Why Indian cinema is obsessed with J. Jayalalithaa
Her life has been subject of many a film, but a new web series throws light on the person
The Iron Lady of Indian cinema and politics - J. Jayalalithaa (1948-2016) - has been portrayed with high-drama and complexity in the web series Queen. Thoroughly nuanced and unwaveringly sensitive in the titular role, the Chennai-based actress Ramya Krishnan has delivered her career-best performance in the 11-episode series, which has been streaming on MX Player.
The series isn't the first endeavour to retell the fascinating, believe-it-or-not life story of Jayalalithaa, who was forced as a teenager by her poverty-stricken mother to give up her studies to become an actress. Subsequently, the actress went on to reign over the political grid of Tamil Nadu as the state's chief minister. Roads would be blocked off for hours to make way for her cavalcade, at one point even raising the ire of superstar Rajinikanth.
Back in 1997, Mani Ratnam had also selected certain phases of her life for Iruvar, one his most politically critical films yet. Aishwarya Rai had enacted Jayalalithaa in the company of superstar Mohanlal, who was depicted as a veiled avatar of her mentor, actor-politician M.G. Ramachandran aka MGR.
Initially, Ratnam's film, with a brilliant musical score by A.R. Rahman and stunning photography by Santosh Sivan, was refused a censor certificate. Jayalalithaa, who was at the peak of her power then, wasn't amused by her characterisation in Iruvar. Not the sort to be cowed down, Ratnam had appealed to the Censor Board's revising committee. The film was passed with quite a few visual and dialogue cuts. Yet, that didn't prevent Iruvar from achieving moderate success at the box office, besides achieving a cult status among film connoisseurs.
Quite piquantly, even right now, while the web series Queen is being appreciated, a full-fledged biography on the Iron Lady, headlining Kangana Ranaut, is being readied for release, come February 20. Designed as a multilingual version, titled Thalaivi in Tamil and Telugu, and Jaya in Hindi, here's a tough test for Kangana. Can she better Ramya Krishnan's bravura performance in Queen? Chances are that the headstrong actress will not let go of this opportunity to display her acting chops to the hilt.
Sporadically, at least three more projects have been announced based on the unbridled power wielded by Jayalalithaa, but they haven't yet started shooting, perhaps stymied by the prospect of objections that have been raised by the late chief minister's family. However, carrying a disclaimer that no attempt is being made to recreate reality and the assertion that the aim is to narrate fiction could work, as it did for Iruvar and Queen. Apparently, the trick to circumvent legal snafus is to slightly alter the names of real-life characters (like calling MGR, GMR), and some of the script situations have to be presented as figments of the imagination.
Personally, in an interview with me for Filmfare in 1998, she had expressed deep resentment against Ratnam's Iruvar, adding sharply that she didn't think highly of him as a filmmaker and didn't wish to give him any importance in the media. "Such so-called filmmakers are best ignored," she had said.
Rather, she wished to focus our interview on her abiding love for literature and had shown me around her bungalow, where a commodious room had been converted into a library of hundreds of books, ranging from the world classics to bestsellers. In the course of our conversation, she came across as a paradoxically no-nonsense and vulnerable woman, who could never recover from the fact that after being a topper at her school exams, she wasn't permitted to join a college for further studies.
Her avowed dream was to become a doctor or a lawyer. Instead, dire circumstances compelled her to become an actress and then take over the mantle of the chief minister. This was on the heels of the death of MGR, who was considered a demi-god by the masses. Often, she had received death threats, coercing her to wear a bullet-proof cloak throughout her working day.
By delving deep into the consequences of this shattered dream for a formal education, the web series Queen treads on the right track. Throughout we are moved by the haplessness of a young woman who was to become a pawn in the game of self-seeking adults. Yet, despite suffering through a nervous breakdown and even being jilted by an actor who swore undying love to her, Jayalalithaa - renamed Shakthi Seshadri in the series - emerged triumphant. For 14 years, she ruled over the male-dominated political system.
The series, jointly created by Gautham Menon and Prasath Murugesan, does tend to be a tad slow-paced and repetitive. Also, the device of a TV interviewer questioning the Iron Lady (obviously replicated from Rendezvous With Simi Garewal), keeps interrupting the flow of the dramaturgy. Such reservations apart, Queen came as a surprise package. After a long hiatus, here's an Indian series that's binge-worthy.
Moreover, Ramya Krishnan, at the age of 49, clearly reveals that she's an artiste of substance. Perhaps Bollywood didn't give her the roles she deserved, mostly slotting her in the parts of an oomph-oozing femme fatale. Count among them, Khal Nayak (1993), Chaahat (1996) and Bade Miyan Chote Miyan (1998). No wonder, she opted to resume her career in Chennai and, in recent years, made a sledge-hammer impact as the Queen Mother in the iconic magnum opus Baahubali (2015) and its sequel two years later.
The web-series Queen surely merits a second season. J. Jayalalithaa passed away at the age of 68 after a cardiac arrest, leaving behind a shoal of controversies. Without a doubt, as a chief minister, she had her flaws and was accused of despotism and corruption. But every effect has a cause. In sum, all her strengths and weaknesses considered, here was a woman who did make a place for herself in a man's world. Or why else would there be a rush to revisit her story again and again?