CHENNAI: In the film Iruvar (1997), Kalpana is ‘understood’ to have perished in a car-crash. In reality, however, ‘Kalpana’ survived to win the Tamil Nadu elections not once, not twice, but four times! Mani Ratnam’s magnum opus maps the Dravidian movement with its lead players MG Ramachandran, M Karunanidhi and its leading lady J Jayalalithaa. Both MK and Jayalalithaa denied the relevance of the film to their lives, and Mani Ratnam never admitted the film being a biopic, but watch some of the scenes doing the rounds on Facebook and WhatsApp now and it all adds-up!
While the print media covered the last rites of the Honourable Chief Minister and had dedications which befitted her political status, some of the new-age TV anchors displayed a bit of irreverence to the Iron Lady’s legacy. In that context, I recommend they watch Iruvar to comprehend the contextual significance Jayalalithaa played in Tamil Nadu politics and how her film career embellished her entry into the AIADMK party because of her 27 films with its brand ambassador, MGR.
MGR’s first wife and Jayalalithaa bear a striking resemblance, and this came through in the dual role played by Aishwarya Rai as Pushpa and Kalpana in Iruvar. MGR was ‘brought to life’ with great aplomb by Mohanlal’s Anandan while Prakash Raj gave his career-best performance as the poet-politician Thamizhselvan. The situations and scenarios unfold in unpredictable ways which makes the story more than just a political saga.
Iruvar is as much a love story as it’s a tale of friendship. It’s the only surviving celluloid version of Dravidian political history, which is mostly hearsay today or what one might read on the internet. The film highlights stellar personalities who have shaped the DK/DMK/AIADMK parties, their personal equations which propel their political decisions and as their careers expand, the political landscape of this state also widens! Craft wise, it is Mani Ratnam’s best film till date.
Jayalalitha had a superb start to her political innings when she was chosen to become the propaganda secretary for AIADMK and then MP. Post-1980, she refused to act in films, even the ones starring Rajnikanth, whom she describes as a “reigning superstar” as early as 1980, in her letter (below) to a publication which called her “an actress who was desperate to make a comeback”! She explains how she was asked to play Sripriya’s role in Billa (1980) by producer K Balaje. There was an instance earlier when she had turned down the offer to play Rajnikanth’s sister (later played by her so-called replacement in the list of MGR heroines — Latha) in Aayiram Jenmangal (1978). Her reason to say no to films, as cited by her in the letter, also makes me focus on the one word she uses to describe herself — Queen!
Indeed, she lived and died as a queen, a queen-mother if one can give her the dignity of being called Amma, a nomenclature she had to build from scratch to annihilate the glamorous image she enjoyed when she was a star-heroine. Her lifestyle, choice of attire, her stardom and political supremacy proved beyond doubt that her inner self was destined to rule. She quit films permanently with Panchu Arunachalam’s Nadhiyai Thedi Vandha Kadal in 1980. By then she had donned bolder roles in films starring younger heroes of her times like Jaishankar — the ghost flick Yaar Nee (1966) and the comedy caper Bommalaattam (1968). She played Sivaji Ganesan’s daughter and Ravichandran’s pair in Motor Sundaram Pillai (1966) and the detective thriller of those times Naan (1967) where she appeared in a swimsuit for the first time. She later went on to pair in an equal number of films with Sivaji Ganesan as she did with MGR. She also acted with NT Ramarao and A Nageshwara Rao as Telugu films were produced in the then film capital Madras.
Given the fact that she entered cinema only in 1965 and ruled Tamil and Telugu filmdom equally as a numero uno heroine till 1980 gives her just 15 years for a staggering tally of 124 films! She worked three to four shifts in a day and managed different language films, thanks to her sharp mind and a penchant for learning her lines by-heart ahead of shooting, and arrived on time despite her multiple commitments to star in different films.
Jayalalithaa was praised for her singing when she crooned for Amma Endraal Anbu in MGR’s Adimai Penn (1969). Recording of the song happened under the supervision of the erstwhile Saraswathi Stores’ (now AVM Audio) S Kannan, who also arranged her music training with Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan to catch the basic swaras and techniques so she could record with minimal takes.
Her filmography started and ended as she channelled it — she led from the front and never played sister-mother roles for younger heroes or character roles in films starring MGR or Sivaji like Savithri and Padmini did. Jayalalithaa came in as a queen on the silver-screen and her tenure in politics also shows she died as one.