JAYA’S JOURNEY, FROM AMMU TO AMMA
That dark, sad night remains vivid still in Jayalalithaa’s memory, haunting her at times of despair throughout her turbulent life.A life that began with extraordinary beauty and brilliance and was then suddenly tossed into a rough ocean where demons of various hues lurked, turning the innocent little Ammu into Amma, a woman of steel.
After her husband’s death, Jayaram’s widow Veda had no option but to move with hertwo little children, her son Pappu and her daughter Ammu – everyone at home called Jayalalithaa by that pet name – to her father’s house in Bangalore. Rangaswamy Iyengar, a Brahmin hailing originally from Srirangam in Tamil Nadu, settled inBangalore when he got a modest job at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited.
The family was known for its good looks and very fair skin. He had three very pretty daughters, Veda, Ambuja and Padma, and a son, Srinivasan. It was a typical orthodox, conservative Brahmin middle-class household with its daily rituals and prayers diligently performed by Rangaswamy Iyengar and his wife, Kamalamma.
The young and beautiful Veda, eager to provide for her children, took up a secretarialjob at the Income Tax Office to ease the additional financial burden on her father.Soon, however, she realized that on her meagre earnings she could provide her children with no more than the bare necessities. Then Kempraj Urs, a Kannada film producer, spotted Veda and was struck by her beauty. He wanted to cast her in his new film.When he came to ask her father’s permission, a furious Iyengar sent him away.
Veda’s youngest sister, Padma, was still studying in college. The other sister, Ambuja, was a rebel. She became an air hostess and the horrified Iyengar promptly declared that his second daughter was dead. Ambuja was undaunted. She took to acting in films, changed her name to Vidhyavathi and set up house in Chennai. Ambuja askedVeda to come and stay with her, so that her children could go to a better school.
It was an offer Veda could not resist and she and her children moved to Ambuja’s house. Thechildren were put in school, but the producers who came to meet Vidhyavathi found that Veda too had film star looks. They persuaded her to become an actor and, seeingwhat a comfortable life her sister led, Veda decided that that was the only way she could become prosperous enough to give her children a good life.
Kempraj Urs againoffered her a role and soon Veda, now renamed Sandhya, became a busy star.A new phase in Ammu’s life, marked by turbulent upheavals, was about to begin.
A LONELY CHILDHOOD
Sandhya soon realized that it was quite impossible to take care of the children withher busy acting schedule, so she sent her children back to her parents’ house inBangalore. Little Ammu yearned constantly for her mother. The children would eagerly wait for Sandhya’s brief visits, when she would arrive laden with gifts andsweets. Both children loved reading, and she bought them loads of story books, to distract them from crying when she left for Chennai.
Ammu settled into her new school in Bangalore, Bishop Cotton, where she spent four years. Then came another upheaval. Their aunt Padma, who used to take care of Ammu and Pappu, got married and moved away, so Sandhya decided to bring her children back to Chennai. Jayalalithaa was thrilled to be with her mother again. But she soon realized that Sandhya was busier than ever, and had little time to spend with them. The longing for her mother’s company never left Jayalalithaa.
She was ten when she joined the prestigious Church Park Convent in Chennai. Excellent at her studies, and with beautiful manners, she soon became a favourite of all the teachers, while her fellow students admired her for her striking good looks. She had a peachy pink complexion that was unusual for a south Indian, long, shining hair and beautiful eyes. That she was an actress’s daughter gave her an added aura of glamour.
While the accolades at school made her happy and confident, Jayalalithaa was deeply unhappy that Sandhya was never there to share her joys and her worries. She later wrote in her memoirs that once, after not seeing her mother for two days, she had stayed up late the next night to show her an essay she had written titled ‘My Mother: What She Means to Me’. The essay had won a prize and the teacher was so pleased with it that she had read it out to all the students. When Sandhya arrived late thatnight she saw her daughter fast asleep, with a notebook spread across her chest. Asshe tried to lift her up, Jayalalithaa woke up and, between tears, said how she had waited for two days to show her the essay. Sandhya sat with her and asked her to read out the essay. ‘She patted my cheeks and kissed me saying that it was a beautifulessay. She hugged me and said, “Sorry, I kept you waiting, it will not happen again.”’
But it happened again and again. Waiting for mother became a habit. Along with itgrew disappointment and resentment. And she hated the sight of the film producers and actors who came to the house at odd hours. As if to escape from an atmosphereshe found repugnant, she devoured every book she came across. She had dreams of becoming a doctor or a lawyer. Or if she were lucky, enter the Indian Administrative Service. But she was determined to stay far from the cine world.
Jayalalithaa realized early that there was a stigma attached to the profession. No one respected an actress, no matter how hard she worked or how successful she was. Sandhya and her children lived on Sivagnanam street in Thiyagaraya Nagar. WhenJayalalithaa was thirteen, a girl who lived two houses away befriended her. She too was a student at Church Park Convent, two years her senior, and little Ammu was proud of this friendship because seniors usually maintained a distance from the juniors. Jayalalithaa was happy to have some company in the evenings after she cameback from school. The two girls liked to go up to the terrace to chat.
Jayalalithaa was not aware that her friend came up there so often only to silentlycommunicate from the terrace with her boyfriend, the son of a Jain businessman. The boy would stand on his terrace two houses away at the end of the road. Jayalalithaa,noticing her friend’s antics, asked her one day what was going on. The girl confessedthat she was in love with the boy and asked her not to disclose this to her parents. She also requested Jayalalithaa to signal to the boy on the days she was not able to visit. Jayalalithaa was thrilled to be privy to such a secret, and to be the go-between in this romance. The girl did not come the next day. When the boy did not see her hesignalled Jayalalithaa asking where she was. Jayalalithaa signalled back that she had not come.
The milk vendor who supplied milk to the lane saw this dumb charade that day and then again the next day. She hurried to the girl’s house and warned her parents not to send their daughter to an actress’s house – the actress’s daughter was clearly a flirt and would spoil their daughter’s reputation.
The girl stopped coming and Jayalalithaa, unaware of what had happened, went to her house to find out why. She was shocked when the girl refused to let her in because of what the milk seller had said. ‘She has said that you introduced me to that boy and spoilt me.’ The girl’s mother, scowling and looking at Jayalalithaa accusingly, was standing behind her. Jayalalithaa wanted to protest, but then realized that the girl didn’t have the guts to tell her mother the truth and instead was ready to make her the scapegoat.
Jayalalithaa was both shocked and deeply hurt. She wrote in her memoirs: ‘I realized what the word “betrayal” really meant. I tried to help that girl in all innocence. I thought even to stand before her was a disgrace for me. I ran to my house, sat on the terrace all by myself and wept for a couple of hours. It was a humiliating experience. I never told my mother about this.’
HER HERO MGR
R.M. Veerappan had an antipathy towards Jayalalithaa that had no basis at all,’ said Films News Anandan. ‘She was definitely not flirtatious or pushy in her behaviour towards MGR or any producer. She was very disciplined and maintained her dignity.’
But MGR openly demonstrated that he had a soft corner for Jayalalithaa. He insisted that she should be cast opposite him in all his films. When RMV refused, MGR kept him waiting for shoots and delayed the production indefinitely. When Jayalalithaa was shooting with MGR for Adimaippen in the Thar desert, she was the slave girl and the shot required her to be barefoot. As all the other members of the unit were in their shoes they did not realize that the sand was getting hotter by the minute.
After a while a barefoot Jayalalithaa could no longer endure the burning sand and noticing her discomfort MGR ordered the unit to pack up. But Jayalalithaa’s ordeal did not end there. She had to walk a long distance to the car park. ‘It was sheer hell,’ she said in an interview later. ‘I couldn’t put a step forward and I was on the verge of collapse. I never said a word, but MGR must have sensed my agony. He suddenly came from behind and swept me up in his arms. He is a hero off screen too.’
There was yet another incident which left her eternally grateful to him. After a bout of drastic dieting Jayalalithaa fainted at home. Her manager contacted MGR, who arrived promptly and arranged for her to be taken to a nursing home. The departure was delayed as everyone was waiting for Jayalalithaa’s aunts who were staying in her house to accompany her to the hospital. MGR went in and found them in her bedroom fighting over who would take control of Jayalalithaa’s keys. MGR took the keys away from them – and handed them to a groggy Jayalalithaa when she recovered consciousness in the nursing home. While the incident which revealed that she could not trust her own family members was a psychological blow, MGR’s tender concern for her well-being touched her deeply, all the more so because her mother had died, leaving her feeling alone and orphaned at the age of twenty-one.
Film News Anandan, who was closely associated with Jayalalithaa as her PRO at that time (she was the first south Indian actor to appoint a PRO on a regular salary), believed that people around MGR were jealous of her fame and proximity to MGR. ‘I know when I was her PRO, MGR’s car would come to fetch her at one o’clock in the afternoon. She would go for an hour and come back.’ Jayalalithaa was then building her house in Poes Garden. When it was complete, the entire film industry turned up for the house-warming function except for MGR. Everyone was surprised at his absence because rumours about their liaison abounded.
Anandan said, ‘Next morning she had to go to Kashmir for shooting. She boards the plane and finds MGR in the next seat! MGR also had a shooting schedule in Kashmir, but Jayalalithaa was acting with Sivaji Ganesan in another film. The two locations were 40 miles apart. But after reaching Kashmir MGR took her along with him and would send her to her shooting location 40 miles away. Jayalalithaa could have had no say in the matter. If MGR says something, it had to be done.’
But after a while Jayalalithaa found MGR overbearing and dominating. He started controlling all her activities including the clothes she wore. He even took control over her finances and she had to depend on his good mood for its release. She felt stifled and wanted to break free.
A major clash occurred between the two when she refused to go with him to Singapore. Anandan narrated, ‘She used to give solo dance performances and also prepare dance dramas. She had prepared a very ambitious dance drama named Kaveri Thantha Kalaichchelvi, which was so popular that she had invitations to perform it from all over the world. She made plans for a world trip and gave dates to everyone. Everything was finalized and even the advance money received. At that time there was a world Tamil conference organized in Singapore. MGR was the chief guest, and he asked Jayalalithaa to go with him, suggesting that she could proceed on her world trip from there. Jayalalithaa refused, even though MGR was then the chief minister. MGR insisted that she go with him and defied her to go on the world trip without his permission. She was so upset and so angry that she cancelled the entire trip and paid all the artistes their dues. She even dissolved the dance troupe. She did not want to beg MGR for permission.’
R.M. Veerappan on the other hand sees Jayalalithaa as the manipulator and oppressor in that relationship. He recounts, ‘The ’71 Assembly election was won because during the last stage I saw to it that MGR led the campaign though Karunanidhi was reluctant. At the victory celebration, the cadres came with two garlands – one for Karunanidhi and another for MGR. Our man is missing! He has left for Nepal with this lady, dressed as a Muslim. He comes back, and she prompts him to ask for a ministerial berth that Karunanidhi has not cared to give him. A man who is a kingmaker, why should he stoop to that level? Karunanidhi said, “You leave films and then come.” Till then MGR never had a desire to hold any political power or offices. She provoked this enmity between MGR and Karunanidhi so that she could spend more time with him.
It was then that she formed a friendship with the Telugu star Shoban Babu, who was much younger than MGR. It developed into a serious relationship, according to her unfinished memoirs. Her friends at that time were aware that she was in love with him, wanted to marry him and settle down to a normal life like other women. Her schoolmate Chandini and her husband Pankaj Bhulani say that when they were invited for lunch at Poes Garden Jayalalithaa showed them a huge album with pictures of her marriage ceremony with Shoban Babu. Chandini says, ‘It was a pukka Brahmin marriage with punditji and ceremony. She said, “He is such a wonderful person. I am so happy.” She blushed like a bride and I could see she was happy.’
But the album remains a mystery – no one else claims to have seen it. Other sources say that the marriage never took place. According to her friend Srimathi, ‘She knew that Shoban Babu was already married and had a teenaged son. But he charmed her. I was introduced to him. He was a very charming man. I think what attracted her to him was that he was very intelligent and well read. She could discuss books with him. Shoban Babu was a man of few words as she was, but spoke sensibly like her. She was never the flirtatious kind and was particular about the company she kept. She did want to marry him in the traditional Iyengar fashion.
Probably like Vijayanthimala, who married Dr Bali, a married man. She asked for my help to make an Iyengar thaali – mangalya sutra. She asked me to attend her quiet wedding that would take place in her house. She said she had already purchased sarees from Nalli. On that day, early morning at six, she called me and said the wedding was cancelled and hung up.’
When Srimathi asked her later what had happened, Jayalalithaa indicated that there was some objection from Shoban Babu’s wife.
Anandan doubted if she had plans to marry him at all. But he agreed that Jayalalithaa was fond of Shoban Babu, who was a constant visitor to Poes Garden when Anandan was her PRO. There were rumours that it was MGR who thwarted her wedding to her lover. Anything could have been possible with MGR, said Anandan.
Whatever the reason for the abrupt end to her affair with Shoban Babu, the fact that she had written about her relationship with him turned into a whip with which her political opponents lashed her. They projected her as a cheap woman, not worthy of being associated with a person like MGR.
A sickened and shattered Jayalalithaa retired from films at the peak of her glory and became a total recluse. RMV must have exulted at Jayalalithaa’s self-imposed retirement. But he could not have known that she was not destined to fade away into oblivion.
It was a stunning blow to her. He had departed, leaving her in the lurch. In a daze she summoned the driver and rushed to Ramavaram Gardens, MGR’s residence, but when she reached there she was refused permission to enter the house. She got out of the car and banged on the door with her fists. When the door was opened at last no one would say where the body was. She ran up and down the front and back stairs several times but all the doors were firmly slammed on her face to prevent her from having a glimpse of the dead body of the man who was not only her mentor but with whom she had had such a close, emotional association.
Eventually she was told that his body had been taken away through the back door and driven to Rajaji Hall. She got into her car with her heart pounding and instructed the driver to race there. At Rajaji Hall she rushed to the body and firmly planted herself at the head. MGR lay supine, neatly dressed in his full-sleeved shirt, fur cap and dark glasses – his trademark attire.
One can imagine her feelings on seeing the lifeless body of the matinee idol who had promised Sandhya, her mother, that he would take care of her dear Ammu. She did not shed a tear. She did not wail. She stunned the onlookers and mourners by standing vigil by MGR’s body for two days – thirteen long hours the first day and eight hours the second day. She willed herself not to give way to physical exhaustion.
But the mental and physical torture came from other sources. Several women supporters of Janaki’s stood near her and began stamping on her feet, driving their nails into her skin and pinching her to drive her away. But she stood undaunted, swallowing the humiliation and her pride, obstinately remaining where she had taken position. She seemed oblivious of her surroundings. But there must have been one question hammering her brain – what now? She was thirty-eight, single, left in limbo by the very man, now lying lifeless, who had brought her into politics with promises of a great future ahead. She, who had been looked upon by the party cadres as a natural successor to their beloved leader, was now a non-entity, fighting to have a glimpse of the departed leader. It was not in her nature to take defeat lying down.
She followed the body as it was placed in the gun carriage, trying to place a wreath on the body and join the funeral procession. The soldiers on duty helped her by giving her a hand to get into the carriage. There were at once angry shouts from behind and she saw MLA Dr K.P. Ramalingam advancing menacingly towards her. Suddenly she was assaulted – hit on the forehead by Janaki’s nephew Deepan, who pushed her out of the carriage. She was hurt and bruised and shocked beyond words. Disgusted at the insults hurled at her by Deepan and Ramalingam – they called her a prostitute – she decided not to attend the funeral. She was driven home in her Contessa, escorted by soldiers.
The news spread like wildfire, sending shock waves among the party cadres. Her bruised spirits must have soared as party workers and several leaders, including MPs and MLAs, started pouring in to see her. They swore to stand by her in her claim to be MGR’s successor as party leader. Many among the cadres openly said, ‘We want a charismatic leader. Jayalalithaa is the only person with charisma.’
She felt assured that even though MGR had not nominated her as his successor, her standing among the people had not diminished, and they would decide in her favour. But there was no immediate need for an election. The AIADMK had won the elections with a comfortable majority. And the next elections were two years away.
Ninety-seven MLAs of the AIADMK signed a memorandum supporting Janaki and submitted it to S.L. Khurana, the Governor, who then invited Janaki to form the government. Janaki was sworn in as the chief minister on 7 January 1988. She was required to prove her majority on the floor by 28 January.
On that day there was absolute pandemonium in the Assembly on account of the Speaker showing open support to Janaki’s side. Several members angrily protested against this open flouting of rules. Suddenly some goondas entered the house and started beating up the pro-Jayalalithaa group and the Congress MLAs. During the rampage someone alerted the police. For the first time in the history of the Tamil Nadu Assembly, the police entered the legislative house and lathi-charged MLAs. In the midst of all this fracas, the Speaker announced that the confidence motion was won by the government.
When Jayalalithaa was informed about the rumpus in the Assembly she knew there was no time to waste. She issued a statement that democracy had been murdered and appealed to the Governor to dismiss Janaki’s ministry immediately. The protesting AIADMK MLAs, along with the local Congress members, met the Governor and gave a detailed report of what had transpired. The Governor in turn sent his report to the Centre, recommending that the situation in Tamil Nadu demanded the dismissal of the government and the proclamation of emergency. The Centre accepted the Governor’s recommendation.
The turning point that Jayalalithaa was hoping for had come sooner than she had expected.