For Jayalalithaa Jayaram, who died on 5 December 2016, acting and politics were inextricable. Born in 1948 in the Indian state of Mysore (now Karnataka) she was inclined more towards academia than the performing arts, but pursued a career in film at the behest of her widowed mother – herself an actress – to help support the family. Trained in classical music and dance, she quickly found success, starring in 140 films between 1961 and 1980. Her first was her only one in English: Epistle, directed by the son of future president V.V. Giri. She also made only one film in India’s national language, Hindi: Izzat (1968), opposite Bollywood star Dharmendra.
The bulk of her work was in south Indian regional languages: Kannada, Telegu and Tamil – the latter, the language of Tamilnadu, the state she would eventually lead. In this context, she was a box-office star comparable with any in the higher-profile, Hindi-language Bollywood industry. She was so sought after that roles and female-centric films were created with her in mind. Unlike most Indian actors, she often sang her own songs, rather than having them dubbed by professional singers.
It was her success in the Tamil film industry that cemented her position in the state’s consciousness. In 1965, she impressed in Vennira Aadai as a young woman traumatised by the death of her husband. In 1969, Deiva Magan became the first Tamil film submitted for an Academy Award. And in 1973 Jayalalithaa won a National Film Award for Pattikada Pattanama, starring opposite Tamil cinematic icon M.G. Ramachandran, her rumoured lover, with whom she acted in 28 films. It was Ramachandran who, in 1982, introduced her to the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the political party he founded. He created the role of propaganda secretary for her, and she rose rapidly through the ranks – elected to the upper house of parliament in 1984, taking over as leader of the party after Ramachandran’s death and, in 1991, becoming chief minister of Tamilnadu.
By then, she’d given up acting, but her political career was defined by its theatricality. She was deified by supporters, who called her Amma (mother) and demonstrated devotion by walking on coals, painting her portrait in blood and setting themselves on fire. Her government was defined by extravagant generosity: giving away laptops, televisions and kitchen gadgets and opening a string of subsidised canteens – ‘Amma canteens’ – and numerous other self-branded items. When she bathed at the Kumbh Mela festival, she caused a stampede that killed almost 50.
Her critics saw her as a deeply corrupt authoritarian, who thrived on the adulation of her fans and silenced criticism. Although she accepted a salary of only 1 rupee, she hosted a lavish wedding for her ‘foster son’ during her first term, inviting 150,000 guests and securing a place in the Guinness Book of Records. In 2014, she spent 30 days in jail on corruption charges, but overturned the conviction to become chief minister again in 2015.
Her own account of herself was as a hypersensitive introvert: a naive youngster who was thrust into the limelight and learned to toughen up. She maintained she enjoyed neither acting nor politics – only that she was principled and determined to succeed. Who can tell, though? She was always the consummate actress. ‘‘When you are a leader,” she said in 1999, “you learn to control your emotions and not show them. I have never lost my temper in public. I have never wept in public.”