It is a well-known fact that Jayalalitha was a reluctant entrant to Tamil cinema. She was literally forced to enter movies by her ambitious mother who cited dipping family finances as a matter of grave concern. Jaya’s grandfather was a doctor but her alcoholic father died early leaving her mother widowed at a very young age. Jaya’s mother Sandhya was a well-known stage actor. She eventually managed to get supporting roles in Tamil cinema while continuing her stint on stage.
Director CV Sridhar, who had made a name for himself in Tamil cinema with hit movies (which were later made in Hindi – to name a few – Dil Ek Mandir, Pyar Kiye Jaa, and Nazrana) introduced Jayalalitha in the 1965 sleeper hit – “Vennira adai”. Sridhar planned to introduce Hema Malini too as the other lead but somehow he found her unsuited for the role. Hema was replaced by a Tanjore-born actor Shanthi, who was rechristened as Nirmala. The success of ‘Vennira adai’ made Tamil cinema take note of Jaya’s talent. It is really to Jaya’s credit that despite being forced to act in movies, she acted so well in her debut movie. Jaya’s passion for reading is also known and I have mentioned the same in one of my previous articles. Jaya remained a voracious reader right until her death. Books were her constant companions.
Hema was introduced in “Sapnon Ka Saudagar” two years later and the rest, as they say, is history. What added to Hema’s allure was her dancing competence which her contemporaries like Jaya Bhaduri, Raakhee and Sharmila Tagore lacked. Despite being rejected by Sridhar, when he later called her for a movie in the early 70’s Hema obliged him. She bore no grudge towards Sridhar. The movie was “Gehri Chaal” in which Hema was paired with Jeetendra.
Jayalalitha’s talents were noticed by MGR. Sandhya (Jaya’s mother) had marketed her daughter’s acting prowess and MGR agreed to act opposite her in the movie “Ayirathil Oruvan”. The movie was a bumper hit. The MGR-Jaya pair became such a hit in Tamil cinema that between 1966 and 1970 they had acted in more than 40 movies together. A Hindi debut in 1968 with Dharmendra (Izzat) did not divert Jaya’s attention to Bollywood who was more content acting in Tamil cinema. Despite stories about her arrogance, the truth was that Jaya was a great actor. All the Sadhana-type roles in thrillers were offered to her (example – Who Kaun Thi was remade as “Yaar Nee”). Victoria No.203 was remade as “Vairam” and “Khilona” was remade as “Engiruntho Vandal”. Jaya did not disappoint her producers, directors and audiences.
To Jaya’s credit, she managed to squeeze in time to act with other leading heroes like Sivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganesan, Sivakumar, Ravichandran and Jayashankar. Jaya’s pairing with latter was well accepted by the audience. Ravi and Jayashankar managed to hold their sway over Tamil audiences despite the monopoly by Sivaji Ganesan and MGR.
Jaya’s association with K Balachander lasted till only one film namely “Major Chandrakant” (that was made as “Oonche log” in Hindi and starred Raj Kumar, Ashok Kumar and Feroze Khan). “Major Chandrakant” was a bumper hit in the box office but it is not clear why K Balchander and Jaya never found any script to work together thereafter. Jaya’s larger than life image (thanks to her close association with MGR) may have worked against her favour.
By 1970, apparently MGR had had enough of Jayalalitha. He had planned to direct a movie – “Ulagam Suttrum Valiban”. Kollywood circles whisper that Jaya wanted to be in the movie desperately. There is a big story behind the making of this movie, which was a super-duper success. The success of this has been unprecedented so far. The songs are a rage even now. Despite a thin story line, MGR managed to woo the audiences with his charisma and upped the glamour quotient in the movie by having three young and nubile starlets (Chandrakala, Manjula, and Latha).
It is rumored that Latha was picked up from her school after a dance performance to spite Jayalalitha. Latha signed “Ulagam Suttrum Valiban” when she was 15. The movie released three years later after many pressing issues that dogged MGR. That was the time MGR had split with DMK Chief Karunanidhi. Their differing ideologies made MGR think of starting his own party AIADMK. MGR’s political ambitions were getting reflected through the dialogues in his movies. Latha found a great mentor in MGR much to Jaya’s consternation. Jaya’s acting career between 1970 and 1975 featured her with all heroes except MGR. May be MGR found Jaya to be too intimidating. But this period was a golden period for Jayalalitha as she emerged as an actress of substance. Many of the movies that she starred in managed to become successful at the box office. Jaya was definitely peeved that MGR did not consider her for “Ulagum Suttrum Valiban”.
By 1975, Jaya’s career suffered a major setback when she fell ill. She was only 27 years old then. Her mother’s sudden death shattered her completely. In her autobiography that was serialized in “Kumudam” magazine she mentioned that she was almost on her death bed when her relatives who thronged “Veda Nilayam” (Jaya’s posh residence in Poes Garden that she named after her mother) were hatching a plot to swindle her hard earned money. Sandhya’s maiden name was Veda.
When MGR learnt about this, he lost no time in rushing to her rescue. A friend in need is a friend indeed. The cold war between MGR and Jaya came to an end. Jaya then announced her decision to quit movies. Her last movie “Nadiyai Thedi Vandha Kadal” based on a novel by Tamil writer TK Balasubramanian was released in 1978. The movie received lukewarm reception at the box office. Jaya’s costar in this little known movie was a Telugu actor called Sharat Babu who later managed to play a variety of character roles in South Indian cinema.
It is really strange that a talented actress like Jayalalitha had to abort her film career at the age of 30. But that was what she wanted perhaps. Having worked so hard and having earned crores, there was nothing else left for an erudite person like her. Like an angel, MGR rushed to her rescue and gave her an option to join politics. The rest, as we all know, is history. MGR’s soft corner for Jaya was thus revealed. MGR called Jaya by her pet name (Ammu) and until his death, Jaya remained on the best terms with her political mentor.
After MGR became a chief minister, his other protégé Latha had to do films with lesser known heroes. Eventually she married a man who was handpicked by MGR himself and migrated to Singapore. Latha is all praise for MGR. “There can be no human being like him” – is her constant refrain. Latha returned to Chennai a few years ago and after an aborted attempt to enter politics, she is now content to play character roles in South Indian television. Due to MGR’s insistence, Latha never completed her education but she has no regrets. The actor who still has the same old charm and grace that she had during her hey-day did not have a great equation with Jayalalitha. Understandably so - as both of them vied for the attention of the same man.
Jayalalitha also declined to act in a movie with an actor in Tamil cinema who was emerging as a force to reckon with in the 80’s. The actor was disappointed. But he resolved to build a palatial house next to her residence. This was his way of vindicating himself. His dream was fulfilled when he achieved superstardom in Tamil movies. He managed a cult following in Kollywood that equalled what MGR had managed. Any guesses who this actor was?
(After working in the corporate world for close to two decades, Bhagyalakshmi started her second career innings as a head-hunter. She is passionate about Hindi movies and loves retro music. When her family shifted to Chennai in the 80’s, Bhagya had a taste of Tamil cinema too. In the long term, she plans a book on two of her favourite directors – Guru Dutt and K Balachander. She travels across the country on work and is based in Mysore.)