IN a patriarchal and tradition-bound society, she went from a silver-screen idol in the 1960s and 1970s to a six-time chief minister of Tamil Nadu and, along the way, became one of India’s most colourful and controversial politicians.
She, together with the likes of West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati of Uttar Pradesh, shook up existing norms and traditions in a male-dominated political field and held her own.
Most Malaysian Tamils, who have family links in Tamil Nadu, kept a close watch on the happenings in the South Indian state, including political developments.
Having grown up watching countless Tamil movies over RTM (Radio Televisyen Malaysia) over the years, it is unlikely that Malaysians in general among the older generation would not know who J. Jayalalithaa was.
The 68-year-old’s life journey from a movie star to becoming the chief minister of Tamil Nadu was no mean feat and arguably is more dramatic then any of the movies that she had acted in her life.
Born in 1948, Jayalalithaa was trained in classical music, classical piano and various forms of classical dance, and had acted in more than 140 movies in the Tamil, Telugu and Kannada languages in South India.
The young Jayalalithaa acted opposite a host of male stars, including the likes of Malaysian-born actor Ravichandran, R. Muthuraman, M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) and Sivaji Ganesan.
It was her heroine role opposite MGR, which saw the pair acting in 28 movies, which caught the imagination of moviegoers and saw her catapulted to the role of leading actress. She starred in successful movies such as Aayirathil Oruvan, Kavalkaran, Adimai Penn, Engal Thangam, Ragasiya Police 115 and Nam Naadu.
She won a host of awards. Having established her silver-screen presence, in 1982 she followed in the footsteps of MGR and made her foray into politics by joining the All India Anna Dravida Munetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).
She moved up steadily in the party hierarchy and was elected member of the Rajya Sabha (Parliament Upper House) in 1984. In the same year, MGR was incapacitated after suffering a stroke and she began running the AIADMK
The death of MGR on Dec 24, 1987, saw AIADMK plunge into disarray. It split into two factions, one headed by J. Jayalalithaa and the other by MGR’s widow, Janaki Ramachandran who became the chief minister of Tamil Nadu with the support of 97 out of 132 AIADMK assemblymen.
Despite this setback, Jayalalithaa’s faction was not deterred and won 27 seats in the subsequent state polls two years later and in the process became the first woman opposition leader of the Tamil Nadu State Assembly.
In 1989, the two warring factions of AIADMK merged and accepted Jayalalithaa as their leader.
She became the chief minister for the first time in 1991 after her AIADMK-Congress alliance, won 225 seats out of 234 state assembly seats and became not only the youngest but also the first woman chief minister of Tamil Nadu.
She went on to become chief minister again in 2001, 2002, 2006, 2014 and this May, when she won with a thumping victory despite exit polls predicting otherwise.
Her time as the chief executive of the state was not smooth sailing though and saw her being mired in numerous controversies, resulting in her being dismissed as chief minister and also jailed.
The controversies included land deals, mismanaging funds as well as amassing assets disproportionate to her income. Corruption allegations and charges continued to dog her throughout her political career.
The secretary-general of the AIADMK who passed away on Monday night in Chennai after a prolonged illness was given the title of “Puratchi Thaliavi” (Revolutionary Leader) by her party members and supporters, but for the masses, she was anointed “Amma” or Mother, especially the poor.
She capitalised on her status as “Amma”, turning it into a political brand and it reached every nook and corner of the vast South Indian state through her populist schemes and welfare policies
The slew of initiatives for the people under the Amma brand include Amma canteens, Amma salt, Amma water, Amma vegetable shops, Amma gyms, Amma parks, Amma cement, Amma grinder, Amma mobiles, Amma marriage halls and even Amma fans, which are not to be mistaken for a fan club and many more.
Her detractors slammed her schemes under the “Amma” brand as being a waste of public funds, leading to a deficit in the state funds but to the poor and underprivileged, it was a godsend in a state faced with skyrocketing prices.
Yet, despite all the ups and downs that she went through in her movie and political career, and whether she was liked or disliked, her death will be felt by many.
It is unlikely that there will ever be another colourful character, popular among the masses, innovative and movie heroine turned politician like Jayalalithaa.
Her death has created a void not only in the political landscape of Tamil Nadu and India, but, especially, among the people.
B. Suresh Ram is a curious cat who believes that his curiosity is going to get the better of him one day. This Perak-born
Tottenham Hotspurs supporter has two decades of journalism under his belt