Even as I write this, doctors and medical experts have just lost the battle keep Jayalalithaa, the charismatic CM of Tamil Nadu alive. I say this with a pang, for she is probably the first successful woman politician I have had a chance to observe as an adult myself and form an opinion about. Yes, there were women ahead of her whom I admire, but it’s mostly been hearsay in those cases. Jayalalithaa has been a part of my growing up experience in Chennai – mad as my family was about Tamil cinema. She is someone I have grown up watching on the big “silver screen.” Though the young sensations of my times were Sridevi and Sripriya, none could match the presence which was Jayalaithaa. In the 1980s, many of the 1960s and 1970s films used to come up for reruns, and I ended up watching some of the films she had acted in before I became a film buff.
I got to watch the films during the peak of her film career - Jayalalithaa usually played bold and deep characters – was it the angle of her gaze, the way she carried herself, her star status or just the way stories were told in that age? I am not sure. But, leave an impression, she did!
Of course, given the attitude of the times, many of the stories were woven around a modern and arrogant (read confident ) girl tamed [sic] by the virile, tradition-bound hero. I am not counting MGR films when I say this, because those were all about the hero conquering the hearts of the people and women in these films were usually only glamorous, decorative, complements to the hero – just a part of the “world of the story” and not self-propelled characters, even those that would be “tamed” later.
Even one of the more advanced films of her time, Suriya Kaanthi – in which she plays a successful career woman married to a man with an oversensitive ego – pampers the male ego beyond what we would tolerate today, even as it remains sympathetic to the woman in question.
Yaarukkum Vetkamillai (1975) written and directed by Cho Ramaswamy, was a shocker then, portraying a woman cheated by her lover, who seeks to live beyond that experience. I have dim memories of this film, but remember the stir it created. More than the movie, I remember the songs which were so meaningful, and, with hindsight, a bit moralistic… The title song, sung by K J Yesudas, was of course the most popular, calling into question the double standards laid in society for men and women. The other one, “Anaiyaadha deepam manithaabimanam“ (the lamp that shines perennially, humanism) has a haunting melody and raises deep questions about morality, religion and humanitarianism.
I started writing about the films of Jayalalithaa that have affected me deeply, but now I realize that more than the film itself, the songs and visuals remain, telling us their own story – like a brain that goes on thinking and feeling minutes after the heart has stopped… Two of the most beautiful songs of Jayalalithaa are “Chittu kuruvikkena kattuppaadu” from Savaaley Samaali (meet the challenge) and “Vaanam ennum veedhiyiley” from Annai Velankanni . These two songs complement each other, but only in the sense that two mirrors, held at different positions show up different facets of the same personality. The former shows a teenage Jayalalithaa romping around the farmlands and coconut trees, a child-woman, privileged, city-educated, returning to her village, bursting with confidence. The lines “Paarkum kangal paniya vendum; paavai ulagam madhikka vendum” (eyes that gaze at me should submit; a woman [who is] respected by the world). The vision of young Jayalalithaa dressed in pink lace and goggles, her confident steps, the song itself a sonorous image of this confidence in P Suseela’s voice, is unforgettable. The second song – “Vaanam ennum veedhiyile” (the pathway of the sky) is a dream sequence, and the dancers are dressed in glittering costumes; the song captures the magic of falling in love, finding your life partner – no rebellion here. The reigning goddess Jayalalithaa and the most romantic hero of his times, Gemini Ganesan, take this song to a different dimension altogether.
Jumping backwards to one of her first songs as an adult in Sreedhar’s Vennira Aadai , “Enna enna aasaigalo,” – well nearly adult, because, I hear that she herself was not allowed to see the movie which was “adults only” in the 1960s – one is totally charmed. She just looks too young for the sari-clad, long-plaited look, wearing a bundle of flowers in her hair and gauche-looking makeup, playing a piano, falling in love with her psychiatrist only to realise later that it cannot be. The song leaves an impression of someone very young and inexperienced trying to convince everyone around that she has everything under control.
It’s easy when writing to simply catapult oneself and the reader forward in time, and that’s what I will do – consider her last lead role in Tamil cinema, Nadiyai Thedi Vandha Kadal (the sea that went in search of the river) – what a change in attitude! There she is casually doing stretches in a track suit and then gracefully dancing with Sarath babu to the catchy tune of “Thavikkudhu thayangudhu oru manadhu.” Ilayaraja scored the music for the film. There are two unforgettable numbers, this one and “Engeyo edho pattondru ketten”by Susila and one more stunningly beautiful “Poonthottam Poovil ,“ sung by Sailaja which reminds me of the 1980s song “Oru iniya manadhu isaiyai” from Johnny. Incidentally, Jensi also sang in the movie Johnny, and this may not be a coincidence at all. Perhaps, Raja just wanted to recreate the feeling he had experienced with the earlier song – “Poonthottam”…
One of the films I loved seeing her in was Yaar Nee? with Jaishankar. A remake of Woh Kaun Thi?, this film had Jayalalitha playing dual roles – a ghost and an orphan girl. Some of the most melodious songs in Tamil cinema are those sung by ghost characters. Yaar Nee? also had one such “haunting” song – “Naane varuven” – in which Jayalalithaa plays the ghost in a white saree, her hair let loose and eyes liberally darkened with liner. Now, as to why ghosts must wear white sarees and sing the sweetest of songs, opinion may be divided, but then there is no one who can prove otherwise – if they had proof of what a ghost would do, they would perhaps not be in a position to communicate it to us either. Anyway, later on (as tamil cinema grew older) ghostly beauties started wearing heavy strands of jasmine and red lipstick, and nose-rings, too. And, much later, in the 1980s, in walked director Bharatiraaja, who found this play of colour so effective that he would always have a scene in his films with hundreds of women in white chasing the heroine, also in white, with more haunting Raja melodies playing in the background…
There were one or two more remakes in which Jayalalithaa had some lovely roles – Vairam was one – It was a remake of Victoria 203 with Saira Banu and ( I think) Dharmendra. In Vairam Jaya plays a carriage driver – now, why a person should be driving a horse carriage in the 1980s I do not know – but the whole story revolves around a small bag of valuable diamonds being left inside the lamp of the Victoria coach that Saira, in the Hindi, and Jaya, in the Tamil, drive. Directors then loved the idea of their heroines driving carriages, I guess. Hemamalini , in Sholay, driving a horse cart, was quite something, too.
Another film which also has a Hindi parallel is Engiruntho Vandhaal (She came from somewhere) – this was Khilona in Hindi with Sanjeev Kumar and Mumtaz – and a beautiful song in this film comes to mind – “Sirippil undagum raagathiley” – this was beautiful not for its own structure, tonality or lyrics, but for the laughing girl that Jayalalithaa is in the picture, in this song.
I have hardly said anything about Jayalalithaa’s songs with MGR. I will just pick on two of my favourites, and that’s a very tough job because MGR was so particular about the quality of music in his films. One is “Unnai naan santhithen” from Aayirathil Oruvan and the other – two – are “Aayiram nilave vaa” and “Kaalathai vendravan nee” from Adimai Penn.
Her beauty and grace in enacting the song sequence – “Unnai naan santhithen,” sung by P. Suseela – is nothing short of captivating. This film was shown again in Kamadhenu Theatre – a cinema hall in Luz corner – in the 2000s and I did make an attempt to watch it. Not then being in a state of mind where I could sit in one place for hours, I left soon after this song. Kamadhenu theatre, sadly , has been converted into a wedding hall now (and when it’s not an auspicious month for weddings, it serves as an exhibition hall). This is the fate of several cinema halls we used to visit as kids - Kabali Talkies, Globe Theatre, Midland, Wellington, Elphinstone, and most recently, Shanthi Theatre. How on earth can a mega mall or a shopping plaza replace what a theatre has to offer? This is something I cannot understand easily. Perhaps it is something to do with a “have and hold” attitude as opposed to “enjoy and ruminate over” one. “Aayiram nIlave vaa” has been sung by one of my favourite singers – S P Balasubramaniam - and P Suseela. Apart from “Adho andha paravai pola” this is the most memorable song of Jayalalithaa with MGR, according to me.
Jayalalithaa’s strong, slightly nasal voice, may not have suited the coy, lilting melodies needed of women singers in the 1960s 1970s and even 1980s. But she certainly can sway a crowd when she speaks, such is the power of her oratory skills. Yet she has also sung for a few films. Once for the song, “Oh meri dilruba” from Suriyakaanthi with Muthuraman, which I ‘ve dwelt upon at the start of this piece and the other is a song from Thirumangalyam, again with Muthuraman. Surprisingly, in both films, Muthuraman plays an egoistic, chauvinistic man. While Thirumangalyam was utterly depressing as a movie, the song with her voice – “Thirumangalyam kollum muraiyillaiyo” – does have an interesting depth and dimension to it.
From Sreedhar’s Vennira Aadai to B. Lenin’s Nadhiyai Thedi Vandha Kadal Jayalalithaa’a career arc in Tamil cinema groomed her and let her develop to a point where she could call the shots. After Nadhiyai Thedi Vandha Kadal she did act in a few movies, but politics and public life took over, leaving little time for art. Songs written for her, brought to life by her… those of which she is an inseparable part, lie at the foundation of my own love for her. And perhaps it is that way for you, too.