubile virgins coming to the big bad world of films due to many pressures including those of their mothers and their financial conditions- that is the story of both Jayalalithaa and Rekha. Jayalalithaa’s father Jayaraman died when she was hardly five years old. Her mother Veda whose stunning beauty had attracted many film producers eventually decided to put grease paint on her face and assume a new name, Sandhya. Perhaps, only the oldies know who Sandhya was and how her acting was like. But everyone knows how Jayalalitha acted. She was not a supreme beauty the way Rekha is but she could sway the minds because she was mostly paired with her mentor MGR and with most of the leading actors of the time. Many heroines who came along with Jayalalithaa faded away as their youthful looks diminished. But Jayalalithaa reinvented herself by the time she was forty years old. She had become the undisputed leader of a political party, AIDMK and the chief minister of one of the big states in India, Tamil Nadu. For three decades she remained in the political mainstream though it was mired by allegations and even a term in jail. She was even accused of breaking a family, having a secret son, maintaining a lesbian relationship with her close friend Sasikala, brutally punishing the dissenters and ironically subjugating each male member of the political establishment especially in a state where the patriarchal values projected by all heroes (Thalaivas of different kinds) and relived the same in the public and private spheres shamelessly by the Tamil males. But Jayalalithaa could bring dignity to the Tamil women. Call them Amma, that is the only way that you could address a Tamil woman who is a stranger to you. Commendable it is in India.
Rekha is the daughter of Gemini Ganesan, a contemporary to MGR and Sivaji Ganesan, the doyens of Tamil film industry. Rekha’s mother too was an actress but Gemini Ganesan did not want to break his own family or acknowledge his daughter despite her future success in the mainstream Bollywood. Rekha’s mother was determined but Rekha, like Jayalalitha was reluctant to join the film industry. But once she was in there was no looking back. She challenged the patriarchal establishment of Bollywood industry by throwing spoke to the wheels of a few established families including those of Vindo Mehra and Amitabh Bacchan, and earning a bad name in the industry as a vamp and home breaker. But the transformation of the ugly duckling, the dark southie girl was phenomenal. She broke all the taboos and evolved as one of the perennial beauties in Indian life almost exuding the magic of a contemporary Cleopatra, whether you like it or not. Rekha got married to Mukesh Agarwal, the former Hotline owner, industrialist and a big time depression maniac. He committed suicide because Rekha was too big for him. Rekha’s name unlike Jayalalithaa’s got linked up to so many younger actors periodically sending the rumour mills go crazy and surprisingly she is even accused of having a lesbian relationship with her personal secretary, Farzaana, who surprisingly dress up like Amitabh Bacchan. Jayalalithaa has a sister in Rekha.

(Rekha, the evergreen actress)

I do not see Jayalalithaa as a power monger. She knew statecraft well. Like Imelda Marcos she too had certain fetishes of collecting shoes, jewellery and sarees. But we have to ask one thing; why it is a thing of avarice and greed when a woman politician wear certain types of clothes or amass wealth while the male politicians amass wealth as if there was no tomorrow. I am not here to justify one corruption against the other. Who knows tomorrow Jayalalithaa’s life would not become a thing of historical interest and all those she had amassed would become museum pieces for public perusal? Don’t we see the avarice and loot of the kings in the museums and now interpreted as their aesthetical interests and sophistication? Perhaps, Jayalalithaa’s life needs such a transformation in the coming days. Pitted against the male politicians in this country, leaders like Mayawati and Mamta Banerjee face the accusation of not being sophisticated. Both Mamta and Mayawati are lampooned for their dressing sense, the former for under dressing like a maid and the other one over dressing like an illiterate neo-rich. Here the identity and the dignity of the house maids as well as those of the illiterate women are brought into question and for public ridicule by the male politicians and patriarchal people. Jayalalitha was not lampooned for either under dressing or for over dressing. She was lampooned for her power and her ability to display it without words. Jayalalithaa is history today and we celebrated another woman leader’s birth centenary last month, of Indira Gandhi. Someone had said about Mrs.Gandhi that she was the only male member in the parliament. Tamil Nadu had one man that was Jayalalithaa, but we can say that only when the benchmark of power wielding is still a man with a lot of authority. Hence, let Jayalalithaa be Amma and the time is not that far when she is propitiated as a full fledged deity in the Hindu pantheon, which is already there in a hero-ine worshipping place like Tamil Nadu.   

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