Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXVI No. 17, December 16-31, 2016

She could do anything she put her mind to

by Sushila Ravindranath

Everybody is claiming have met Jayalalithaa at some point in their lives, or having run into her at an airport, or at some function. Did anyone really know her?

Our paths crossed when we were young, much before
she turned a politician. My parents who had an eclectic circle of friends knew her mother. My memories are somewhat fuzzy about our childhood friendship. As far as I can recall, her life was as normal as it could be. She and her brother were raised by a single mother who was in films. Her mother was very attractive, sophisticated and articulate.
Speaking fluent English was considered a great achievement those days. She, like all parents, wanted to give her children a good education.

Jayalalithaa sparkled. She was set up as an example to us slightly younger children. Her achievements in academics and arts are not exaggerated. She effortlessly excelled. I remember her doing homework, attending dance and music classes, playing various sports. Her days were fully occupied. She met her school friends, went to films with them. And she also read a lot. For whatever reason, when my mother and her mother went out, I was left behind in her house sometimes. She used to give me books to read. I also remember there was an air of hauteur about her. It was not put on. It was the way she was. She didn’t suffer fools gladly even then.


Then there was excitement that she was going to do movies. No one was surprised. She was gorgeous. There never was any teenage awkwardness about her. She has said that she joined the industry to please her mother. She never showed her unhappiness after she started acting. We used to be invited to the previews of her films. To our admiring eyes, she always appeared great. She glowed with happiness when we congratulated her.

She was very excited when she was doing her first film with MGR, Ayirathil Oruvan. They are showing her films constantly on Jaya TV now. I caught a few minutes of one of them. She displayed such natural flair and grace. She did make a great pair with MGR in all their earlier films.

I remember her saying that she enjoyed doing a film with Sivaji Ganesan in which she had a strong role. She felt she could prove that she was more than just a glamorous leading lady. She became so busy with her career that she had no time for friends. She was truly a golden girl when tragedy struck. Her mother, who was in complete charge of her life, passed away when she was 22.


Her emotional struggles must have begun then. That was when MGR truly became her mentor and helped her sort out her affairs. Her aunts stayed with her. They had their own lives, and for whatever reason, these relationships came apart. Much has been said about how Sasikala came into her life and became her only companion ever since. Jayalalithaa needed to be taken care off. She was never trained to run a household. Sasikala was willing to devote her life to Jaya. How many members of Jaya’s family or friends would have been able to do that? It is also a fact that many of her friends were dropped from her life after she became the Chief Minister.

Her film career was nearing its inevitable end. There were also a few years of estrangement with MGR. During this time, she tried her hand at many creative pursuits. She started writing for Tamil magazines, she painted, designed clothes and did many things which interested her. It is no exaggeration to say she could do anything she put her mind to. During this period she stayed in touch with several friends. They used to drop by at Poes Garden, have lunch with her and life again was as normal as possible under the circumstances. The house had not become a fortress. She was also close to some of her mother’s friends.

MGR launched the AIADMK, won elections and had become the Chief Minister. He also re-entered her life and the rest is history. He inducted her into politics. She may never have thought of a political career, but she plunged into it whole-heartedly. Overnight she became a great orator in Tamil. She read up on political history, biographies, the Dravidian movement and all subjects relevant to her career. She did not need formal education.

Her roller-coaster ride in the party, the various upheavals which took place, the humiliations she had to face have all been well documented. She had such a strong character that she could fight her way through all this. It was her nature to take challenges head on. She absorbed the complicated contours of Dravidian politics in a very short time. This was really amazing as she did not grow up in a family which was even remotely connected with politics or discussed politics.

People, for whatever reason identified and sympathised with her. They cheered her on when strong men tried to put her down. When I saw posters of her emerging from the Assembly hall with her sari torn and hair dishevelled, I knew the game was over for the ruling party, DMK. Sure enough she swept the elections.

I don’t think that her initial popularity was only because she was a film star. She had that indefinable thing, charisma. She would light up any space she entered. It was not possible to have eyes and ears for anybody else when she was around. It was like that from when she was a school girl.

Jayalalithaa did many things right and many things wrong. She did not discuss her decisions and reasons for her choices with anybody. Everybody is analysing her life and career from their perspectives and their limited exposure. Unless Sasikala chooses to talk, J Jayalalithaa will remain an enigma. May be history will judge her more clearly than we can now.


  1. Padma Rao Sundarji says:

    What an absolutely searingly honest, deeply moving but also elating obituary to a childhood gal-pal. But then it is celebrated journalist, Sushila Ravindranath, after all, who crafted this. Hats off.

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