Before Thalaivii: Narratives About Jayalalitha In Tamil Cinema

Given that we’ve only had mostly reductionist and caricatured portraits of Jayalalitha on screen, Queen tells us her side of the story for the first time.
Before Thalaivii: Narratives About Jayalalitha In Tamil Cinema

Before her passing in 2016 as the incumbent Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, no one would have dared to even make a loosely allusive biopic about J. Jayalalitha. If her onscreen identity as an actor in the 60s and 70s was shaped by writers and directors, depictions on film or even references to Jayalalitha, the person and the politician, were controlled with Orwellian subtlety. For instance, Vijay-starrer Thalaivaa was set for an international release in 2013 when Jayalalitha was Chief Minister. Yet another retelling of The Godfather, the film had a tagline that was appropriate for its subject: Born to lead. But that was enough to set off anonymous bomb threats to theatres across the state just days before release. It was followed promptly by a confession by the State that it would be impossible to arrange protection on such a vast scale and at such short notice. The film was scuttled at release — for a tagline that vaguely threatened Jayalalitha's supremacy. Few would have dared a biopic.

Complimentary references to her larger-than-life political persona were permitted. For instance, two years before Thalaivaa, Vijay has a passing dialogue in an action sequence in Velayudham: 'nalla vela, naan aalungatchi  (thank goodness, I belong to the ruling party) — a tip of the hat to her party that was in power. Her image as a strong-willed Iron Lady was also tempered through films by modifying it into a universally acceptable mother of all beings: Amma. In the 2002 film Azhagi, a character checking on a sick cow goads it to make a sound. When it refuses, he remarks: All of Tamil Nadu says Amma, but this cow won't.

Such minor propaganda of her personality cult are rife in Tamil films and they reinforce the image of a Divine Protectress or Shakti (which is, incidentally, used as her name in the unofficial biopic Queen). There has also been pungent negative commentary about her personality ever since she became the chief minister for the first time in 1991, but it was never direct. For example, her prevalent image as a strong-willed politician and a single woman in a world of dangerous men, was taken to the extreme and lampooned in Rajinikanth-starrer Mannan. 

Vijayshanthi's Shanti Devi is a capable and independent woman who runs a factory that she inherits from her father. She doesn't need a man in her life. But she's made to realize that she, in fact, needs one when Rajinikanth's Krishnan, an ordinary factory worker, 'makes her a woman' after their marriage.

Without getting into the substance of whether such allusions were intentional, or even if they refer unequivocally to Jayalalitha, Rajinikanth in the 90s invented an entire genre of successful films with strong-willed female antagonists. Rajinikanth's character in these films would either reform (Mappillai), tame (Mannan) or spurn (Padayappa) the caricatured wayward woman — overall, he gives the woman valuable object lessons in how to be a good woman.

It's such criticism of her personality, constantly referencing her gender, that was upended later by a transfiguration of the Iron Lady who was feared by all men into a Divine Mother who protected all men. Between the two extreme depictions on film, the real Jayalalitha could only be vaguely discerned from a patchwork of gossip, invective and hagiography. So, until her demise and while her image needed to be tightly controlled in service of her political power, depictions of Jayalalitha on film have never been based on sympathetic, psychologically nuanced narratives. They were either propaganda or reactions to that propaganda. 

An exception was Mani Ratnam's Iruvar, a fictionalized account of how MGR and Karunanidhi shaped Tamil Nadu's Dravidian politics. But Aishwarya Rai's Kalpana was only loosely based on the role that Jayalalitha played in MGR's life. And yet, it was a characterization that didn't reference the Divine Mother or the Iron Lady. She was human, even if reduced in scope because of her secondary role in the film. If you take Kalpana to be modeled on the real Jayalalitha, you merely get a sense that she might have been nothing more than a comfort — and later, distraction — for MGR. Though MGR's party members thought so too, it is arguably an unfair summing up.

It's Reshma Ghatala's Queen that humanized Jayalalitha for the first time on film. Directed by Gautham Vasudev Menon and Prasath Murugesan, and based on Anita Sivakumaran's biography with the same title, the web series is formatted as Jayalalitha recollecting and taking account of her life in a talk show. In her 1999 interview with Simi Garewal, Jayalalitha was probably at her most relaxed in a public appearance, and even sang along to a Hindi song with the host. At the end of the interview, Jayalalitha says that no one has ever been able to elicit answers from her like Simi Garewal was able to. Queen superbly uses this, rather than the myths surrounding her, as the starting point for the character of Shakti Sheshadri — a fictional Jayalalitha that gets palpably closer to the real Jayalalitha for the first time.

Starting with her life as a girl with a single mother working in films and an absent father, the web series captures Jayalalitha's strength in vulnerability, releasing her from the stiff, draconian image she had cultivated in her years as an invulnerable Chief Minister. From Shakti's perspective, we see an MGR (the letters scrambled up as GMR for the show) who is very different from Iruvar's version. In Iruvar, we only see the romance between them. But Queen tracks their relationship through to their estrangement, patch up, and Jayalalitha's later practical and goal-driven relationship with him as a political disciple and heir apparent. 

In Queen — however fictional it might still have been — we get a sense of a more or less equal relationship that Jayalalitha had with MGR. The first season ends with Shakti capturing control of GMR's party. If Mannan insinuated that Jayalalitha merely inherited the party (just as Shanti Devi inherited the factory), through Shakti's fight in Queen, we see that she had actually earned it; it's a minor correction with major consequences to Jayalalitha's legacy.

Given that we've only had mostly reductionist portraits of Jayalalitha on screen, Queen tells us her side of the story for the first time. And for a person who has been the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu five times, very little is known about her. In fact, it's this mystique that gave her a certain invincibility — the less they see of you the less they can attack. But with the upcoming second season of Queen and Thalaivii, one hopes to get a handle on the real person that she was — between the Amma that her partymen worshipped and the 'Chandi Rani' mocked in Mannan.

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