06 Sep 2016 17:24 IST

There’s something about Amma

But what that is, still remains largely a mystery, as Vaasanthi’s interesting book illustrates

Love her or leave her, you cannot but be intrigued by her. How did she evolve from little Ammu who craved her mother's attention, to leading actor patronised by MGR, to “fearless leader” adored by the rank and file? How did she journey from Ammu to Amma? The book does not provide satisfactory answers. What you know is largely what you get – all in one place.

Vaasanthi’s first effort at a biography of actor/politician J Jayalalithaa in 2012 resulted in the book being banned even before it was published. In Outlook of March 3, 2014, Vaasanthi wrote: “The author became a non-entity… Penguin went silent... More shocking and painful was the silence of the media, English and Tamil, in Tamil Nadu… I was made to feel like a criminal convicted...”

Which is why Amma: Jayalalithaa’s Journey from Movie Star to Political Queen is an act of courage by the veteran journalist and writer, and an expression of personal growth on the part of the subject. Of course, at the end of the book, the reader is as informed or clueless about the person behind the persona, depending upon what she or he already knows.

Easy read

The book is slim, easily read in one sitting, with the early part covering Jayalalithaa's early years and film career more interesting, more detailed and much better written. The major part of the book, however, covers the subject’s political career which, we know, has been a rollercoaster ride of highs, lows and hibernation. The disappointment is that the writing lacks lustre, and the content misses weight.

Some of the anecdotes are garnered from what Jayalalithaa herself had serialized in Kumudam magazine until her relative candour was used as ammunition by her ‘enemies’ to attack her. It's these, and experiences shared by sources, including Jayalalithaa’s schoolmates, that provide some heart.

We see how Jayalalithaa met loneliness very early, when her mother became an actress, and she and her brother Pappu (who later disappeared from her life, we don’t know why) were left to their own devices: “…she had stayed up late… to show her an essay she had written titled ‘My Mother: What She Means To Me’… the teacher was so pleased with it that she had read it out to all the students. When Sandhya arrived late that night she saw her daughter fast asleep, sitting with a notebook spread across her chest…Waiting for mother became a habit. Along with it grew disappointment and resentment. Simultaneously, and ironically, she grew determined to stay away from the world of cinema.”

There are glimpses of a girl who loves to read, does well at school, but somehow finds it hard to make or keep friends, often as a consequence of her mother being in films. A prescient incident, and one that reveals Jayalalithaa’s inner core, concerns her being quoted in an article as saying, “I am a Tamilian. My mother belonged to Srirangam.” This angers Kannadigas, although she was probably referring to the fact that her grandfather was originally from Srirangam, and had settled down in Bengaluru. Consequently, during the shooting of a film at Chamundi studios in Mysuru, about a hundred lathi-wielding protestors march up to the studio, shouting, “Where is the bitch?” They demand an apology. In Film News’ Anandan’s words: “Jayalalithaa was neither ruffled nor afraid. She looked straight at them and said in chaste Kannada, ‘I have not said anything wrong. Why should I apologise? I am a Tamilian and not a Kannadiga.’…That Kannadigas attempted to kill Jayalalithaa hit the headlines in all Tamil papers.” She was 16.

Glimpses of character

This steeliness reveals itself in everything, including her relationship with MGR, which, in the book, seems sketchy in the context of the whole picture.

But we do see how Jayalalithaa, after initially hero-worshipping him, later felt stifled and manipulated and strategised herself. We are also reminded of the huge age gap between the two, and are left to reflect on how this likely played out in her personal and professional life.

Much of the information regarding the opposition to Jayalalithaa within the party comes from politician RM Veerappan: “RMV’s fear was that, as a member of the party, she would not be a mere wallflower. She was ambitious. She would not be content with just parading as the AIADMK’s banner of glamour, or being the party’s ‘elegant sweetmeat that serves to attract votes like flies’ as the Tamil saying goes… She said in an interview to a national English weekly, ‘I am not a person to be taken lightly’. And she flaunted her closeness to MGR to make people believe that she was his chosen heir.”

Amma arouses curiosity, you want to know more, you want to know why. But what we get is mostly the what, when, where and how. “With every (public) meeting, her confidence grew and so too her strength. RMV and his friends were petrified about the possible outcome. So they did what they were good at… Tales were spun around her private life. That she had frankly written about her relationship with Shoban Babu was repeatedly brought up in public,” we are told, and the narrative moves on.

Fair enough

The author takes care not to indulge in gossip although on occasion, she allows the reader to join the dots. Mostly, though, we follow the trajectory of Jayalalithaa’s career, understanding little about her Sasikala connection, for instance, or even how O Paneerselvan’s loyalty clock ticks. As a powerful woman in an impossibly male-dominated political and social climate, there should have been plenty of pitstops for analysis.

Has the writer deliberately held back? We know information was hard to come by, and the wall of secrecy around Jayalalithaa is so thick it will not allow a passage to her mind, let alone her heart. Let’s not forget the fear psychosis, either. So then, is this the best it will get? That would be a shame. Jayalalithaa deserves better. So do we. But that hinges on her entirely.

Meet the author

Vaasanthi is a popular writer from Tamil Nadu. Her books include Cut-Outs, Caste and Cine Stars: The World of Tamil Politics and many novels. She edited Tamil India Today for nearly 10 years.


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