Jayalalithaa: Amma as Tamil Cinema’s First Female Superstar
Jayalalithaa’s mother Sandhya had become an actress much against her parents wishes. But, though she made a few appearances as a child actor, Jayalalithaa was sure she did not want to follow her mother’s footsteps and join the film industry.
In 1960, when Tamil star Shivaji Ganesan came to watch a 12-year-old Jayalalithaa’s arangetram (debut on-stage performance by a dance student) in Chennai, he reportedly complimented Jayalalithaa’s performance and said that she would blossom into a very popular film star, a prophecy that anyone who knew the young girl would find hard to believe.
But as destiny would have it, when Jayalalithaa was 16, she was signed up as a lead in for the Kannada film Chinnada Gombe (1965). What started off as a mere distraction to keep herself busy during her summer vacations after completing school and before entering college, became her lifeline.
In 1965 itself Jayalalithaa had another release in Telugu titled Manushulu Mamathalu opposite Akkineni Nageshwara Rao. Both her Kannada and Telugu film debuts became huge hits making her a popular actress overnight.
However, by now Jayalalithaa wanted to get back to studies, she had ambitions of being a lawyer if not an IAS officer. But her mother hand other plans. When an offer to act in a Tamil film came from the reputed film CV Sridhar, Sandhya pressurised her daughter to take it up. Their family’s worsening financial condition added to Jayalalithaa’s decision to give up studies and become a full-time film actress.
Jayalalithaa’s fair complexion and naturally glamorous looks caught the attention of filmgoers and filmmakers alike. She was the first Tamil heroine to appear in a skirt in a film and that was a big deal back in the 60s.
After Sridhar’s Vennira Aadai, Jayalalithaa got the opportunity to act opposite the biggest Tamil star of the time - MG Ramachandran (MGR). Director Panthulu who gave the actress her debut film in Kannada signed her on to play MGR’s heroine in the Tamil film Aayirathil Oruvan. This was the first of 28 box-office hits that the successful on-screen pair would deliver from 1965 to 1973. The 30-year age gap between MGR and Jayalalithaa did not matter to fans, though some of the star’s close aides did not like the soft spot he had for the new actress.
Despite opposition from a few leading producers, it is said that MGR wanted Jayalalithaa to star in all his films as his lead heroine. In Vaasanthi’s book Amma, Jayalalithaa remembers an anecdote which shows how protective MGR was towards her. The actress was shooting for the film Adimaippen barefeet in the Thar desert and found that her feet were almost burning due to the heat.
The actress made a rare appearance in Bollywood in a full fledged role as a tribal girl in Izzat opposite Dharmendra in 1968. Though the film wasn’t a success, the song Jaagi badan mein jwala... picturized on Jayalalithaa and sung by Lata Mangeshkar was a hit.
Jayalalithaa’s last film with MGR was Pattikaattu Ponnaiya (1973), after which he got more involved in politics. The actress meanwhile also worked with the biggest stars in Telugu - NT Rama Rao and Akkineni Nageshwara Rao.
Even though Jayalalithaa featured in films opposite stellar matinee idols like MGR and Sivaji Ganesan, in most of the films, the plot revolved around the heroine. Jayalalithaa’s role was seldom a decorative one in any of her films. Some of her popular heroine-centric films include Kumari Penn, Gowri Kalyanam, Annamitta Kai, Thirumangalyam and Kanavan Manaivi.
In a career spanning 15 years, Jayalalithaa won both the Filmfare Award for Best Actress and the Tamil Nadu State Film Award for Best Actress 5 times each. Some of her career highlights include the fact that she is the only Tamily actress to have the maximum number of silver jubilee hits in her career - 85 in all!
Jayalalithaa was also reportedly the highest paid Indian actress for a period till she quit films in 1980.
In 1992, Jayalalithaa returned to the big screen - in the film Neenga Nalla Irukkanum. The first female superstar of Tamil cinema played herself in this social film which gave a message against alcohol addiction. The reluctant actress who debuted at the age of 16, finally hung up her boots as an actress at 44 and Jayalalithaa’s swan song befittingly saw her play the role of Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister.