Jayalalithaa was 68 years old when she died, her nearly 14 years in power over four terms making her one of the world’s longest serving female leaders.
The end came 74 days after she was hospitalized in Chennai on 22 September with fever and dehydration, bringing to an end a remarkable life that began in tinsel town as a popular actress and ended in political high office, surrounded by fawning politicians.
Born on 24 February 1948 in what was then Mysore state (now Mysuru city in Karnataka) to a traditional Tamil Iyengar family that once served the state’s King Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar, she was only two when she lost her father Jayaram. The death of her husband caused mother Vedavalli to move back to her maternal home in Bangalore (now Bengaluru), taking her two children Jaya Kumar and Jayalalithaa with her.
In 1953, encouraged by her sister, Vedavalli joined the film industry, taking the name Sandhya and moving to Madras (now Chennai), where she achieved a measure of success as an actress. “Since my aunt was already working in the industry, a number of producers and directors would come over to see her," Jayalalithaa said in an interview with Simi Garewal, wistfulness creeping into her voice. “They happened to see my mother, they were struck by her looks and she got many film offers."
With her mother busy on the sets in Chennai, the child ended up staying with her grandparents in Bengaluru, where she attended Bishop Cotton Girls’ High School from the ages of 6-10 before moving once again to Chennai to live with her mother. Her days attending Sacred Heart Matriculation Higher Secondary School were the happiest of her life, she has maintained: “I won the best outgoing student of the year," she said in the same interview. “Till today, I consider it the greatest achievement of my life."
Ninety-year-old A.V. Padma, who taught her arithmetic in her Chennai school, remembers her as a pretty and intelligent girl. “You would never see her without a book in her hand—she was a studious girl," she said, adding that she was also a talented dancer who participated in most of the school concerts. “She was a star even then as she was later on," said Padma.
Though she had won a scholarship, her academic career was to be cut short. Due to strained finances at home, she was forced by her mother to join the films in 1965. She was only 16 and played a young widow in her first film Vennira Aadai (White Dress)—a role that pivoted her to stardom.
Although reluctant at first, she went on to enjoy massive popularity in Tamil Nadu, starring in around 125 films. “I didn’t like it," said Jayalalithaa. “But once I decide to do something—whether I like it or not—I must excel at it, I must do it superlatively well."
The sudden death of her mother when she was 23 came as a crippling blow, but Vedavalli’s presence was to be replaced by the man who went on to mentor her for nearly 22 years—film star and three-time chief minister of Tamil Nadu M.G. Ramachandran, known as MGR. “Both my mother and MGR were the two major influences in my life," she said in the television interview.
The influence of the larger-than-life MGR meant politics soon followed for Jayalalithaa and she joined the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party, founded by MGR, in 1982. When MGR suffered a massive stroke in 1984, it was Jayalalithaa who led the AIADMK campaign in general elections that year. Upon his death in 1987, she laid claim to political power, challenging the supremacy of MGR’s widow Janaki.
Though Janaki was elected chief minister in 1988, her government was dismissed after only 24 days and president’s rule imposed in Tamil Nadu. In 1989, Jayalalithaa was elected to the Tamil Nadu Assembly, becoming the first woman to become leader of the opposition in the House.
In the same year, a shocking incident of violence helped push Jayalalithaa along the path of political power. Manhandled by opposition Dravaida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) members in the legislative assembly (they were egged on by chief minister M. Karunanidhi), she left the House in tears, vowing that she would return only as chief minister.
She did return—several times over, despite several serious setbacks, including corruption charges, election defeats, her on-and-off friendship with associate Sasikala, spells in the prison, conspiracies and health issues. “It has been a tempestuous life and career," she said in the interview with Simi Garewal.
Public as her life was, there was an element of mystery to her too. For one, she never married or shared her power. An authoritarian, she was volatile, blowing hot and cold with sycophants, self-established friends and supporters who flocked to her side. Yet, she was never known to have demurred when fellow politicians routinely prostrated themselves before her, seeking their Amma’s blessings.
“She is a very strong leader and the hold she has over her party men is incredible," said veteran journalist Vaasanthi, author of Amma: Jayalalithaa’s Journey from Movie Star to Political Queen. “There is not a whimper within the ranks when she is in power."
Jayalalithaa, always wary of journalists, was cold and unwelcoming when the two first met in 1984. “She kept her own tape recorder switched on all through our conversation," she said.
In a 1998 article in Outlook magazine, former lawmaker Valampuri John agreed that despite all the adulation she enjoyed, Jayalalithaa did have problems trusting people.
“There is a deep-rooted attitudinal problem that can be traced to her past. She perceives all the men in her life—her father, MGR, her once live-in friend Shoban Babu—as people who have failed her. Therefore she has developed a deep distrust of almost anyone," he said.
“I used to trust people easily but now I know better," Jayalalithaa told Garewal. “Life has made me like this."
It’s no surprise Jayalalithaa opened up to Garewal, herself a Hindi film actress. “I thought she was amazing. I had heard so many negative things about her but she was charm and graciousness itself," she later recalled. Jayalalithaa came across as an articulate, well-read and clear-thinking leader but also “so girlish".
“I thought she was someone who could be the Prime Minister someday."