Aishwarya Rai as Jayalalithaa: When the Big Screen Proved Small
Aishwarya Rai in <i>Iruvar; </i>a young Jayalalithaa poses in a costume for a film.&nbsp;
Aishwarya Rai in Iruvar; a young Jayalalithaa poses in a costume for a film. 

Aishwarya Rai as Jayalalithaa: When the Big Screen Proved Small

What does one write about an icon who has been in the public eye from the age of 16 till her death at 68? Whose career in cinema and politics (in Tamil Nadu, unlike elsewhere, the two merge seamlessly) has fed biographies, endless reels of newsprint, and one film? The biography Amma is a deeply researched, empathetic work. The reels of newsprint and online articles all tell her canned story in various flavours – fawning, critical, allegedly objective, and so on. And the film…ah, the film.

Iruvar (The Duo), co-written, produced and directed by Mani Ratnam was released in 1997. Jayalalithaa lost the election to a second term in office. The DMK was in power once more.

Iruvar was meant to be a mirror – veiled, glazed-over, mostly-politically-correct – of the story that defined the identity of Tamil Nadu in the 20th century. A charismatic Mohanlal played matinee idol turned man of the masses; a fiery Prakash Raj scorched obstacles on his political path with the flame of rhetoric, and an alluring Aishwarya Rai in a double role was the matinee idol’s first love, and a racier object of his affections later on.

The first two roles weren’t too much of a stretch for the lay Tamil audience to accept. The old timers, who lived through the cinematic political landscape of the 70s, got to gasp at the dramatization of real events in TN politics – which form the narrative of powerful friendship and lifelong rivalry of MGR and Karunanidhi. Aishwarya’s role(s), on the other hand, was baffling.

It wasn’t for a lack of screen time. It was rather early in Aishwarya’s career, but she still burnished the frame with the sort of nuanced rawness only Mani Ratnam can bring out from an actor. Consider this song, a smoky jazz number that AR Rahman rolled a six with. Harini’s little girl voice over a precocious Aishwarya; Santosh Sivan’s camera a cold, grown-up appraisal of the girl on stage. It’s a song the boys wouldn’t be caught dead singing, and can’t get out of their head.

Or this scene, in which she crashes Mohanlal’s precariously reined in feelings. Watch from 1:41:29 to 1:44:21.

But this was Mani Ratnam and Aishwarya. It was magic, but it still wasn’t Jayalalithaa. Where Mohanlal wore a skin of MGR’s mannerisms and made the part his own, and Prakash Raj, who didn’t even have to bother with mannerisms, simply made a feast of his part, neither could Aishwarya capture the X-factor of Jayalalithaa, nor did Maniratnam do justice to her story, even to the phase on screen.

And all I need to illustrate this, is two clips.

This scene from Engirundho Vandhaal (1970), the Tamil version of Khilona (both were made simultaneously). Shekhar, who she nursed through a nightmare of madness – during which he raped her – has just had a breakthrough. He is himself again. And fails to recognize her. She’s devastated melodramatically. But watch from 3:42, when Shekhar comes to see her and thank her for her services. Her back is turned to him. Few actresses of her time (or since) have been able to muster that level of nuance.

Or this song from Major Chandrakant (1966). She’s in love, went too far, and now he’s ditched her. There’s still a sliver of hope that she will hear from him again, that he will come to marry her. Her brother, the protagonist, doesn’t know. The postman knocks. In painful irony, the letter is a marriage proposal from a respectable family. Her brother is over the moon, and breaks into song. And she’s racked with guilt and melancholy.

As far as Jayalalithaa’s story is concerned, one is aware she defined and held on to the narrative fiercely throughout her lifetime. The physical existence of an icon is weighed down by cumbersome expectations. Now, perhaps, the myth makers of Iruvar can finally bring her legend to screen. Watching the Aishwarya of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil portraying a post-cinema Jayalalithaa would make for riveting cinema. If not, one wonders if reincarnation is a viable strategy for casting.

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