The star, the actor & the woman

Many of the characters played by Jayalalithaa in her films were dramatisations of patriarchal anxieties, with the female body rendered pleasurable and safe to the male gaze. It was those very feudal narratives that she used to reconfigure herself politically as “Amma”.

Published : Dec 21, 2016 12:30 IST

With M.G. Ramachandran in "Aayirathil Oruvan" (1965). She appropriated his legacy, just as he had appropriated C.N. Annadurai's legacy.

With M.G. Ramachandran in "Aayirathil Oruvan" (1965). She appropriated his legacy, just as he had appropriated C.N. Annadurai's legacy.

JAYALALITHAA, the actor and the star, and the woman beneath these appearances, lies buried under the avalanche of her gigantic image as a politician. The way she retired from cinema was different from the way she left the world of politics with her demise. Looking back at her life and times in cinema, how do we describe these three aspects of her persona without getting into the habitual associations about what it means for a woman to be a part of the cinema world here?

To begin with, in her movies, she hardly ever played the role of the femme fatale, unless, as in the case of other leading women before her, her character was split into two, the safe and the dangerous, as in Nee (You, 1966) and Yaar Nee? (Who are you? 1966), the titles of both of which are, not surprisingly, in the accusative mode. In her times, the role of the consummate dangerous woman was confined solely to those who adorned the role of the vamp. Rarely could someone who played such a role enjoy the privilege of playing a female lead, unlike male actors who played villains. Such male actors could not only become popular heroes, like Sathyaraj, but, as in the case of Rajinikanth, were also adored by the masses as a superstar. To some extent, it was possible for Vijayalalitha in some curry westerns and in the case of “Silk” Smitha in a couple of films. Nevertheless, as they carried the overtones of their femme fatale image into these roles, they could never become legitimate female leads.

The moment Jayalalithaa stepped into politics, however, it was inevitable that she would be described as the ultimate femme fatale, the treacherous seductress who could ruin an entire culture; until, of course, she was deified as Amma, the sublime mother; and mourned by millions, including those who had vehemently opposed her, when she was interred at the Marina beach. As noted by Preminda Jacob in her book Celluloid Deities , the parallel of a turnabout in the life of Eva Peron (1919-1952) of Argentina seem quite striking. Eva Peron became the subject of a famous rock opera by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber in 1978, which was turned into a film starring Madonna, Evita (1996), by Alan Parker. The crucial difference is that while Eva Peron put Juan Peron firmly on the throne as President of Argentina, she did not outlive her political mentor as Jayalalithaa did; and, as the writer S.V. Srinivas puts it, just as M.G. Ramachandran appropriated C.N. Annadurai’s legacy, Jayalalithaa appropriated MGR’s legacy.

The peaking of the consumerist age in recent times has, besides adding glitter to the usual glamour of the female star, brought a modicum of respectability to her if not total acceptance or approval. For long though, she did not enjoy respectability, being incessantly perceived as tainted by the unkind eyes of the middle class. Growing up as the child of a well-known actress placed an immense burden on Jayalalithaa’s shoulders and she had to meet the demeaning gaze of her peers at school on an everyday basis. Perhaps, this is what drove Jayalalithaa, the daughter of Sandhya, to achieve excellence in her studies, which was brutally cut short when she was forced to follow in the footsteps of her mother into the world of cinema.

The south Indian film industry at that time was a far more dangerous place for women compared with whatever protection the social media and the Internet offer now. Casting couches apart, gang rapes were very much a part of the scenario for the unfortunate. Despite submitting themselves to such violence and humiliation, many did not make it to the screen; and those who were lucky enough to make it had to put on the mask of ultra-femininity, projecting themselves not only as the ultimate object of sexual desire but also as totally suppliant and subservient, subject to this ruthless male order to achieve and sustain their stardom and wealth while hiding their real womanhood and its seething anger and rage behind that mask. Once they gained some agency, however, they were able to let their masks down and register their resistances but were always forced to stop short.

Jayalalithaa’s story would have been no different but for the fact that she chose to let her mask down more than once against the most powerful man in the industry and still succeeded in making him pliant to her aims and desires. To her advantage, she possessed cultural capital by way of a sound school education and fluency in English, which many women or men of her times in the movies did not. Being an upper-caste person, whatever privileges it offered elsewhere did not count for much within the film industry, especially for women, as there were those who were exploited to the core and then brutally pushed to the margins.

Imposed femininity In contrast, on the cinematic screen and its imaginary but symbolic world that was dominated by the male hero, the imposed femininity of Jayalalithaa’s characters hardly allowed them the privilege of letting their masks down. If and when such a possibility presented itself in a woman-centric film, it was inevitably mediated and endorsed by a father figure. Like other female leads, she was voyeuristically objectified and her body was enhanced and attributed a phallic value through make-up, hairstyle, costume, lighting, camera work and editing, to render it both pleasurable and safe for the male gaze and its fragile subjectivity. In a countermove which worked against this visual design, the story was geared by a sadistic drive that ultimately pinned down the female difference as that of a lesser subject to the male by way of narrative punishment. In addition to the internalisation of these Hollywood codes and conventions in our cinema, until the turn of the 1990s, the female subject was an object of surveillance for the absolutist gaze of the feudal family romance, as Madhava Prasad puts it. This all-seeing punitive eye, while fanatically interrogating the female body for signs of chastity by way of its narrative inquiries, simultaneously but playfully searched for signs of legitimate sex or the deflowering of her virginity after the nuptial night in the songs sung by her saheli s. In effect, female desire was policed to such an extent that it could never be allowed to step beyond the normative cycle of reproduction in that closed and authoritarian unit, the extended feudal family and its arch narrative within which most of our films in those days worked.

In her first Tamil film, Vennira Aadai (White Saree, 1965), a ménage à trois , a typical forte of director C.V. Sridhar, Jayalalithaa was cast as the object of a psychiatric inquiry, someone whose mental balance needed to be restored. This provided the required motivation for the production of voyeuristic pleasures, the fetishisation and hystericisation of her body on the screen. Madness is another usual narrative device which makes possible the splitting of the female subject into two, the safe and the dangerous, in terms of a before and an after. Consequently, her name itself is split into two, Sowbhagyavathi that represents the past, and Shoba that represents the present. During the phase of being the imbalanced and dangerous Shoba, it becomes easy to package in the film all the forbidden visual pleasures by way of her transgressive behaviour on screen so that when her sanity is restored in the structure of the story, she is de-eroticised, desexualised and returned to her time-honoured place within this moral universe that forces her to recognise that she is none other than Sowbhagyavathi, who must willingly accept her young widowhood, and not Shoba, who can openly engage in her desires.

As the full play of this kind of a design is likely to be restricted in a modern clinic, the services of the young and promising psychiatrist (Srikanth) is solicited at a palatial residence inside her estate on a hill station. Spatially, in consonance with the splitting of the female subject, the bungalow is also split into two, the in-house and the out-house. She is forbidden to reside at the former with her parents, as the feudal family, home despite its modern accoutrements, cannot permit her transgressive behaviour. It is, therefore, at the out-house that the psychiatrist must meet her to gradually learn that owing to repression or a traumatic event in her past, she reacts hysterically to the sight of blood, white cloth and nadaswaram music, which is associated with weddings in Tamil Nadu. Strangely, the actual cause of her trauma, losing her husband in a terrible accident just a few hours after her wedding, is not recovered from the depths of her own soul but from her over-hesitant father, who gives in at a later point.

By then, Shoba has fallen in love with the psychiatrist who, more through commonsense procedures than by deploying tools of psychiatry proper, gradually teaches her to face her fears one by one. He cannot reciprocate her love, not because it is a transference of emotional investments that needs to be dissolved for the good of his patient, or owing to his avowed commitment to the nobility of his profession, but because he is already in love with another woman. Instead of reacting hysterically to his rejection, Shoba’s amnesia instantly vanishes when she calmly accepts the fact that she is the once-married Sowbhagyavathi who is now a widow. For one last time, she presents herself in full wedding attire to her parents at the in-house before retiring into its interiors to adorn herself in a white saree.

In effect, whatever overtures are made to modernity in terms of restoring her sanity, they remain formal rather than substantial as all potential threats to male subjectivity is annulled within the feudal framework of the narrative, which can let her reside inside her own home only as a completely sanitised widow.

This kind of splitting of the female character is in no way exceptional to films that featured Jayalalithaa, as many other leading women have done similar roles. What stands unique in her entire career and even in the annals of Tamil cinema of her times is the film Suryaganthi (1973). In this, her character, unbelievably, enjoys greater agency than the male hero, played by Muthuraman. Although everything is contained within the feudal system of values as to what an ideal couple ought to be, the contradictions load everything in her favour. As usual, the hero and heroine meet and fall in love but they tie the knot by the time one-third of the movie is over. The moment she starts her married life in his house, she gets a better-paying job than him and quickly solves financial problems which he is not able to solve. He works overtime to tackle another financial issue at his home but before he could seize the initiative, it appears that she has already solved it. Irked by these events, he resigns from his job and starts to earn more by becoming a model for soft-porn advertisements that eventually sullies the name of the family, earning him the wrath of his parents. Quietly behind his back, because of the good reputation she has built in her company, she manages to get him a higher paying job in the same place he used to work. Treating it as an apt award for his merit, he starts persecuting her. In the climax, he is forced to eat a humble pie and undergo a change of heart when he learns the truth, through a timely mediation at the wedding of his sister by the bridegroom’s father, about why he got a higher position at his old company and how his sister’s wedding itself was made possible because of his wife’s efforts.

Histrionic talent As far as Jayalalithaa’s histrionic talents are concerned, she can never be placed on par with Savithiri, who preceded her by many years, or Lakshmi, who entered the Tamil industry three years later. What was unique about Jayalalithaa, however, was the energy of the bouncy young girl that she brought to the screen in her persona. She shined when she was cast against younger male stars like Ravichandran, Naan (I, 1967) topping the nine films she did with him, and Yaar Nee? topping the seven films she did with Jaishankar. Among the two or three films she did with A.V.M. Rajan, Major Chandrakanth (1966) continues to stand out for her memorable performance. Occasionally, she has recorded a few songs for some of her characters, among which the “Oh Meri Dilruba” from Suryaganthi still continues to do the rounds in radio channels. Whatever skills she had in classical dance by way of her training in Bharatanatyam is evident only in a film like Adiparasakthi (1970), a mythological where she was cast as Shakti opposite Gemini Ganesan as Siva. She did two more films with him, another mythological Ganga Gowri (1973), and Annai Velankanni (1971), in which the generic boundaries between the mythological and the social are blurred.

When she made her entry into Tamil cinema in the mid 1960s, MGR was in number one position and Sivaji Ganesan in number two. Both of them together had such a stranglehold on the industry that it became inevitable, given her rising popularity, that she did more films with them than with the others. She acted in approximately 14 films opposite Sivaji Ganesan, out of which Enga Mama (1970), Engiruntho Vandhaal (1970) and Pattikada Pattanama (1971) are often singled out by critics. However, it is with the former that she did 27 films and it is with that association that her rise to stardom is deeply connected. To understand the full implication of the fateful meeting between the two which tied them together in an irrevocable destiny in both films and politics, it is necessary to briefly recall what happened before she became his consistent leading lady for so many films.

The first film in which Jayalalithaa appeared as a leading woman was Epistle (1961), a local feature in English, directed by Shankar V. Giri, son of V.V. Giri, the former President. It was the director-producer B.R. Panthulu who introduced her to the south Indian film industry by casting her opposite Kalyan Kumar in a couple of Kannada films, Chinnada Gombe (1964) and Mavana Magalu (1964), which gave her a break in Telugu cinema opposite Nageswara Rao in Manushulu Mamathalu (1964). After her first Tamil film Vennira Aadai the subsequent year, she was cast opposite MGR by Panthulu in a blockbuster of a film, Aayirathil Oruvan (1965). The fact that on the first day of the shoot she did not stand up to respect his entry is now part of public lore, which was highlighted in Mani Rathnam’s Iruvar (1997) as her democratic right. Soon, however, one MGR film after another followed. If she started out as a princess with a great degree of agency in her first film with him, at least in the first half of the story, by Nam Naadu (1969), in which he made his political ambition clear to his diehard fans, she was reduced to a surrogate fan.

Working with the same person day after day begins to tell in many ways. It is a well-known fact that MGR was highly possessive of his leading ladies once a relationship developed between them. As Vaasanthi notes in Amma (2016), her biography of Jayalalithaa, he came to control everything in her life, including her finances and even the kind of clothes she should wear. Suddenly, after Kumari Kottam (1971), MGR dropped her like a hot brick from his films. Though Vaasanthi’s book notes that Jayalalithaa felt “stifled” by the control exercised by MGR, it remains silent on how such a sudden rupture took place. According to industry lore, it is believed that to break free from him Jayalalithaa developed a relationship with a younger male star and MGR launched his own party in the subsequent year.

The moment Jayalalithaa announced her retirement from films in the late 1970s, she started writing her memoirs, Manam Thiranthu Pesukiren (Speaking from the Heart) in the popular weekly magazine Kumudam , where she openly narrated many confidential incidents in her life. When the series was about to touch on her experience with MGR, it was abruptly cut short. It appears that some kind of back door negotiations took place as she could have literally sullied his image forever. By then, she had gained close friends like Cho Ramaswamy and it is in this context that her upper-caste identity surfaces as additional cultural capital she could now deploy in a larger context. With that, she could hold something equivalent to the Damocles’ sword over MGR so that he could never wish her away despite all the power and clout at his command until the end of his life. Soon, she was inducted into the party and became its propaganda secretary. The rest is history.

Venkatesh Chakravarthy is Regional Director, L.V. Prasad Film & T.V. Academy, Chennai.

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