December 5, 2016
To her supporters, she is Amma (mother) or Puratchi Thalaivi (Revolutionary Leader). To her critics, she is an autocratic ruler who shunned a democratic process. But in a land where there is little difference between cinematic and political life, Jayalalithaa Jayaram, who hails from Mysore, has managed to stand out and become a three-time Chief Minister of the state. Known as Tamil Nadu’s ‘Iron Lady’, she is famous for her tough, spontaneous and populist decisions.
In 1982, at the age of 34, she joined the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) under the guidance of her mentor and former Chief Minister, the late M G Ramachandran, who was fondly called ‘MGR’. Jayalalithaa rose to the top echelons of the party very fast, becoming the propaganda secretary much to chagrin of many seasoned party men and was soon nominated to the Rajya Sabha. Though MGR brought her into politics, she eventually rose to the height of top political office on her own merit, breaking new ground for women in politics.
In December 1984, MGR fell ill and was undergoing medical treatment in the US and the AIADMK had to fight the Parliamentary elections and the Tamil Nadu Assembly polls. In the absence of her leader, Jayalalithaa led the party to a massive victory and showed the world she was just as, if not more, capable.
After MGR’s demise in 1987, the AIADMK split vertically into two factions. As the general secretary of the party, Jayalalithaa contested the Assembly polls in January 1989 and was elected from Bodinayakkanur, and became the first woman leader of the Opposition in the Tamil Nadu Assembly. In February that year, the party reunited under her leadership and she was unanimously elected to the post of general secretary. She became Tamil Nadu’s second woman Chief Minister (MGR’s widow was the first, serving only 28 days following her husband’s death), and the first woman to serve a full term as the CM of the state from 1991-1996. She lost the 1996 Assembly elections and the DMK government that succeeded hers filed cases of corruption against her that she continues to battle in court.
At the start of her career, in a bizarre incident that took place inside the Tamil Nadu Assembly, she was ferociously attacked. Her sari was torn and filthy abuses were hurled at her by Opposition legislators. She swore revenge and fought back to ensure the DMK was trounced at the hustings.
Even today, Jayalalithaa has a reputation of riding hard on the state’s bureaucrats. She regularly punishes civil servants who failed to discharge their duties.
Jayalalithaa studied at the Bishop Cotton Girls School in Bangalore and later attended college at Presentation Convent Church Park in Madras. She won a scholarship from the Government of India for higher studies, but did not accept it. Instead, she took up a career in films, venturing into Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and English language productions.
Jayalalithaa acted in an English movie titled ‘Epistle’ which was released in 1961. It was produced by Shankar Giri, son of former President of India V V Giri. She also acted in a few Bollywood films, the most memorable among them being “Izzat” where she was cast opposite film star Dharmendra, who later joined politics as a BJP MP.
Jayalalithaa is a voracious reader. Her favourite authors are Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and, among others, Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw, Danielle Steel, Pearl S Buck and James Hadley Chase. Even when was acting, she was known to carry books with her to the studio and read in between shots. She maintains a large private library with a huge collection of books.
When Jayalalithaa was asked what she thought of being called an “iron butterfly,” she said: “I agree with the description ‘iron’, but why ‘butterfly’? I don’t think the word ‘butterfly’ fits me at all.”